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The Steel Prince

by

Robert Shaw


Copyright © 1983, 2014, 2016, 2018 by Robert Shaw

Robert Shaw has asserted his moral right to be identified as the author of this work


All rights reserved. Except for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part in any form by any electronic, mechanical or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including xerography, photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, is forbidden without the written permission of the publisher.


This novella is a work of good-old-fashioned cheese ‘n corn fiction. Silly names, characters, places and crazy happenings are the product of the author’s overactive (and when first written, young) imagination, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, other fictional characters, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental. And like Darth Vader, it’s a good thing Sordak is only make believe, right?


The Steel Prince


In an age of darkness, they fight for light

(from The Age of Darkness)


Chapter One


Morning sun rode the sky somewhere above, but Great Forest was awash in sea-green light pouring from clouds that stretched to the southern mountains. The air smelled of dampness before a storm, the forest was alive with the wild activity of denizens expectant of the coming downpour.

Great Forest—old even in the days of the Gone-World, called another name in those times, now so ancient and widespread it blanketed the Outer Lands and for centuries had been known only as Great Forest.

Varin and Lena moved across the mossy ground, a lifetime of hunting and surviving by instinct and wits giving them the stealth of shadows.

Around them, unseen animals rustled through the undergrowth, some large, others small—none approaching close enough to be a threat or easy game. Countless birds flitted through the tree tops: ebon feathered crows, brightly plumed parrots and finches, and soaring high above even the tree tops, Phantom Eagles.

Lena was the taller of the two, twenty one years old, lithe, carrying firm curves, beautiful in a hard-edged way. She had cut her own light brown hair—hacked as her grandfather liked to say—to just above shoulder length to make it easier to manage. She hated her hair when hunting, so she always bunched it back and tied it. But she was not so devoid of vanity to hack it all off as grandfather had suggested at his first appraisal of her handiwork.

“I butchered it a bit but it still looks good enough for me when it’s loose,” she’d told him with a grin. He’d been joking and responded with a grin of his own.

Her agile body carried her with feline grace along the trail, skin-soled boots helping her soundless movement, deerskin frock, leggings and shirt blending her into the surrounding woods so that she looked like part of them come alive. A hunting knife was strapped to her waist but she carried no other weapons. Her Swiss long sword was hung in its scabbard on a rack in their cabin living room; she never brought it on a hunting trip.

At twenty-three and only five four, Varin was a dark contrast to his sister’s light graceful looks, a contradiction in anatomical physics, four inches shorter than Lena but making up for it in lean, supplely powerful muscle and an almost squat density. His black hair was hacked short, further evidence of Lena’s hairdressing skills, and kept that way at his request. He wore black canvas trousers, a battered pair of combat boots he’d found in the ruins of a gas station, and a vest that grandfather said was made of something called Kevlar and had once been worn by police in the Gone-World. He said the faded remnants of the word police were still on it but neither Varin nor Lena could see it; it looked like wear and tear to them.

Like Lena, Varin wore a hunting knife strapped to his waist, but on his belt in a leather scabbard was also a replica of a Roman Short Sword—as real and effective as any original—and on his back a quiver of crossbow bolts. In his hands was the crossbow itself, loaded for their hunt.

Lena watched the larger birds with interest, awed by the huge eagles she occasionally glimpsed through the canopy overhead. She was glad they chose not to shoot these beautiful creatures, no matter how long they ever took to find game. Better to kill a wild Pig or Dog-Bear, or an even uglier Bullkin.

“No meat on eagles to make them worth killing,” Varin would always say with nonchalant indifference.

But Lena knew that he too preferred to let them stay beautiful and free. It was one of the many things she loved about her brother, despite his ferocity as a hunter and a warrior he was a caring and gentle soul.

A piercing cry cut the silence and a crashing sounded in the forest to their left, coming directly at them. They spun in unison, Lena pulling her knife and Varin raising his crossbow, but relaxed as an eagle made its way to the sky with a baby pig in its talons, the little animal’s squeals growing faint as the bird rose. Lena felt a pang of sympathy. But it was the brutal way of nature and she did not dwell on the feeling. They shared a grin and continued on the trail.

“We’ll not get anything,” Varin said as they neared the southern edge of the forest. Beyond the trees, vast grasslands stretched farther than the eye could see.

A distant rumble crossed the miles. Lena looked to the grasslands and saw clouds falling in misty veils far to the south. “We’ll get soaked!” She skipped noiselessly on the ferny trail. She loved rain and thunder and being out in it.

Varin sniffed the air. “Damp grass and thunder. You always smell it before you cop it. But the storm’s moving east. It’ll break way out over the grasslands and fizzle before it reaches us.”

“Killjoy.” Lena scowled.

“And I meant we’re not gonna get any game.”

“I know. And I meant you’re a killjoy.”

Varin grinned. “Yep.”

She giggled. “Oh, I do hope we get some of it! I love the smell of the forest after rainfall.”

“We’ll get plenty soon, sis.” He pointed south with his chin. “Winter’ll fall on the southern ranges shortly and the rainy season’ll turn the grasslands into a swamp.”

“That’s weeks away though. I’d like—” She was cut off by a sharp hiss from Varin.

“Down!” He dropped and she followed. He was staring out at the grasslands. Her gaze went there too.

Strange shapes and colors lay out there, barely visible above the top of the grass but clear enough to reveal glossy yellows and blues painted on flat surfaces, and rust brown in some spots.

Varin recognized them first. He’d read the magazines and manuals at grandfather’s cabin countless times and his mind was a catalog of old cars and old tech. He’d used what he’d learned to do most of the restoration work on Hydra. “It was engines we heard earlier.”

He crawled to higher ground for a better view. Lena followed and they saw the cars clearly now, two of them, parked on the old road leading from the grasslands into the forest. It had once been famous if Grandfather’s old stories were to be believed, route fifty six or something. Nowadays it was famous for how dilapidated it was, so overgrown and undermined by roots that Varin often thought it’d be worse to drive on than going through the forest. In some places out where it stretched across the grasslands into distance, Grandfather said it was nothing more than broken chunks of asphalt, and he’d traveled it back in his youth so it had to be worse now. Many other roads threaded the region too, some worse than fifty-six. Varin and Lena couldn’t imagine how the cars could travel on them. In fact they couldn’t imagine venturing such distances; their entire lives had never had more than a twenty mile radius from their home. They could see no reason to go farther.

Lena almost hadn’t heard Varin’s words. Finally they sunk in. “But who came in those things? The hillmen don’t have machines and they’d never come this close to the grassland, let alone go out on it.”

Varin shook his head, forgetting Lena’s attention was also on the cars. “I don’t know,” he said in a far away tone, more interested in the cars and their contents than who they belonged to.

Staying low, they slithered to dense shrubbery on the edge of the forest and sat up for a better look, scanning the cars and grasslands for movement. There was nothing.

“Where’re you going?” Lena hissed as Varin stood and began moving toward the cars.

Without stopping he said, “I want to get a good look at these things. And you do too, so come on!”

Lena hesitated for only a second before following with an exasperated sigh. She hated when he was right, but she did want a good look.

The cars were like nothing that existed anymore. Hydra was thought to be the last, but these machines were heavily armored, fitted with an incredible array of advanced weaponry and electronic equipment from the Gone-World, and were in as good a mechanical shape as Varin and Grandfather kept Hydra.

“Someone’s been hiding their babies and taking real good care of them.” Varin wiggled itchy fingers that he couldn’t wait to get on the cars. They moved closer and he whistled as he marveled at the weaponry. A machine gun poked out the roof of the first car. Varin recognized it as a Swiss Brugger & Thomet MP9 machine pistol. It held a fully-loaded thirty round transparent polymer detachable box magazine.

“Holeee shit!” His eyes bugged at the full mag. “They’ve been hoarding ammo or they’ve got an armory somewhere to feed these things.” Then he saw the firing pin gone and his excitement faded. But he still might be able to take the magazine, or maybe these guys had more ammo stashed. He checked his prospects of jimmying the trunk open but it was sealed with a steel plate, which he gave a disgusted kick.

The first car’s roof had been cut and an open gun mount fitted to allow a three-hundred-sixty degree field of fire. The second car’s gun gleamed in the sun, its barrel a yard long and extending from what looked like a large battery mounted on a swivel pole. Wires ran from it down into the car. The battery and pole were chrome but the barrel was glass. More wires ran from its sighted end to the battery.

“No way this fires bullets,” Varin said. “It’d shatter.” Through the window he saw that the wires ran down to where the swivel pole was set into a large power unit on the floor. Lights and gauges winked out at him. He turned to Lena in awe. “It’s a laser!”

“It’ll burn a hole through you?”

“Through anything.”

Lena felt a sudden premonition. “No one has tech like this anymore!”

“No telling what anyone has anymore, sis. The world goes farther than we know. Could be all kinds of stuff out there. The Civilized States might still have working tech.”

“Even if they’re real, why would the Civilized States have weapons like this?”

“They’re real. Grandfather’s been there, remember? And they’d need weapons like this to help keep them civilized.”

Lena still wasn’t happy, she wanted to get away from the cars and back to forest cover. “Well no one leaves stuff like this alone for long.”

Varin peered inside the laser car. “They can’t be that worried. They left this unlocked.”

“Which means they could be back any minute so we need to leave.”

“Sure. But let’s see what we can steal first. I could use some of this stuff for Hydra.”

Lena sighed as he looked in through the passenger side window for anything that struck his fancy. Then he flashed a grin. “Don’t worry, sis, it won’t take long.” He went to open the door but paused as his fingers touched the handle. With a pensive expression he moved to the front of the car.

“I thought this wouldn’t take long,” Lena complained.

He squatted to examine the instruments behind the grille. Finding what he sought he pursed his lips and tapped his fingers on the hood. “There it is right there.”

“There what is?”

Varin answered by firing his crossbow. With a swish-thunk the bolt pierced the center of a large speaker behind the grille. Reloading, Varin went back to the side door. He placed the crossbow on the roof of the car, opened the door and climbed in.

As soon as the door opened a light began blinking on the dashboard and a muffled wheeze came from the alarm horn behind the grille.

Ignoring both, Varin reached under the dashboard and pulled a group of wires out, killing the horn altogether.

Lena looked about for any signs of movement but saw none. With a sigh she moved closer to the car. Varin was tugging at a computer box under the dashboard. “You’re not meant to take this long,” he complained when the box didn’t slide out on the first try.

“Neither’re you,” Lena scolded.

He ignored her and felt behind the box. “Great! These goons’ve got everything locked except their doors!” But he was determined to have it and began jerking it side to side. “I think I can jimmy it loose.”


Chapter Two


When Wulga’s ears twitched back toward the grasslands and she whined, Garrol almost kicked her. He hated the wilderness and was already in a foul mood for having to be out here looking for some slip of a girl.

Fragging forest.

What sort of girl lived in the wilderness anyway? One Garrol didn’t believe existed, that’s what sort. He’d rather be at the compound drinking shine and banging sluts, not out wandering nowhere looking for nobody.

But Sordak believed the girl lived out here and you didn’t dispute Sordak’s beliefs unless you had a death wish. There were four carloads of men searching, Garrol thought it a waste of time and resources but you didn’t tell Sordak that either. At least not to his face. Or what remained of it.

Wulga whined and pulled on the chain again. “Shaddup ya mangy cur!” Garrol decided he would kick her this time but then stopped and looked back the way she was pulling; she wasn’t a whiny dog and wouldn’t fuss for no reason. He could hear nothing but Wulga was too interested in that direction to be ignored now. It occurred to him that maybe some sort of dangerous animal was on his trail. Who knew what this fragging forest held? But no, Wulga was no coward, if it was some other beast she would be growling not whining.

Something was hurting her ears.

Garrol recalled another handler who had once told him dogs could hear sounds humans couldn’t. He’d thought the idea was horse shit but now wondered if it were fact. And wondering made him think of the cars—or more precisely the alarms on the cars.

He dismissed the idea and pulled Wulga roughly by her neck. The alarms made a racket anyone could hear, if one had been activated the sound would be wailing all over the forest and the seven warriors spread out ahead would’ve come running by now.

“I said shuddup!” He went to kick her but paused again. What if someone had disabled the alarms? Damaged them so that they now made a sound only Wulga’s ears picked up? He had no idea why that thought occurred to him, perhaps because he’d remembered the story about their hearing. He looked back along the trail, but they’d already come so deep into this stinking forest that you couldn’t see the grasslands anymore. And Garrol suddenly wanted to see the cars very much. More than just Wulga’s behavior had him feeling like someone was back there.

He whistle-called his men. A short wait and the huge warriors lumbered out of the trees, moving with incredible silence for such hulking, armor-clad men.

“Wulga’s onto something,” Garrol said. “Back to the cars.” He turned and let the dog lead the way.

The warriors followed as silently as they had emerged from the woods.


Chapter Three


Lena’s feeling of impending danger kicked anew. She scanned the area around the cars again but there was still no sign of trouble. Varin’s thievery was taking too long and making her edgy. “Will you come on?” she insisted, leaning back into the car.

He looked up from his wrestling match with the box, face flushed by his efforts. “I will if this thing will.”

“Forget that piece’a junk! I don’t like being near these things and I especially don’t like you burglarizing one!”

“All right.” Varin gave the box a last pull. It jumped loose and he hit his hands under the dashboard. “Frag!”

“Serves you right!”

“Guess so.” He emerged with his irrepressible grin still on his face and showed her the box. “A communicator,” he explained to her frown. “Gonna look great in Hydra.”

Lena’s frown became a sassy grin and she tapped the box with a finger, forgetting her unease momentarily. “And just who’re you gonna communicate with?”

Varin returned her grin and shrugged. “I might be able to tap into these guys.” He nodded at the cars. “Find out who they are and what they’re doing here. Or maybe even plug into the Civilized States if this thing has a powerful enough signal.”

“You go to a lot of trouble for nothing.” Lena shook her head. “Now can we please get out of here?”

“Don’t leave now,” Garrol said from behind them.

They whirled to see him standing there with the seven enormous warriors. Wulga’s eyes went to the box in Varin’s hands and she bared her teeth at him in a weirdly silent way.

“If you want to know why we’re here,” Garrol continued with an oily grin, “why don’cha ask us while we’re here.” He wasn’t looking at Varin or the box. Under normal circumstances he’d be furious that some kid was stealing from his car. But he was busy roaming his gaze up and down Lena’s tall, slender figure and wondering if she was the girl Sordak had sent them after. It’d be too easy and way too big of a coincidence—and Garrol didn’t believe in coincidence anymore than he believed in the girl—but this bitch was fine. She’d do as a consolation prize.

Varin and Lena took in the warriors and dog in the seconds it took the lead guy to finish speaking. Hard training kicked in and each knew the other was sizing up the situation and calculating a plan of action: eight guys all huge, all armored and armed to the teeth, even the lead guy’s dog was armored. They wore an assortment of makeshift suits of steel plates, chain mail and leather—odd-looking but no doubt effective, and carried a weird array of weapons: swords, crossbows, pike guns that were compact air compressors rigged to some sort of chassis that held a short pike—who made a weapon like that?—clubs spiked with nails, clubs covered in pointed studs—Varin knew they were called Maces. But the most shocking thing was that two sported shotguns—a Remington pump action and a sawed-off coach gun—and the guy with the dog had a Glock seventeen.

Holy shit that was a Gone-World cop gun!

Varin figured there was little hope that the guns weren’t loaded, not judging from the weapons and ammo on the cars. No, these guys were heeled and leaded for sure. Never mind. The guy with the Glock was still a dope for not having it in his hand, and for not having his holster’s safety loop locked down.

Varin and Lena gawked wide-eyed at the fearsome lot, deliberately looking more afraid than they actually were, a tactic designed to make them seem helpless and hopefully lend them an edge now that they’d been caught off guard. They noted that although the armor on these guys looked effective, gaps existed all over—at chest plates and sleeve guards, necks, throats, legs and hips—all necessary to allow the wearers freedom of movement, all weak points. It’d take some doing to beat these guys barehanded, but with skillfully wielded blades they’d not be indestructible. And well-placed bullets would render the armor useless.

But Varin and Lena had no firearms so that wasn’t an option.

Unless

Varin let the thought hang there because the plan was not to fight. That would be crazy and grandfather had always taught that the first rule of a fight was to avoid the fight if possible. The plan would be to distract and make a break for the forest and vanish. Once they got out of the line of fire, if they did, the dog would be the biggest problem. None of the warriors would catch Varin or Lena on the run with all that armor and gear weighing them down. But the dog would.

Oh well. Deal when it came down.

Without having to turn his head or even try to move his eyes to it, Varin knew the exact position of his crossbow behind him on the roof of the car, the image in his placing it there so vivid in his memory that it was like watching a reenactment. He knew Lena knew where it was too but he’d reach it the easiest so she’d let him go for it when the time came. And the time had come.

Varin offered a goofy grin. “Guys! What’s up? We were just checkin’ out ya wheels. Those ‘chines’re rippin’.” He looked at the box in his hands then back at the lead guy. “We found it on the ground and your door was open.” His tone was totally sincere. “I think you guys cars might’ve been broken into. But I couldn’t swear to it in a court of law—you know, if one existed still.”

The warriors began exchanging glances and chuckling. No one was buying, especially the lead guy, who was now sort of snarling silently like his dog.

“Sounds like wild bullshit, I know!” Varin laughed. “I mean, who’d steal from a dude with a Remington pump and a guy who looks scarier than his dog?”

Lena got the hints: go for the guy with the Remington shotgun. Check. Varin would deal with the dog and its owner. Check.

All that remained was to light the fuse.

Varin did that next.

“But the world today is full of crazy—” he seemed completely off-guard and like he’d babble in fear for the rest of the day. It was a great act. But in mid-speech he launched the box into the face of the warrior with the sawed-off.

The warrior fell back, dropping his gun, throwing hands to his face. Varin used the heartbeat in between to spin and snatch up his crossbow.

Garrol was caught by surprise, a second that would cost him. He released Wulga as the kid turned to grab his crossbow.

Varin whirled back, crossbow in hand and sunk the bolt into the dog’s right eye before it took two steps. It dropped without a twitch. He hated killing it but he’d hate it chewing on his throat even more. Next he faked throwing his crossbow at the lead guy’s head—as if he’d deliberately sacrifice the weapon. But the guy believed and threw his hands up—he really was a dope—and Varin ducked past him, snatched the Glock from its unsecured holster and legged it for forest cover.

The guy he’d thrown the box at had recovered and was scrabbling for his fallen sawed-off. Varin twisted round as he ran and opened up with the Glock. But with no chance to take proper aim the rounds spanged off the guy’s chest plate and whined away into the grass. Their impact only slightly knocked the guy off balance and he kept coming.

Then…click!

Empty?

But the Glock’s slide wasn’t locked back.

Jammed!

Varin shoved it in his belt.

Lena had moved a split instant before Varin chucked the box. She’d read his body language and knew exactly when his move would come. As he began the throw she drew her knife and sprang at Remington guy, putting him totally in shock by leaping high enough to hit his chest with her feet. Her weight and momentum knocked him on his back and she came down with both feet planted almost in his lungs. Air and blood blew out of him because Lena’s knife was already deep in his Adam’s apple.

Without slowing her momentum Lena withdrew her knife from his throat and the Remington from his dead hand and light-footed it after Varin. She was seconds behind him and had almost caught up when the Glock jammed. She turned and cut loose with the Remington. But the shots were wild, it was impossible to run and aim worth a damn.

The warriors didn’t flinch. One of them snatched up the sawed-off. Its barrels barked at Varin and Lena, buckshot sizzled close enough to smell.

A weird baying started up behind them and for a second they thought the dog had come back to life. But it was the warriors howling like blood-mad hyenas as they took up the chase.

“That doesn’t sound healthy!” Varin remarked as he and Lena hit the forest cover and raced back along the hunting trail.

“Especially if they catch us.” Lena fired the Remington till it racked empty. The warriors zigzagged and fell behind but none were hit. She hurled the empty shotgun back; it whirred and clanked the leader’s helmet, slowing him some more.

Varin reloaded his crossbow as he ran, securing a bolt in the weapon without taking his eyes off the trail. But his focus slipped for a split second and he paid by catching a toe on a bump in the trail. Damn! A buried tree root he’d known about since childhood. He felt like an idiot for forgetting it now. He hugged the crossbow to him as he tumbled.

Lena tripped over his sprawled form. She was quick, rolling over him, grabbing him as she fell and using her momentum to throw him back onto his feet. He kept going without losing much momentum.

“Thanks sis!” Not hearing her behind him he stopped and whirled and saw her just completing her own tumble when the warriors arrived.

She got her feet under her but Garrol caught her flailing arm as she tried to spring away. She slipped free but the tug slowed her enough so that Garrol got an arm fully round her now.

The warriors surrounded them. Garrol jerked his chin at Varin. “Kill that fraggin’ kid!”

Varin moved with soundless fluidity, springing into the grouped warriors, firing his crossbow at the lead guy’s eye, kicking another warrior down and drawing his sword all at the same time.

The bolt was dead on, swishing past Lena’s head by a hair’s breadth and straight at Garrol’s right eye. But he was fast and lucky, throwing his head to the side quick enough that the bolt slipped between his helmet and the side of his head. It pierced the flap of his ear and he screeched like a bitch.

And he wasn’t so lucky after all.

Lena rammed her elbow into the gap between his chest plate and sleeve guard. He let her go and she spun and rammed her knife into his scream. Garrol went down gurgling, the thought of shine and sluts his last.

Five warriors surrounded Varin; the one he’d kicked down was getting back up, odds Varin didn’t like at all. He kept moving, sweeping his blade up and slicing cleanly through the armpit of the guy with the coach gun.

The guy’s arm fell away, coach gun and all. He went after them both, spurting blood from his shoulder stump and screams from his wide open mouth.

Varin didn’t hear the scream as a club caught him a glancing blow to the head. His vision swirled and he fell.

Another warrior raised his pike gun to blast Varin.

Lena leapt forward, but she’d only just freed herself from the leader and killed him—she wouldn’t make it in time to save her brother.

She screamed and… boom!… a shot thundered and the guy with the pike was slammed to the dirt.

Everything froze, even the forest stilled, as if gunfire was a signal from the past come to remind the present that it shouldn’t be. A stranger stepped from the woods onto the trail, the Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum in his fist still smoking. He was six-four, powerful-looking, face sun-bronzed. Varin figured he’d spent a lot of time in the weather. His short black hair was a nest of tight curls and his eyes were vivid blue. He wore a long-sleeved shirt of chain-mail, a leather glove on his gun-hand, and dark blue cargo pants tucked into what Varin could only think of as pirate boots.

“I’ve got five more rounds so back off,” the stranger warned the four remaining warriors. “Unless you want to debate which of you gets shot twice.”

The warriors backed away. This guy’s gun was leaded. Proof lay on its back close by.

Lena helped Varin to his feet and he began reloading his crossbow.

The stranger gestured them over to him. “Got a place we can go?”

“Our grandfather’s cabin in the woods,” Varin said, slipping his sword back in its scabbard. “But I’d rather not lead them there. Can’t you just shoot them and be done with it?”

The stranger shook his head and backed away along the trail. Varin and Lena followed and now Varin noticed there were no spare rounds in the ammo loops on the stranger’s gun belt.

“You’re carry ammo poor, right?”

“Good guess.”

“Not a guess.”

“Well, thank you for spending your last round saving my brother’s life,” Lena said. “I’m sure he thanks you too.”

“He does,” Varin allowed.

“Didn’t know that one’d work till I used it back there.”

“Gotta love life’s little blessings!” Varin and Lena said together.

“So, lose them?” the stranger said when they were far enough from the warriors.

“Lose them,” Lena agreed.

“I’ll follow your lead,” the stranger said.

Lena sprinted up the trail. Varin and the stranger followed. Then they heard the warriors.

“They’re howling again!” Lena said.

“Lucky they do it,” the stranger said. “Led me to you.” He holstered the .44 and looped it down so it wouldn’t fall out. “How far’s this cabin?”

“Not too,” Varin said. “Ahead just off fifty-six.”

Sixty-six,” the stranger corrected.

“Whatever!” Lena gasped. “We need to lose them before we get there!” She darted off the trail into the woods and Varin and the stranger followed.

Long minutes passed. They wove through dense trees and thick underbrush, down gullies and up rises, under and over fallen boughs, through tangled old growth that had died and fallen and sprouted again into alien-looking gardens of new forest.

The warriors pursued silently now, conserving breath for the chase. They fell behind but seemed to track the breath of their quarry.

“Need better tricks!” The stranger rasped.

“Can’t…how…guys keep up…all junk wearing!” Varin had almost no breath left for running, let alone talking.

“Fit!” Lena huffed. “Strong! No more tricks!” She darted up a last rise and back onto old route sixty-six. “Cabin!”

They sprinted to a bend then into the woods once more. Ahead, the stranger saw shaky glimpses of a cabin. Varin raised his crossbow and released the bolt. It flew a high arc and descended toward the cabin. The stranger was too busy staying on his feet to wonder what the hell the kid was shooting at.


Chapter Four


Merrick thought he heard howling and paused in his work rebuilding the LeMat revolver that he, Varin and Lena had found on a recent scavenging trip. He hoped to get it into working order but it was a weapon from the first Civil War, many hundreds of years old now, and even if he managed to make it mechanically sound he wasn’t sure it would ever be safe to fire again, even if he could find the ingredients needed to make the correct ammo. More likely it would explode and blow his arm off. Still, it would make a nice wall piece.

He laid the weapon down on the work stool before him and went to the living room window. His hair was grey and thinning but he still moved with a fluid grace for his age, five-foot frame unbowed by years, muscles strong as ever, vitality undiminished. Anyone who mistook him for easy prey would be making their last mistake.

There was nothing beyond the window but the forest waving in the morning breeze. No sign of Varin and Lena, still out on their hunt. He listened for the sound again, heard only the breeze and the murmuring leaves.

It couldn’t have been howling.

The surrounding wilderness was a mass of dense trees, underbrush and rolling hills laced with creeks, ponds, gullies and old roads. It was full of wild animals and there were wolves and coyotes aplenty in these parts. But they wouldn’t be out in daylight; it was rare even to hear one howl at night. Perhaps it had been a cougar; they went out in the daytime. Perhaps Varin and Lena had found one and were herding it back this way.

He walked into the room he and Varin shared—it had been Varin and Lena’s room when they were little but as she’d got older Lena had needed her privacy—and picked up a long bow and quiver of arrows. He slung the quiver across his back and went out onto the verandah.

Their home had been a rare find, a beautiful log cabin with all its windows still intact—a miracle in itself—and its roof, walls and window shutters in excellent condition. Merrick had found it while on the run with Varin and Lena, who were too young at the time to remember the discovery.

The cabin was nestled in a glen and would have been well-hidden even in its heyday. But hundreds of years of overgrowth had rendered it completely invisible. It was the driveway leading up to the place that had given it away. Merrick had turned onto it thinking it was a side road and had almost driven straight into the cabin.

Incredibly, the forest had overgrown the cabin without actually reclaiming it, and remarkably, the trees and brush had stopped short of destroying the place and instead grown around it until it looked like part of the landscape. The cabin’s exterior had been treated with some sort of weather and age proofing agent. Merrick wondered if that’s why it was untouched by the wild. He wasted no time thinking about it, he was just happy he’d found the place.

The interior had been dusty and musty but undamaged, filled with the belongings and furniture of whoever had owned the place. With the exception of photographs and some items of clothing, Merrick had claimed it all. The rest he’d burned, the owners had no more say, the centuries that buried them saw to that.

There was a spacious living room, two large bedrooms, a kitchen, dining room and breakfast nook, and a laundry room with a fitted washer and dryer. The machines would never work again but the washer was still watertight. Merrick used it to clean their clothes. The basement was a two car garage with no cars. Merrick had been surprised that a cabin would have a basement but didn’t question it, he moved Hydra in and she had lived there ever since. Soon after, he’d cut a trap door in the floor of the living room and built stairs down to the basement. It was the only way he used to go in and out of the garage from that point on.

Over time, he had cleared the most troublesome growth away from the cabin and tailored what remained so that it kept the place hidden. He disguised the garage’s outer door and driveway; they would never be used unless it became necessary to make an escape in Hydra. Merrick hoped that day never came. The garage door and driveway had soon become so well hidden that any casual observer would never know they were there.

When Varin and Lena were old enough to accompany him, they’d gone on their first scavenging trip. They’d found a gas station a mile away, looted of anything useful except for a buried drum of gasoline that had taken Merrick a month to drag to his new garage. They’d seen no other human life since finding the cabin, but Merrick had burned the gas station to the ground. Abandoned structures tended to attract other folks eventually, folks who might decide to put down roots.

And Merrick had wanted no neighbors.

Now he wished for them. At least then he could ask if they’d heard the howling too. He guessed it must’ve been the breeze and turned to go back inside.

A hiss filled the air and a crossbow bolt clanged into the wind chimes hanging on the porch then clattered to the verandah deck.

Merrick snatched up the arrow; it was one of Varin’s. He looked and saw Varin, Lena and a stranger sprinting through the forest toward the cabin. There was no sign yet of what pursued, but he knew something did. The arrow was their prearranged warning signal.

It wasn’t likely they were running from any cougar.

Without waiting to find out, he ran round the outside of the cabin along the verandah deck, closing all the window shutters. Then he hurried into the living room.

He’d cut firing slots into the shutters years ago. He opened them now and peered out. Varin, Lena and the stranger were too close now to see from this vantage point, but further back Merrick saw glimpses of movement in the woods. Nothing clear. Only shapes moving separately from the woods. Enough to know for sure it was no cougar.

Footsteps pounded up the outer steps, along the deck. Seconds later Varin, Lena and the stranger surged into the living room.

“Is it hillmen?” Merrick slammed the door behind them and locked it.

All three were too breathless to speak; they stood panting, bent over to catch their breath.

Merrick eyed the stranger, clocking the .44 on his hip, and then frowned. “I know you.”

The stranger put his hands up. “Not me they’re running from.” He nodded toward Varin and Lena.

Merrick had unconsciously aimed his bow and arrow at the man, he lowered it. “My apologies.”

The stranger lowered his hands. “Name’s Fallon.”

“He saved my life,” Varin finally managed to say.

But Merrick didn’t hear, he was gaping at Fallon. “Prince Fallon of the Civilized States?”

“You do know me,” Fallon said.

Varin and Lena exchanged a look with Merrick that was not lost on Fallon. “You’re from the Civilized States?” he asked Merrick.

“Originally. Though I’ve seen you only twice before, when you were younger, just after—”

“Just after the feud began,” Fallon finished for him.

“Yes, my—”

Merrick’s words were cut off as an ear-splitting hiss came from outside and a metal pike exploded in through the front window, piercing the shutter and shattering the glass. They ducked as it thudded into a wall.

“Where did the hillmen get firearms?” Merrick asked.

“They’re not hillmen, grandfather.” Lena retrieved her Swiss long sword from its place on the wall and fastened it to her belt. “They have machines. We saw them out on the grasslands.”

Merrick went to the window, keeping to the side, and peered out of the firing slot. “Certainly not hillmen,” he said upon seeing the warriors. “Not geared up like that.” He looked at Fallon. “From your world perhaps?”

“Not mine for years,” Fallon replied. “But I doubt they’re from the Civilized States. I’d say Roamers out for whatever they can find.”

“Yes, but to take back where?” Merrick wondered.

“It’s my fault, grandfather,” Varin said. “Lena told me to leave the cars alone but I didn’t listen. They caught me stealing and followed us here.”

“Never mind, lad. If Fallon’s right and they’re Roamers, they’d have found us before long.

Another sharp hiss, a second pike crashed in and embedded itself beside the first.

Merrick watched it vibrate to stillness then said, “This calls for more drastic measures.”

Staying low and out of the sight line through the front window, he went to his and Varin’s room and came back with an AK47.

“Scrounged it from a deserter of the Harbor City War,” he told Fallon. “Only three rounds in the clip. Should still be good.”

Fallon cocked an eyebrow at him. “Should?”

“Never wanted to waste them to find out. Be my guest, Your Royal Highness,” he added with a scowl as Fallon took the rifle.

Creeping to the window, Fallon missed the sarcasm or ignored it. He hadn’t held an AK47 in years and weighed the weapon in his hands, getting a feel for it. Then he took aim out the window and squeezed off a shot.

The slug chewed a branch close to a warrior’s head, making him jerk his head away.

“And the sights are off as well,” Merrick said with a shrug at the now-you-tell-me look Fallon gave him.


Chapter Five


The four warriors hugged the ground as the shot rang out. Kole swore at the stinging splinters that had almost torn his eye out. Lost without Garrol, he cast frantically about for what to do next. He wasn’t a leader and had never wanted to be. Now they were not only without Garrol but had lost three others. Never had Kole known a fleet of Hunter Warriors to be routed by so few opponents.

Anger and panic rose when he thought how the boy and girl had reduced their numbers—and that’s all they were really, a mere boy and slip of a girl. Then the stranger had come out of nowhere and now this—people inside a Gone-World structure with firepower.

“They have guns!” His words were not necessary, the men already knew this fact and were staying hidden. But Kole didn’t know what else to say. He’d never given orders or called strategies.

But he had to get it together. Sordak would be angry enough when they returned minus four. Go back empty-handed too and there’d be death to pay. With that thought Kole decided he’d rather die out here. No reason Garrol should be the only one to have it easy.

He peered at the cabin over the bough that hid him. The building was in almost perfect condition, shutters over every window that he could see from here. He thought about the cabin. Kole had never seen pictures or even heard anything about what Gone-World structures had been like, but he couldn’t imagine anyone building something like this so it must surely be from old-times, a thing somehow preserved. Or maybe the people inside had repaired it. Kole couldn’t fathom that, everyone was happy to build hovels or live in ruins.

So who were these people?

Suddenly Kole remembered Garrol raving about a girl Sordak believed lived out here, and it struck him that one of the two kids they’d chased had been a girl. Garrol hadn’t said much beyond his treasonous ravings that Sordak was crazy and that there could be no such girl, and Kole had never heard Sordak speak directly, nor had he ever seen him. He wanted it to stay that way but knew it wasn’t likely if they returned with numbers down and no girl. Even if this wasn’t the girl Sordak sought, Kole wanted to take her back. To do that they’d need more than the pike guns. He cursed Garrol’s laziness in not arming the men adequately. It was the one thing he would’ve done as leader seeing as the car trunks were loaded with weapons and ammo. But Garrol had been convinced they’d find no fight out here worthy of their full arsenal. A mistake that had taken his life. And possibly Kole’s and the rest of the men. Or perhaps not. There’d been no time to bring the cars during the heat of the chase, but there was time now. No one was going anywhere.

Kole looked back toward the road; it was a few hundred yards away through the forest but still ran near the cabin. Kole thought about it. He may know little of old structures but he did know the practicality of having a driveway that led to a road. He scanned the woods in front of the cabin. They’d been carefully maintained to keep growth from the place, and he realized they’d also been carefully tailored to keep eyes away from details. He almost laughed. When you thought to look, the driveway was quite easy to see. And if the now-easy-to-see telltale signs were accurate, it led all the way to the old road.

He looked at the nearest two men—his men now. “Zull! Arik! Go get the cars!”

None cared that the order came from Kole. Someone had to take Garrol’s place and they had no wish to. But Zull thought of the impracticality of the order. “Road’s too far away. Cars won’t do no good.”

Kole pointed. “There’s a hidden driveway.”

Zull studied the area then smiled.

“And call the other two cars!” Kole said. “Tell Thane we found the girl.”

Zull nodded and crept away with Arik. They had almost vanished into the trees when another shot rang out. A wet smack was followed by blood spray from Arik’s neck. He fell into a tangle and became one with the underbrush.

Kole launched a pike at the cabin. Zull remained frozen.

“Are you afraid of a stray bullet or two?” Kole hissed as he reloaded the pike gun.

“Only when they might stray into my neck,” Zull said.

“Then crawl out of here!” Kole barked. “You too!” he added to Derko.

Reluctantly, Zull and Derko crept away.


Chapter Six


“Sights’re not so bad I guess,” Merrick allowed when Fallon took the warrior down.

“They’re going for the cars!” Varin warned.

“They’ll burn us out with that laser,” Lena added.

“Laser?” Merrick looked at Fallon. “It would seem these Roamers found more than just ‘whatever’.”

Another hiss outside. They flinched but the pike blasted in and twanged harmlessly into a door.

Varin could just glimpse the warrior reloading his pike gun, tucked safely behind a fallen tree. “Who are you? What do you want?”

The warrior’s gravel voice floated back. “We are hunter warriors from the army of Sordak. We want the girl.”

“Sordak!” Fallon hissed.

Varin looked at him. “Who the hell is Sordak?”

“Not a Roamer I take it,” Merrick said.

Fallon shook his head. “A madman. One I thought dead and his army disbanded. Not someone you want on you.”

“And I brought them here!” Varin spat.

“Forget that, lad!” Merrick leaned near the window and called out: “She stays with us!”

The warrior croaked a laugh then said, “Don’t be fools! Send her out and live. We come in for her and you die.”

The words cut Lena’s conscience. “I’ll go to them.”

Varin grabbed her. “No way!”

She took her arm from his grip and smiled. “You heard him.”

“We all did,” Varin stated flatly. “Hands up those who know he’s full of shit.”

Fallon watched them argue and felt a sense of his own pride and theirs. She’d sacrifice herself to save them; he’d rather die than let her. He raised his hand and the others looked at him.

“Varin’s right,” he said with a shrug. “They’re full of shit.” He lifted the AK47. “There’s only one out there right now and I’ve got one shot left. I can finish him before the others get back.”

“That last shot might fizzle,” Merrick reminded him. “And even assuming it worked he’d cut you down with one of those pikes soon as you set foot on the deck.”

“It’s worth a try,” Fallon insisted.

“It’s worth nothing!” Merrick snapped. “If you kill him it won’t stop the others coming back.”

“He’s right, Fallon,” Varin said. He turned to Merrick. “It’s time to leave our home behind.”

“They’re back with their machines!” Lena cried as engines roared and the scrape of tires on dirt was heard.

Merrick glared at Fallon. “You’re not a prince here. I’ll give the commands. We follow Varin’s advice.”

“Isn’t that Varin giving the commands?” Fallon said. “What?” he added at their stares. “It’s technically true.”

Gunfire beat the air and bullets shrieked through the cabin. There was time only to hit the floor.


Chapter Seven


Madness had begun to take Kole as he waited alone in the brush, induced by terror at the thought of returning to the compound a failure. Again the idea of just dying here occurred to him. He dismissed it and told himself to get a grip. He looked at the cabin, no movement in there; the occupants were pinned down, the pike gun saw to that. Kole smiled. Not such a bad weapon after all.

The distant rumble of engines grew louder and became a sudden roar as the cars burst through the scrub along the hidden driveway and slid to a stop amid clouds of grit and exhaust. Kole scurried to them as Zull and Derko emerged from the vehicles.

“Thane?” he asked.

“Ten minutes,” Zull said.

They waited behind the cars and Kole allowed himself another smile. Let the strangers shoot stray bullets from the cabin, they’d be useless against the cover of the cars. And what a shock they’d get when two extra cars and eight more warriors rolled up. He doubted they’d come out begging for mercy but it would make going in for the girl easier. Then he realized he needn’t wait. With two cars here there was more than enough firepower. By the time Thane arrived they could be ready to take the girl back to the compound. With luck, she’d meet Sordak and Kole would not.

His terror receded and he was in control again. His lust to reap destruction rose and almost overwhelmed, but he reined it in. The situation called for strategy. Kole had thought of a good one and briefly wondered why he hadn’t wanted to be leader before. He opened the car trunk. A collection of shotguns, handguns, spare ammo clips and melee weapons lay inside. Kole slipped a mace into his belt then handed a shotgun to Derko and took another for himself. “Get on the MP9 and keep them pinned down,” he told Zull. “Aim high so you don’t hit the girl. Derko, keep an eye out. If anyone but the girl tries to shoot before I get inside, kill them.”

“What do you mean get inside?” Zull asked.

Kole racked the slide on his pump-action and grinned. “I’m paying a visit.”

“What if the girl tries to shoot you?” Derko wondered.

Kole tapped a finger on Derko’s shotgun barrel. “Then aim to discourage her! If she dies you’ll follow.”

Derko nodded. Zull took position behind the MP9 and pointed the barrel at the cabin’s front window.

“I said keep it high, moron!” Kole barked. “And stop shooting once I’m inside.” He didn’t want an overeager Zull shooting him by mistake. “I’ll deal with them after that.”

Zull tilted the barrel upward and Kole gave a satisfied nod, feeling a confident buzz of leadership now. He looked toward the cabin. Still no movement. The strangers were cowering in terror. He nodded at Zull, who cut loose with the MP9. Kole exulted as the gun’s bark thudded in his ears and its bite chewed the cabin’s roof.

This would be easy.

As he ran for the cabin Kole decided he should’ve been in charge all along.

The MP9 cycled empty and the firing stopped. Zull quickly changed magazines.

“Send the bitch out or die!” Kole screamed. He didn’t expect them to obey and didn’t care. It was all a diversion. He was now close enough to the cabin that no one would see him if they looked out. Once Zull reloaded and opened fire again, Kole would pay his little visit.


Chapter Eight


The cabin’s interior became a hornet’s nest of screaming lead. Bullets gnawed the roof. Sunlight webbed the room. Splinters flew.

Merrick hissed and Varin rushed to his side. “I’m all right lad! Splinters not bullets.” Merrick grinned. “Lucky eh?”

The firing stopped. Fallon peered out. “They’ve got an arsenal on those cars and they’re reloading it.”

“The trunks are probably piled with ammo,” Varin said. “They were locked up like gone-world bank vaults.”

Fallon looked pitifully at the AK47. “Sort of makes you wish for more than a single round.”

“Sort of?” Merrick asked.

Fallon shrugged. “Wish in one hand, spit in the other as the old saying went.”

“I thought it went differently,” Merrick said. “But I get your meaning.”

“One is missing!” Lena hissed. The others looked at her. “I’ve been keeping count,” she explained. “There should be four out there but I see only three!”

With a mad shriek Kole smashed his way through the door, leading with the shotgun.

They all moved but it was impossible to be fast enough.

Kole’s eye caught Merrick’s movement first; a shotgun blast caught him next. The concussion filled the room. Lead sprayed Merrick’s chest and slapped him to the floor in a red splash. Lena screamed and flew to his side. He was alive but out cold. And the wound would probably mean his end.

Grinning luridly, moving lightning fast, Kole racked another round and fired.

The blast took Fallon full in the chest with a sound like hail striking steel. He flew back and crashed to the floor, clinging to the AK47. The room spun, no time to aim, but Fallon fired and his last round went through a shoulder gap in the berserker’s armor and bit flesh.

Kole grunted and staggered, feeling little pain, more confused about how the guy could shoot back. A chain-mail shirt shouldn’t stop a point blank shotgun blast.

While the berserker stood confused Varin lunged.

Kole batted the kid away; the barrel caught his head and flattened him.

Lena was suddenly there, stabbing her knife at the berserker’s face.

Kole barely deflected the blade. Goddamn this bitch was fast! The knife plunged again and he twisted so it struck his chest plate. He wanted to break her neck but Sordak loomed in the back of his mind so he caught her wrist, swung her round and let go. She crashed into the wall.

Kole winced, knowing it was only luck that had kept her from being impaled on the pikes embedded there. She started to get up. Kole ran at her and kicked her guts. She slumped and went still. Kole was breathing hard; this hadn’t been so easy after all. These people were quick. Except for the old guy. He was just dead. Oh well. It was over now. The other two guys would be dead in a second too.

Kole walked to where the smartass kid lay dazed and studied him. From their looks he guessed the kid was the bitch’s brother. He smiled. The knowledge made him feel a little better about not being able to kill her. He aimed the shotgun and fired—but the AK47 struck him and spoiled his aim. The shotgun blast struck the wall instead of the kid’s head.


* * * *


When the room had stopped spinning for Fallon and he’d seen the berserker standing over Varin, he’d hurled the empty AK47. It saved Varin’s life. And before the berserker could recover Fallon was on him.

Angered and taken by surprise, Kole was amazed the guy could still fight after being shot, and utterly shocked by his strength. It seemed beyond human.

Fallon was equally shocked at the berserker’s strength. For a few seconds they seemed evenly matched and Fallon wondered if he were fighting a normal man. Neither could wrestle the shotgun from the other. It creaked under the strain and then the barrel snapped clean away from the stock. Cartridges spilled around their feet and clattered away.

Shock burst in Kole’s mind again, sparking the first inkling that his little visit to the cabin would be his doom. And he suddenly didn’t want to die here. Panic took him and lent him more strength. He still held half the shotgun. With a cry that was more fear than rage he swatted it at the guy’s head and attacked in full fury.


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