So I think I might be fucked. No, actually I’m sure I’m fucked. Hell, I never thought I’d die in my sleep at age eighty surrounded by a bunch of sobbing kids and grandkids – that’s not what the world is like these days – but I was hoping I’d go fast when the time comes. Maybe hit by a raider’s stray bullet. That’d be nice. Don’t think that’s going to happen now, though.
I’d better start at the beginning of this whole clusterfuck.
About a year ago I was in this town down South. I hadn’t had a bite to eat in days and didn’t have shit to barter with. I was down to the rags I was wearing and even those were coming apart. So I was digging through this giant heap of trash outside of this bar, hoping to find something edible. At least a dead rat or something. Fuck, I would’ve eaten anything by that point. Didn’t even care that my hands were getting all cut up from some broken glass.
As I was waist-deep in the heap, these two guys left the bar. They were both dressed in black leather, both of them had shotguns slung over their shoulders and they had this look about them that just screamed “Raiders!” Most people look like they know they could be dead any second, even the tough ones, but raiders always have this look on their faces like they’re invincible. I’ve seen plenty of those bastards - looking like they’ve been through a meat grinder and they still have that smug fucking look on their face.
Anyway, these two guys were arguing and weren’t exactly trying to keep quiet.
“You can’t be for fucking real, Princey! First Pierre, then you ... there’ll be nobody left soon!”
“Do I look like I’m joking?”
“Nah, but come on, what the hell are you even looking for up North?”
The guy named Princey didn’t answer. Instead, he took a big bite out of a juicy drumstick he was holding. I just about started crying. The fucker probably didn’t even appreciate that thing.
I crawled a little closer. Yeah, I know that was dumb, but I couldn’t help myself.
“There’s nothing up North that Pike can’t get you right here.”
“Aw, come on, Pike’s always been good to us.”
“Na, fuck him! Fuck him with a rusty chainsaw. I’m sick of his bullshit. I’ve been busting my ass for him for half my life and he doesn’t even think I ought to get an equal share? It sure as hell ain’t him who does most of the dirty work and he damn well better remember that.”
“Aw, calm down.”
“No, I’m not fucking calming down. I very nearly got sliced up while Pike’s lazy ... hey! Fuck off!”
I didn’t realise he meant me until he aimed a kick my way and only just missed my head. I recoiled, but I couldn’t stop staring at the drumstick in Princey’s hand.
“Whatcha staring at?”
“I ... erm ...”
He started waving the drumstick in front of my eyes.
“You want that?”
Oh goddammit, yes, I wanted that! Wanted that more than I wanted to get away from the two men who probably killed for a living. I nodded.
Princey grinned, drew back his arm and threw the drumstick over my head, over the trash heap, onto the roof of the bar: “Go fetch!”
And I did. Didn’t even hesitate. Back when my big sister was still alive, she always told me: “Don’t get noticed by people more powerful than you, but if you do, just do what they tell you. It’s less likely to get you killed.”
Always used to reckon she was right, ‘cause I’ve survived so far. Not so sure now, but back then ... well ... I climbed up the trash heap and jumped onto the roof. I’ve always been a good climber. Okay, I fell off a few times and damn near broke my ribs, but eventually I got to take a bite out of that sweet, sweet drumstick. Best thing I’d ever eaten! Of course, I knew they were toying with me, that they might even kill me just for the fun of it when I came back down. That’s the shit raiders do. But at the time that drumstick was worth it.
The two men were still laughing their heads off when I reappeared with the drumstick between my teeth. It was Princey who caught his breath first.
“Fuck, he actually did it! I like you. What’s your name?”
I quickly swallowed a bite of what may have been chicken but probably wasn’t and answered: “Garth.”
“Well, Garth, you’re coming with me.” Princey took two steps toward me and grabbed me hard by the arm. What was I supposed to do? I mean, for fuck’s sake, the guy had a shotgun and was much stronger than me... so I just went with him. Yeah, now that my brain was no longer screaming for food, I noticed that I was scared shitless. I could barely walk, Princey had to practically drag me most of the way to his car – yup, the bastard owned a car. Fast one, too!
Anyway, I thought Princey was going to kill me, but he didn’t. Turns out he just wanted company for the road. Someone to talk to. Or shout at. Kick around a bit. Yeah, he was a complete asshole, but he kept me alive and he really didn’t deserve to die the way he did, the poor bastard.
We ended up travelling together for some months. Princey knew how to deal with most problems that came our way. Usually he solved them with his shotgun. But he knew how to be sneaky, too. Wasn’t really clever to rush into every fight guns a-blazing, ‘cause we were only two people. So if Princey thought we were overpowered, he just took to stealing or robbing people when they didn’t have a group with them. Worked pretty well. We always had enough to eat.
Sometime in summer the car broke down and neither of us knew how to fix it, so we continued on foot. I had no clue where Princey thought he was going, but then I don’t think he really knew either. We just kept going north until we reached what was probably the most beautiful place I’d ever seen in my life. It was so fucking green, just grass and trees and little rivers with clean water all the way to the horizon. Somewhere in the distance there was an odd metal tower and around it someone had heaped up a bunch of huge concrete plates to make some kind of fortress or terraces or ... well, I didn’t really know. Looked like it had been a lot of work, though.
“Are we staying here?” I asked Princey.
“Looks good to me for now. We can set up camp over there between those two trees.”
We threw a canvas sheet we had with us over some branches and it made for a pretty decent tent. Princey threw me some jerky, we ate and eventually curled up for the night.
I must have fallen asleep the moment my head hit the ground. I dreamt of my sister that night. In the dream we went fishing in a little boat and I caught a fish so big and strong that I couldn’t reel it in. It made the whole damn boat shake and my mum shouted at me to let it go, but I couldn’t move. The boat keeled over with a splash. I woke with a start. But the ground beneath me was still shaking!
“Eh? Shut up, Garth.”
“No, Princey, wake up, there’s some weird shit going on here.”
Princey sat up.
“What the ... FUCK!”
I must have screamed, too. Something black and slimy with huge teeth had just popped out of the ground right next to Princey and it was coming straight at him. I scrambled for Princey’s shotgun, aimed at the thing and pulled the trigger. I think I hit it ‘cause it let out this weird shriek and keeled over, but the ground didn’t stop vibrating. And then they started bursting out of the loose earth by the dozens. Princey wrenched his shotgun out of my hand. We tried our best to fight them off, somehow, but there were so many.
“RUN!” Princey screamed. He didn’t even check if I was following, just took off toward that tower in the distance. I followed him as fast as I could. Those little fuckers were faster, though. One of them caught me by the leg. Fuck, that hurt! I have no idea how I managed to shake that thing off and keep running. Must’ve punched it in its ugly face or something. Eventually Princey and I reached the terraces. We climbed up the first level. Seems the things couldn’t climb or dive through concrete, because we managed to shake them. But I was in really bad shape. I was bleeding like a stuck pig, it was soaking through my pants. That thing’s teeth must have ripped my leg right open and now it was starting to hurt – so – fucking – bad. I needed help and I needed it fast or I was done for.
“Princey!” I gasped, tried to walk to him, but I stumbled and fell.
I must have blacked out, ‘cause the next thing I remember is waking up on something lovely and soft and feeling calmer than I ever had in my life. My leg still hurt like fuck, but somehow it barely even bothered me. I slowly opened my eyes. A bunch of smiling people in blue clothes were standing around my bed.
“Mizdala! He’s awake!”
An old woman approached my bed. She must’ve been the leader of these people, because they all stepped aside all respectful-like to make room for her. Also, she wasn’t dressed in blue. She was wearing some weird skin-tight full-body suit with wires and shit sticking out everywhere. She smiled down at me.
“I am glad you’re awake, we weren’t sure you would survive.”
Looking back, I should’ve probably freaked out a bit more about almost dying, but I barely even realised.
“My name is Mizdala. What is yours?”
“Welcome to the Promised Land, Garth.”
The Promised Land? Sounded nice enough!
“Are we inside that concrete place?”
“Yes, we are. We built our pyramid for protection. You may stay if you wish.”
I should’ve known something was off. Hell, these were strangers. You don’t trust strangers just like that. But I did. Couldn’t think of anything nicer than staying in the Promised Land with the Citizenry. That’s what they called themselves, the Citizenry. Weird, huh? They didn’t even seem weird to me at the time, just really happy.
“You should rest some more.”
“Yeah, I think I will ... hey, do you happen to know if the other guy made it.”
“Oh, your friend?”
I shrugged. “I suppose.”
“He refused to give up his shotgun. We do not allow weapons in the Promised Land, so he could not enter. But he should be fine. We gave him supplies and pointed him to a place he can stay. If he does not survive, it will be on him alone.”
“Ah, alright,” I said and went back to sleep.
The Citizenry cared for me until I was well enough to get up. They didn’t really know much about fixing people up, so my leg never healed up right. It still looks a bit mangled and I walk with a limp now, but I didn’t die and I didn’t lose my leg. Everybody’s got scars.
When I first left the pyramid several weeks after I’d first arrived, the Citizenry put me to work right away. They had this whole system set up, everyone shared work equally and everyone got enough to eat and new clothes when they needed them and plenty of free time. There weren’t ever any fights either. Should’ve made me wonder, I guess, but it was just too damn nice. First thing I learned was how to weave, ‘cause that was the job of the elderly and injured, anyone who couldn’t go out to the fields. Once I got better, they sent me out to the fields as well. Work was hard sometimes, but fun. We sang songs while we worked and chatted. Of course I didn’t like everyone. Some people were outright dicks, taking the piss out of me ‘cause I was new and shit, but I couldn’t even stay mad at them for long.
I stayed with the Citizenry for a while. Can’t really remember how long, though. Maybe it was too nice, though. Nice things never last.
We were out caring for the crops one day and I went into the high grass nearby to take a piss when suddenly the muzzle of a shotgun was right in my face.
“Princey? What are you doing here?”
“What the fuck do you think I’m doing here? Getting you back from these creeps.”
“The Citizenry are not creeps, they’re lovely!”
“I don’t give a shit. You’re mine, you’re coming with me.”
“No, I like it here. I’m staying.”
I don’t know what the fuck I was thinking, but somehow he didn’t scare me anymore.
“Listen, you ungrateful little fuck. I brought you here. You’re mine. So you’re either coming with me or I’m going to blow your head off, are we clear?”
I didn’t answer. Instead, I did a really stupid thing. I made a grab for his gun. He held on tight. We tussled for a moment. Then …
Course it had to go off. Didn’t hit me, though, or Princey.
“See what you fucking did, you idiot?” Princey hissed at me.
I turned around. One of the women that had been working with me was lying on the ground. There was a bloody hole where her face used to be. The people around her were looking down at her confused. I heard one of them say “Do you think we should tell Mizdala?”
“Yeah, she’ll want to know.”
“Think they’ll take you back after that?” Princey laughed. “Think they’ll want a murderer in their precious Promised Land?”
I didn’t know what to answer, but then I didn’t have to, ‘cause Princey’d already grabbed me in a chokehold and was dragging me away from the Citizenry’s fields.
We walked for what must’ve been hours until we reached some kind of concrete overpass. Looked like that’s where the Citizenry got the concrete for their pyramid. A rope ladder was dangling down from above.
“Go on, climb up! It’s getting dark already; you don’t want to be eaten.”
On the overpass, there was a camp that had clearly been abandoned quite a while ago. Bunch of tents and crates just scattered across the concrete. Princey tied up my arms and legs and shoved me into one of the tents: “I’m gonna go sleep. Don’t want you doing anything stupid now.”
I was running on fumes myself, so I closed my eyes and tried to sleep. At first, everything seemed fine. Well, not fine. I was pretty miserable, actually, sad about having to leave the Citizenry and ticked off at Princey for what he’d done. But then, halfway through the night, it was like some kind of dam broke in my brain or something and it all came flooding back.
Don’t think I’ve ever been so afraid in my life. Felt like I was dying. My heart was ripping its way through my chest, my stomach clenched up so bad I puked up most of what I’d eaten for a day, I couldn’t stop shaking and I kept hearing someone babbling: “Fuck, oh fuck, you shot that woman’s face off, oh fuck.”
Then I heard someone sobbing and screaming. Must’ve been me, ‘cause Princey wasn’t in the tent with me and there was nobody else around.
Pissed myself, too. And then I blacked out. Princey told me later that he’d come to check on me ‘cause I was screaming bloody murder and I’d somehow managed to wriggle my way out of the ropes and had scratched my whole face and arms bloody. He said he used his belt to tie me up again, but I wouldn’t stop writhing, so he just held me all night. Just to stop me from fucking him up, too, or doing anything else stupid.
That’s how I woke up, wrapped in Princey’s arms, piss and puke all over me, scratches everywhere and still shaking and still fucking terrified out of my skull.
It took me weeks to stop flinching every time something moved nearby and I still can’t sleep for more than a couple of hours at a stretch. Used to be able to, at least sometimes. Life feels really fucked up when you forget how to be afraid and then you remember.
‘Cause I’m pretty sure that’s what’s so weird about the Promised Land: Nobody knows how to be scared or violent, no matter what happens. Don’t know how Mizdala does it, but she does. And yeah, that’s a bit fucked up, just messing with people’s minds like that. Still, that place was heaven compared to everywhere else. I’d like to go back there, but I don’t think they’d take me back, even if I tried to explain what happened. Even now that Princey’s dead. Don’t think I could get there alive anyway.
Now that I had nowhere else to go, I just went back to doing what I had before, doing whatever Princey wanted from me, so I’d have enough to eat. He’d actually found a way of hunting those slimy horrors and their meat wasn’t half-bad. The camp seemed alright, too. Well-protected, ‘cause whoever lived there before us had piled up this huge wall of cars between the camp and the road and we had a good view of the fields between us and the Promised Land. We’d be able to fight off or hide from anyone coming our way. That’s what we thought anyway.
It worked alright for a couple of weeks. We hunted those black slimy things for food – I didn’t eat a lot, too scared of puking everything up - took turns guarding the camp... mostly I guarded it, couldn’t sleep anyway.
Then, a few days ago, they came. Princey was asleep in his tent. I was cutting up some meat, when I suddenly heard this voice shouting: “HELLO!”
Thought I’d better check what was going on, so I climbed up the wall of cars and peeked over it. There was this bunch of people and an RV, all looking pretty run-down, but they seemed to be armed. Maybe about a dozen people, maybe slightly less, hard to make out, ‘cause I didn’t know how many of them there were in the RV.
Their leader looked pleasant enough. Introduced himself as “Mazda”, asked me for my name and if they could pass through.
“I – I don’t think the others would like that. Sorry.” I looked down at the camp, where Princey was only just leaving his tent, rubbing his eyes with one hand, carrying his shotgun in the other.
“The hell is going on up there?”
An odd noise made my head whirl back to the group by the RV. Took me a second to realise someone was laughing. It was a high-pitched, slightly muffled-sounding sniggering, like something from one of my nightmares. Didn’t sound human, if you ask me. Took me even longer to see who was making those noises, ‘cause they were standing a bit off from the others, in the shadow of the RV, but then they stepped forward and I swear, I pretty near fell off the wall. It was this weird ... thing, tall and gangly, dressed all in black and wearing a pure white mask with barely any features, no mouth or anything, just holes for the eyes. Fuck, I should’ve run for it then and there, but I didn’t know…
“Fuck off!” Princey was standing next to me pointing his shotgun at the group, arguing with their leader. I quickly scrambled off the wall. Didn’t want to be right there when the shit hit the fan, did I?
Might’ve been safer staying on the wall, ‘cause I’d barely climbed all the way down the wall when one of the bastards by the RV lobbed a Molotov cocktail over it. Hit one of the tents right next to me. The whole thing burst into flames.
I jumped back. Only just managed to not go up in flames myself!
“Shit, Princey, we’ve got to let them through. There’s way too many of them for us to fight!”
“Alright, alright. We’ll let you clear away the cars and pass through. Just leave us the fuck alone, we’ve got nothing worth taking!”
This whole time, I could still hear the creepy sniggering. Didn’t know if it was coming from that masked person down by the RV or from inside my own head at that point. The faster we got rid of these people, the better!
Eventually Princey climbed down to me: “You okay?”
“Yeah, think so.”
“They’ve gone to sleep. Said they’d clear the wall tomorrow.”
“You think they’ll leave us alone?”
“Eh, not sure, maybe we should make a run for ... the fuck?”
Something had appeared at the top of the wall of cars. At first, it was hard to make out against the darkening sky, but then I saw that creepy white mask floating in the darkness, getting closer so fucking fast. I should’ve run. Damn it, why didn’t I run? But I couldn’t. My legs wouldn’t move at all. All I could do was stand there and stare as the mask kept coming closer, even when Princey shouted: “We told you we’d let you through tomorrow!”, even when he aimed his gun at it, even when he fucking fired a shot at it and then it was on him with a bloody huge machete and his gun was lying by his side and I was standing a few feet away and couldn’t fucking move.
“Recognise me, Princey?” the voice behind the mask whispered, then sniggered again.
Sounded like a woman…
“Sure as hell never seen that mask. Who the fuck are you?” Princey asked. He was acting all brave, but any idiot could’ve told he was pissing himself. He was still struggling at that point. I should’ve grabbed his gun, should’ve helped him, should’ve shot that fucking monster, but I was too damn terrified. I couldn’t even turn away when she took her machete and sliced his arm open, just like that. I’ve never heard anyone shriek like that. Don’t think I’ll ever forget that sound.
Thought she’d slice his throat next, but she didn’t. She just kept playing with him, like some demented cat with a mouse. Carving little symbols into him and shit. Asking him questions about someone named Pike – the name rang a bell, but I had bigger problems at the time. That masked freak never even stopped fucking giggling the whole time. I don’t think she even knew I was there or I might be dead already.
Wasn’t until she started chopping his fingers off bit by bit that I finally managed to tear myself loose. Didn’t go grab the gun, though. Instead I scrambled up the car wall as fast as I could. Thought she’d notice me any minute now, ‘cause I kept slipping and nearly falling, but I didn’t dare look behind me. Scared I’d turn around and there’d just be that mask and that machete floating after me in the darkness. Don’t think I’ll ever stop having nightmares about that ‘til the day I die.
But I made it to the top and back down on the other side where the rest of the group was still waiting next to the RV.
I held out my hands to show I wasn’t armed. “I surrender ... to – to you ... “ I thought about begging them not to kill me or at least to do it fast, but then Princey’d been begging and crying and screaming and shrieking for mercy for what felt like hours now... “I’ll do whatever you say, just ... just keep her away from me.”
Mazda had this shit-eating grin on his face as he put his hand around my shoulder: “Ah, perfect. We have so much to teach you.” Too fucking jovial! I could barely stop myself from flinching.
He made me sit down in the RV with him and started telling me everything I could possibly want to know about their gang ... their cult? Turns out they don’t really believe in killing, because devils live in all people and they get released into the world to wreak havoc when someone dies without the proper rituals. Mazda’s blabbering kept being interrupted by screams from the other side of the car wall. The people in the RV with me looked seriously on edge. There was this weedy kid whose eyes kept darting to the door. I think the only thing stopping him from running off was the guy who constantly had his hand on the kid’s shoulder. I later learned his name was Gabe and he was an Angel. You know, one of those guys that go around fixing people up, just ‘cause they feel bad for them. The kid, White, was his assistant. Made me feel a bit safer that they were all so nervous. After all, if this shit was just how they lived, they wouldn’t have been nervous about it, would they?
“Y-you don’t believe in killing?” I asked.
Mazda guessed what I was getting at. Didn’t take a genius after all.
“Ah, well, Deg is unfortunately somewhat of a rogue. We have yet to convert her to our ways.”
“And we probably never will. She’s a complete maniac.”
“Oh, shut up, Jackal.” The woman who’d spoken had only one leg and some angry burn scars on her arms and her face. She turned to me: “Deg’s fine, usually. She does her own thing, but she doesn’t bother anyone. No idea what’s gotten into her.”
“Oh, bullshit!” The man named Jackal shouted. “She’s a ticking time bomb. She’s killed before! Who’s to say she won’t keep doing it?”
“Shush!” the medic held up his hand.
“Don’t you dare shush me, Gabe, I wasn’t...”
“Shut up! I’m trying to listen...”
For a moment, nobody in the RV spoke.
“The screaming’s stopped. We should get over there and have a look.” Gabe said.
“Should we clear the cars?” his assistant asked, his voice shaking slightly.
“I-I’ll help!” I shouted. Better make them think I was useful, much less likely they’d do something horrible to me if I was, right? Apart from Deg, they seemed reasonable enough.
But after what happened next, I’m not so sure anymore.
The whole group helped pull cars off the wall and it didn’t take us long at all to clear a decent-sized hole. I could see Princey on the other side – or what was left of him anyway. Looked like a bloody mess. That masked freak was still hovering over him. Gabe scrambled through the hole to check Princey.
After a moment, he sighed: “He’s still alive, but there’s nothing I can do for him now. He’ll last for maybe another hour, if we’re lucky.”
“Then we have no time to lose,” Mazda said, once more putting his hand on my shoulder.
“Garth, this is the perfect opportunity to show you our ways. Help the others gather firewood!”
So I did. Still trying to be useful, you see.
I was honestly too freaked out to understand what was happening until I saw Deg scramble, spider-like and covered in blood, through the hole in the car wall and approach Gabe. The only part of the conversation I heard was: “So, do we use the ball gag or do you want to hear the screams? ... Okay, screams it is.”
Behind me, the others had already piled up what looked a lot like a fucking pyre. I wanted to get the fuck out of there, but I couldn’t. Not without risking death or worse. Fuck, I should’ve just legged it. Maybe they wouldn’t have followed me, they seemed pretty occupied with Princey. But instead I helped them drag Princey to the pyre – the fuckers had actually shocked him awake – and joined their circle around the fire, chanting with them at the top of my voice to drown out Princey’s screams ... didn’t work, in case you were wondering.
As the circle dissolved, the masked freak walked right by me and even though she never said a word, I could practically hear the “You’ll be next” in her glare.
I am so incredibly fucked.