White crystals fell through the holes in the ceiling. They called it snow, but it did not contain any water and looked a lot less pretty. On exposed skin, the crystals burned and blistered, little sprinkles of murder from the cyanide clouds that presided over the city.
The flakes were gray and glistened green in the light of the fires set all over the Great Hall. People were clustered around burning barrels and concrete pits, and never strayed far. It was a cold winter, and the fires were the only source of warmth. They weren’t needed for light. There were enough holes in the ceiling that the forever burning skies cast their dirty orange glow in every corner of the refuge.
There barely ever was merriment and noise, but tonight was even more silent than the others. Timmy, curled up under the bridge of knees formed by his mother and sister’s legs, clutched a dirty piece of paper to his chest and tried not to let anyone hear his sobs. It hadn’t worked, and it had all been for nothing. He had done everything right. It wasn’t fair.
There was an empty place next to his sister, on the bench their father had made from actual wood planks he’d scavenged over the years. Then a voice broke the sad silence.
“Should’ve died, today”. It was Bruno, the hunter. The fires in the Hall were set by family, clan, profession, or whatever grouping made sense in their society at the moment. Bruno’s fire was two clusters away from Timmy’s, towards the centre of the large, low room that had once been a stable for ugly metal beasts that now lie rotted and brown, often melted into puddles that stained forever.
The hunter clan had far higher standing than Timmy’s little family and guild of scavengers. No one replied, and so Bruno nodded towards the enormous carcass roasting on the spit next to their cluster.
“I was hunting a brace of rabbits. They looked Siamese and shouldn’t have been able to run far but they did. And I got lost in the woods. The dark edge, where things grow wild. First I saw of that big black bastard were its eyes.”
Timmy strained to turn and look. He didn’t need to see. He had spent the afternoon counting those eyes with his friends. Four on each side, arranged like a visor over the monster’s snout.
“I swear it made no sound until it snorted and surged. I barely had time to turn and face the giant fucker. My spear was off. My gun at my belt, and just as useless as if I’d been holding it. I tell you. I should have died today.”
The call came from Yvette, with her blonde tresses and eyes so piercingly blue that shone through no matter how dirty her skin got. Everyone knew she’d been moving closer and closer to Bruno’s fire all year. Timmy hated Bruno.
“Hah, man. You should leave mushroom gathering to the scavengers. Didn’t have to mention the monster you fed us all with today.”
There was a glimmer and a challenge in her eyes, and any other night Bruno would have obliged. But tonight the hunter was troubled. He stood and faced his family.
“No. I am telling you. I was dead. Then… there was a sound. A whine like a capacitor overloading, just before it blows up. But there was no explosion. The sound just got louder, and then a blast of hot air slammed me into a tree, out of the way of the beast just before it charged.”
He looked around, challenge in his eyes. No, wait. That wasn’t challenge in his eyes. It was moisture. It was enough to make a few of the older folks stir.
“I’m telling you, I should have died today!”
Timmy heard the quiver in Bruno’s voice that matched the trembling in the hunter’s left hand. Yvette spoke slowly, like you do with children and crazy people, like she spoke to Timmy.
“It’s been a shit week, Bruno. Your kill will help many who were starving. Everyone’s nerves…”
The thud of Bruno’s knife embedding itself in the stone ground silenced her.
“You aren’t listening! I should have died! And then I came to my senses, there was a trail in the forest, carved through like a laser had blasted through it, and the boar was unconscious, and I just slit its throat, and if it had woken up first, I’d be dead. Enjoy the meat, but it’s not my kill. I should..”
Bruno’s mother placed her three-fingered hand on his shoulder, where Bruno’s skin turned scaly from radiation burns that never healed. She held him, and he just stared at the fire.
Feet shuffled. Some rheumy coughs fell wetly before they could echo in the once cavernous hall. Timmy looked around, frowning. No fights tonight.
“Bruno, it’s no time for levity. There are too many of us still missing in the blizzard tonight.” The Elder sounded about as amused and dry as he looked. Bruno shook himself and looked up with wide eyes and a stunned mouth.
“It sounded like a boiler about to explode. Didn’t it. Like it was as sharp as your ears could handle and then it got louder, and nothing blew up.”
Everyone looked up not out of curiosity, but as if they’d been slapped. They all flinched towards the same spot at the same time, and Timmy hid deeper under his blanket. The Barezark had spoken, and that never ended well. He wore no clothes on his gorilla barrel chest and Timmy wasn’t sure why that was, especially in the middle of winter, but he knew that no one ever argued with him. More precisely, people went out of their way to never be in a place where they could argue with him.
And now he had spoken just like that, staring into the fire, massive cords on his arms lazily stretching as he picked up a whole log and threw it into his barrel with one hand.
“Was out looking for the cannibals that took Millie’s son. Found them in one of the broken towers on the way to Bruno’s woods. It was a small encampment, half a dozen degenerates, so I didn’t wait for reinforcements.”
A hundred hands hovered over the flames close enough to scorch, and no breath puffed in the winter air. Timmy had never heard the Barezark speak a sentence longer than “You are dead”, and it seemed like no one else had either.
“There were on the tenth level, and it was easy throwing them from the places where walls had been. I had the last one by the neck, off his feet, and I’d just thrown his buddies down the tower into the angry metal bars. Then he thrashed, and I slipped.”
The Barezark was holding something in his hands. He passed it back and forth. Timmy couldn’t see what it was, just that something was there from the way the warrior was shifting his hands and arms.
“I had my back too close to the edge, and I fell like an idiot. The cannibal I’d been holding slammed into the floor and locked my hand in place between the concrete and his own body. It wasn’t stable, the body started slipping. I looked down at the five red splotches where I’d thrown the other cannibals. I couldn’t grab on to anything, and the body kept slipping.”
The brute stopped to look at the thing in his hand.
“That’s when I heard Bruno’s whistle. It sounded like the air was being torn open and screamed in protest. It came closer, and I didn’t really care because the only thing between me and death were the three fingers I still had hooked into the cannibal’s neck folds that were starting to tear. I felt the skin rip and my fingers go warm. Gravity grabbed my guts and pulled. I thought I’d fallen. Then, I was flying.”
The Barezark looked up, challenge in his eyes. He didn’t have enough feeling in its body to be moved like Bruno, so he wasn’t crying, but even Timmy could see that he was struggling with a tidal wave of emotion. His arms twitched, shaking, like he would have preferred to fight his own family rather than admit to what came next.
“No man has ever been able to budge me since I was 16. I win tug of war in spring against twenty of you. I AM THE BAREZARK. And yet… this one hand grabbed my ankle and yanked me up, and I was flying. I spun and landed on my back. A rock behind my kidney made me cry out and I had no air in my lungs. I could barely see him. He was standing in a flat wooden box that floated next to the ledge.
My vision was fuzzy. I couldn’t get up on time. All I saw were dark red mittens and a pointy head. It threw something at my feet, and then its voice boomed, smashing through my confusion.
‘You, Claude, have been very naughty. But the children need those toys’. The box turned on its own accord and flew away. I had no idea what he meant until I searched the cannibals’ camp and found their chest full of bait.”
Timmy reached for the leather ball next to his hip. It was nearly new, barely scratched. It fit in his hand like it belonged there. It gleamed. Sarah was holding her stuffed, one-eared rabbit close to her chest like her heartbeat depended on it. Crawling around and hiding behind things, the tribe’s children were playing with soggy, scratched, seared, scuffed brand new toys like they had never seen.
The boy that had been Claud e and now was The Barezark, their clan’s most fearsome fighter, looked at the lump of coal in his fist. There were whispers now. The blizzard outside intensified, reached through the holes in the ceiling to frighten their barrel fires, howling each time the flames sputtered.
Timmy’s mother sobbed, and he grabbed her leg from his place of safety. The angle of his sister’s thighs changed as she turned to embrace their mother.
“Bruno, Cla… Barezark. This is enough! This jest has gone too far. It’s late and we should think about our scavengers stuck out there. This is no time for levity.” The Elder puffed up his chest, and clearly felt he spoke for the rest of the tribe. Even Timmy knew that provoking both men was a move no one in the tribe would have tried to pull.
Bruno reached for his knife and took a step forward, only to bounce into the Barezark who was on his way to wring the old fool’s neck. Neither was a man to be trifled with on a good day. Neither knew how to handle feelings.
The Elder raised his hands in self-defence, and the clan recoiled away from the impending murder of their most experienced, longest-lived member. Then the door shook on its hinges.
It was the side door, the one from the secret paths through the ruins that only the clan knew. And it resounded with three, deep, powerful bangs. The fourth smashed it open.
A boot followed, and four figures stumbled into the hall in a tangle of legs and feet and heads like a mutated octopus trying to squeeze its entire body through the small doorway at once.
Timmy recognized the figure in the lead. He’d carved that belt buckle himself from a piece of steel he’d found last summer.
He went from curled up to a run in a single heartbeat. Timmy was small, but his legs pumped furiously to propel him through the rest of the families who rose to greet their lost patrol. He was out of breath but it didn’t matter because he slammed into his father’s knee fast enough that the wind was knocked out of him. He just held on, as did his father. His face started tingling from the crystals on his father’s leg but it didn’t matter.
His mother reached them. “Paul, what.. how? The blizzard, how did you find your way home?”
His father’s red face beamed one strip at a time, first where the goggles had been, then the mouth mask, then the face cover. Paul held his family just as tightly as the other around them held theirs.
“It was the damnedest thing. We were lost. Dead buildings on every side. We couldn’t even find a place to hide from the dead snow. We thought we were done. Then we heard this whistle. A whine. I don’t know. It was a sharp sound. We figured… dead here or there, let’s check it out.
Then, we saw lights ahead. It turned out to be a man in one of those old-time snow contraptions, you know the ones they tied dogs to? We watched the Dsney crystals… what were they called?”
“A slay!” Bruno called.
“Yes! A slay. The man pointed ahead and… the snow parted. We could see the entrance to our path, barely fifty metres ahead. When I turned around to thank the man, his slay was shaking, and the whistle nearly blew my ears. Then he was gone, so fast that he blinked into a star before my breath could dissipate. I’m just so happy we made it here.”
Timmy just held the remaining piece of paper to his chest and sobbed. He was definitely writing another letter next year. Then, Bruno and the Barezark were there, crowding the team, asking questions, had he seen the man? What did he look like? What did the slay look like precisely?
Paul let go of his family long enough to strip the rest of his survival gear off. Then, he took the time to answer their questions.
“Listen guys, I have no idea who he was. He had a weird had on. Wore the biggest mittens I ever saw. And he had a big beard. Under the creases of his rugged skin, the most piercing blue eyes. I can only tell you he was a thoroughly magnificent bastard.”