Cross Purposes: Chapter 5

(c) 2015 Thomas F. Brown, All Rights Reserved.

This material may not be reproduced in any form without the expressed written consent of the author.

August 18, 2217

The scent of blood wafted over the fresh-cut field and into the forest at its edge. A lone canine, large by pre-war standards, picked up its head and took a hesitant step forward. It knew better than to approach the town, of course, no matter how tempting the thought of fresh kill might be. The animal remembered that encounter with the invisible pain that surrounded the town like a fence. Humans might not be affected by it, but none of the forest’s inhabitants could bear to be near it, canines particularly.
But the smell drew him on. That he recognized it as human blood should have warned him away as well as the memory of pain, but he was too desperate for food, starving as a matter of fact. The dog walked several paces into the clearing and stopped, puzzled. Looking back at a familiar rock sticking up out of the ground, he realized he was already past the point where the pain should have begun.
The fence was gone!
Encouraged, he trotted up to the source of the smell and sniffed carefully at the grey-clad body sprawled on the ground. For a moment, the dog was tempted to fill his belly, but then fear set in. This was a human, not some rabbit or deer, and humans came in packs just like canines. As much as he needed to eat, he couldn’t defend himself if the rest of the human pack came.
Casting one longing glance back at the dead body, the dog turned and ran back to the forest. The Alpha would know what to do. That’s why he was the pack leader.

The eastern sky had barely lightened with the first rays of dawn when six grey-clad soldiers emerged from Building C, barely-awake and focused on relieving their fellows at their posts. By this time, of course, the wooden cross mounted in the center of town was largely embers, so intense was the consuming fire. The six came to an abrupt halt as they took-in the burnt wood and the two bloody bodies on the ground before it. The soldiers’ reaction was immediate and they raised the alarm. Within minutes, the square began filling with men, each of whom nervously aimed their crossbow into the night.
“What’s going on here?” Harris, the Lord’s lieutenant, demanded, still fastening a sword around his waist. Nobody answered, so Harris grabbed one fellow by the front of his grey shirt and repeated the question at full volume directly into the man’s face. The man blinked and gulped nervously before shaking his head, mutely.
Harris muttered something under his breath as he released his hold on the other’s clothing, and looked around. That’s when he saw the headless bodies on the ground and he sucked in an angry breath. A sharp snapping sound directed his attention to the burnt cross, and as he watched, the structure collapsed in a cloud of ash and sparks.
“Who’s responsible for this outrage?” he demanded in a loud voice, but no one had seen the actual attack, which had been swift and stealthy.No answers were forthcoming.
Now Harris was experienced with this post-apocalyptic world. He knew its dangers and how to avoid them. It was that experience that brought a new thought to mind.
“The perimeter guard!” he said suddenly. He pointed to a handful of men. “Check on them. Quickly, man!” The indicated soldiers split off from the group and started running for the edge of town.
Sometime in the last ten years, the townsfolk had erected a crude sonic “fence” around the town to repel the local animal life. But after Harris and his people destroyed the town’s electricity supply, the fence no longer worked, leaving the perimeter guards as the town’s only protection from the beasts of the wild.
It was soon clear that wasn’t much protection at all. Almost immediately upon the guards’ departure for the edge of town there was a cacophony of animal growls and human cries of dismay as the men were met by a huge pack of very large dogs. Up until this point, the animals had been crawling quietly towards the town. But now that they were discovered, they abandoned stealth entirely and leapt to the attack.
The soldiers didn’t stand a chance against the beasts’ ferocity, and were dead in short order. Encouraged by their easy victory, the dogs raced into town, barking eagerly.
Many of the arrows that struck the animals had been poisoned with a special plant sap that killed quickly, but those that hadn’t did little to slow the dogs down. Fuelled by hunger, each dog required many untreated arrows to be brought down. But the crossbows took too long to reload, forcing the men to resort to swords. The rest of the soldiers poured out of the buildings to join the fight, but they were slow to emerge. This gave the dogs the time they needed to reduce the number of humans in the square before facing fresh foes.
The bloody battle went on for some time, until the number of grey-clad men had been reduced to a mere handful. The dogs, too, had suffered mightily, but the Alpha urged them to fight on, knowing that this might well be their only opportunity. He neither knew nor cared why the pain barrier surrounding the town was gone. Whatever the reason, it was certain the humans wouldn’t allow it to happen again.
Then the pack leader saw something out of the corner of his eye, something unusual. A human female, white hair shining in the new dawn, had a sword of her own in each hand. She was using it to cut down the soldiers who were still standing. Why would she betray her own?
She then lowered the swords and they seemed to fade away before vanishing entirely.
“I know you can understand me,” she said, approaching the Alpha slowly, hands raised in a placating gesture. “Eat your fill from the fallen and leave us in peace. Leave the buildings and the rest of the people unharmed and I’ll let you live. Otherwise, your pups will have something to grieve about tomorrow.”
The woman came close to the Alpha and he sniffed her. Or, rather, he tried to. There was no odour about her at all. He pressed his nose right against her pants leg and felt the solidity and texture of human cloth.
But no smell!
“I’ve met your packs before,” the woman told the Alpha in a firm but gentle tone of voice. “I know what you’re capable of. But I also know you’re no match for me.” She held up her right hand and the sword shimmered into existence once more with the faintest trace of ozone.
It was a human thing, then, like the arrows. But, unlike the arrows, new and unexpected.This was also the first time one of the humans had ever bothered to speak to him as an equal. Most of the time they simply attacked. But the Alpha hadn’t survived eight winters by being stupid or short-sighted. He knew without a doubt that this female could, and would, carry out her threat.  Naturally, he lacked a human’s power of speech, but there were other ways to communicate. Lifting his head, he looked the woman in the eye and held her gaze for a long moment. Then he bobbed his head down and then up again in imitation of a motion he’d seen humans perform to indicate agreement.
“Thank you,” she replied with a smile.
The human then ignored the Alpha and his pack, and took long steady strides towards Building A.

The room was different from the others in town. For one thing, it was well lit. A portable electric lantern of an unusual design sat by itself on the table. The room’s lone easy chair had been moved into the corner, placed so that the seated figure remained in shadow. Clearly, he was expecting company.
“Hello,” the old woman said from the open doorway. “I’m here to tell you your Army’s gone, food for the beasts.” She smiled then, an ugly predatory smile. “And as a friend of mine once said to another murdering bastard: you’re next.”

To be continued…

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