I woke up to the smell of meat cooking. I tried to pry my eyes open, but only one responded. The other stubbornly refused to cooperate. Not that it mattered much. It was dark, wherever here was. I heard grunting, what might have been talking, coming from somewhere nearby.
I wriggled a bit. Someone had tied my arms and legs together, and done a passable job of it. I was lying on something hard, probably concrete. I managed to roll over a bit, and saw a window. Firelight flickered around the edges of the frame, and I heard laughter, deep and resonant. Still no idea what anyone was saying, though.
I heard the scrape of wood on stone nearby, and the heavy tread of feet. I thought about feigning sleep and decided against it. Instead, I worked myself to where I could see my captor. Or one of them, at any rate.
There was no denying he was a mutant. The little bit of light coming through the door was enough for me to see half of his face looked like melted wax, drooping down onto his shoulder. One eye was bright and clear, the other filmy and gauzy. Its left arm was massive, while the right was normal sized. His enormous body balanced on legs thick as oil drums, and a tentacle whipped back and forth, erupting from his shoulder. He clutched a cleaver in its right hand, and as I watched it hacked at a carcass laid out on a table. I wondered which one of my boys was dinner tonight.
His butchery done, he stomped back out to the fire, a severed leg slung over his shoulder. Guess I wasn’t worth paying attention too. Fine by me.
Moving my hands back and forth behind me, I was able to work my jacket up. The mutants hadn’t bothered checking me too closely and the small knife I kept in the small of my back was still there. I worked it out with my fingers, teasing it out and hoping none of the other mutants decided to go check on their guest. I managed to get the knife out and positioned against the ropes. Working slowly and carefully, I managed to cut through the ropes and only sliced myself twice doing it. Of course, now came the hard part. I had no gear other than my knife, no idea where I was, and no supplies. I was in an enemy camp, surrounded by an untold number of enemies, and the wastes only knew how many miles between where I was and home. Still, nothing ever got done just by thinking about it.
I cut free of the ropes on my legs, but was careful about it, trying to keep the rope in as much as one piece as I could. Massaging my legs and arms, I waited for the pinprick sensation to fade before standing up. I still almost fell right back down again, my head spinning, and the gnawing in my gut telling me I had better find something to eat.
My eye adjusted to the dim light and I crept through the structure. I saw now they’d put me in a house, or what passed for one anyway. Creeping away from the main door, I found myself in a back room, the ceiling of which had long ago partially collapsed. It did give me more than enough moonlight to work with, though. Someone had piled crates here, and I recognized the markings as belonging to three or four different merchants. The mutants had been busy.
A quick check through the crates gained me a couple of pistols, as well clips and bullets enough for both. There was even some bottled water, a mask, and enough filters to keep me breathing for a while. On the downside, there was no food. I could only guess the mutants had already devoured that if they were moving on to corpses.
The laughter sounded like stones grinding together and came from directly behind me. I felt ice water grip my spine as I turned around. The guns were stuck in my pockets, and my knife was back in its sheath. In his large hand, he still held the cleaver, and blood dripped down to the ground with a steady drip, drip, drip.
“Girly going somewhere?” His speech was mangled by the mouthful of misformed teeth crowding his jaw, but I could understand him easily enough.
“Thought I’d get some air. The smoke from your fire was making my eyes water.” I shuffled back a step, trying to gauge how much distance he’d need to be able to hit me with the big cleaver. Not very much at all, I was guessing.
“Is girly hungry?” The mutant smiled, a line of drool hanging from his bottom lip. “Meat is on fire, girly. You like meat?”
As hungry as I was, my stomach still did a backflip at the thought of where that meat came from. “No, I think I’m good.” I pushed my hands into my pockets, felt the pistols there. Guns were loud though, and I didn’t relish the idea of trying to shoot my way out of the mutant’s camp.
“Come on, girly. I no want to hurt you.” He shuffled closer, his smile growing wider. “Da Chief wants to talk.”
Letting my hands let go of the pistols, I pulled them from my pockets. “All right. Let’s go see this chief of yours, then.”
The chief of the tribe lounged on a bashed together throne of twisted metal and spare parts in the middle of a courtyard. It surprised me how well it stood up, especially given the sheer size of the mutant. If I thought my escort was big, the chief was immense. Even sitting down, he was easily a head taller than me. A scraggly beard obscured most of his face, but he was surprisingly well proportioned for a mutant. His court, if it could be called that, stood in stark contrast each bearing some unique deformity and each worse than the last. I couldn’t tell if they were because they were mutants, or if living out here in the Burned Lands without any protection was the cause. In no way would any of them been able to pass unnoticed into a normal settlement.
“Her hands are untied.” The chief’s voice reverberated through the air, making my chest thrum. “You did that?”
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see my captor shake his head. “No, Chief. I found her like this. Maybe she trying to escape?”
“Humpf. Is that true, female? You think you can get away?” He banged a hand the size of a ham hock down on his throne. “I killed your people. Their meat roasts over my fires. I’ve burned your wagons, taken what was inside as mine. Now? I want to burn your settlements.” He grinned, leaning forward. His teeth were like a dog’s, all sharp and vicious. “You are going to help me.”
He stood up, grasping a massive metal pole that had been stuck in the ground next to his throne. I felt bile rise in my throat when I realized it was decorated with skulls and bits of bone. He used the butt of the pole to draw a rough diagram in the dirt. “We are here.” He drew a few squiggly lines, at least one of which I took to be the Iron River. “This is what I want to burn.” He narrowed his eyes at me. “It is called Blackgrave. Some of your friends told me that, before they died.” He ran one sausage thick finger over one of the skulls. “I killed the ones that helped me quick.”
I spat in the dust, looked around at the mutants. I counted fifteen or so. “Is this all your people?”
The big mutant shook his head. “No. I have more, but not much.” He shrugged, slouched back onto his throne. “We can’t afford many losses, so we ambush. We deceive.” Leaning forward, he leered at me. I resisted the urge to put a bullet between his eyes. “And we like to watch things burn.”
“So I help you, what do I get? I’d hope more than a quick death.”
The chief narrowed bloodshot eyes at me and scratched at his beard. “What are you hoping for?”
Taking my time, I looked around at this gathered tribe. “I can help you. Somehow I don’t think you’ll want to stop at Blackgrave, will you? You’ll want to hit other settlements, make the humans pay for driving you into the wastes. Isn’t that right?”
The chief nodded and growled his assent.
“So let me help you. I’d rather see you burn it all then end up with my skull decorating your pole.”
“How do I know I can trust you?”
I shrugged. “You don’t. But how am I going to act against you when you have me by your side? I help you take Blackgrave, then we can talk about what else I can help you with.”
The big mutant’s face broke into a huge grin. “I like you, female. Treacherous like a snake, but I like you. So tell me how you can help me.”
“I know the leader of Blackgrave. Intimately, even. I know the trade routes, some of the secret ways into the other settlements, things you would never find on your own. I know who can be bought, who can be threatened, and who needs to be killed outright. You need me, Chief. Otherwise you’re going to get hunted down and wiped out.”
The big mutant’s lips curled into a sneer. “Let the humans come. They cast us out, hide behind their walls. They think they’re safe there? We will show them!” He raised his pole in the air and the surrounding mutants shouted their approval. It was all I could do not to cower back and the sheer display of savagery.
The chief leaned forward from his throne. “And female, if you betray us, you will wish we killed you in the ambush.”
The mutant who’d taken me to the chief led me back to the room where he’d woken me up. A few more rugs and blankets had been lain down, and in one corner a large pile of clothing had been arranged.
“Chief says he wants the weapons you took, girly.”
“Seriously? Doesn’t a girl have the right to defend herself out here in the wastes?”
The big mutant laughed, which did unpleasant things to the ruin of his face. “You’re safe enough, girly. For now.”
I handed over the pistols, but he didn’t ask for the knife and I didn’t offer it. Not that there was much I could do with it, anyway. I doubted it would be able to penetrate deep enough to hit anything vital.
The mutant left and I sank down onto the floor. I wondered if Hopper had tried to assert himself as leader yet. I wondered who might else be vying for the position, and what the reaction would be if they knew I was still alive. It was more than idle curiosity on my part, as depending on who’d taken over could well depend if they’d help me, or if I’d have to help the mutants in earnest. If my survival hinged on destroying those I led, so be it. Still, best to avoid that, if at all possible.
Some food was brought to me, and I ate it without thinking too much where the bits of meat floating in the gravy came from. It was overcooked and tough, but it was food. I washed it down with a bit of water and sank down onto the pile of rugs. Closing my eyes, I drifted off to sleep, images of Blackgrave burning dancing across my eyelids.
When I woke up, daylight streamed through the cracks in my shelter and the mutant with the melted face was staring at me.
“That’s a hell of a thing to wake up to.” I propped myself up on my elbow. “Chief want me?”
My jailer laughed. “Nah, he too busy right now. I like watching you sleep. You’re pretty.”
“Uh-huh. Don’t get too many women out here do you?”
Shaking his head, he took a step closer. “Nah. Big chief, he keeps the pretty girlys. They don’t last too long, though.”
A dry lump lodged itself into my throat. “Yeah, I bet.” I sat up further as the mutant took another step closer. He had that look in his eye I’d seen before, that look some men, and even some women, get when they look at a person as less than a person and more something to be owned. The mutant fumbled with his pants, a line of drool descending from his open mouth. Another step closer, and another.
“We’re going to have some fun, girly. Don’t scream now. No screaming.”
I pushed myself to my feet, my knife in my hand. I drove it hard into his stomach, in and out quick, again and again. I hated getting my hands dirty, but this wasn’t my first fight, and I hoped to Hell it wasn’t going to be my last. He caught me with a big backhand to the side of my head, sending me sprawling into the rugs. I struggled to my feet, my ears ringing. The mutant pressed his hand to his stomach, and when he pulled it away his hand was wet and red.
“Girly…” He started, choked, spat blood on to the floor. “Girly…” he tried again, coughed up more blood and sank to his knees. I got behind him, drove the knife up through the base of his skull.
“What’s going on here?” I heard a voice shout, as if from far away, and then stars exploded in my vision as something crashed hard into the back of my head.
Not again, I thought, as I slammed back into oblivion.