Nemesis versus Prey
Galen hadn’t meant for everyone to die.
He hunkered in his hole, bobbing his head to the falling rain’s beat.
He tasted the ashes of the dead in the air.
And he knew it was his fault.
If I hadn’t come here, they’d be alive, he thought.
I guess I did them a favor.
Little streams of warm water slid across the broken streets overhead and plunged into his hiding spot. He hated the feel of the rain squelching in his boots, and he grimaced when the foul liquid peppered his hood. He hadn’t been this uncomfortable in weeks, not since the time he’d cut the fingers off a man who’d tried to steal his one and only apple.
My last apple. He shook his head.
Did he have to bleed on it?
Down in the muck and shadows, Galen waited for the rain to snuff the fires. The stench in his pit was already unbearable. Two others had crawled down into the hole with him, but they’d been too slow, and had gagged to death moments later. The poisonous air in the city above had been more than enough to kill them.
He wanted out.
But he knew if he poked his head up too soon, someone was likely to nip it off.
So he waited. Ashes from the burning city mixed with the rain, which in turn plummeted down into his hole, painting his cloak, his weathered pants, and his skin a sickening shade of grey. He didn’t look like a living man anymore.
He looked like death.
I’m the Ash Man, he thought. Can’t catch me if you can’t see me. Can’t kill me if I’m already dead.
He whistled softly to himself, and he couldn’t help but grin. Ash Man sounded like a nickname he might’ve liked. But someone had once told him he wasn’t allowed to give himself nicknames.
Too bad, he thought. Ash Man would be better than Prey.
When the storm was at its strongest and the thunder began to break the sky, he climbed out of his pit. Soggy, his face grey as charcoal, he pulled himself above street level and emerged into the half-light of the ruined day. The shanties and crude brick houses that had made up most of Cedartown lay in crumbled heaps around him. The smoke from human corpses curled into the air despite the rain.
He slithered down a street and ducked behind a pile of smoldering wood beams and bricks blackened by fire. An hour ago, he’d been standing inside a house in the very same spot, conversing with the doctor who’d lived there.
The ashes staining the wall a dozen feet away?
The good doctor’s, he imagined.
At least he finished before he died.
Clutching his cloak around his shoulders, he hunkered in the house’s ruin. The hole in the back of his neck, which the doctor had installed and lovingly termed a ‘skin-port,’ itched worse than his toes inside his rancid boots. But he didn’t dare scratch.
Doc said not to, he recalled. Needs a few hours to heal up.
He slowed his breathing, just like his mother had taught him. He snapped his eyes shut and listened to the sounds between raindrops, the rolling thunder, and the wind beating against broken walls. Somewhere, maybe a few hundred feet away, another building collapsed. And somewhere else, the rain crackled as it peppered a burning wooden beam.
No. Not those sounds.
Soundless, still barely breathing, he made a shadow of himself and slipped out of the doctor’s crumbling abode. When he passed the wall onto which the doctor’s ashes had burned a vaguely human shape, he couldn’t help himself. He stuck out his finger and scrawled a ‘G’ in the ash.
It was a stupid thing to do, he reckoned.
But was it?
The ones hunting him would know he’d survived.
They always knew.
He crept into the alley behind the doctor’s house. Some of Cedartown’s houses were still half-standing, and some walls still high enough to provide cover. He moved from ruin to ruin, and he stepped so lightly through puddles black with ash no one would’ve heard him even without the thunder and rain.
Through one house, he moved like the wind. A woman and her child knelt on what he supposed had been the kitchen’s dirt floor. Their bodies were flesh no longer, just sculpted dust soon to be washed away by the rain.
He moved on.
In another shanty whose roof had burned away, he glimpsed an old man half-buried beneath a mound of smoking timbers. The poor creature sucked in short breaths, looking little different than a fish plucked from his bowl and tossed on the floor. But was he really an old man? In this place where no one lived longer than forty years? Or had the bomb aged him, withering the flesh of a much younger man?
It didn’t matter, Galen supposed.
Whoever the man was, he wouldn’t be alive much longer.
And it was a good thing, he reckoned.
He reached Cedartown’s boundary, if such a thing existed in the weary old hamlet. The last few shanty huts, erected in no particular order on the directionless cobblestone streets, had made a noble stand against the bomb’s fury. A few were merely blackened, but not quite felled. One or two looked almost untouched, shielded from the blast by some miracle of physics.
Someone might’ve survived in these houses, he imagined. Someone might still be hidden inside one of the shanties, ticking away the last few minutes of their life.
If it were true, he pitied them.
Wouldn’t be a pretty life here. He crouched beside a house of sticks. It’ll soon be sand. Just like all the rest.
In the shadows, he waited. The fields beyond the hamlet had ceased burning, and the smoke was no longer black, but pale and wispy. Galen kept his hood close to his cheeks, his neck still itching. If anyone had seen him, they’d have said he was a ghost with ashes for skin, black opals for eyes, and a cloak so weathered it must’ve been ripped from the grave of a corpse twenty years dead.
And if that someone had seen him, gasped in terror, and run screaming into the barren fields, Galen would’ve smiled. He was good at frightening people, and better at being alone.
The foul, humid wind whipped up across the grass. Galen didn’t move. Between flurries of smoke, curtains of rain, and the charnel smells of Cedartown, he hunkered low and listened to the world.
He wasn’t alone.
The Nemesis and his soldiers had come from the east, having followed him from the steel cities near the ocean all the way across the rusted, blackened graveyards dotting the shores of grey-watered lakes. Always, they were the shadow on his back, the knife in the darkness.
And always, he escaped them.
The enemy warrior, clad in scaly black armor, trod through the mud at Cedartown’s edge. He walked alone, Galen knew. Only ten of the Nemesis’ knights had come here, and this one, a beast of muscle and black steel, believed himself unstoppable.
Maybe he was right.
Maybe, in a fair fight, no swordsman in the Kingdom of Earth could outduel the black-armored warrior.
But then, Galen didn’t care for fair fights.
When the black knight clattered to the end of the street and halted at the beginning of the fields beyond, he didn’t know he was being watched.
Two swords, Galen counted.
Other, deadlier weapons.
He’s a pretty one…he is.
It’s a shame.
The wind rose again, and with it Galen moved. Gliding between breezes, he closed the distance between himself and the knight. His only weapon, a knife scavenged from the steel cities of the east, flashed in his hand.
The knight never heard him, never saw him.
And with the wind, Galen floated behind the knight, buried his dagger in the tiny gap between armored plates, and eased the armored titan down into the mud.
Even before Galen helped his limp body to the ground, the knight died. Galen’s dagger, wet with heart’s blood, splashed into a puddle, where the scarlet stain spread through grey water.
“Sorry for that,” Galen whispered into the dead man’s ear. “You lived a good life…better than most of us. I’ll honor you by keeping one of your swords.”
He rolled the dead knight onto his back. It felt funny to him that a man with so many weapons and so much armor could be felled by a simple handmade knife. Shaking his head, he loosed a black-steel dagger from the knight’s waist and sliced the straps crisscrossing the dead man’s chest.
Quite by accident, he glimpsed the knight’s other weapons. They were marked with the Pharaoh’s seal, and were among the deadliest devices ever made. One looked like a wand, short and slender. The other was an obsidian disc polished to a mirror shine.
These, he didn’t touch.
Another day, old friend, he thought.
For now, just your sword.
He tugged one of the knight’s scabbards loose from the straps and pulled the sword halfway out. More than a century ago, he’d had a similar blade—three feet long, ebon steel polish, sharp enough to clip a man’s head from his shoulders without him feeling a thing.
With the dagger and sword, he crouched over the knight and peered back into Cedartown. Fell shapes moved though the city, hunting with weapons drawn. The Nemesis and his men were dressed all in black, and the rain glinted atop their armored shoulders.
“Should’ve paid more attention.” He patted the dead knight on his arm. “Might’ve seen me before you died.”
No, he knew.
Even at his best, he never had a chance.
He sprang to his feet, tucked his new weapons under his armpit, and darted into the field beyond Cedartown. He’d picked right. The grasses here were scorched by fire, but still tall enough to hide him. Like a snake—an animal no one in Cedartown had seen in centuries—he slithered through the grass and vanished.
The Nemesis and his men, even had they looked in his direction, would’ve thought they’d seen nothing more than the wind.
In minutes, Galen stood a full half-mile away. A blackened tree jutted from the dirt, and he leaned against it. His neck itched worse now. He considered ripping the skin-port out, if only to ease his irritation. He would’ve done it, too, had he not spent the last hundred years searching for the right man to install it.
Never said it would itch this much.
Everyone makes out being immortal like it’s a thousand-year party.
From his safe vantage, he watched Cedartown. The Nemesis and his men scoured the ruins like ants hunting for a last drop of sugar. He saw their weapons flare more than once, their sinister lights somehow darker than everything else. They were killing Cedartown’s last survivors, probably more out of frustration than anything else.
They hadn’t found his body, and they knew they wouldn’t.
He’d escaped them yet again.
Almost got me, boys. He lifted a rotten apple out of his satchel and took a careless chomp. But now what’ll you do?
The doctor’s dead.
And I’ve got what I came for.
He wished he could’ve seen their faces. Before the sunset, before the starless night reclaimed the ruins of a town in the middle of nothing and nowhere, he wanted to see the frustration in their eyes.
But then, he knew he wouldn’t.
He’d fled twenty generations of the Nemesis’ men.
And if he’d learned one thing in the last five-hundred years, it was that they never took off their masks.