Death Stories for those who stayed behind: 2 & 3 of 7
Jackson Farwalker and Cooper Bennett
The night had been long, and it certainly wasn’t without its pitfalls, but he had made it through to the hours just before the sun touched the skies. The stars were still out and, while he took a moment to appreciate their existence, Jackson Farwalker kept his other senses tuned to the world around him. He had been encountering and assisting a variety of locals and residents alike as they made hurried escapes from the raider threat that had descending in the night. He knew, like the stars he was watching, that there were too many for him to worry about by himself. He would instead work with what he had and where he could. The shadows wearing thin would be his call to be more careful as his freedom in the dark waned considerably.
A sudden burst of low, chittering voices drew his gaze away from the sky and towards his right shoulder. He couldn’t make them out, but he took a quick assessment and felt safe enough that he could find cover to investigate closer. He took off at a comfortable lope, easing through the trees and underbrush as quietly as he could manage.
Cooper Bennett had been stuffed out of the way for some time, waylaid on the way back to Steel Horse by one of his favorite things in the world: raiders. Dollie raiders specifically, because the world had at the very least a sense of humor. At least Del would get a rise out of the story when he finally passed through the Gravemind and popped up to tell it, so it wasn’t a total loss. It had been a while since he had seen their faces, which let him stew in his own head a bit; perhaps too long? He passingly thought that too much time by himself was starting to cause a bit of internal sarcasm along with the extended fear he was experiencing. That, or he had just found a great form of torture for the next jackass that tried to screw with the Donkey. Just hand them to seemingly forgetful Dollies and see how long it takes for them to snap, but only after they had started to carve portions of their body off and dry and grind them down into a paste.
Yes, that still hurt he realized, trying to wiggle the fingers on his left hand. They were no longer there of course, and the pain made a constant reminder of that. They still felt attached when he did try to use those digits. If only the blood would stop dripping into his face, he’d at least have been able to see something other than a blur of light and a smear of color. And then he heard the voices. Those bastards were back, and headed straight for him.
Jackson quickly surveyed what he could see in front of him, which was as simple a scene as he had come upon the entire night so far. With his armor in disrepair, and banged up a bit to boot, he wasn’t sure how much of a confrontation he could take. Seeing that it was two raiders blathering at each other, he didn’t feel much need to commit.
“Com’on in here and finish it, you bastards!” came a voice that seemed vaguely familiar. “I’m tired of waiting for you, and I hear you. Don’t just stand there, send me on my way already!”
“Coop?” Jackson exhaled, barely louder than the breath he emitted. He was fairly sure that Cooper was there, and that he was definitely not in a good place. Re-evaluating the situation, he calculated the odds in his head and mentally grimaced. He wasn’t sure how this was going to play out, but he was hoping that it was only those two. If any more of them showed up, he was screwed.
Slipping from one tree to the next, he avoided being caught out of position and took the advantage. He stepped from behind his cover, catching the pair off-guard, and commented in almost a whisper, “Nice make-up, but you missed a spot.”
The blade in hand made the first cut across the eyes of one of the two raiders, spilling blood across their face.
Coop was tired of waiting. He was nearing the edge of outrage, hearing the movement outside and yet no one had bothered to come finish what they started. If he could get lose, he was prepared to end himself simply to spite the raiders that took him. He could almost imagine their faces finding him dead before they had expected it!
“Damn it, maybe I’m really losing it,” he mumbled, struggling lightly against his bonds. “They’d be just as happy to grind me up.”
The scuttling noises outside had taking a brief, sudden break and then ended in a sudden crash of leaves just outside the hole he was stashed away in. He was no longer sure how long he’d been down here, but starving and parched, and only running on half sanity, he was done. With every bit of strength he could muster, he began tearing wildly at his bindings, unknowingly growling and grunting as he struggled. They would finish him or let him go, he’d force their hands one way or the other.
Two bodies hit the floor in fairly quick succession. In the back of his head, Jackson knew something was wrong. Dollies didn’t hit the deck that easily, which meant someone else had gotten to them first. He tried to run through a mental replay of the combat, but was interrupted as he heard what he thought was Cooper struggling loudly only feet away. He deftly ducked into the underside of an uprooted tree, clearing away some moss and roots, and seeing only some of what he expected with a few additional surprises. It was Coop alright, but it looked like only two thirds of him was there. Entire parts of him had been carved away, but he was still ravaging everything in sight trying to get free.
“Coop,” Jackson whispered, trying to catch his attention with as little noise as possible. “Coop! It’s me, Jackson. I gotta get you outta here, but you need to shut the fuck up for a minute.”
Cooper didn’t seem to hear him for a moment as he turned and tried to lunge at the figure in the entryway. Grasping and struggling, the words hadn’t settled into his mind quite right at first. It wasn’t until Jackson slapped him with a stinging blow that he realized something was amiss.
“Jackson?” Coop murmured, his hand with missing digits reaching his face where the blow was struck. “Seriously? No shit? I was sure I was going to die…”
“And you will,” Jackson cut him off, wasting no more time as he cut the other man free, “if you don’t keep quiet, follow me, and let me get you out of here.”
Coop nodded, not that it mattered in the dark hovel, and Jackson quickly freed him. Helping him from the hole, both men took a brief survey; Coop adjusting his eyes to the minimal but newfound light, and Jackson trying to see who had heard the pair. Seemingly, they were still alone.
Jackson took one last look and nodded at Coop. “Time to go, we have to make tracks.”
The pair moved as hastily as the injured man was able, but as Jackson had already realized much earlier, it wouldn’t be fast enough to avoid pursuit from the amount of noise that they had made. Another quick set of calculations in the back of his mind as he looked to the sky, he stopped Coop briefly and pointed to the sky. “See that star?” he asked, looking around cautiously.
“Yeah,” Coop responded, wiping at the blood on his brow, “I see it.”
Jackson nodded, still looking around for signs of others, “Go that way – follow it. You’ll make one of the Rover camps that are waiting for folks at the south side of town. It should still be safe, and they’ll get you out to evac points.”
Coop tried to protest, but then heard the noise that Jackson had likely been scanning for. It was in the distance yet, but it was closing. It was one of those noises that tingled in the back of your neck as unnatural, yet you couldn’t figure out why.
“Go Coop. Live. Find your passion, hold onto it, and make sure you spread that like an infection,” Jackson filled in the silence, gently pushing the other man forward on the back.
“Damn it, Jackson, get your ass back safe.” Coop struggled with the pang of guilt for leaving the other man in the forest, and the realization he’d be little more than a branch in the path of whatever was coming in his current condition. Jackson was giving him a chance, which was more than he’d have had on his own. He almost said more, but instead decided to move his body as fast as he could make it move. They weren’t too far from the Dollies, and he was sure there were more unaccounted for.
Jackson quickly scoured his pack and pockets, pulling the last stores of what he had on him to help prepare for the oncoming noise. He still couldn’t identify the source, but it sounded like only a single body moving clumsily about in the distance. He took a quick drink of the meager mixes he had left, and watched Coop make his way along the barely lit forest path. The guy could move for having that much muscle missing in places you’d expect it to be particularly required. He crouched low, trying to fade into whatever cover he could afford himself.
Turning back towards the oncoming noise, his head snapped quickly left then right as noise came from both directions in quick succession. Not one, then, but at least two. He peered into the darkness, but couldn’t pick out any movement from his vantage point. He didn’t dare to move from the cover he had established, but the last report of noise seemed close enough that he should see whatever it was that was making its way towards him.
He had a dreadful thought that he was missing something just a moment before he felt the razor sharp point stab through the remnants of his armor, cutting deep into his back just above the kidney. He swore he could feel the weapon’s tip tapping the lower spine, which hit him almost like a detached moment of scientific interest rather than a blow that would kill a person. It wasn’t until he attempted to turn his head to see who had struck the blow that he realized he couldn’t move, nor speak. His body would no longer responded to his commands.
“Jackson Farwalker,” the voice whispered directly into his ear, the sweet smell of something familiar lingering past his face, “your time is now. My client sends her regards.”
As the blade slipped from his back, a card flashed in front of his face. An image he knew well, with the number thirteen written in one of the old world numbering formats, disappeared as he felt the hand slide the object into his jacket. Most of the world went numb beyond that, his last few moments left to him as he expired. The eyes that watched him from the shadows bothered him briefly, but then there was no more time left to worry about such things. He would try to move, escape, flee… but he knew he could never truly do any of those things.
It wasn’t so much of a run as a wobbling hobble that Cooper took to, moving as quickly and quietly as he could manage. He knew he wouldn’t have much time if Jackson couldn’t hold off whatever was coming, and he wasn’t keen to be caught a second time. His mind raced and he pushed his body to the limit, knowing only that his salvation was still in the distance.
If he hadn’t been so preoccupied with everything that just happened, including trying to validate his position with the star that was pointed out to him, he might have seen the figures rounding a copse of trees. He might even have had a chance to hide or otherwise get out of the way. But none of that happened. All he could do is stare in stark disbelief as the remaining dollie raiders that had been missing rounded the trees into the small gap between them. He felt the deepest of sighs, one of pure resignation, erupt from him as if daring anything else to go right.
As one of the figures pointed, recognizing him from recent encounters, he felt the mental blast wash over him that sent him into a state of confusion. He stood there, shaking his head to clear it, no longer sure where he was or what just happened. He panned the faces for Jackson for a moment before registering that these were raiders and he was not safe. Everything went dark as something hit him from behind.