Shepherd of Fire

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Autumn sets out into a dying world of bandits and corrupt soldiers, scavenging parts for her latest project. Her adventure takes a turn when she runs into a mysterious man and his dog. Will they have what it takes to brave the dangers of the Valley? Or is there something far worse lurking about?

                A gentle breeze blew between the concrete corpses of the world before. Their steel skeletons lay twisted in rubble, silently waiting for time to finish devouring them. Long ago, the world was bustling with activity at every corner. Large cities, rural towns, highways packed with cars; all of it had withered away rather quickly and aggressively. What wasn’t disintegrated or shifted by the bombs was now decaying in the state in which it had been left over half a century ago; as if the humans simply vanished. What they left behind was quickly forgotten, and nature had taken back whatever it could. Trees grew into structures, crushing them with their roots and their branches. They grew through the roads and foundations themselves, ripping apart the monoliths of the economic and political humanity.

                Small pockets of civilization were lucky; untouched by the fire that rained from the sky, where the last vestiges of humanity lie. One such location, a valley nestled in between the peaks of some of the planet’s mightiest mountains, was a cluster of cities struggling to stay alive. The capital city of Ascension was a spectacular place, the only place left in the world that resembled days of old. The rich had automobiles and entertainment, sitting high above the valley in their skyscrapers. The streets below more closely resembled the rest of the valley; drug addicts and mercenaries as well shady deals and backstabbers. Nowadays, everyone was out for their own good, and genuinely nice people were like diamonds in a sea of glass.

                One of these diamonds sat locked in her shed, her nose pressed deep into a musty, leathery book. As she read, she scribbled notes, pictures and diagrams into the margins, leaving almost no blank space left on the pages. The book covered the different types of power, and she compared it to a manual for an auto-cycle, trying to find an alternate way to bring the hunk of metal back to life. The shell of the mechanical beast had been sitting on her workbench for over two years now, and she was closer than ever to getting it running again. She needed a way to get enough power to the bike to make it run using solar panels; gas and water were too expensive, and all the fusion coils in the area had been taken into Ascension. She had seen solar panels around before, but they were usually shattered or cracked. Recently, she had read a book about a company nearby, located in the Motor City, which used solar panels high up on the roof. If she could get up there, they might still be intact, and she could continue work on her bike.

                Motor City, whose original name had been lost to time, had gotten its name from the sheer amount of vehicles lining its streets. A few of them had been taken into Ascension and fixed up for the rich, but even still, there were thousands of them. There has been talk of removing Motor City by leveling it to the ground because the rich citizens of the capital complained: “We don’t care much for those ghastly buildings in the distance.” The government has declined their pleas countless times, because destroying Motor City will force its inhabitants to move elsewhere.

                The scum of the valley tend to drift towards Motor City, given its large size and plenty of places to hide. Bands of raiders and bandits had formed within the city, making it one of the most dangerous places to go in the valley. The Army of Ascension has all but given up on Motor City, leaving anyone who is dumb enough to go inside to their own fates, only guarding the suburban areas located on the outskirts.

                But she had been there before, at least in the outer edges of the city. She had never dared to venture into the inner city before now, and the only reason she was going was to get her solar panels. She was equally excited as well as scared to go that deep into the city; just think of all the new things she would see! But what threats would she face? It was something she tried not to worry her mind with, so she kept her eyes locked on her books, until she heard a tapping at her aluminum door.

                “Come in.” She sung, her eyes glued to her book.

                “Hello, Autumn.” Said a young man as the door creaked open. In stepped a scrawny man, who held his hands in front of him, nervously playing with his thumbs.

                “Hey, Bartley, do you need something?” She said, smiling sweetly at him. She spun her chair back and forth, waiting for his response. He glanced down at the ground, trying to find the words to say.

                “Um, my grandparents needs your help with stuffs.” He said.

                “Sure thing, give me a moment.” She said. She spun around quickly, doing a full spin in her chair before returning her attention to her book. The Wolfe’s were sweet, and they had taken her in when she first arrived in the town of Grange; back when Mr. Wolfe was the mayor. He was impressed by her ability to read—a fleeting skill in this world that usually only the rich were capable of—and from there it only took off. Now, Autumn regarded them as her own grandparents, since she never had ones of her own before.

                Bartley shuffled back out of her shed, and it was another fifteen minutes before she could pry herself away from her books. She stood up, stretching her arms and legs as she let out a yawn. It was morning. She had been up all night, unable to pull her attention away from her books. She finished a fantasy book—her favorite genre—in the early hours of the morning, and spent the rest of the hours in the dark reading up on her bike. She grabbed the fantasy novel and put it in her bag, and left her shack to head across town.

                Grange was an interesting little town. It contained all the fights and squabbles that all the other towns had, and even had the same vomit and manure smells, but this town seemed to have the most closely knit community. Located along an old world road on the side of a mountain, old maps of the area suggested that this location used to be nothing more than a market of some sort. But since then, the town had grown into a cluster of makeshift shelters and businesses, profiting off the various crops they sell to Ascension.

               Autumn walked through the town, waving at most of the people she passed. They all knew who she was, considering she was to be the next town scribe after Mr. Wolfe, and they respected her…more or less. She didn’t pretend she didn’t hear the gossip about her; “what an oddball” and “she’s a weirdo who locks herself in her shed”, but she didn’t mind; she had fun doing what she did, and she was happy with it, so why let the others discourage her with nothing more than their opinions? The only thing she worried about were some of the…less inclined citizens of Grange thought she was performing witchcraft with all her little projects.

               It didn’t take her long to pass through town, and had reached the Wolfe residence up the hill. They lived in a bungalow that looked over the town. Mr. Wolfe requested it be built there during his time as mayor so he could “always look over his people”. He also cut down the wood for it himself, with some voluntary help from the locals, making it clear he wasn’t using his position of power to get whatever he wanted; and teaching the younger people to work toward their goals.

               Autumn found the couple standing outside their front door with Bartley and Woody, the local trader, trying to pull an intricate wooden desk up the last few feet.

               “There you are, sweetheart! We started to think you weren’t coming.” Mr. Wolfe said, grinning wide as he saw her. Autumn rushed to help Bartley move the chest, and with the three of them now, they quickly got it inside and set up exactly where Mrs. Wolfe wanted it.

               “Sorry I was late,” Autumn said, brushing her fiery orange hair from her face, “I got caught up in a book. Ooh! That reminds me. Here’s your book back, it was great! My favorite part is when the dwarf commanded the dragon to take him to the mountains of Yul! I mean, really, a dwarf?? How do you think he controlled a beast so terrible! Oh. My. God. Did you know when you first read it that Urka and Jaryn were going to fall in love??”

               Autumn handed Mr. Wolfe the book she had finished reading earlier. “Yes, dear, I read the book too.” Mrs. Wolfe said, quieting Autumn.

               “So you finally got one, huh?” She said, changing the subject to the chest. Mrs. Wolfe had been looking for one like this for ages, and she never settled unless it was “perfect”.

               “Oh, yes. I’m so excited! It’ll go beautifully with our dish cabinet. And it only cost me a few books and the last of our guns.”

               “Grammy!” Autumn said, shocked that Mrs. Wolfe would get rid of either.

               “Oh, we’ve all read those books a thousand times, and old people like us don’t need weapons. We’ve got you and…” She motioned towards Bartley, but stopped. “Well, just you to protect us!”

               Bartley didn’t notice her jab at him, for he was too busy leaning against the chest and panting. Woody walked in from the next room, with a bag of books and two guns in his hands. He walked straight up to Autumn and stared at her, a dull expression on his face. It took Autumn a second to notice what he was doing, and when she realized, she apologized profusely and stepped out of the way, so he could make his way out of the house.

               “Don’t mind him, sweetie.” Mrs. Wolfe said when she noticed Autumn was staring back at Woody. He had always had an issue with Autumn, but for what reason remained unknown. “Some people just have sticks up their asses.”

               “Grandma!” Bartley retorted.

               “What? It’s not like you’re unfamiliar with the concept.”

               Autumn’s mouth fell open, and she couldn’t help but giggle. “No!” Bartley whined. He quickly lowered his head and left the room before anyone could say any more.

               “So, today’s the day you leave for Motor City?” She asked.

               “Yeah, I’m hoping I can be in and out quickly.”

               “Why don’t you rest up another few days before you go, sweetie?”

               “Gram, I’ve heard the fables, and I’ll be fine. Now quit stressing about me and start admiring that chest!”

               “Oh honey, I know a good chest when I see one.” Mrs. Wolfe said with a wink. “But, I know I can’t change your mind. Anywho, it was worth a shot. You be careful out there.” She gave Autumn a hug.

               “I always am, Gram Gram. I’ll report back in a few days.” Autumn gave Mrs. Wolfe a salute and then another quick hug. She said goodbye to Bartley in the other room before skipping out of the house. She quickly went back to her shed, locking the door behind her. She tried her best to pick up the mess inside, but the sheer amount of bits and bobs she had lying around distracted her, and soon she was working on an older project.

               When she realized what she was doing, she set the project down and unslung her bag from her back. She threw what she needed in her bag; a book, a few comics and mangas, her fire starter, some rope and her knife. She took a moment to pause and listen. After a moment, when she was certain there was no one outside her shed, she lifted her bedroll up, and used a hammer to pry up some nails in the floorboards. She removed one board and reached in the hole, pulling out a small metal container. She opened it and pulled a small handgun out. She had 3 shots for it left, out of the original seven she had when she arrived in town.

               Guns and ammo were like gold in the valley. A good number of people had busted weapons, or unreliable ones that could explode at any moment, but a working, reliable gun with ammo could get you anything. The only people capable of creating new bullets and weapons were the Army, and they would confiscate any unauthorized weapons or shell recyclers they found. It was a lengthy process to legally own a gun, and unless you were well known by the guards, they would harass you for a gun identification card. Autumn didn’t think it was worth the hassle, especially since her gun wasn’t registered, so she kept it a secret to herself. She tucked the gun into the front of her pants, and dropped her flannel shirt over it.

               After replacing the floorboard and the bedroll, she left the shed, relocking it from the outside before she made one last trip into town for a few more supplies. She stopped at the store, labeled by a wooden sign with a ‘G’ on it—the universal sign in the valley for a general store. She picked up a few scraps of metal, which she would sharpen into arrow heads for her bow she kept hidden outside of town. Bows weren’t as annoying to own as a gun, but she still didn’t want to go through all the trouble. Besides, if they took it away, she knew how to make another.

               She also grabbed a few sticks of beef jerky to tide her stomach on the long trip. It was dangerous to make fires outside of town; anyone could see it, so cooking was only an option during the day, and even then there was still the smoke, so small snacks had to suffice. She gathered all her supplies on the front counter and pulled a blanket, a scrap electronic she didn’t need, and a shirt out of her bag.

               “Going outta town, are ya?” The guy behind the counter said as he gathered up his new items.

               “Yup, I’m gathering parts for my bike! I just need something to power it, like—” She said.

               “You best be careful, you heared what’s out there?” The shop keeper interrupted her.

               “Yeah.” Autumn said, trying to avoid the subject. “Anyway, I think some solar—”

               “They says wherever it walks, the flames of hell follow. It burns like the rage of a thousand suns, but at its core is a heart of ice. Nothing escapes its flame, not even Death his-self. Everything it touches turns to dust and ash. They says in the end times, the ground will opened forth and it will scorch the land.”

               “Yeah, I’ve heard the stories.”

               “I know folks who’ve saws it. ‘You can look,’ they says, ‘but if it saws you then into the dark depths of hell you go.’ You know, I’ve heared talk that it has the skin of snakes, and hair of fire. Some says it be the devil himself, the Messiah of Darkness, tormenting a godless earth. The little sheepsies follow in false happiness, guided by its fire in the night. Good luck out there. You better watch yourself’s, little sheepsies; do not play with fire, for the Shepherd is watching.”

               Autumn took her stuff and rushed out of the store. All her life she had heard about this creature, yet she had seen no proof of its existence. She had heard the stories about it, an ageless demon that slaughtered anything in its path, but all of them were different. She loved stories, and wanted to believe them all, but there was something about this one went against her core beliefs; she knew that if there could be no devil if there was no God.

               She shook the thought from her head as she bumped into someone. She came to her senses and looked up, noticing the great chin of Frederick; one of the best mercenaries in the valley. “Whoa, there, you alright, miss?” He said, looking Autumn up and down.

               “Yeah,” She laughed nervously. “I’m sorry, I was just thinking about something.”

               “No worries, just make sure you watch where you’re going.” He said, giving her a sly smile. Autumn smiled back and stepped past him and his friends. “Hold on a minute, miss.” He said.

               Autumn stopped and turned, giving her attention back to Frederick. “If you’re going out there, you best be careful.” He said, handing her back her gun. She took it shyly, receiving a wink from Frederick. She didn’t even realize she dropped it; it must have happened when she bumped into him. “Frederick.” He said, giving his signature smile. She could see now why women were crazy about him.

               “Autumn Peterson.” She said, smiling back as she nervously brushed a few loose strands of hair behind her ear.

               “Catch ya later, Ms. Peterson.” He said, gracefully spinning around and continuing on his way. She stood and watched for a second, completely taken back by what just happened. She smiled when she saw him glance back at her, but then her smile faded when she saw what stood beyond him. The shopkeeper from before was standing at the edge of town, staring. He was almost motionless, standing hunched over and head cocked, his arms dangling loosely and a wicked smile on his face, bearing what little teeth he had left.

               She looked away from him and at the town once more, before turning away. She hurried down the road, feeling the shopkeepers stare pierce into her; a feeling that only went away as she rounded a bend in the road and the town disappeared from sight. Before long, she was alone on the road, with nothing around her but derelict cars and the plants that had overtaken them. There was a satisfying silence outside of town, nothing but the wind in the air. The constant banging of hammers, yelling of drunks and clashing of swords got on her nerves from time to time. She was almost tempted to stop right here and take out a book; but she needed to get to her resting area—an old cabin in the woods—before nightfall, that way she could be in and out of Motor City by the end of the next day.

               The main roads between the cities were usually safe—in a way. Mercenaries and Army grunts patrolled these roads, limiting the dangerous activities of most of the other roads such as ambushes and traps. However, it was common to be harassed. She had had groups make passes at her, and try to force her to do things, but there was always a guard somewhere, so they never prevailed. It was something she had gotten used to and could defend herself against if it were to ever happen again; she just didn’t want to hurt others.

               But for most of the journey, Autumn wasn’t going to stick to the main roads, in fact, she was almost at the point where she diverged from the safer routes and into the wilderness. Weird things happened out there, but it was so vast and dense that it was pretty difficult to find others; just the remains of their unusual habits in the dark wood.

               There was a particular rock that Autumn used as a guide; a large, mossy rock that sort of looked like a character from one of her mangas if you were far away and squinting. From the rock, she headed west, into the woods. A few hundred feet into the forest was an old tree stump, where she stashed her bow. She was always relieved to find it still there, with the four arrows she had. There was always the slim chance that someone else could find it, and while she could make a new bow relatively easily, the arrows were more valuable. She had gotten used to the particular type of arrows she had made, and knew how they flew, how they dropped and where to aim to get the perfect shot. Stone or flint heads just didn’t cut it for her; she loved the metal ones.

               She slung the bow over her shoulder, and stuck the arrows between her back and her backpack, and continued into the dark forest. She loved the open air, and nature in general, but the forest was far from her favorite place to be. Dark, eerie, cramped and unusually still, hours on this path drove her mad. The trees grew so dense that certain areas of the forest resembled night; being lost in here for hours was disorienting.

               The only reason she continued to take it was because she knew the way, and had never encountered anyone on it before. Not being able to see the sky when it was midday was frightening to her, and she felt the moist, thick air press heavy on her lungs. She would burn the most energy in the forest, and would heat up the most, for the thick canopy blocked the majority of the wind. Autumn would often find herself walking shirtless through the forest; but the thought of the shopkeeper’s stare had discouraged her. Instead, she opted to roll up her sleeves, and unbutton her shirt only slightly, just enough for the rare breeze to cool her off.

               She would keep herself sane by singing songs to herself. Songs she had heard from others on the street, or songs her mother sang to her when she was young; or even songs she had made up herself. Bartley had always praised her for her singing, but he praised everything about her. Others had their own opinions of it; with “please shut up” being the most common response.

               A white flash across the forest floor startled her, and she quickly pulled out her knife, taking a step back. After she had focused, she found out the flash was a rabbit, and not just one, a whole family of them. She giggled at the fright they had given her, and she put her knife away. Animals were far more common out here in the forest, but actually seeing them was a rare occasion due to the density of the forest. Most of the time, she would hear them in the distance; the whines, the shrieks, the growls and the roars, all belonging to some fascinating beasts she would love to see up close.

               Each sighting fascinated her, and it took a lot of willpower to keep her on the path instead of running off and following the animals. She would sometimes use hunting as an excuse to follow deer or rabbits, but she often found she would become attached to the animal if she followed it too long, so in order for her to make the kill guilt free, she would have to kill it within the first few minutes of spotting it.

               There was no possible way she could refrain herself from giving chase if the animal was a dog or a wolf. When she was young and still living with her parents, she had a husky; and it was her only friend on the secluded farm she grew up on. She had seen quite a few dogs around Grange and along the roads, but most of them were feral, diseased creatures that became hostile or skittish upon approach.  She had once stumbled upon a pack of long haired dogs—a breed she didn’t recognize—and tried to get them to play with her, but when she tried to take one home, the others became hostile, so she had to leave it behind.

               Another rabbit crossed her path, breaking her thoughts and reminding her that she needed a quick meal for the morning. She pulled out her bow and swiftly took off into the forest. Her eyes swept back and forth as the rabbit zigged and zagged through the brush. She had hunted rabbits for years and picked up on their usual evasive patterns, but no matter how fast she ran, she wasn’t fast or agile enough to catch it. She stopped and drew an arrow, letting it fly into the brush. It disappeared into a bush with the rabbit, but a squeal revealed she had made her mark.

               She followed the path of the arrow and found the rabbit on the ground, still alive with an arrow in its gut. She quickly put it out of its misery, tying a string to its leg and then to a strap on her backpack. It didn’t take her long to return to her usual path, and she continued on her way. She could tell it was getting darker out, because the ambient light in the forest was fading. Soon, the forest would be almost pitch-black, making it impossible to travel. She quickened her pace, and had just barely reached the abandoned cabin before all the light had faded.

               Although she couldn’t see it very well right now, she knew the cabin extremely well. Half of it had been destroyed by a fallen tree, and the flora had nearly taken it over. The other half consisted of two rooms—what she guessed used to be two bedrooms—with all their walls and their ceiling mostly intact. As always, she skimmed the cabin for any intruders before settling down. She chose the biggest room and locked herself inside, using a heavy log to bar the door. She had covered the windows with leaves and blankets she brought from Grange, just in case she had to light a fire at night.

               She kept a pile of dry wood in the corner, a bucket of dirt she reused for snuffing the flames and a knife hidden under the bed for emergencies. She sat in silence, eating the jerky she had gotten earlier in the day. Moments like this are when she would do anything for a companion. The silence and the darkness made her feel lonely, and someone to talk to would break the stillness in the air. She enjoyed time to think, but it was always nice to have at least one person to talk to.

               Autumn finished the jerky and lied down on the bed, staring up into the blackness of the room. She wished she could see the stars from here, but even if the ceiling was removed, the trees would still block the view. She closed her eyes as memories raced through her mind. Back to days when she was young, back when she was still on the farm and her mother was still alive. Days when she first arrived in Grange, and how the Wolfe’s helped her get her own place. And even earlier that day; the winking face of Frederick as he handed her gun back.

 

               The night passed without issue, and Autumn was awake as the forest grew brighter around her. She took a moment to build a small fire and cook up the rabbit she had killed, creating two more arrows while waiting for her meal. When it had finished, she cut it apart, eating one half and storing the other before she departed from her cabin. The sun had barely crested over the horizon, but she could see well enough with the morning light bouncing through the forest.

               The walk through the forest was much like it had been the previous day, the fragrance of the deep wood pine trees filled the air and Autumn escaped into her mind to stop herself from going mad. The pine on the breeze reminded her about her parents’ farm. She missed them every day, and wondered if her father was doing alright.

               She was fourteen when her mother passed, and since that day her father became isolated, hardly muttering a word all the way up until the day Autumn left; she had almost forgotten what his voice sounded like. It had been seven years since then, and sometimes she feared that her father may have joined her mother. She wanted to go back, she even knew exactly how to get back; but whenever she would try, she would give up. She couldn’t bring herself back there; back to a motherless home, and back to a father who had all but abandoned her after her mother’s death.

               At some point while in her thoughts, she had transitioned from the deep forest into the suburbs outside of Motor City. The area was still covered in trees, but significantly less-so than where she had just come from. Here, there were houses; a perfect place to hide and ambush. From here on out, Autumn had to be more careful. She never walked the roads in the suburbs, the most direct path through was also the most open. She stuck to the houses themselves and their backyards to give herself some cover.

               She hopped a fence, and crept through the tall grass past some windows, almost tripping on a rusted old children’s toy. She found it eerie that people used to live happily in these homes; playing in these yards. But now, they were nothing more than paths used to stay alive. She wondered if they ever had the slightest idea of what would become of their homes. She had only actually been inside a few of them before, and many of them contained rotting corpses and dusty skeletons; but anything was better than a fungal corpse.

               She had never stumbled upon one, but there had been rumors lately of some corpses being covered in a fungus, one that ate the flesh and consumed the host. The fungus had origins outside of the valley, and for years it had been kept out, but people were finding more creative ways of getting into the valley, and some carried the virus with them. The Army was doing its best to contain it, but there was only so much they could do. She had heard another rumor that the inner sections of Motor City housed the virus, but that was only speculation and gossip; but even still, she took it as fact, just to be on the safe side.

               Autumn stopped, hearing a creaking followed by a thud behind her. She whirled around, knife in hand to see that a section of wood fence that had previously been standing had fallen into the grass. With her heart thumping in her chest, she couldn’t resist the call of curiosity. She cautiously walked towards the fallen fence, one hand on her gun in her pants, and the other holding up a knife. To her right, she heard some rustling, as if something was nearing her. She spun on her heels, holding her knife up, ready to bring it down on whatever it was.

               She stopped, her heart skipping a beat as she saw an enormous dog sitting in the grass, nearly as tall as her even while sitting down. It slowly tilted its head, staring at her knife raised in the air. The creature was absolutely gorgeous, its hair was long and thick, and it was whiter than freshly fallen snow. Its eyes shone blue, like a sapphire under a light. She dropped her knife in shock, slowly holding her hand out to the dog. “Oh my goodness, you are absolutely gorgeous…” Autumn muttered in awe.

               The dog did nothing but look at her, sitting absolutely still as a gentle breeze rolled in, causing its hair to wave gloriously. It was an interesting breed, with some husky in the face, but what attributed to its size? Her childhood dog was never half this size. She reached out slowly, going to pet the great beast on the side of its head, but it stood up quickly, taking a step back. Autumn recoiled back, afraid it was going to strike, but it didn’t.

                She noticed it was no longer looking at her, and instead looking behind her. Autumn turned quickly and found four men standing behind her, wearing Army fatigues.

                “Hey, pretty lady.” The one in front said. “Whatcha doing out here by yourselfs?”

                Autumn didn’t respond.

                “You know it not be safe, with all the bandits and all that.”

                Autumn remained silent, glancing down at her knife.

                “Good, good. You is quiet. We like that.”

                Autumn dove to the ground, reaching for her knife, but the men got to her first. She was able to punch one of them in the jaw before two others grabbed her arms and pinned her to the ground. The apparent leader of the group stood above her, unbuckling his pants. Autumn began screaming, fighting as hard as she could, but she was no match for the three soldiers pinning her down.

                “I thought you said you is quiet! Oh well, we’ll be finished with you quick, then all the bandits and all that can have ya.”

                “Stop it!” Autumn screamed.

                “You shouldn’t have comed out here by yourselfs, young lady. Maybe this’ll teach ya to not to poke ‘round!”

                The man pulled down his pants, but before he could do anything, the dog leapt over Autumn and went straight into the soldier, pinning him to the ground as it held his throat. It didn’t bite down hard enough to kill him, but it was enough to draw blood. The dog stood firm, simply holding him in place. That was enough for the other soldiers to let go of Autumn, backing away from the dog as it held their leader. Autumn scrambled backwards, just as another man walked by, startling her.

                He wore a long, dusty navy blue trench coat, his unkempt dirty hair fell to his shoulders and a massive black and gray beard dangled below his face. He pulled a machete from under his coat, and shoved it through one of the soldiers, who all had their backs to him. The soldier next to him turned, pulling out a sword and swung it swiftly, but the man dodged the attack, punching the soldier in the gut as he twisted his arm, breaking it and causing him to drop the sword. The soldier screamed in pain, but the man swung his machete, slashing the soldier’s throat and ending his cries.

                The last soldier swung with his sword, but the man deflected it with his machete. The soldier was terrified, his whole body visibly shaking as he stepped backwards with every swing he took. But no matter how hard he tried, the man deflected each strike, until the soldier was up against the house. He tried to run, but was stopped by a blade into his chest. The machete slid out of the soldier’s chest as he fell to the ground.

                The man cleaned his blade on the coat of the soldier he just killed, and sheathed it before ducking down and rummaging through the man’s pockets. He grabbed a few items and placed them in a small sack before moving on to the next body, repeated the process. When he had finished, he went to the dog. As the man approached the dog let go, and the leader gasped for air, gripping the bloody marks on his neck.

                The man grabbed the soldier by the coat, and pulled him to his feet. The soldier’s pants were still around his ankles, and he could hardly stand. The man pulled out the soldier’s sword, and drove it straight into the soldier’s crotch, letting him go while leaving the sword in place. He turned and walked away, heading straight for Autumn.

                She was still breathing heavily from the ordeal, and probably should have run when she had the chance, but her fear and curiosity made her stay. The man stopped next to Autumn, staring down at her with bright, brooding eyes the color of amber and a furrowed brow. After a moment, he turned his gaze away, dropping the sack of items he had just collected as he went by; the dog following close behind. Autumn sat for another second, astounded at what had just occurred. The leader had fallen over, but he was still alive, weakly begging for help. Autumn ignored him and looked in the bag, finding a few bullets, a knife and some ration cards for the city of Ascension. She grabbed the bag and her knife and stood up, leaving the back yard and following the man and his dog.

                “Wait up!” She said, her voice still shaking. The man kept his rapid pace, walking down the middle of the street with the beautiful dog at his side.

                “Thanks for saving me. I don’t know what I would have done without you.” She said when she finally caught up to him. He remained silent, and didn’t even look at her. “You’re my hero.”

                “I’m no hero.” The man said. His voice caught her off guard, she expected someone who looked as grisly as this man to have a deep, gritty voice. While it was somewhat deep, it had a certain harmony to it; with a hint of resentment.

                “Well, you were brave and you did save me, so by definition you are a hero.”

                “What would you know about definitions?”

                “My mom taught me how to read when I was younger. I used to get really bored and I would read through the dictionary. I’ve done it over—”

                “Like I care.”

                Autumn stopped talking and followed silently, struggling to keep up with his pace without going into a jog. “Uh, what’s your name?” She asked. “My name is Autumn Peterson.”

                “Why are you following me?” He stopped, finally looking at her. His sudden gaze made her heart skip a beat. He looked younger than he should have; way younger. His unusually colored eyes were captivating, and she found herself staring longer than she should have.

                “Y-you saved me.” She finally said. “Those men could have killed me, but you rescued me. Why did you rescue me?” There was no response. “And, uh, you look like you need some company.”

                “I don’t need your company. I have him.” The man said, looking down at his dog. He turned and continued walking down the street. The dog looked up at Autumn for a moment, looking her in the eyes before it turned and followed its master.

                “But, dogs can’t talk. I’m sure you want someone to talk to.” Autumn said, returning to the man’s side.

                “I’m going into Motor City, so if you want to live, you better go back.”

                “Really? I’m heading that way too!” Autumn said with excitement.

                “Lucky me…”

                “This’ll be fun!”

                “Fun?” The man chuckled to himself. “If you can’t handle a few soldiers out here, what makes you think you can handle the city?”

                “I’m usually careful, your dog just distracted me.”

                “Don’t you blame your lack of skill on Frost.”

                “Aww, what a cute name.” Autumn said, putting her hand down to pet the dog. Her hand tingled upon touching him, feeling like it had almost fallen asleep, but the feeling faded quickly, and she kept petting him; she didn’t even need to lean over to reach his head. The man remained silent, and Autumn decided to stop pestering him with questions, no matter how much she wanted to ask them.

                The three of them walked in silence for a while. He didn’t say anything else, so she assumed she could follow him. Sure, he looked big and mean, but if he saved her, how bad could he really be? Along the way to the city, Autumn asked a few more questions, but the man stayed mute, as if he didn’t even know she was there. She told him about some of her projects, including her auto-cycle, and how she was going to fix it up. “My mom had a manual for the bike, well, not the specific bike I have, but it’s close enough. With a bit of tinkering, I think I’ve got the adjustments figured out. I just need some solar panels to power it.

                “That’s why I came to the city. There’s a building in there that has an entire roof of solar panels I could pick from. I just hope they aren’t broken.”

                The man stopped at an intersection, looking the three different directions he could go, and after a moment, he turned to the right. He walked by himself for a moment before stopping and turning around, seeing Frost was standing next to Autumn. “I have to go this way.” Autumn said, pointing down the road she had to take. Frost glanced at the man before walking in the direction that Autumn had pointed. Reluctantly, the man turned around and followed his dog, and Autumn followed him.

                “Is it really safe to be walking in the middle of the street?” She asked.

                “No.”

                “Then shouldn’t we move over and go through the alleys? I mean, bandits can probably spot us without much effort.”

                “No, they know those routes.”

                Autumn kept close to him, looking around nervously. She had been in the city many times before, but she always stuck to the alleys or the inside of the buildings. Anyone in any of these buildings could look out and into the street and see them right now, so Autumn kept her hand close to her gun as she walked. She had never killed anyone before, but she thought she would be capable of it, if the need arose.

                It was easier to tell where the inner city began, because the buildings grew taller and closer together, and more of them were missing parts or even whole sections that had crumbled away with time. The sun barely reached this deep into the city, so the three of them walked in the noiseless shadows.

                Autumn was having trouble keeping up with the man, causing her to lag behind. If he got too far ahead, she would jog to keep up. It took longer than expected to spot the building she was looking for, and when she did, she took out another piece of jerky, wiggling it near Frost, but the dog ignored the temptation and followed its master.

                “Hey, the building I need is over here.” She said.

                “Then go.” He said, without turning his back.

                “You should come with.” She called as he went further down the street. He didn’t stop, but Frost did; looking back at Autumn with its sapphire eyes, just for a moment, before turning and following its master. Autumn sighed, taking one last look at the two before turning down an alley.

She zigged and zagged through alleys and streets, making her way closer and closer to the building. She was just a block away now, and there was a massive pile of debris from a fallen building in front of her, so she cut to the side, through a relatively clear alleyway.

                She jogged, her excitement rising with every step she took closer to the building. She felt her foot catch something and her body lurched forwards. She hit the ground, scrapping her palm on the concrete. She groaned, holding her bleeding palm as the sound of creaking metal filled the air. She climbed to her hands and knees, wincing as she put her weight on her wound. There was a snap, as if a cable was cut, and suddenly she felt an impact on her side.

                Autumn rolled, another body embracing her as an old automobile landed where she had just been. When she stopped, she found the man kneeling over her, his finger up to his mouth. Frost leapt off the wreckage of the automobile, landing silently next to them. The man and his dog crept further, into an open back lot the alley connected to, and almost immediately there was a gunshot.

                Autumn scrambled to her feet, hiding behind a wall at the edge of the alley with Frost. The man was crouched behind a large metal bin, breathing heavily.

                “Well, well, well!” A voice echoed from the backlot. Autumn looked as well as she could without exposing her head, and could see a few windows that had a line of sight on her, they made her nervous, and she instinctively crouched as low as she could. “We sawed your girl passing through our streets, quite recklessly too. Out here, people pay for reckless doings!” The voice said. The three of them remained silent.

                “Just come on out, give it up, will ya? We promise to make it quick. That mutt of yours will make a yummy meal that could feed all of us. And that girl be a sweet, sweet dessert.”

                Autumn moved her head backwards, as she had been peering around the corner while the stranger was talking. She had noticed an open window in the second row on the third floor, with a tiny silver barrel sticking out. “Psst.” Autumn said, getting the man’s attention. She held up two fingers and tilted her head to the side, and then held up three fingers and pointed her thumb into the air. The man nodded and reached into his coat, pulling out a rusty pistol.

                “The longer you wait, the harder this gonna be. We know where you is.” The voice paused, “We know what you is.”

                The man stood up, quick as lightning and fired his gun, he turned and shot in another direction as an eruption of gunfire unleashed. Autumn looked back at Frost, but found he had disappeared. A bullet landed next to her feet, sending fragments of cement into the air. Autumn ran into the back lot while more bullets danced around her. She dove behind the dumpster, next to the man and took out her pistol. She was shaking, trying to build up the nerve to pop out of cover and take shots at the bandits.

                “Look what you got us into.” The man growled. “The least you can do is shoot back.”

                Autumn inhaled deeply and stood up, barely above the dumpster, and fired two shots. She retracted to safety so quickly she had no idea if she had hit anyone. The man cursed under his breath.

                “Fine, then at least push the dumpster that way.”

                Autumn grabbed whatever she could and began pushing, but the bin barely budged. The wheels had either rusted or fallen off, and now she was pushing the hunk of metal with no assistance. It was moving, but barely just. The man noticed Autumn was struggling, and stopped shooting for a second to help her push. With his help, it was actually quite easy, and they moved it a few feet before he started shooting again.

                Autumn sat behind cover, unable to bring herself to help the man. She tried peering around the corner, but every time she tried, a bullet bounced off the side of the dumpster, nearly hitting her. She sat back, cursing at herself for not contributing. This man came back for her; he saved her life, and she couldn’t do the same. She looked over at the man, who was too into the battle to acknowledge her. The man ducked back behind cover, but Autumn’s gaze remained upward.

                She saw a man run past a window, and he stopped in the next one. Having a clear line of sight on them now, he raised his rifle to shoot. Autumn took this as her chance to prove to the man she wasn’t useless. She aimed and pulled the trigger. Her last bullet left her gun, and went straight into the man’s chest. He dropped his rifle and fell forwards; half his body hanging out the window.

                The man was startled by the sudden gunshot next to him, and he glared at Autumn, then up at the window. He turned back and nodded at her. She threw him a fake smile, but he turned away too quick for him to notice. She looked back up at the body hanging out of the window and her body shuddered. Her first kill, some guy who was just trying to protect his home; did he have a family? A million questions rushed through her mind, and each one of them made her feel more and more sick.

There was a shout, and then a deep barking from inside the building. The men inside began yelling and shooting wildly, but not at Autumn or the man. He took this opportunity to shoot anyone he still could, and took out two more guys. The rest had disappeared from view, attacking something inside the building. Quickly the shots had stopped, but the sounds of yelling and fighting continued. There was one yell and the yelping of a dog; then, silence.

                Autumn held her breath as the seconds went on, worried that something had happened to Frost. The man, however, didn’t seem worried, and put his gun away.

                Glass shattered and a man screamed as he was thrown from the third story window. He hit the ground and bounced, skidding and leaving a trail of blood. He moaned in pain, barely alive as a white blur followed him from the window. It landed on top of him, the sheer force of the impact snapping the man’s neck. Frost stood proudly on the body, looking off into the distance with his nose held high; as if he wanted to be admired.

                Frost then reached down and grabbed the man’s gun; a shotgun of some sort, and carried it over to Autumn. He held it out for her, and she took it, giving Frost a pat on the head. The man looted the rest of the body, taking whatever he found and giving Autumn three makeshift shotgun shells and a few rounds for her pistol, as well as a scrap of cloth for her bloody hand.

                Autumn breathed slowly and heavily, trying to quell the nausea in her stomach. She wrapped up her wound and reloaded her gun, her hands shaking as she tried to put the shells in. More of them ended up on the ground than they did in her clip. She became frustrated and dropped her gun, collapsing to the ground and hiding her face in her hands. She felt a large body lay next to her, and she opened her eyes to find Frost had laid his head on her leg, and the man had picked up her gun and loaded it for her. He handed it back to her and walked away. Autumn took a deep breath, patting Frost on the head before standing up. She turned to see the man looking at her, holding a rifle he had grabbed from the ground. He motioned with his head for her to follow, and once again she smiled at him, but this time it was a real smile.

                The three of them left the backlot, quickening their pace. Those shots were like dinner bells in Motor City, and soon the area would be swarming with people looking to get a bite of the action. It took a couple of minutes to reach the building they needed to be at, and Autumn was beginning to get second thoughts. The adjacent building had, at some point, fallen into this one, and the impact shook this building nearly off its foundation. The building had a slight lean to it, and with every gust of wind, it groaned under its own weight.

                “You sure you’re ready?” The man asked quietly.

                “We’ve come this far…” Autumn said, smirking at the man. He moved his hand out in front of him, motioning for her to go first. Autumn merrily ran into the building, climbing through the broken front entrance. The tilt of the building was more noticeable inside, as was the groaning of the old beams that supported it. The entrance lobby gave off a strange feeling; an eerie sensation that sent shivers down her back. There were bodies, still in their suits and dresses; tattered and worn with age. The lettering along the wall that once spelled out the company’s name had fallen, leaving only splatters of blood in their place. The floor was covered in ash and dust from the many buildings around it that had fallen.

                Autumn, the man, and his dog found the nearest stairway and initiated their climb. It was long and strenuous, and at times tedious, but Autumn quelled the tension by humming to herself.

In several places, the stairway had given way, and they had to find another way up. Usually there was another staircase they could take, but one instance left both staircases impassable. Luckily for them, there was a hole in the floor near one of the staircases, and with a boost, the man pushed Autumn and Frost up. Autumn was able to pull him up just enough for him to grip the ledge and pull himself up.

                From there, they were able to get to a solid staircase, and they went up a few more floors until they reached a door. When Autumn reached for the handle, the man slapped her hand away, pushing her away from the door.

                “Hey, what was that for?” She said.

                “We’re not going that way.” The man said, looking at the base of the door. Autumn looked down, and her heart jumped when she saw what he was talking about. A pale, fleshy substance protruded from under the door. Small mushrooms and columns extended from the substance, emitting spores into the air. Autumn covered her mouth and backed away quickly, so fast that she had almost fallen backward over the railing. She turned and ran down half a flight of stairs, stopping and waiting for the other two to catch up.

                “Did I breathe any in?” She said in a panic, her hand still covering her mouth. The man said nothing, but instead continued down the stairs. “Oh my gosh! I hope I didn’t breathe any in!” Autumn said, following the man. They had reached the floor below, and began searching for another way up. Autumn couldn’t keep herself from worrying about the spores and whether or not she had breathed them. “What’s going to happen if—”

                The man interrupted Autumn by putting his hand over her mouth. Autumn took a quick breath in, and the air hurt her throat. She erupted into a coughing fit and the man let go, continuing to search the floor. Autumn fell to the floor as her throat flared, and it felt scratched and itchy. She clumsily reached into her bag and pulled out a bottle of water and drank nearly the entire thing before she started to feel any better.

                The man returned and stood over Autumn. “What the hell was that?” She asked between coughs.

                “There’s no other way up. We have to go back down.” The man said.

                “Wait, no. There has to be.”

                “There is no way up.”

                “But we came this far.”

                “Autumn.”

                She stopped. Her stomach felt empty as she heard him say her name for the first time, and her cheeks flushed at the sincerity of it.

                “We will look elsewhere.” He held out his hand. Autumn grabbed it and he pulled her to her feet. Dolefully, she followed him back the way they had come. Her mind raced with questions, all of which were ignored when she asked the man. “Keep talking and it’ll only make it worse.” Is all he muttered. And soon Autumn gave it up. Her mind began wandering; where was she going to find solar panels now? Maybe this guy knew where to find some. She just hoped they could find them and get out of the city before night came. Bandits were one thing, but if there were spores this deep in the city, she didn’t want to be around at night.

                The climb down was much easier than the climb up; they could simply drop down the jumps they previously couldn’t make. She preferred to take it slow and steady, for every jump she made it felt like the entire building shook. She knew it was standing on a thread, and at any moment it could collapse. The promise of finishing another project made her brave that danger, but now that she was returning empty handed, she wanted to be out of the building as soon as possible.

                She stopped at a window, and looked out over the city. From here, she could see over buildings and noticed things she hadn’t seen before; the capital building in the distance, a dense cluster of trees, and an outcropping of dark green tents and vehicles clustered in an open intersection. Through the shattered glass, she could hear the buildings groaning, the sounds echoing off one another in a solemn song that would continue until they collapsed under their own weight.

                The building she was in groaned and creaked, singing its own lullaby, snapping her from her trance. She stepped from the window and followed the man down the stairs. Once again she found comfort in running her fingers through Frost’s fur. It was thick and soft, and she would occasionally feel a tingling sensation in her fingertips when she touched his skin beneath the layers of fur. Frost must have enjoyed it as well, because throughout the rest of the building, he kept close to her.

They had finally reached the bottom floor, and in defeat, Autumn shuffled her way out of the building, close behind the man. Frost began to look around, as if he sensed something. The three of them stepped through the entrance threshold and out into the street. He let out a low growl, but it was overshadowed by a bang, and something splattered all over Autumn’s face.

                The man’s body collapsed in front of her, and time seemed to slow to a crawl. Autumn’s heart leapt into her throat, and she felt as if it were going to come out at any moment. She could feel the pulsing her neck, the adrenaline rushing through her veins and blurring her vision and deafening her ears. Her arms moved on their own, reaching toward her belt, and before she knew it she had pulled out her pistol and aimed it in the direction of the shot. As she turned, she saw a man holding up a pistol. She could feel the energy pulse through her arm, shooting down through her hand and into her index finger, coiling it around the trigger.

                The bullet left the gun, hitting the man in his right eye almost immediately after she had pulled the trigger. Her body became numb as she pulled the trigger once more; and then again, and again. She emptied her magazine into the man’s face before he even hit the ground. She smelt the gunpowder whirl around her, and saw the body of her attacker hit the ground through the smoke, twisting devilishly out of the barrel. Then, all at once, the sounds of the past few seconds filled her ears, and her vision once again became crisp. Her eyes focused on the body, and when she saw it, her own stopped working.

                It was Frederick.

Autumn collapsed in dismay as arms wrapped around her and pulled her back. Her empty gun fell from her hand, and the only thing she could register was the mutilated face of Frederick. It had become a pulpy mess, and the only reason she had recognized him was from his outfit and his hair; which was exactly the same as the day before. Frost had let out a chorus of barks before lunging at one of the men that held Autumn. They threw her back behind her, and she had a moment to realize who they were; Frederick’s mercenary friends.

                Autumn saw them gang up on Frost, and without thinking she grabbed her knife and leapt to her feet, desperately screaming as she lunged at the nearest mercenary. He noticed and grabbed her arm, throwing her back. “Stop! We’re trying to save you!” He said.

                Just then, a bright light filled the air. Everyone stopped, even Frost; and they all looked towards the source of the light. Autumn couldn’t see exactly where it was coming from due to all the people in front of her, but it didn’t take long for her—and the others—to see what was causing it.

               The man’s body glowed as bright as the sun, with the light coming directly from the hole in his skull. Then, the most unbelievable thing happened.

               He stood up.

               Everyone watched in fear and awe as the man stood with his eyes closed. The light from his head faded, and for a split second, everything was silent. Then the man opened his eyes, and the same light that had engulfed his wound was now emitting from his eyes. “Let them go!” He screamed. At least, she thought it was him; his voice echoed over itself in a spectral manner, as if there was a second voice behind his. The hatred in his voice sunk down into her bones, and through the crowd of people she watched as the man unleashed his fury.

               Flames shot from the man, bursting in every direction. Those closest to him were burnt to a crisp, and everyone else in front of Autumn had been set ablaze; the force of the explosion knocked Autumn to the ground, and rumbled the building next to her. He held out one hand and shot a stream of fire into two more mercenaries, killing them in seconds. He turned and unleashed the same hellish fire upon the remaining mercenaries, scorching them into blackened shells. None of the mercenaries stood a chance, and the whole ordeal was over before anyone could even react.

               The man stared down at her with the same piercing expression he had when they first met, except this time his eyes were aglow in a fiery blaze. The hole in his head was gone, and Autumn forced herself to look away; her eyes met the pile of bodies at the man’s feet. She felt everything she had eaten that day rocket to her throat and spill out her mouth; whether it was from killing Frederick or out of pure terror, or even from the smell of charred corpses, she couldn’t tell.

               Everything began to make sense in her mind; his ability to fight, his ageless look, the burning sensation that happened when he touched her mouth. Her realization caused her breathing to pick up, and her body to tremble. Autumn glanced up into the burning light, and what she saw was more terrifying than any beast the legends had spoken of; she saw a normal man.

               And wherever that man walked, the flames of hell followed. He burns like the rage of a thousand suns, but at his core is a heart of ice. Everything he touches turns to dust and ash and nothing escapes his flame, not even Death himself. They say in the end times, the ground will open forth and he will scorch the land. You can look, but if he sees you, then it’s into the dark depths of hell for which the sheep follow in false optimism, guided by his fire in the night. Some call him a demon among men, others called him the Messiah of Darkness; some even think he is the devil himself. But there was one name everyone agreed on—one name that everyone feared. Even speaking of it in a public place could have you cast from society. Autumn lowered her head in defeat, knowing that now she was bowing before the Shepherd of Fire.

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