Brook, New Cinalia

If the rusted, green sign had been torn down and buried in the woods, countless lives would have been saved. 

An exhausted, sweating little man recognizes the sign’s large, bold letters and his red rimmed eyes widen with excitement. “Here, over here! I saw them run off the highway here! You have to come back this way to leave!” He scurries off to the side of the road and points to the sign, still proudly displaying the town’s name, even while overgrown bushes threaten to conceal it. “The only way around the forest is the river!” 

“Find them!” a shrill voice orders from among the large crowd. Manic warriors storm across the decrepit highway, avoiding the shells of wrecked cars and the craters littering the asphalt. 

The Savage leader sends out dozens of followers to search the town. Their clothing is ripped and filthy with some combination of blood, food, and soil. Their heads are either barely covered with stringy hair or bald with pockmarked, burnt, and torn red skin. A short, metallic spear is held over a grimy shoulder; alongside dirty alabaster hair, the wielder urges his men on. 

Their mouths gape open as they dash over and through obstacles. The large hunting party separates into groups of the most predatory, the most enthusiastic, and the most skittish members. Jointly they race to overtake their enemies with an unhinged look in their eyes. They are fueled by avarice and the desire to be uplifted from the nameless faces of their companions. To be honored by not only their robust commander, but the other lords of the Wastes. 

The Savages tear through the streets, kicking in apartment doors, and breaking store windows with rusted metal poles. Three of them are holding chains attached to malnourished dogs. They cackle and release the hounds into an apartment building, then trail behind them in search of prey. 

Another of the Savages runs into a convenience store. Her foot catches on a thick wire, sending her body crashing into an empty shelving unit. Behind the cashier counter, a pile of rigged explosives detonate. 

There’s a blinding light followed by an earth-shattering blast. The concrete beneath the linoleum flooring is revealed. Glass, metal, and human flesh bury the entrance. 

Dilapidated post office walls shake as the people within grab for their weapons, medical supplies, and backpacks. The lobby is bustling with activity—a place that formerly stood for order and reliability is now full of panicked disarray. Countless distraught souls tear through the last of their precious belongings, selecting which items to keep and which to discard, abandoned to the poor souls that’ll carry on after they’ve gone. 

Sid drinks from his jug of water and barely gets the lid on before dropping it onto a counter. He sweeps his gaze across the room, fully digesting the outcome his decisions have brought these people, feeling the weight of it. It’s hard to swallow. The water doesn’t take the edge off the taste of ash and bile that sits at the back of his throat. 

Parents haul their children along behind them. Their small, grimy faces can’t decide what to focus on the most; the people rushing to the left or the people rushing to the right. Their parents wrench their arms forward when they lag behind. People grab soiled blankets off the messy floor and shove them into torn bags, or roll the material into balls to be held underneath an arm. 

“We have to leave it! Leave it!” A rusted portable grill crashes to the ground. The owner crouches in front of the grill and shoves bits of coal into their pockets before rushing outside. Sid steps over the grill and through the shattered glass entrance. The shards crunch underneath his boots. He sidesteps a couple on the stairs, huddled together and talking in hushed tones. 

Their foreheads are touching. They have the same unkempt appearance as the rest of the group. Their torn clothing is layered under ragged hoodies with tattered sleeves. The edges of their pants are coated with the same mud caked over their worn shoes. 

Sid’s long-sleeved shirt protects him from the chill in the air. It’s a stained, faded green wool top. He rubs his palms together while he surveys the area. In the distance, smoke rises into the sky toward the epicenter of the town. Around him, civilians rush by and scurry off to the other side of the building. 

When he proceeds down the slanted steps, he avoids the muddy holes along the pavement. He narrowly avoids stepping into a puddle and pauses to scrutinize the post office’s crumbling façade. It’s not more than a few seconds of consideration. In the distance, shouting draws his attention away from the remnant of the past. 

He follows the sounds to the parking lot, where a muscular figure stands among shuffling bodies. The man’s short, peppered hair clashes with his bright blue jacket. “Civilians, grab only what you can run with and move along,” he yells. “Stragglers will be left behind. You have ten minutes left. I repeat, ten minutes!” 

Sid skirts around the edge of the crowd and motions the man over to where the rest of the team is stationed. Huge chunks of debris riddle the street and obstruct the road. Several dark-clothed individuals lounge on the stranded cars parked in front of the post office. A black bag is open on the dusty hood of a vehicle with ammunition stacked inside. Sid walks over to the middle of the meeting area and claps his hands a few times. The large man jogs over to listen. 

“Carla’s booby trap idea bought us some sorely needed time.” Sid turns to the rest of the team. “Dan is going to stay behind and ferry these people to route 296. We need ten minutes. Start the clock!” 

“What?! No! You know this area much better than all of us.” Dan attempts to negotiate. “I’ll lead the 

Sid cut him off. “Which means I should be the one distracting them. You’ll get lost without me. Plus, if anyone lags behind, I can’t muscle them to go faster. That’s your job. Go do your job, Dan.” Sid pulls a handgun from the waistband of his black cargo pants and checks the cartridge. Satisfied with its condition, he nods and grabs a few extra from the ammunition pile. He unzips two pockets to slip the extras inside. 

“If I don’t see the signal, I’m leaving them all behind.” Dan huffs and stomps away. 

“If I don’t see the signal, I’m leaving them all behind!” Carla’s bright, red curls bob as she imitates Dan.  

Sid glances over to Carla’s freckled face as she puffs up her chubby cheeks. He smirks and turns to the other nine people. “Carla and you three, go to the area with the broken traffic light. When the attack starts, kill off as many as you can. Turner, you and the rest situate yourselves in the houses along that road. You can pick them off during their retreat.” 

His orders spur them into immediate action, and they set off to their positions. They’ve already gone over Sid’s part of the plan. Leading the deranged Savages from the detonated convenience store and down the appropriate road will take an even larger explosion. Carla has already set the charges. Now all Sid can do is hope the Savages haven’t already started their search down another part of town. 

This has to work. Sid won’t be able to live with himself if it doesn’t. Sia…He stops himself from thinking anything further. It’s time to hustle. 

His jog gradually increases speed until he is sprinting through the streets. He ducks and uses wrecked cars as cover, but he refuses to slow down until he hears cries of rage and brutality. He skids to a stop and crouches beside an overturned vehicle. The smell of burnt flesh is overwhelming. Sid steps over charred remains and large chunks of cement to peek past a flipped bumper. 

“You!! Get! Up! Get up!” The Savage leader punctuates each word with a kick to the abdomen of the Savage scrambling along the sidewalk. 

The Savage is crawling along the pavement under the deranged glare of their leader. He tries to rise to his feet, but his injured legs are weak. The Savage collapses back onto the ground. Dissatisfied with their weak attempts to stand, the Savage leader reaches between his shoulder blades and unsheathes his metallic spear. Without hesitation, he aims for the quivering form, and drives the spear into back of their head. The Savage’s limbs flail against the concrete like a spider pinned by a steel needle, but when the spear is twisted counterclockwise, the limbs go still. 

Move on! The Savage leader heaves the spear from the corpse and points the stained blade edge at the others, who scramble to their feet to continue the search. 

The alley a few meters from him is empty, so Sid takes a deep breath and yells, “To hell with you!” 

The Savages hear the familiar voice and trip over themselves to get outside, ready to attack their enemy. In the blink of an eye, Sid runs into the alley and slams into the fire escape ladder. The chilled, rusty metal bites into his calloused palms as he climbs to the roof. When he gets to the top, he runs straight to the vent stacks. He rushes around large, white ventilation units and over to a long silver pipe running along the side of the roof. 

Beside the pipe is a thick, white cylinder and there sits a muddy backpack. It’s plump and damp from the rain. Sid snatches the bag off the ground. He shoves the zipper aside to check the contents of the bag, blinking lights and wires. The triggering device is as Carla left it. Perfect. 

“Go! Get him!” The Savage leader can be heard screaming below. 

It was too late. Sid tightens the gun straps across his chest and pulls the trigger from the backpack. He flips the switches all at once. The Savage leader jumps at the first explosion down the street and almost falls onto the surrounding corpses during the second. Relying on instincts, he dashes off at top speed; off to where he assumes is safe. His wild white hair streams behind him as he escapes. 

Sid sees this as he peers over the edge of the building. Feeling the bombs from the lower level of the apartment building go off, he backs up to position himself with the next building and sprints toward the large gap between the two. After his feet propel him off the edge, the building crumbles and flames lick out at the sky. 

While in midair, he realizes he misjudged the distance. He throws out both hands to grab onto the incoming ledge. His head collides with its brick face. He doesn’t have time to do more than groan and glance down at the fire escape below before his fingers lose their grip. 

The explosions continue and he shuts his eyes to protect them from the small shards of glass and rock that shower his backside. When his feet collide with the metal staircase, he bends his knees, grabs the fire escape railing, and tosses himself over. Glass windows shatter and debris flies alongside him. The blaring cacophony of destruction deafens him. He weightlessly careens toward the ground, blinking away dust to stay focused on his landing path, when a chunk of cement slams into the side of his head. As he plummets toward the alley’s increasing mound of rubble, his consciousness deteriorates.