Rurik The Weasel

By Cameron Neilson

          Timing was everything. As the blue-uniformed corpse shuffled slowly towards him, Rurik selected a small knife from under his overcoat and waited for the right moment. How they would all envy him now! He would soon be richer than any of them! Rurik the Weak….Rurik the Lame, everyone at the Blue Bull Pub had mockingly called him. Rurik the Weasel couldn’t last a week alone in the deadlands, they had said, and so he had laid down all his wealth on the bet, an unopened box of shotgun shells against all of them. When he returned from the deadlands, with the old rusty sign from highway 92 as proof, they would quietly pay him his due and no longer would Rurik the Weasel be a name to jest by. He would be revered as a hero as he limped down the streets of New Denver, and perhaps then he would finally be chosen as a fortress guard.
          As the walking corpse stepped into range, Rurik whipped his wrist down in a single adroit movement and sent the knife flying. With a thud, the weapon embedded itself to the hilt in the creature’s forehead, and the rotten body crumpled unanimated to the ground. Laughing with delight, Rurik limped over to the body, dragging his club-foot through the thick carpet of red and brown leaves that covered the field.
         The corpse was a rotten, green-fleshed body of a long-dead police officer, and it still wore its utility belt and gun. Holding one hand over his nose, Rurik reached down and carefully unbuckled the belt. Pulling it off he danced about in delight to see the gun still in the holster and several cartridges full of bullets. Then he noticed something else…the body wore a black, Kevlar vest under its blue shirt. Rurik nearly swooned with the realization at what the piece of armor was probably worth. With such wealth he would be the envy of the Blue Bull and the rest of New Denver, and perhaps even Jillian, the barmaid would now take notice of him.
         For a moment, Rurik was even tempted to quit his trek towards the deadlands and return with the gun and vest to New Denver. Sure they would mock him for losing the bet, but his newfound wealth would more than make up for all the teasing in the world. But then he thought of Jillian, and he knew he had to continue forward. Only by proving his bravery did he have any chance of her noticing him.
         During the evenings at the pub, when the lights were dimmed and the adventurers took their turns at the head table and told their stories, Rurik could see the dreamy look in Jillian’s eyes as she watched Horace "Buzz saw" O’Leary tell of his adventures in the wastelands of the south, or how she batted her eyelashes and blushed when Sgt. Hank Bukowski told his stories of hunting cannibals to the east with his comrades that were the last remnants of the U.S. Marine Corps. When Rurik returned in his glory from the deadlands, she would look at him that way, and he would finally be able to confess his long, undying love to her.
         Leaving the corpse for the buzzards and other animals, Rurik retrieved his knife and put on the oversized body armor and police utility belt. As he limped across the field he squinted his eyes against the blinding amber rays of the setting sun. It would soon be dark, and he needed to find a place to sleep for the night. The Chikasee Hills, which marked the border to the deadlands, were still a good eighty miles away, and there was nothing but flatland between.
         The sky was dark cobalt by the time Rurik found a strategically safe spot to rest. Clearing the brush away from the side of a four-foot high boulder, he snuggled down into a large cleft at the rock’s base. He pulled his short, green army blanket over his body for warmth and used his small backpack for a pillow. He then pulled some of the loose brush back over his body, camouflaging himself from any nighttime predators. He wasn’t worried about the undead. He knew that he would either hear them or smell them long before they could get him.
         Looking out through the brush, Rurik watched as the stars began flashing in the black of night. Over a mile away, the black tar segments of a weed-overrun highway could be seen snaking across the prairie. Rurik’s plans were to find friendly travelers, and perhaps hitch a ride as far towards the Chikasee Hills as they were willing to travel.
         Pulling the pistol out if its holster, Rurik inspected the weapon closely. It appeared to be a 9mm, but he wasn’t that much of an expert when it came to guns. Knives were Rurik the Weasel’s specialty. He had a leather belt he wore strapped across his chest, under his overcoat, and on it were sheathed six, perfectly balanced, razor-sharp throwing knives. In both boots he had sheathed a single eight-inch Bowie, and at his side was a foot-and-a-half long Arkansas Toothpick.
         After putting the gun back in its holster, he pulled out the Arkansas Toothpick. By starlight he could barely make out his reflection in the polished steel. He could see small, beady brown eyes peering out from under long, stringy black hair…a face that looked like a weasel. He wasn’t the best looking guy around New Denver, but that didn’t matter. If he won this bet, then no longer would he be skulking in the shadows of "Buzz saw" O’Leary or Sgt. Bukowski. He would be considered a hero in his own right. With that thought in his mind, Rurik fell asleep, visions of Jillian the barmaid dancing through his brain.
         In his small hiding spot Rurik slept peacefully till dawn. When he awoke, the yellow-white morning sun was already climbing high towards the heavens. Fishing through his small backpack, he found a canteen of water and a wax-paper wrapping containing strips of dried beef and a section of cheese. After eating, Rurik packed his blanket in the backpack and rose to continue on his journey.
         As he limped through the tall grass towards the highway, Rurik fingered the hilt of a throwing knife with anticipation. These lands were infested with many predators besides humans, both alive and undead. Travelers from this area had reported wild packs of ravenous dogs and an occasional cougar or other wild-cat. By the time he reached the old highway, his brow was beaded with sweat. The sky was growing hotter and the bulletproof vest he was wearing wasn’t helping things, so he decided to take the vest off and stuff it in his backpack.
         Sinking down on one knee, Rurik surveyed the thirty-feet-wide highway for any signs of ambush. Satisfied that it was safe to cross, he ran-limped across the broken concrete until he reached the other side. Huffing to catch his breath, he sat down in a ditch next to the road. It had been a long time since he had left the settlement, and he didn’t realize he was this out of shape. And his lame leg wasn’t helping things. The whole appendage, from the knee down to the club-foot throbbed in pain. He wasn’t used to this much walking.
         While sitting there he began to watch the horizon. He thought he could make out a small dust cloud creeping steadily up the highway. Standing, he cupped his eyes from the sun and squinted. Sure enough, there was a small caravan traveling towards him on the road. Hiding himself behind a three-foot high outcropping of weeds, Rurik watched to make sure the group didn’t belong to one of the many strange cannibal cults or bands of murderous reavers that plagued the land.
         Peering through the strands of grass, he watched as they came closer, and he smiled at his luck. They appeared to be a traveling group of merchants. Two horse-pulled wagons took the lead, and in the rear followed a still functioning automobile. Rurik knew that only a wealthy merchant would own such a luxury item and be able to afford to drive it across the wilds. But unlike most traveling merchants, this group didn’t seem to have an armed escort.
         After a pensive moment of planning, Rurik limped put onto the highway and stood in the path of the convoy waiving his arms. The wagons pulled to a halt a good twenty feet before they reached him. Rurik could hear the rumbling of the automobile engine. He only knew about cars from the rusted out carcasses that made much of New Denver’s outer wall; he had never realized that they were this loud. As he stood there he looked over his shoulder, knowing the noise would likely draw out any undead that might be lurking about.
         "Who are you, and what do you want? Keep your hands up, or I’ll fill you full of lead!" Rurik did as he was told and watched as a tall, lanky man wearing a brown cowboy hat and dusty, non-descript clothing stepped down from the lead wagon. He kept a bead on Rurik with a long-barreled shotgun.
         "What are you doing traveling these parts alone? Are you a filthy eater of human flesh?"
         "No…no, and please lower the gun! My name is Rurik Johansen of New Denver. I am heading your direction, towards the Chikasee hills. I was just wondering if I could hitch a ride. In exchange I could help provide protection for your convoy." Rurik was serious, but a wide smile came across the man’s face.
         "Hah! You provide protection, son?" The man was obviously skeptical. Rurik decided to make a point.
         "See the top board on the wooden seat of your wagon? Watch…." Rurik made a deft movement of his arm, a single blurring motion, and the man with the shotgun ducked at the sound of something whistling through the air. A short handled throwing knife thunked into the board Rurik had pointed at. The man turned towards Rurik with a new found respect in his eyes.
         "Well…I’ll be damned; you’re handy with knives are you? We’re not heading up old 92 into those accursed hills, they’re too close to the deadlands, but we are heading to where this road intersects with I-90, and then we’re going east to a trading post called Haven. I could use you till we reach I-90, and then we could part ways. I got two wagon loads of goods, and they say the land near the Chikasees is littered with bandits and the thick with the walking dead."
         "Why aren’t you taking your goods west of here to New Denver?"
         "Their prices are too high. Trading is better in Haven." The man turned to his wagon and climbed aboard. Rurik still stood in the road.
         "You coming or not?" Rurik smiled and limped towards the wagon. The man pointed for Rurik to take a seat next to him on the wagon bench. He then held out his hand.
         "My name’s Dell Creed. My family and I trade in medical supplies. We don’t keep an armed escort around, because it shouts out to thieves that we’re loaded. We’ve been able to handle ourselves so far." Rurik shook the man’s hand, wincing at his iron grip.
         "My friends call me Weasel. I’m headed past the Chikasee into the deadlands." The man gave him a strange look, most likely wondering if the little fellow before him was sane.
         The convoy started off again down the highway, and Rurik watched lazily as the surrounding lands passed them by. Several hours went by smoothly, but at one point the convoy was halted by undead on the road. A group of a dozen zombies tore greedily at a fresh corpse directly in front of the wagons, and Dell Creed reined the horses to a halt. He gave a whistle, and the driver of the other convoy and two men from the automobile ran out, shotguns aimed and ready. When the undead sensed living meat and turned to start stumbling forward, Dell waved his hand. A flurry of shotgun fire rang out across the highway like thunder, and when the smoke cleared only one zombie still shuffled on. Dell held his hand up for the firing to quit.
         "Go ahead, Weasel. Take ‘em out." Rurik’s face reddened at the attention, but he was glad to get a chance to show off his skill. The grotesque figure was over twenty feet away, but Rurik stood and slowly selected a small throwing knife from his shoulder belt.
         Putting a finger to his tongue, he held the digit up in the air and judged the velocity and direction of the wind. Aiming slightly to the left, he lobbed the knife up in a great, glistening arc. All eyes watched as the sunlight danced off of the whirling blade, and they widened in surprise as the weapon thudded hilt deep between the zombie’s brows, immediately dropping the creature to the ground. Two of the men whistled at the feat, and Dell Creed gave Rurik a rough pat on the back.
         "Damn good work, Weasel! I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Where the hell did you learn to throw like that?"
         "Taught…taught myself, I guess." Rurik was beaming from the praise. He wasn’t used to this much attention. Dell Creed even climbed down from the wagon and retrieved the knife. Rurik couldn’t help smiling an ear to ear grin as the man wiped the gore off of the blade and handed it back.
         "Search the bodies for valuables, boys, and then throw them off the road. Let’s get going!" The men acted promptly at Dell’s commands, and Rurik stood watching from his place on the wagon. The road was quickly cleared, and the convoy resumed on its journey.
         The day slipped into evening without much excitement. Several times wild packs of ravenous dogs came too close to the horses, and the men scared them away with shotgun fire. Once, three primitives, wearing furs and carrying wooden spears peered at them from over a ridge. A shotgun blast frightened them away faster than it did the dogs. Undead were occasionally seen bumbling slowly through the grasslands, seemingly without purpose or direction, but that was a common sight these days, and to a fast moving convoy the creatures posed no threat.
         "Well, Weasel, looks like we better find a spot to make camp for the night. If I don’t give these horses some rest, they’ll be no good when we need ‘em to outrun bandits." Dell Creed pulled the convoy to a halt, and the men began to scout around the area. Rurik climbed down from the wagon and walked off on his own, looking over a small hillock he had noticed to the west. There, under a group of trees, well hidden by the hillock from the highway, was a pond.
         "Mr. Creed, over here!" Rurik shouted, waving his arms as he climbed back over the hillock. The men came and Dell congratulated Rurik on finding a perfect spot. They wouldn’t have to go looking for water for the horses, and the hill and trees would give perfect cover from anyone traveling down the highway at night.
         They drove the wagons and automobile around the hill and behind the trees and set up a small camp next to the pond. Rurik was surprised when several women and a handful of children piled out of the back of one of the wagons and the automobile.
         "Who are they?" He asked, his eye on one particularly good-looking girl of about nineteen years old. Her hair was long and dark, and her emerald eyes sparkled with her smile when she saw Rurik watching her.
         "That’s the boys' and my family, Weasel. And that's my daughter you’re staring down." Dell gave him a grim look, and Rurik turned away embarrassed. Camp was set up with the wagons and automobile surrounding the sleeping area. A small fire was built, and the women began to cook. The men sat around the pond, and Dell brought out a box of cigars, offering them all one. Rurik coughed on the rich tobacco, but it was the best tasting cigar he had ever smoked.
         "Mr. Creed, where did you get these?"
         "Call me Dell, Weasel. We traded for ‘em down south. Someone found ‘em on what was left of a commie cargo plane that was shot down in the Great Invasion of ’09. The commies probably got the cigars from a base in Cuba. It’s really too bad."
         "What’s too bad, Mr. Cree…I mean, Dell?"
         "That whole island was nuked off the face of the earth. These right here could be the last Cuban cigars ever smoked."
         Someone called that dinner was ready. A kind-eyed woman with gray hair heaped Rurik’s bowl with a generous helping of steaming beef stew, and he was also given a large tin mug of foaming, cold beer. He took his food away from the others and sat on the opposite side of the pond and ate. They all looked so happy, the men with their wives and the children playing. Orphaned at a young age, Rurik had never known the intimacy and happiness of a real family, and the sight of these families made him uncomfortable.
         Rurik finished his food and drink in peace, and then a small hand on his shoulder startled him. Dropping the bowl and mug he twisted around, a bowie knife from his boot in his hand.
         "Easy there, mister! You looked so alone over here, I thought I’d say hello." There she stood, Dell Creed’s daughter. Rurik slipped his knife back in its sheath and stood up apologizing, fumbling with the words. Amazingly, she even looked more beautiful up close than she had earlier. He offered the girl a seat by him, and to his surprise she took it.
         Rurik was silent as she talked; he wasn’t used to attention from any female, much less one this attractive. She introduced herself as Angela, and she spoke in length about her father’s business as a trader and all the survivalist camps and trading posts they’d been to. Rurik lost track of her words as he watched her full, luscious lips move. She wore a light, flowery-smelling perfume that was driving him wild. The moonlight shining down lit up her eyes, and as he watched her he felt helpless, as if a man under a magical spell. While watching her, he didn’t notice Dell Creed walk over from the campsite.
         "What’s going on over here?" The man seemed less than pleased at finding Rurik with his daughter.
         "No…nothing, Mr. Creed, we were..we were…" stammering, Rurik tried to explain himself, but Angela cut in.
         "I saw him sitting over here by himself, father, and I came to give him some company. That’s all." Dell gave Rurik a stern look, a look that Rurik took to mean, if you touch my daughter I’ll string you up by your intestines for the jackals.
         "Well, okay. We’re starting the night watch now, Weasel. You’re up after the first four hours. Angela…get to bed soon, we have a long day tomorrow." Surprisingly the man turned and left Rurik there with Angela. He looked at her, and she smiled a heart-melting grin.
         "You really have nothing to be afraid of, Rurik. He’s as soft as a teddy-bear inside of that rough exterior." She sat there by him silently for another ten minutes or so, and Rurik nearly swooned when she placed her hand in his. He held it gently, his heart feeling as if it would pound right out of his chest. They sat like that for some time, and then she squeezed his hand tight and said goodnight. Dazed and not believing what had just happened, Rurik watched her walk away.
         Staring dreamily at the moon’s silver reflection on the pond’s surface, Rurik contemplated the evening’s happenings. A little while later he rolled out his army blanket and settled down to sleep right there on the pond’s edge. The others were all huddled around the small campfire, but Rurik felt more at ease alone. For the couple of hours that he slept, and for the first time in a year, Rurik the Weasel didn’t dream of Jillian the barmaid.

* * *

         The sound of gunfire woke Rurik from his sleep. Jumping to his feet he watched in disbelief as figures from the shadows advanced upon the main campsite. The convoy men rose and grabbed their guns to meet their adversaries, but they were shot down in the process. Rurik fingered a throwing knife, but he knew the enemy was too numerous. Dodging into some tall grass, he watched as two dozen men came into the light of the campfire and surrounded the women and children. The comely daughter of Dell Creed was pulled aside, and then the women and children were massacred. Angela screamed in utter horror as she watched her family die, and then fell to the ground, still and silent.
         The vicious looking marauders wore tattered black leather and a motley assortment of mismatched metallic armor. They carried a variety of rifles and pistols. Their leader stood at their front, a shirtless, muscular giant of a man, his torso tattooed in woad barbwire and bright red roses. His hair stood up in orange-dyed spikes, and he carried a short-handled battle axe in one hand and an automatic rifle in the other.
         "Hah! Look what the caravans have brought us, my brothers! A true beauty to feed our savage desires!" An ugly knot of disgust formed in Rurik’s stomach when he heard these words, and then the giant turned to his men with his hands lifted up in the air. He shouted out a mighty chant.
         "THE QUAFFER!" They shouted in fervor.
         "THE QUAFFER!"
         "THE QUAFFER!"
         "THE QUAFFER!" At this last shout the men let out a zealous cheer, and then the one they had called the Quaffer held up his hand for them to be silent. He turned his attention to Angela.
         "Do not fear me, my luscious darling. Your kin lay dead at my feet, and I can see the hate in your eyes. But as your conqueror you will learn to love me in due time, and with the pleasures I have in store for you, perhaps you will even enjoy it." From the ground Angela spit at the Quaffer, and in return he gave her a great backhanded slap. His men pulled her to her feet, and they all melted off into the shadows as quickly as they had arrived. Rurik ran to where the bodies lay, searching for survivors. There was but one.
         "Mr. Creed!" Rurik bent down to see how bad the man’s wounds were. They were obviously fatal. His torso was riddled full of bullets, and the majority of his life’s blood pooled about him in the dirt.
         "W…Weasel....the thieves are still…still about. They will be back for the auto…and wagons.…." After those words, Dell Creed began to spit up a great torrent of blood. Rurik knew the man wouldn’t last much longer.
         "Is there anything I can do, Mr. Creed? Didn’t you say the wagons carried medical supplies?"
         "Yes…antibiotics…and other medicines. Nothing…nothing that could help me now. Promise me one thing, Weasel!"
         "Yes, anything Mr. Creed."
         "That scum will be back soon to get the supplies. Follow them and rescue my daughter…then see her safe to an outpost! Can you…," he paused to cough up more blood, " can you promise…can you promise me?"
         "Yes, I promise Mr. Creed." Dell Creed raised his hand and tried to give Rurik his shotgun, but Rurik refused.
         "I won’t need it. I have my knives."
Rurik watched as Dell Creed breathed his dying breath, and then he limped back into the shadows across the pond. There he formulated his plan of action.
         Just as Dell Creed had predicted, the gang of marauders came back for the wagons and automobile. They searched through the supplies, shouting in joy at finding a case of whiskey along with the medicine. No one noticed the small, dark figure that had tied itself to the bottom side of one of the wagons. As they drove away, Rurik the Weasel tried his best not to cough from all the dust billowing up into his face. Pulling his shirt up over his mouth and nose, he closed his eyes and held on tight, hoping the gang of pirates didn’t plan on traveling far.
         From his perch, Rurik occasionally opened his eyes and lowered his head to peer out under the wagon. The rope about his waist held him securely in place to a cross-section four-by-four, but Rurik’s arms still ached from hugging his torso close to the wagon. He now noticed that they had crossed the highway and were heading up a steeply inclined dirt road. Rurik could only guess that the group was heading to a hideout in the Chikasee hills. Only a bloodthirsty gang of half-crazed highwaymen such as these would make their camp in a place so close to the deadlands.
         Closing his eyes again, Rurik thought about Angela. He could only hope that the pirate who called himself "The Quaffer" hadn’t harmed her. To Rurik’s dismay, the convoy didn’t stop in the Chikasee hills. They continued past them, past the rusted sign of highway 92, the sign Rurik had gambled that he could retrieve, and into the desert terrain of the deadlands. The area was named thus because of the thousands of undead that mysteriously wandered the dusty plains. No one knew what drew them there, but they knew that to travel through the deadlands was to commit suicide. A man could gun down twenty or maybe even fifty undead and make a clean get-away, but when a man found himself surrounded by a sea of walking corpses his doom was certain.
         It was said that the zombies of the deadlands, tired of milling about aimlessly, eventually lay down on the desert floor, letting the wind cover their bodies with dirt and sand. When a lone traveler or group not familiar with the area came through, the undead sensed living meat and hundreds upon hundreds of the creatures would rise up at once, surrounding and attacking the victims with a myriad of rotten, bony fingers and blackened, gnashing teeth. As the convoy continued deeper into the accursed area, Rurik thought of all the tales he had heard and wondered what had possessed him to take the stupid bet in the first place.
         Eventually the convoy came to a halt. Rurik guessed that it must be the middle of the night sometime, or early morning. He heard the sounds of men unloading the wagons, and then a fire was lit somewhere. Lowering his head, he saw the pirates setting up camp. To his excitement, Angela was brought over and tied to a wheel on the very wagon he hid under. Her mouth was gagged with a rag around her face, and the pirate that tied her there crouched low towards her. He was an ugly fellow, a bright red scar winding down one side of his face and over an empty eye socket. The hollow hole where the ocular organ once resided leaked out a lumpy, green puss, and the other eye bulged out, an immense, vein-covered orb. Sticking his tongue out, he licked up and down her face, leaving a trail that looked like slug slime. Angela squirmed to try and avoid him, but she was tied too tightly to the wheel to move away.
         "Hehe! Do you like that, my tasty treat! In a few days, when the Quaffer tires of you, Cyclops will take over! Hah! I will spend hours licking every inch of your beautiful body!" Rurik grabbed a throwing knife with murderous intent but knew that by slaying the pirate now he would only draw the attention of the others. The man eventually left. Rurik waited until he heard the voices of the men quiet down and then untied himself and crawled cautiously over to Angela.
         "Pssst! Angela….it’s me…Weasel! Don’t try to look behind you." Rurik hid in the shadows behind the wheel. The fire that had been built now flickered high and bright, and if he wasn’t careful, he’d be seen.
         "I’m going to cut your gag off, but I want you to whisper." Rurik slipped the knife behind her head and gently cut through the rag. She immediately coughed and then started out slowly.
         "Rurik…thank god you’re alive. My family…did any of them…?"
         "No, Angela. You and I are the only ones." She was quiet for a long time. Rurik wasn’t watching, but he could imagine the tears of pain streaming down the dirt on her face. He could think of no words to comfort her, se he began to plan their escape.
         "Angela, listen to me…this is important. This may be my only chance to get you out of here. These men…they must not be from around here. No one in their right minds would camp out on these plains, but it gives me an idea. Do you know how to drive the automobile?"
         "Good. Now I need you to look around the campsite. Tell me how many you see and what they are doing."
         "The big one…he is asleep on the back of a wagon. Most of them are now asleep. They have all been drinking the whiskey. But there are still five guards awake, men with rifles of some sort. They each hold a torch and are facing out into the desert."
         "Is anyone watching you, or watching this area in general?"
         "Well…sort of. One guard is about fifteen feet away. He is faced out towards the desert, but he keeps looking over his shoulder at me as if he’d never seen a female before." Rurik fingered the razor-sharp edge of his Arkansas toothpick. He held the blade out of the shadows and saw for himself the drunken sleeping men in the reflection. He turned the knife and saw the guards standing in place around the camp. For the most part they all kept to themselves and watched the desert intently. He saw the automobile only ten yards away and near it the guard who kept looking back at Angela. Rurik realized how easy it would be to sneak up behind any of the guards…they expected no threat from inside the camp. In that moment he knew what he must do.
         After making sure Angela understood his plan, Rurik cut her binds and crawled across the cracked, desert floor till he reached the side of the automobile that faced away from the campfire. The guard stood near the front bumper of the car, and occasionally he looked back to stare licentiously at Angela, who sat as if still tied to the wheel. Gripping the long, serrated blade of the Arkansas toothpick, a bead of nervous sweat trickled down Rurik’s brow. Killing the undead was one thing, but now he faced live opponents. Wiping his forehead with his shirt sleeve, Rurik swallowed his fear and made his resolve.
         With uncanny stealth, the Weasel limped from the shadows until he stood behind the guard. The guard had no time to yell as the knife was slipped from behind and drawn across his throat. Rurik stepped aside as the man fell to his knees, a shower of crimson spraying from his open neck. There was a small, sound of gurgling as the man drowned in his own blood, and satisfied he was dead, Rurik sank back into the shadows.
         Now there was the problem of the rest of the marauders. If Angela and he made an escape now, then the bandits were sure to follow. Rurik swallowed his fear and enacted the second part of his plan. Stepping out again from the shadows, he grabbed the dead guard’s boot and slowly dragged the corpse out away from the camp. Once he was a good twenty yards or so into the desert, he began the grisly work of beheading the guard. When he was finished, a great sanguine pool spread out from the body, and Rurik’s feet and legs were spattered in blood. Holding the head by its hair, he proceeded slowly into the deadlands, his bad leg leaving a dragging trail in the dirt.
         Moving with caution, Rurik watched the darkness in front of him. When he saw the strange, body-shaped mounds of dirt he stopped. He threw the head out towards the mounds. It thudded against the earth and rolled to a stop. Suddenly there was a flurry of movement as dirt billowed in the air. Zombies rose from the ground, brought into animation by the fresh scent of blood. At first they thronged for the decapitated head, but then they saw Rurik and their rancid eyes lit up with bloodlust. With arms outstretched they began stumbling towards him as quick as their rotten legs would allow.
         Even with his club foot, Rurik could out-maneuver the torpid undead, but he purposely kept within fifteen feet of the multitude of walking corpses, leading them towards the campsite. They were an eerie sight, but he had grown up in the wasteland around New Denver and was more than familiar with the creatures. The only thing he couldn’t get used to was their putrid stench. Even these zombies, baked and leathered by the hot desert sun, still gave of the smell of a week-old pile of dog vomit, festering and maggoty. As the morbid procession followed the small, limping man, they began to moan in frustration and yearning for the taste of living flesh; the sound of hot, fetid air escaping from dead lungs sounded a hellish symphony in the desert night.
         Soon, Rurik could see the light of the camp ahead, and he began to run as fast as his gimp leg would allow. The undead saw his sudden quickening movement and gave out a loud howl of frustration. The guards heard the howling and gunfire immediately erupted in lightening bursts. Rurik jumped into the open door of the automobile and pulled the door shut behind him as bullets zinged by. Waiting for him, Angela started the ignition and slammed her foot to the gas pedal. The mob of undead that had followed Rurik enclosed upon the campsite, and the wheels of the car kicked up a storm of dirt as it shot out into the darkness.
         "We made it! We got away!" Angela shouted in excitement as the car streaked across the desert, but Rurik looked sick with worry.
         "Watch out!" He yelled too late. The car slammed into a large group of undead and Angela momentarily lost control, swerving wildly. The car skidded to a halt and the motor died. Through the twin, yellow beams of the headlights, they could see hundreds of slow moving bodies walking stiltedly through the darkness. Noticing the car, the undead turned and began moving towards it.
         "Start it! Start the car, Angela!" Rurik was screaming, and Angela was crying in frustration. She turned the ignition key, but nothing was happening. The undead were getting closer. Rurik rolled up the window on his side, and then turned to see a green-fleshed creature in tattered strips of clothing within of four feet of Angela.
         "Oh my God! Roll up your window, Angela! Quick!" She turned and began frantically rolling the handle. The window was halfway up when hands reached through the top. Dirty, rotten fingers grasped at her and grabbed a handful of hair. She continued to roll the window up until the sickening sound of the glass cutting into rotten flesh was heard. A living being would have pulled back in pain, but the zombie held tight to her hair with one hand and with the other began to claw at her face. There was a flash of steel in the car and suddenly the creature held only a handful of cut hair. Rurik pulled Angela away from the window and lashed out again with the knife, this time slicing off several of the abomination’s fingers. Dark, coagulated gore oozed out from the stumps onto the seat of the car.
         "Trade me places!" Rurik pulled Angela over his lap onto the passenger side of the car, and scooted up to the driver’s side. He fumbled to open the door handle while ducking to avoid the zombie’s grasping hands. With a great push, Rurik slammed the door outwards and sent the creature teetering backwards on unstable legs. Pulling the door shut, he finished rolling up the window just as another walking-corpse stumbled against the door, seeking a way inside.
         Looking at the key, Rurik tried to remember how Angela had twisted it to start the car. He asked her, but he couldn’t get a response. She was covering her face with her hands and sobbing hysterically. Looking about, Rurik saw that the vehicle was now surrounded by the undead, pressing their worm-eaten, hungry faces against the windows. They began beating on the glass in order to get inside, and Rurik tried turning the key backwards…nothing happened. There was a cracking of glass from a backseat window as more undead joined in on beating the windows with their decaying fists, and Rurik tried twisting the key forward. The car engine suddenly spit to life. Rurik pushed on the pedals, and the engine roared out louder but the car sat motionless.
         "Angela! Angela! What do I do?" She was still holding her face in her hands, but she was now softly crying. Rurik reached over and pulled one of her hands down. The car began to rock from the bodies pressing against the sides. Running a hand through her hair, Rurik asked her again.
         "Please, Angela. The car is started. I need you to tell me what to do to make it move."
         "I…I’m sorry. I…I freaked out. Pull that lever over a notch…that will put the car in drive. Then push on the far right pedal." Rurik did as she told him and the car jumped forward, running over several undead that stood in its path. The car jolted as it ran over the bodies, but Rurik kept his foot pressed solidly to the pedal and held the steering wheel steadily ahead.
         Rurik thought that they must have passed thousands of undead as the car zoomed across the desert flatlands. Occasionally he had to swerve to miss the creatures, but for the most part they turned away from the headlights as they saw the car approaching. Several times he hit a slow moving body and sent pieces of rotten flesh flying into the air. Apparently the gunfire and the fresh blood brought the creatures out from miles around, and they were all heading towards the bandits’ camp. Rurik knew the marauders wouldn't be pursuing Angela and him anytime soon.
         As they left the deadlands, and entered the main road that led through the Chikasee Hill’s back to the highway, Rurik saw the sign marking highway 92 rising up from the darkness. He tried to swerve to avoid it, but he was now going too fast. The car ran the seven-foot tall pole and small sign down as if it were made of butter. He thought about stopping the vehicle to go retrieve the sign, but now the bet he had made at the Blue Bull Pub no longer mattered. He had managed to rescue Angela, and in her had found something more valuable than he had ever imagined or dreamt possible.

* * *

         As the lone car pulled up to the gates at New Denver, the guards held machine guns aimed down from their towers of stacked automobile shells. Rurik got out and waived. The guards recognized him and ordered the gate to be pulled open. The giant, wheel-less semi trailer that made the gate was pulled back on its sled track, and Rurik drove the car inside.
         When he pulled the car to a stop and helped Angela out, a crowd had gathered. Horace "Buzz saw" O’Leary, captain of the city guard, pushed his way through the crowd. He had a medic with him who immediately began to see to Rurik and Angela’s cuts and bruises.
         "What in the hell happened out there, Weasel?"
         "Crazies…that’s what happened. A whole gang of them." The crowd murmured in awe. A few, including O’Leary, who knew Rurik from the Blue Bull Pub, laughed in disbelief. O’Leary voiced what they were thinking.
         "So! You and your knives took on a whole gang of blood-thirsty crazies, a regular army of leather-wearing, gun-toting pirates, and you just happened to rescue this damsel here?"
         "That’s right." Rurik answered confidently while Angela quietly took his arm.
         "I suppose you’re going to tell us that you actually made your trip to the deadlands also?"
         "Actually…I rescued this girl from the pirates, who had made camp in the deadlands." Now everyone around O’Leary burst into laughter. Rurik tried to explain what had happened, but the laughter was drowning him out. A sinking feeling started in his stomach and Rurik knew that his reputation was doomed. Everyone would think he stole the car from somewhere no matter what he said. As usual, he would be the butt of jokes and ridiculing laughs.
         Noticing something on the front of the car, Angela walked away. Rurik saw her prying something from the bumper. She walked back holding up the bent sign from highway 92. The laughing immediately died down. O’Leary’s jaw gapped open at what he saw.
         "The…the old sign to…."
         "To the deadlands." Rurik finished O’Leary’s sentence and then took Angela’s hand and turned away from the crowd. With his woman by his side, he limped proudly down the streets of New Denver, looking for the merchant that would give him the best deal on the car. With luck, he would even make enough off of the trade to buy a nice place for them to live in the best part of town. Smiling to himself, he thought that maybe later that night, after a good meal in the finest restaurant, and after taking Angela out to buy her the best dress money could buy, he might take her by the Blue Bull Pub. Then he realized he didn’t care about that place anymore. He would rather spend the night with Angela, consoling her on the loss of her family, and caressing her lovingly in his arms.

* * *

         Somewhere deep in the deadlands a bloody, savage figure pulled itself up from behind an overturned wagon. Looking around he smiled. The earth was wet with crimson, the entire campsite painted red with the innards of his men. The desert floor was covered with bodies of the undead, but a few still stumbled towards him, their jaws agape in anticipation. The man that called himself the Quaffer pulled out his axe and swung it in a glistening arc. He sent the head of a zombie that had walked too close flying through the air. Licking the gore off of the razor-sharp blade he vowed pain and retribution upon the fool who had stolen his prize…the beautiful maiden that he had taken for himself.
         "THE QUAFFER SHALL HAVE HIS REVENGE!" His shout echoed across the dusty plains. With eyes blazing hell-fire, the giant man began his trek across the deadlands, in search of the little fool who had flamed his wrath.

The End

Copyright © 2003 by Cameron Neilson

Bio:Cameron Neilson is a Creative Writing major at Oklahoma State University. He has had shorts published in magazines in England and has had both poems and short stories published in various e-zines in the U.S.



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