Warning: This work has been rated 18+ for language and violence.
The jeep slowed to a halt and Red yanked back the handbrake with a sigh. Sweat slid down his skin, making his tattered hooded jacket cling to him. He tipped his head back, letting it rest against the headrest for just a moment more, before he wiped his sticky bangs from his eyes and unlocked the jeep door, stepping out into the miserable wasteland heat.
The sky was a deep, restless blue with fat, grey clouds looming overhead. They offered a small respite from the sun, but it wasn’t enough. Red wiped his hands on the front of his trousers, messing with the straps that held his pistols. He desperately wanted a drink of water, but only one bottle remained in his jeep and he’d need that for the trip home. Besides, once this job was over, he would be able to afford more water. Enough to last him a month, hopefully.
He turned on his heel and regarded the jeep thoughtfully behind his goggles. Stealing from a well-fortified settlement wasn’t an easy job, hell, it wasn’t even a sane job, but Red managed to pull it off. It helped that he was so small and slim that he barely caught the guards’ attention and that he’d stalked them all, one by one, learning their routines, what keys unlocked what doors and how long it took for them to respond to a crisis. One such crisis was a small, unassuming fire Red had lit in the merchant’s district. No one had gotten hurt, and the guard hadn’t noticed Red plucking his keys right from his belt during the chaos. The thief was in and out of the supply bunker before any alarms could be raised, carrying a sack of ammo, food rations and drugs. All of it laid in the back of his truck, snug and secure, for their new owners to arrive.
Red dug into his pocket and pulled out his cigarettes. He lit one, taking a deep drag as he surveyed the empty landscape before him. Well, somewhat empty. There were ruins that belonged to the old world, but they’d long since been picked clean. Buildings that used to house hundreds, maybe even thousands of people, shops where food was plentiful and even places that stored relics from their version of the old world. Between the crumbling buildings grew trees and plants that were crooked and burned, but somehow still thriving, reaching towards the sun and creaking with each gentle breeze. Red spotted one tree where several skeletons laid curled up underneath, their clothes torn and burned, their jaws wrenched open in terror.
He tossed his cigarette onto the ground and stomped it out with his boot. Tires crunched nearby and he knew his employer was here. He waved at the dark-coloured truck with several skulls decorating the hood. Tacky, but he couldn’t fault the guys for wanting to add a little pizazz to their ride.
“Red!” Phoenix called out, nearly falling out of the truck in excitement, “You actually pulled it off you little fucker!”
Red shrugged. “I mean, I could’ve promised the job would get done and then fucked off but where’s the fun in that?”
“Shut up, asshole,” Phoenix said, smiling with a mouth full of cracked teeth, “Open her up.”
Red went to the back of his jeep and pulled open the doors, revealing the sacks of gear he’d stolen. Phoenix practically vibrated with glee beside him, licking his teeth and rubbing his hands together.
“Oh, I could kiss you.”
“Please don’t,” Red said.
Phoenix chuckled, then looked over his shoulder to see his gang still getting out of the truck. “Hurry up!” He barked, “I want this shit moved now!”
That got them moving. The guys grabbed everything from the back of Red’s jeep and hauled it to their truck. Once the doors swung open, Red noticed they had another large black sack in there, bound in rope. Probably weapons, he thought. Phoenix was one of the more notorious bandit leaders around here, specializing in drugs and weapons smuggling. This wasn’t the first time Red worked with his crew, The Burned Men, but it was the first time he worked with their leader directly. He didn’t know what he was expecting, but it wasn’t this tall, narrow-faced man with tightly braided red hair and a wild, bushy beard. Phoenix clapped him on the shoulder.
“I’ll admit I had my doubts you could pull it off. I kept asking Mikey, you remember Mikey right, I asked him if this scrawny kid could really steal from those rich pricks in the Southern Bay. And he told me you could’ve done the job while tied up, blindfolded and drunk just for kicks!”
“I do like getting drunk,” Red said.
“I bet you do. So how about I give you some extra spending money-”
Red raised a brow. Extra spending money? He liked that idea.
“Provided you do one more job for me.”
Oh. A catch. Yeah, Red should have seen that coming. He shrugged again. “Alright. Shoot. What’s the job?”
Phoenix licked his teeth again and gestured to the truck. “See, something stumbled onto our camp and it’s a very… Well, let’s say it’s gonna make the lot of us very, very rich men.”
Red glanced at the sack again. It moved. He stiffened, eyes slowly trailing back to Phoenix whose smile widened at the prospect of more money.
“What’s the job?” Red repeated.
Phoenix regarded him with a sly curl of his lips and pointed to the sack again. “First, you’re gonna take him out to the Narrows-”
“Him?!” Red spluttered.
“Yeah. Him. Take him out to the Narrows and there’s a camp northeast of the town… Wait, what’s up with you?”
He’d finally noticed Red’s ashen face. Red glared back at him. “No. Fuck no. I don’t smuggle people. I smuggle weapons, drugs and ammo, not people.”
“What’s the difference? It’s all loot. It’s gonna make us a lot of money. You’re not thinking, Red.”
“No, I’m fucking thinking. I’m thinking you can fuck right off with that job of yours. I don’t want any part of it. So we’re done here.”
Phoenix clicked his tongue. “Well, that’s a shame. Since, you know, I can’t let you go now.”
Red’s stomach dropped. He watched the gang members pull out their guns, aiming them at him. The sack behind them moved again.
“No loose ends and all that. You understand, right?” Phoenix said, “And you’re such an easy one, since… Well, who’d come looking for you anyway?”
Red grit his jaw. “You’re a scumbag.”
“That’s hurtful. Okay, boys, rip him apart,” Phoenix said and snapped his fingers.
A wet, gurgling sound followed. Red blinked. Both he and Phoenix turned to see one of his men with blood gushing out of his mouth, his throat caved in. He spat out more blood, then his head wrenched violently to the right, neck snapped completely. Red staggered back, eyes widened, as he watched another bandit get dragged to the side, his body flung against a building with a loud crack. The final bandit dropped his weapon and ran, screaming for help, only for something to grab him by the throat and pull, tearing his head clean from his body. The head hovered in the air for several seconds, blood and viscera dripping from it before it was thrown straight towards Phoenix. The bandit leader barely had time to react before the head collided with his own and sent him flying back, his body falling with a hard thud against the tarmac.
Red could barely move, his entire body frozen in place as he struggled to make sense of what the fuck had just happened. The sack moved again, and this time the ropes binding it tore apart. Red shook as he watched it move, as whatever lay inside it curled onto its side and he saw an arm push out of the opening.
He ran to his jeep, throwing himself into the driver’s seat and locking the door. His hands shook as he struggled to get his key into the ignition, his breath catching in his throat as icy sweat rolled down his neck. Once he finally got the key inserted he slammed his foot on the accelerator, the tires shrieking against the tarmac as he peeled away from... From whatever the fuck that had been. The back doors were still open, clattering as they struggled to hang on. One loud bang made Red look back, seeing Phoenix back on his legs, a gun in his hand, and a tall, white-haired man standing before him. Phoenix fired the gun again, but the white-haired man didn't budge. Then, Phoenix’s arm ripped from his body, blood spraying everywhere.
“Shit!” Red shouted, turning back to face the road. A large, gnarled tree came into view. Red’s whole body went cold at the sight, his foot slamming on the brake, but it was too late.
The last thing he saw was his little brother’s stuffed bear, shredded apart by the glass.
“God, Reggie, you’re so slow,” Oliver stuck his tongue out at him. He’d lost another baby tooth and now had a large, gap-toothed grin, “You’re like an old man.”
“I’m not the one losing my teeth,” Red replied, hopping down to join him in the creek. Water was scarce, so they were lucky that they had this narrow stream of water outside their village. Red took out their jars and handed one to Oliver.
“Try not to get as much dirt as last time,” Red said.
“You’re just jealous ‘cause I got more than you last time.”
“Yeah, I’m seething over the many jars of dirt you collected.”
Oliver stuck his tongue out again, and then scooped some water into his jar. “Are you really gonna go with Mum on her next trip?”
Red nodded. Their mother was a travelling merchant, and now that Red was thirteen he was officially old enough to join her and learn the family business.
“That sounds boring. It’s just a lot of walking,” Oliver said.
“Yeah, but I won’t have to listen to you snoring at night, or sucking your thumb, or both at the same time. That’s a plus.”
“Shut up! I don’t suck my thumb!” Oliver glared at him.
“But you do snore,” Red snickered.
Oliver turned away from him. “I’m not playing with you anymore. You’re mean.”
“C’mon Ollie, I’m just teasing-” Red started before he noticed he was alone in the creek. He looked around him, seeing only the water, the dry, brittle grass and the clouds looming heavily overheard. Wet, muddy footprints trailed up the short ridge, leading back to the village. Smoke rose from the settlement, and the stink of ash and burnt flesh hung heavily around him. A shot rang out, and he jumped.
“Ollie!?” He shouted.
He wasn’t in the creek. In fact, he wasn’t anywhere near his old home. He was laid out on an old sack, staring up into the starry sky through the cracks of a ceiling. His whole body was caked in a cold sweat and ached, and when he went to move it practically screamed at him to sit still. But he needed to know where he was, or… Rather, he needed to know how he wasn’t dead.
Because he remembered driving off from… From some kind of fucking monster, and then hitting a tree. He should be dead, if not from the impact, then from that beast ripping him apart too. He swallowed thickly and tasted blood in his mouth.
A fire crackled cheerily nearby, the flames casting a soft orange glow against the walls. Red shifted again, rubbing at his head, and only then noticing the tightly wound bandages around his hand. He stared at it, wondering who found him and why they patched him up. Good Samaritans were as hard to come by as water these days. He looked around him. This seemed to be some kind of old shed. There were various tools laid out on old, battered shelves, the walls were covered in rust and the floor was littered with old newspapers, wrappers and wet, mouldy cardboard. He took a deep breath to calm his jittery nerves from that nightmare and moved to stand.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
Red gasped and fell back against the floor, hissing as he landed on a particularly sore spot. His eyes darted around him, trying to find the source of that voice. When he spotted him, his entire body ran cold.
There, in the other corner of the shed, was another man. He sat on an old wooden chair, his face long and narrow and partially obscured in shadow. His eyes were a harsh, bright silver that cut through the dark entirely and bore right into Red, making him squirm. It was like being watched by a predator.
Red swallowed thickly. “Who’re you? Where am I? What do you want?”
He meant to sound threatening but his voice came out raspy. The man stood, and Red instinctively moved back, even if his body throbbed with pain. The man regarded him with a tilt of his head, and when he caught the firelight, Red’s eyes widened in horror.
White hair. The man had white hair. That was the man from the road, the one who was trapped in Phoenix’s truck. Shit, he caught up to Red and was going to kill him, wasn’t he?
The man took another step forward and Red’s good hand shot out. “Wait! Wait, I didn’t fucking do anything to you! I didn’t even know you were in the truck-”
“And I said I wouldn't- Wait, what?” Red blinked up at him.
“I know you didn’t help kidnap me. I heard everything. I know he was going to pay you to deliver me to a bandit lord down in the Narrows, and you said no.”
Red’s hand slowly fell back to his lap. The adrenaline seeped out of him, leaving him with his shoulders sagging and the air punched out of him. “Oh.”
The man’s lips curled up into a small smile. “I’m sorry you had to see all that. But, you provided a good distraction while I got my bearings.”
“Yeah, about that-” Red glared up at the man, “What the hell are you? How could you… Was that really you who did all that nightmare shit back there? And how am I alive? I hit that tree, I should have died on impact.”
The man scratched at his nose. “Yeah, that’s a lot of questions, so I’ll answer as best I can. For starters, you’re alive because I saved you. I caught you before you could hit the tree. I didn’t think it was fair for you to die because of what some other scumbags did.”
“How did you catch me? I drove a good distance away from you.”
“That’s leading into my second answer. All that crazy stuff you saw before… That really was me. I’m… You know what Wraiths are, right?”
Red nodded slowly. He’d heard stories, everyone has heard stories at some point. The Wraiths were supposed to be a type of mutant, but they were a rarity. The stories Red heard as a kid told of how they could manipulate the world and other humans with their minds, could read thoughts and have visions of the future. He never thought they were real. But… It wouldn’t have been the first time he was wrong about something.
“Well, that’s what I am. I can move things with my mind. And I don’t necessarily need to see with my eyes to be able to manipulate things around me. So I… Did away with those guys and then knew you needed my help.”
Red rubbed at his forehead. Shit, this was some messed up… Shit. He took a deep breath. “So, you saved me from the wreck… And now what? You know those weren’t Phoenix’s only guys, right? He has… He had a whole crew. The Burned Men. They’re gonna hunt you down now that they know someone offed their leader.”
“Ah. Yeah, about that,” the man took another step closer, “I was hoping… I’m not from around here, you see. I was only passing through the area to reach Forgotten City. I… I’m hoping to find someone there.”
Red regarded the other man warily. He could see where this was going. “You want a guide.”
“Yeah. I don’t have money, they stole that, but if we find who I’m looking for, I can give you money then.”
“If we find who you’re looking for?”
The man pressed his lips firmly together, his jaw tightening. “I’ll find a way to pay you regardless, but I need help getting to Forgotten City.”
“You can’t use your crazy brain powers to get you there?” Red said, “Can’t look into my mind to find the route or… Teleport yourself there?”
The man shook his head. “My powers don’t work like that. If you don’t want to help me, fine, but just say so.”
Red watched him curiously, wondering how in the hell he even got himself into a mess like this… Oh yeah, he robbed a town. But still. With a sigh, he offered his good hand to the other man. What did he have to lose?
“Alright, fine, I’ll get you there. But you keep that freaky mind shit to yourself.”
The man stared at Red’s hand, his brows furrowed. It took a few seconds, but a smile gradually pulled at his lips. “Really? You’ll help? Oh, thank you so much!”
He reached for Red’s hand and squeezed it. Red wondered if he was making a massive mistake, that also wouldn’t be the first time. He dropped Red’s hand but the smile was still on his face. “Okay, so before we get going, we should exchange names, right? I’m Dimitri.”
“Dimitri?” Red repeated with a raised brow.
“Alright. I’m Red.”
“Red? That’s not a name,” Dimitri said.
“I’m sorry my mother was shit with names,” Red said, “I’ll be sure to offer her your critique next time I die.”
Dimitri shrank back, his eyes cast down onto the ground. “Oh. Wow. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. I’m fucking with you,” Red said, “Not about my mum being dead. That’s true. But everything else, yeah.”
Dimi blinked at Red as though he couldn’t quite believe what was coming out of the other man’s mouth. Red was used to that look so he shrugged it off.
“First things first, we gotta resupply,” Red said, “I didn’t have much with me when I stopped. I was banking on Phoenix paying me so I could stock up on shit.”
“Oh, his truck and all that is still there. Whatever he was going to pay you should still be there too.”
“And the weapons and ammo I already stole for them. And the drugs.”
“What would you do with the drugs?”
“Build a nice little house with them.”
Dimitri rolled his eyes at the smaller man. “Right. Forget I asked.”
“We can sell them and use the money to get water and food for the trip. Maybe even another set of wheels. Walking to Forgotten City will take a long time. It’s not impossible, but it will definitely take at least a month on foot.”
“A whole month?” Dimitri bit his lip, “No, we need to get there faster than that.”
“Then we need a car. So I’ll need those drugs to sell to a local drug dealer.”
“Why not take that bandit’s truck?”
“Bandit clans decorate their own vehicles, and if we drive around in that, we could be shot at by settlement guards throughout the valley. Or potentially stir up shit with rival bandit clans. I mean, bandits will shoot at us anyway, but they’ll be even more pissed if they think one of their rivals is trying to attack their territory. No, better to get our own car. Besides, I can’t drive trucks. Too heavy and hard to steer.”
“And can you drive us safely to Forgotten City?” Dimitri said.
Red couldn’t help but smirk. “Define safely?”
“I very much regret keeping you alive.”
“Eh, you wouldn’t be the first.”
Red laid back against the ground. He watched the stars through the cracks in the ceiling, wondering if maybe he shouldn’t have agreed to this. Forgotten City was a long journey, even by car, and it required cutting through several bandit territories and the remains of a heavily radioactive town. Red took a deep breath. He was freaking out over nothing, this would go fine. This would go fine.
He turned on his side, wincing a little, and watched the flames flicker and dance. He tried not to think of what it reminded him of.