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Aftermath: Off The Map by Sickerton

After the fall of society, there are reasons why we don't go west.

  1. Sickerton
    Off The Map

    Phyr balled her fists and fumed. She knew she was numbering her days with this; but dammit, someone had to do it.

    One step behind her, flanking either side, stood two armed guards. These sentries would probably be the ones to end her if things went any further south, but in truth they were little more than decorations. The true threat -- even now pulling all attention despite distractedly sorting through paperwork -- was the leader of their "tribe".

    When civilization as a whole crumbled into chaos and ruin, there was no shortage of warrior-king -- pardon, warrior-queen -- types to eventually rise from the rubble and start banding survivors together under their banners. Most were fairly straightforward; I'm strong, you're not, join me, ect. You knew what you were getting into from the titles they latched onto while being elevated into legend by their followers. Skullcrusher. Bear-Claw. Boomstick. Crackbone.

    The woman seated in front of Phyr now was called... Lighthouse. And this was just the start of her oddities.

    As it is with all "warlords", she had a throneroom. In concept. In practice, she had a folding chair and a card table. Certain fanatical underlings would occasionally try to doll them up to be more imposing -- a skull here, some scrapmetal bolted on there, red and black paint liberally splattered everywhere -- but it was never long before Lighthouse removed the additions herself without ceremony. She valued them being small and portable so much more than anything else. This was a recurring theme with her.

    Her table was an organized mess; always completely covered with maps, books, and any other documents she thought could be of use in the near future. One would imagine the ruler of a nomadic looter tribe slouched in their seat, jaw on their hand as they stared off into the distance with a furrowed brow, but the reality was more like walking in on an accountant filing taxes.

    Not that anyone would ever mistake Lighthouse for a timid little paper pusher. Despite her lack of flair, she still made her mark the old-fashioned way. It had seemed like ages since the mysterious woman arrived alone from the west, but she wasted no time in recruiting survivors; uniting gangs smart enough to submit to her, and crushing those that did not. Through wits and charisma as well as brawn, she and her growing army blazed a path through the land on their trek ever eastward. Carving one out themselves, when necessary.

    Lighthouse finally looked up from her papers, and bore into Phyr with a stare far too intense for what she was actually working with. The warlord had a bare, open socket where her right eye should be. Phyr was fairly new to the tribe, but she had always assumed that her nickname stemmed from this: A single eye, absurdly bright and watching everywhere at once. The long, winding scar which started at their leader's forehead and hooked over to her right socket before crossing her lips and finishing at her jawline gave the loss some context; but at the same time raised several layers of new questions forever left unanswered.

    This was not the only notable trait their leader sported, either. Her dirty blonde hair, unkempt and almost perpetually windswept due to their constant travels, often elicited comparisons to a lion's mane from passerby. A small necklace with a locket hung between her breasts; rumors had come and gone about it containing things like a valuable jewel or a photograph of a lost love, but all of her close companions knew that it merely housed a magnetic compass. She wore an old leather duster to help stave off the searing sun of this hellhole once called Arizona; but at this point, after so much heavy wear and tear, it could more accurately be described as a ragged cape with sleeves.

    All in all, not someone to pick a fight with.

    Which meant that it was long overdue.

    "I'm sorry..." Lighthouse began calmly, setting aside her current batch of papers, "...but I don't see what the problem is."

    Phyr bit her lip and tried not to melt down right there. This was clearly going to be like pulling teeth, and she never had much in the way of patience.

    "You don't see a problem?" She replied as slow as she could manage, so to listen to her own tone and reel it back if it got too hard. "Isn't the fact that I'm here a problem?"

    Lighthouse raised an eyebrow, and cocked her head slightly.

    "Yeeees, I guess it is? Would you like me, ah, to fix tha-"

    "Stop playing games!" Phyr shouted, as she stepped forward and slammed a fist onto the table. "You know damn well what I mean!"

    Phyr glared straight into Lighthouse's one brilliant eye, and Lighthouse stared right back. The only motion made in the following silence was a small wave by Lighthouse, commanding the now on-edge guards to lower their pistols.

    For a moment, one could almost feel an electrical charge in the air.

    Then Lighthouse slowly broke into a grin, and the fog of menace was gone just like that.

    "Alright. Refresh my memory."

    -=-​

    In truth, Lighthouse was well aware why her newest second-in command was so furious. How couldn't she? After all, it was why Phyr got that "promotion" in the first place.

    Phyr, while a good kid and a damn fine shot when given gun privileges, was still pretty wet behind the ears. She had been picked up around what used to be the border of California, and had rapidly proven herself quite the skirmisher, but ideally that wouldn't be enough to snag spot two in the chain of command. She was just in the right position as... a slot opened.

    Her last #2, a deceptively lithe brunette by the name of Ven, was quite a piece of work. She could hold her own in a brawl -- and in fact was well versed in knife fighting to an an almost unnerving degree -- but that was not all she had going. She was always there and ready for anything, utterly reliable in a pinch, great to bounce ideas off of, and was not afraid to make big decisions on her own if the need arose.

    Perhaps Lighthouse should have paid more attention to that last part.

    The most recent outpost they came across was different from the others. Everything was going smoothly -- they even agreed to "integrate" without so much as a fuss -- but when it finally came time for a head count something amazing was discovered:

    Kids.

    Kids, a toddler, and even a newborn. All of them born well after everything went to hell. Knowing what this meant, it wasn't long before the new additions were coerced into coughing up the man and woman, ah, responsible.

    Now strategically speaking, each half of this couple was worth more than their own weight in gold. The aftereffects of that damned outbreak left most ladies with barren wombs. This girl they had found could quite literally be a last hope for the survival for humanity as a whole. And the man... well, was a man. Men didn't get their junk all messed up during the really troubled times like the gals, oh no. They were just massacred. Chances are that if you could find a man they'd be able to do the deed just fine, but they were essentially a modern unicorn after all the meat grinders they were put through.

    Lighthouse didn't really see much personal use for either of them, since the last thing they were going to do was settle down to repopulate, but they would certainly be huge bargaining chips for any bartering in the future. So they were taken as "spoils", and while treated decently enough were isolated from the rest of the clan and one another via a personal "bodyguard" each.

    In hindsight, it was probably a terrible idea to let Ven oversee this.

    The clan had awoken today to find the male breeder gone; his quarters empty, his guard dead. The expertly slashed throat of the corpse left no doubt as to who was responsible, and it was soon discovered that other members of the tribe had also gone "missing". In total, Ven had made off under the cover of night with their man, three other deserters, and a pistol looted from the guard.

    It was obvious why Phyr would be out for blood after that.

    Goddamn stupid, but still obvious.

    -=-​

    "You know..." Lighthouse began after Phyr said her piece, "...you already have Ven's old spot. You don't have to kill the previous holder to take their title, or anything."

    "That's not the point." Phyr growled, leaning over the table. "I may be new to this group, but I know how they work. Everything you have going here hinges on you being seen as more of an icon than a person; something unbeatable, something infallible. If these traitors are not hunted down and made examples of, people are going to start wondering exactly why they put so much trust in you."

    Lighthouse's one eye briefly locked with Phyr's, before turning downwards as she started to rifle through documents.

    "Let's say I agree with you one hundred percent." Lighthouse replied. "I don't, but just suppose. Using extra resources to reclaim a happy accident and get a little vengeance has more to it than throwing good money after bad. Fair enough. Ven and her party of exiles left under cover of night, and had up until this very second to move as fast as they can in any possible direction."

    Lighthouse slid a worn, crinkled map across the table, rotating it so that it was facing Phyr.

    "If you want to go get them, first point out where they are on this."

    Phyr took deep breaths, and tried to keep calm.

    "That. Isn't. Funny."

    Lighthouse had made a valid point, but to anyone who knew her it was clear what she was trying to do. The map she had just produced was only a partial one. All of the maps they had were partial ones. Every time they settled down in a temporary outpost, one of the first things Lighthouse always did was gather up their maps to cut off all the space west of their current location. It was a symbolic gesture: There was only one direction they could possibly go. The land behind them might as well not exist, and thus was treated as such.

    "You know damn well where they went." Phyr continued, feeling a headache starting to come on from the frustration. "I know where I'd go to run, and Ven knew you better than anyone else. They headed straight west."

    "Well then," Lighthouse replied lightly with a shrug, "they're gone."

    "BULL-SHIT!"

    The guards, while still minding their orders, couldn't help but finger the triggers of their guns as Phyr sent papers flying with a table pound and leaned in even further to shout into their leader's face.

    "I don't know why you get your panties in a twist about backtracking, but I am goddamn sick of it! And I just got here! Ven must have been a saint, dealing with this shit for so long! Do you know what will happen if people start catching wise? That all they need to do to throw off the ire of the great Lighthouse forever is find magnetic north and turn left? Think, you goddamn cyclops!"

    Phyr paused to catch her breath, and watched with morbid interest as flecks of her own spittle slowly rolled down the face of their emperor-queen.

    Lighthouse let the moment set for an almost unbearably long stretch, before finally replying in a low and even voice.

    "I think... that you are the type who would follow an enemy off a cliff, just for the satisfaction of seeing them splatter first."

    Phyr, in a huff, drew back and turned around.

    "Fine. Be that way, you coward. I'm going to fix this, and if you feel like shooting me in the back as I go to save your reputation so be it."

    Phyr stomped out of the room, and the two sentries could only watch her leave in befuddlement before turning back to their leader.

    "So, uh..." the braver of the two finally began. "Do you want us to..."

    "No." Lighthouse responded. "I'll do it."

    She then picked up a discarded book and found her previously earmarked page before adding "Eventually."

    -=-​

    The small, mousy woman stood up on top of her seat, shading her eyes against the relentless sun.

    "Alright... alright."

    Sitting back down, and buckling her seatbelt, she let her companions in on her discovery.

    "Keep heading straight down the road. Go slow, though, so I can let you know when they veered off."

    Phyr turned back from facing the girl, and with a nod to the driver they were off again.

    Phyr may have been a relatively new addition to Lighthouse's crew, but that did not mean she was a loner by any means. While the spectacle she put on back at the camp meant that she would not be getting any official support for this venture, she had quite enough in the way of friendships and favors to scrounge together a decent enough team on the way out.

    The least personal, but still likely the most important, was the woman currently driving. A gearhead through and through, she was both the owner and maintainer of the impressively tricked-out jeep they were currently trucking along in. With a bandanna wrapped around her face and a set of goggles over her eyes she could have been pretty much anyone; and honestly, Phyr got the feeling that she preferred things that way. She wasn't much of a talker, to the point that most didn't even know her actual name. The only reason she was along for this ride at all was because Phyr got her out of a particularly nasty ambush once, and while not sentimental by any means a debt was a debt.

    Behind her, jostling about in her far-too-big seat and trying to keep her large round spectacles from flying out of the vehicle, was the opposite side of the spectrum. The daughter of Californian "free thinkers" who raised her in some hippie congregation out in the middle of nowhere, Destiny Moonbeam (usually going by "Des" to avoid the inevitable groans) had history with Phyr long before they hooked up with Lighthouse. It was a chance meeting, but in the long run probably saved both of their lives. While Des was just as frail as one would expect, and left most of the physical work to Phyr, it turned out that living out in the wilderness like a goddamn animal came with some benefits. She was an expert forager, scrounger and tracker; the last of which currently coming in handy to hunt down their current targets.

    And in the final seat -- a happy middle ground between the others -- Kim clutched her backpack of supplies against her camo tanktop and watched the world go by. She was Phyr's assigned squad buddy on normal expeditions, and they had been through more than enough in their relatively short time together to foster something approaching a friendship. She was more than a little gruff, and prided herself in that, but the fact that she even agreed to come along on this wild goose chase betrayed a hint of a softer side somewhere under that thick hide.

    "So..." Kim finally broke the ice, switching her gaze to Phyr as she turned around for the conversation. "...you got any intel on the girls we're after who aren't Ven?"

    "Glad you asked!" Phyr replied, and took out a handful of photographs from her pocket to pass around the truck.

    -=-​

    It was standard practice to have one or more pictures of every tribe member, at the very least to keep track of the general population number. It helped keep some semblance of order during all of the moving they did, and there was more than enough unlooted photography supplies in every former tourist trap they came across to keep it up for ages. Phyr had used this to assemble a few -- for lack of a better word -- dossiers of the runners in preparation for her talk with Lighthouse, but they would serve just as well for this purpose as well.

    "First up," Phyr began while passing out photographs of a scrappy looking ginger woman, "Is Carla."

    "Huh." Kim muttered. "Looks like that old burger joint girl. If you found her in the middle of a barfight, I mean."

    "I, uh like her hair." Des chimed in, trying to contribute to the conversation.

    "Anyways..." Phyr continued without comment, "she typically did scout duty for the tribe. Good eye, and a real survivalist-type. If they didn't give that one pistol they're packing to the breeder, this girl probably has it."

    "That makes sense," Kim said thoughtfully, "but why are you so sure about that?"

    "Because you haven't seen the other two yet." Phyr replied.

    Up next were a series of photos sporting an athletically toned lady with raven-black hair. She seemed extremely happy in every shot; perhaps unnervingly so. Her large, toothy grin seemed to go just a bit too wide for comfort, and the tiny pinpricks of her pupils only cranked the sense of wrongness up to tangible levels.

    "This is Moor. Apparently she was found as the sole survivor of an outpost sacked long before Lighthouse even got to it. They never managed to get her to explain what happened there, but no one really wanted to know after seeing the aftermath."

    Des grimaced at the photograph handed to her, of Moor posing with the corpses of a successful skirmish like a game hunter with trophies. Trying not to mess up the Gearhead's car interior with vomit, she quickly passed it back to Phyr.

    "Moor wouldn't kill you with a gun" Phyr concluded. "The most she would do is maybe hobble you with a couple shots to the limbs. She's... playful like that."

    Phyr collected the Moor photos, and began to pass out her final set. It was only seconds after the first was handed over before Kim started shouting.

    "Oh shit. Oh shit! They have Bertha?"

    The woman in the photo Kim was holding in her now unsteady grasp was... well, exactly the type of person one would imagine for the name "Bertha". Short-cut hair, so not to get in the way. Huge in every regard; tall, wide, thick. Details on where this mountain with legs got picked up was a little hazy, but the most common joke around camp was that she fell through a hole in time from the Jurassic era. Not because she was a cavewoman, because she was a dinosaur.

    "This is a problem." Kim carried on. "This is a big, BIG problem."

    The Gearhead, only passively listening as she drove up until this point, finally joined in. "So veer for her?"

    "Hell no!" Kim shot back. "She'd catch the jeep!"

    Kim was stretching the truth here, but not by as much as one would hope. This Bertha woman was a throwback to the days of berserker vikings; gleefully plunging into warzones with nothing more then her bare hands and a smile, only to later return with a collection of severed heads and new sets of scars to show off. She was not so much a teammate as a sentient bomb, something designed to throw into the middle of an enemy formation then run from.

    The only solace to be found here was that yes, Phyr was right. Bertha would never use a gun. That would be unsporting.

    "So now that that's out of the way..." Phyr finished, turning completely around in her seat to face Kim proper, "What have you got in your bag of tricks for us?"

    It was obvious what Kim was bringing for herself -- the machete strapped to her hip might as well have been nailed directly onto her body for how much she prized it -- but she also made a habit of carrying around a backpack for other mission weaponry. She usually sported a pretty good selection... but as Kim fidgeted in her seat, Phyr began to worry.

    "I, uh, have this for you."

    Unzipping her backpack, Kim pulled out and quickly passed an aluminum softball bat to Phyr. It was in decent shape, and could undoubtedly crack a skull or two if need be, but it was... underwhelming.

    "Uh, thanks?" Phyr said, examining her new tool of destruction.

    "Hey, I work with what I can get." Kim tried to reason. "The armory gals weren't exactly going to break out big guns for a lady who just spat in the boss' face."

    This gave Phyr a moment of pause. Was that the story getting passed around at camp? Oh my. Things were going to be awkward when they got back, to say the least.

    "I, uh, also thought that this was just going to be me and you" Kim continued apologetically. "Didn't bring anything along for sunshine over there."

    Kim turned and addressed Des directly. "You don't mind, do you? No offense, but it doesn't seem like you're going to be jumping into the thick of it."

    Des smiled but played with her fingers in idle worry; thoughts of the 'playful' psychopath and flesh-titan running through her mind. "Well, I don't want to, but I'd certainly feel safer if I had something."

    "Toolbox." the Gearhead interjected.

    "What?"

    "Toolbox. By your feet. Crowbar in it."

    Des looked down, and sure enough there it was. After a few moments of maneuvering and prying, the little hippy girl soon had a weapon of her own

    "I really appreciate it," Des thanked the Gearhead, "but what will yo-"

    "I have a truck."

    Alright. Fair enough.

    -=-​

    Des was soon able to point out the spot where their targets had gone off the road, and as they slowly tracked the faint footprints all they had left to do was hammer out possible strategies.

    Ven's party left under cover of darkness, and as stealthily as possible. While this did give them a head start, it also hindered them in a good deal of ways. Vehicles, being extremely valuable comoddities, would have attracted far too much attention and thus they set off on foot. Weaponry was much the same; they probably had nothing with them except the looted pistol and Ven's combat knives, and it would be a cold day in hell before Ven shared her babies. Phyr had discovered that some camping supplies had gone missing in her brief research, so they probably weren't going to die of exposure or hunger out here, but that also meant that it would probably be that much easier to spot their campsite.

    So while Ven's group did have the only firearm, if they could catch them by surprise and take out whoever had it right at the start there shouldn't be much in the way of hurdles after that.

    Ideally.

    -=-​

    The jeep crested a hill and stopped, not even waiting for the order to do so. The Gearhead didn't need Des to tell her what was in front of them.

    Down the other side of the hill, in a natural, shallow valley, were a set of tents and a burnt out campfire. The campsite was set up amongst a spattering of impressively large boulders, on which several clothes were spread out to dry in the sun. It was still too far to tell exactly who was down there, but a moving figure proved that the residents had not packed up and left just jet.

    "Well we found 'em" Kim muttered, unbuckling her seatbelt to lean forward and get a better view. "Do you think they can see u-"

    A distant pop rang out, and sparks flew as a bullet pinged off the frame of their windshield.

    "I guess that answers that!" Kim shouted, right before being flung back into her seat as the Gearhead floored the accelerator.

    -=-​

    The first few bullets went wild, as the shooter got used to the wind and her advancing target. But as the jeep drew closer, and thus larger, shots began to find their marks.

    Most of the jeep's occupants ducked down low to avoid the incoming fire, but the Gearhead had no such luxury if they didn't want to zoom blindly right past their targets. It is thus that she left herself wide open, for better and for worse.

    The vehicle swerved briefly as a bullet went through her right shoulder, but she quickly got it back under control. The next round to land, blowing a hole in her jaw, caused her to whip back in her seat. But her foot remained on the pedal, and the vehicle stayed on point.

    -=-​

    Carla spread her stance wider, steadied her aim, and let off a few more shots at where the driver should be seated. Surely some of these must be hitting home. That thing looked pretty kitted out, but as far as she knew no one had found anything with a bulletproof windshield yet.

    Standing her ground, and calmly emptying her lungs, she continued to lay into the approaching threat.

    -=-​

    The Gearhead gripped her steering wheel like it was the only thing keeping her in this world as bullets rocked through her twitching body, her knuckles white under the now stained red gloves that covered them. Her vision was beginning to blur, but she was now close enough to make out the shooter. That bloody ginger, dead ahead and with a boulder right behind her.

    Perfect.

    "Trk... an rll" The gearhead managed to mumble with her ruined mouth.

    Phyr, while not lifting her head for the world, nonetheless looked up at her in confusion. "What?"

    "Trk... an RLL!"

    Phyr finally figured out that the Gearhead was trying to get say "Tuck and roll", and realized what that meant. This vehicle was not stopping. Or rather, it was going to stop very suddenly very soon.

    Opening her door and bailing out the side, Phyr hoped that the others were following suit behind her.

    -=-​

    Phyr came to a stop with a proper roll, disoriented and scuffed but otherwise fine. Kim was less graceful, but saved herself from most of the "road rash" by keeping her backpack between her and the ground. It was ruined beyond repair, but that beat getting skinned alive.

    Des missed the warning entirely, not even doing so much as unbuckling her seatbelt.

    And the Gearhead, choking on her own blood, bore down on her target.

    -=-​

    Carla turned her aim to the passengers as they bailed out; taking the move as everyone abandoning ship, and inferring that the jeep would soon slow to a halt without any further intervention.

    This would be her first -- and last -- mistake.

    -=-​

    The ginger changed her focus right before the final stretch. Good. The Gearhead would live long enough to see that freckly bitch get hers.

    The jeep plowed into Carla and smashed her against the boulder she stood in front of, instantly destroying her lower body and liquefying most of her internal organs. Amusingly, she still kept hold of the pistol through all this, but a fat lot of good it would do her now.

    Her first reaction was the same as anyone would have in the situation; involuntary thrashings of pure agony. She attempted to scream, over and over again, but even if her lungs were still in any shape to do so the blood pouring out of her mouth would have reduced them to gargles.

    Carla beat her hands against the crumpled hood in desperation, causing the pistol to go off a few more times in wild directions, but all that did was splash around the blood and viscera rapidly pooling around her. As she grew faint, and her vision began to blur, her unfocusing eyes turned up to see...

    ...The equally as bad-off driver, flipping her the bird with both hands.

    Fuck you too, lady. Fuck you too.

    -=-​

    "Holy shit, way to start the party without us."

    Moor circled around the boulder her ally had been pancaked against, taking in everything she had missed. She and Bertha had been busy with... other things when everything went crazy, and while not terribly late they still missed the opening act.

    Bertha made a beeline for the bailing passengers, in her typical straightforward fashion, but Moor felt that the carnage back here needed a little once-over.

    Carla gave just as much as she took, she'd give her that much. The driver, now slumped against her wheel, was a glorified bag of mulch. Not that her opponent fared any better, of course.

    Moor turned back to her fallen ally, only to discover that she still somehow clung to life. Which was probably for the worse, all things considered. As leaking gas finally caught on something, and hints of flame began to lick through cracks in the hood, Carla weakly reached out to Moor.

    "Help... me..."

    Moor, after a moment of deliberation, took Carla's outstretched hand in both of hers.

    And pried the pistol from her pale fingers, before letting it drop back down onto the glowing hood.

    "Sucks to be you, kid."

    Moor turned and left with the handgun, listening to the sounds of weeping and an increasingly prominent sizzle fading with each step. Truly, the luck of the Irish was with that one.

    -=-​

    Kim, taking a second to gather her wits, was filled with a sense of dread as a shadow engulfed her.

    This was not helped at all when she turned to the source, and found exactly who she expected beaming down at her.

    "Well?" Bertha asked, her huge hands on her even huger hips. "Are you ready?"

    Kim was not. Kim was so, so not.

    Regardless, she had to try.

    Drawing her machete in a single practiced motion, Kim rose and lunged directly at her opponent. Fighting her foe unarmed would be like attempting to knock out a tree, but even the mightiest oak could take only so many chops before it fell.

    Bertha was probably too slow to completely dodge the swing in time, so she did not even try. Instead she stepped in and stopped it at the source, knocking Kim's arm away at the wrist with a backhand. Then, palming Kim's forehead in her free hand, slammed her back down into the dirt.

    Kim's world exploded into fireworks as the back of her skull bounced off the ground, her entire body flopping from the force of impact. As she shuddered and shook from the concussion, Bertha secured a better hold on her scalp and... set her feet.

    Kim came to in pain, but not all of it where she expected. While her brain was pounding like a marching band, her legs were also screaming for help as well. As she looked down to figure out what was going on, she came to realize that Bertha was now standing on both her knees.

    She began a plea -- containing what, she was not quite sure yet -- but it was drowned out by her own shriek as Bertha pulled her back by the scalp and her legs folded inwards.

    -=-​

    The ping of an aluminum bat coming down on Bertha's back was almost entirely drowned out by the screams, but in the grand scheme of things that gave it just as much gravitas as the blow itself. Pausing only for a moment to let the ineffectual results sink in, Bertha stood up and turned to face the new attacker.

    "I hope you have something better than that." she mused to her silently panicking opponent.

    Phyr did not.

    At least, not yet.

    Phyr flung her bat at the titan and hooked to the side, attempting to give her a wide berth as the weapon bounced uselessly off her chest. Bertha, after a small chuckle, followed behind.

    Phyr had managed to scramble up next to Kim, flush and sweating from the pain, before she was seized by the ankle and drawn back kicking and screaming. Hoisted up to hang by her leg, Bertha then began to lay into her stomach like a sparring bag.

    Phyr gagged and heaved as her insides churned, but was partially glad that it was playing out like this. The ox was so occupied with breaking her that she hadn't noticed what Phyr had grabbed while she was down.

    Coughing up her breakfast, but all the happy for it, Phyr swung and embedded Kim's machete into Bertha's side.

    -=-​

    Bertha's blows paused for a second, but it took a few more swings for them to grind to a halt. Phyr was released as the mountain stumbled back to examine the damage, but she was far from done yet. Scrambling to her feet as she landed Phyr swung again and buried the blade in one of Bertha's calves, forcing her down onto one knee.

    Seeing her chance, Phyr took her weapon on both hands and raised it over Bertha's head...

    ...but was forced to freeze as a shot rang out and a puff of dirt flew up next to her feet.

    "Hoooold up now!" Moor shouted, as she finished rounding the wrecked jeep with pistol in hand. "Let's not do anything we'll come to regret here."

    -=-​

    Des came to in a confusing world full of heat and pain.

    Not at all ready for the crash, the hippy girl was rattled unconscious and slumped down into her seat upon impact. The diminished status of her already small frame hid her well, leading to Moor overlooking the remaining back passenger entirely as she passed by.

    She wasn't sure where even to start making sense of her surroundings, so for the most part didn't even bother. Wedged against a rock and a hot place, a now unidentifiable body weakly writhed amidst rising flames. Behind that the Gearhead shivered against her steering wheel; Des could not tell if she was still alive, but even if she was there wasn't anything she could do to help at this point.

    Giving up the front for a lost cause, Des unbuckled herself and turned to check behind the jeep.

    This was a more promising prospect... but not by much. Kim was in a sad state, staring up at the sky and trying her best not to pass out from the pain of her clearly broken legs. Phyr was doing slightly better; bruised and scuffed, but with the beastly woman known as Bertha at her mercy. This could all change in an instant, though, with the disturbing lady she was told went by Moor holding her at gunpoint.

    Moor, of course, had her back turned to the vehicle.

    As silently as she could, Des took solid hold of her crowbar and began to creep closer to the rear of the jeep.

    -=-​

    "I ain't giving you a second warning" Moor shouted, keeping her weapon on Phyr. "Drop the blade or things get nasty."

    "I know how you are" Phyr replied, not moving an inch. "If I do that, what's to stop you from just shooting me anyway?"

    "Absolutely nothing." Moor yelled back. "But if you make things difficult for me, I'm going to make them excruciating for you."

    -=-​

    As Bertha was forced to her knees, she was sure that she had finally been bested. Closing her eyes and mouthing a prayer, she waited for the final blow.

    And waited.

    And waited.

    Confused, she opened her eyes and looked around. The woman who had played her hand so well was still poised for the decapitating blow, but something was stopping her from finishing the job. She soon found the cause of this: Little old Moor, keeping her at bay with the pistol.

    Good girl, that one.

    Admiring her companion's resourcefulness, Bertha was first to notice movement behind her ally. An up-until-this-moment forgotten woman, preparing to leap out of the ruined vehicle's back and club Moor from behind.

    Feeling a new surge of adrenaline coming on, Bertha raised a pointing hand and started to shout a warning.

    -=-​

    "Behind-"

    Many things began at once in this moment, and many things ended soon thereafter. Perhaps it would be easiest to go through them part by part.

    Des leapt, crowbar raised above her head, fully intending to crack Moor's skull.

    Moor, quickly processing the warning, spun in place and took aim at the surprise attacker currently in a midair strike.

    Phyr, seeing Moor turn away, started to bring her machete down to finish off Bertha.

    And the Gearhead, with her last ounce of strength, opened and flipped a switch she had rigged up specifically so that her life's work couldn't be stolen by looters if everything went to hell.

    That last one was probably the most important out of the bunch.

    -=-​

    The Jeep exploded in a ball of fire and shrapnel, catching completely off guard everyone who was not immediately incinerated.

    Des, already airborne and traveling away from it, accidentally rode the shockwave and was thrown much further than expected. Landing on her face in a slide, she instinctually clutched at her burned back as the higher parts of her brain worked to come back on-line.

    Moor was blown off her feet, the pistol flying from her grasp as she was pushed away from the explosion and onto her back. She was just far enough away to not be charred too bad, but her body was still peppered with bits of small shrapnel.

    Phyr was knocked off balance, causing her downward slice to miss entirely. Seeing an opening, and being too large for the explosion to rock, Bertha rose with an uppercut to her captor's jaw. Phyr dropped her weapon as she crumpled to the ground, and Bertha scooped it up as she advanced.

    -=-​

    Moor's vision cleared to a welcoming sight.

    True, most people probably wouldn't label a giant woman standing over them with a bloody machete "welcoming", but these were strange times.

    "You okay, little one?" the colossus asked.

    "Just peachy." Moor replied, sitting up with a wince. "How are you holdin' up, beefcakes?"

    "I'll live."

    Bertha offered a hand and, gladly taking it, Moor was helped to her feet. They surveyed the war zone around them for a moment, making sense of what was left.

    "Dibs on the new girl." Moor finally said.

    "Alright." Bertha responded, handing over the machete to her friend before they split up again.

    -=-​

    Des was in a bad place, writhing on the ground while trying to massage her crisped back. Things came into focus a bit more as she was kicked over to face upward and Moor sat down on her stomach; but when the machete came to rest on the dip beneath her throat, she began to miss the mindless agony.

    "That was a good attempt," Moor purred, her eerily intense eyes making Des feel cold as they traveled up and down her despite the burns. "Wouldn't have pegged a little flower like you having the guts to try something like that."

    The machete sunk slightly into her -- juuust enough to draw blood -- and began to travel downward. The pilfered blade sliced through her shirt and bra just as easily as it did her flesh, and by the time it finished it's trip to her stomach her clothes fell away and her upper body was open to the world.

    "Color me interested", Moor continued, setting aside her weapon to lower herself down and pin her captive's arms. "I want to get to know aaaall about you..."

    -=-​

    Kim bit her lip and groaned, trying to hold back screams with every pull forward.

    She had been all but forgotten in the chaos, and honestly for pretty good reason. With only two fighters for three targets priorities had to be sorted, and a newly-made cripple was probably the safest to ignore.

    They were right. But they overlooked one thing.

    Kim kept track of where the gun flew off to.

    She just had to get to it. All she needed was those two to stay distracted long enough for Kim to drag her busted ass over there, and then things would start turning around real fast.

    Moving as quickly as she dared against the twin threats of drawing too much attention and passing out from pain, Kim pulled herself closer and closer to her personal golden snitch.

    -=-​

    The world came back to the sound of a slap for Phyr, as her head was jerked to the side by a backhand. She was being held aloft by the collar of her shirt; loosely, but still high enough for only her toes to touch the ground due to how large the woman suspending her was.

    "When does Lighthouse get here?"

    "...Wha?" Phyr asked groggily.

    "Lighthouse. When does she ride down with her cavalry?"

    Phyr was hoisted up to be eye-to-eye with Bertha, her glassy stare against the warrior's stoked internal fires.

    "When she arrives for her breeder, I will be ready. The day has finally come for the battle I deserve. I will break the queen over my knee, snap her limbs like twigs, and carry her ruined body back to mewl for mercy in front of her followers before digging into her empty socket and tearing her skull in half."

    "Hate to break it to you..." Phyr said, finally catching up to speed, "...but the isn't coming. I'm actually disobeying her orders to try this myself."

    Bertha's brow furrowed, in a mix of confusion and possibly worry.

    "I somehow doubt that she could stand such cowardice."

    Phyr, despite everything, couldn't stop her pained smile.

    "I know, right?"

    -=-​

    Des wrestled and writhed against Moor's hold, but got the feeling that her struggles only pleased her dominator further.

    "You're a lot more, ah, petite than what I usually go for..." Moor mused, in between licks up and down her exposed skin. "...but that's alright. It's always fun to bully a little twerp."

    Des' involuntary gasps raised into a small shout of pain as Moor bit down on one of her breasts, drawing fresh blood and leaving nasty tears as she drew back without letting up.

    "Sweet." Moor commented, her wide grin now dripping crimson. "Give me more."

    The hippy girl's at first tiny pleas soon escalated into legitimate screams as Moor dug back into her, both figuratively and literally.

    -=-​

    With a sense of personal triumph, Kim's hand finally touched the cold steel she was waiting for.

    Taking the object of her hopes and dreams in both hands, she painfully rolled over and examined the current situation. There was an important choice to be decided here, and it was up to her to make it.

    Two targets. And while she could theoretically alternate between them, she would only have the element of surprise against the first chosen.

    Almost every fiber of her being shouted one thing: Shoot Bertha. Shoot her until there were no bullets left, then crawl over and beat her with the handle. But was that truly the beat choice? After all, she was the most likely to shrug off a shot. And while at the moment she was just having a little chat with her opponent like they crossed paths on a midday goddamn stroll, the visceral tears and shrill screams coming from Moor and Des' direction spoke of a much more immediate problem.

    She had to quash most of her gut instincts to do it, but she finally reached a conclusion. A dead or hobbled Moor was better in the long run than a mildly winged Bertha.

    Swinging the sights over to her new target, Kim took careful aim and pulled the trigger.

    -=-​

    Moor ground against the shivering form below her, wanting to use the flowing blood as lubrication before it dried and clotted. The little flower girl was now covered with deep bite marks across her face, chest, arms, and stomach; each shudder and hitching sob sending liquid life flying off of her small but jiggling breasts.

    In fact, the only part of Des' body not touched yet was her throat. But that was for dessert, and Moor wanted to finish herself before she finished her meal.

    Arching her back as she ground harder, Moor could feel herself beginning to peak. It was coming, it was coming, it was-

    As a bullet plowed through her back and exited out of her chest, Moor's body spasmed in several different ways.

    Letting out a groan of pleasure and pain intertwined -- through teeth now stained with her own blood as well as her playmate's -- Moor drooped to the side and tumbled onto the dirty ground.

    -=-​

    Bertha and Phyr both turned towards the noise, just in time to see Moor fall and lay still.

    Phyr turned back to her captor to let out a snide comment, but her world was once again destroyed by a headbutt before anything could get out.

    Bertha was now racing a clock, and Phyr was something that could be put off for later.

    -=-​

    Kim steadied her aim and prepared to land a few more rounds into her prone target -- just to make sure -- but swept the gun around upon feeling vibrations rapidly approaching.

    Oh god, how could something that big move that fast? She expected a reaction, but Bertha was on her now.

    Kim got a single shot off, hitting Bertha in the shoulder to little effect, before a massive foot stomped down on her chest. Hearing the snapping of bones as well as feeling her chest cavity collapse in upon itself, Kim was paralyzed with pain but still clutched the pistol in both hands with a deathgrip.

    What an... appropriate term.

    Kim tried to bring up the pistol to shoot again; but she had apparently roused a beast, and the price for doing so was to be paid in flesh.

    Clamping down on Kim's arms, with her foot still on Kim's collapsed chest for support, Bertha pushed back with her leg and pulled.

    -=-​

    It is somewhat difficult to properly convey the noise that followed.

    Perhaps the closest onomatopoeia would be TNKKKCHH, but still so much is left out of that translation. The wetness. The companion ring of joints leaving sockets. And, of course, the all-too-encompassing silence which immediately follows such a dire reverberation. But there is no such thing as a perfect medium, so for now it will have to do.

    Dead set on absolutely destroying her victim. Bertha tore Kim's arms right off at the shoulders and threw them away behind her. Kim could no longer scream -- due to her puréed chest cavity -- but her mouth opened and closed in disbelief as her limbs flew out of sight, still holding the weapon she had banked so much on.

    Perhaps it was too much to worry about properly describing the noise. After all, only three were aware enough to actually hear it.

    The victim, the torturer, and a ravaged, bloody woman now eyeing an item of great importance clutched between dead hands.

    -=-​

    "S...s-stop!"

    Bertha, her seizing "opponent" in hand, rose and turned to examine the new voice.

    It was the little, bespectacled woman who tried to blindside Moor. Her glasses hung crooked on her face, smeared with saliva and blood. Her left hand crossed her chest to cover her bare breasts; apparently, despite the madness all around, hanging onto a shred of modesty.

    In her right hand, trembling with nervousness and terror, was the recently disarmed handgun.

    "Stop!" Des begged, tears streaming down her stained cheeks. "Please! I don't want... I don't want to..."

    "You don't want to?" Bertha asked, taking a step forward. "Or cannot?"

    Des barely stopped herself from taking a step back, her shaky aim growing even worse. "Please. Please! Just leave! I'll have to shoot you if you don't!"

    Bertha paused for a moment, looking down at the ruined body gargling in her hand as she thought, then took another step forward.

    "I have seen many warriors in my time, little girl."

    Another step.

    "Some great. Some pathetic. Many somewhere in-between."

    Another step.

    "You are none of those."

    Another step.

    Des was wracked with sobs as the woman drew ever closer, unbelieving of what was happening. "Why won't you stop? You could die!"

    "To this?" Bertha replied, nodding at the gun. "Unlikely."

    Another step.

    "You are not a killer. You simply do not have it in you."

    She wish she didn't with all of her heart, but Des knew where this was heading. It had to be stopped.

    Squeezing her eyes shut and turning her head away, Des told herself that there was no other choice and began pulling the trigger.

    -=-​

    Des did not see what was happening -- and in no way wanted to -- but by the wet sounds of bullets hitting meat knew that her blind shots were hitting home.

    After a few seconds of fire, sure that it was more than enough, she opened her eyes to see what she had done.

    And began to cry even harder.

    Kim, hoisted up between her and Bertha like a shield, twitched and sputtered weakly. Her body, already mangled, was now borderline inhuman with all of the entry wounds spattered wildly across her.

    "However..." Bertha finished, "even the meekest of animals will lash out once if cornered."

    The pistol dropped from Des' hands as she fell to her knees and began to weep, overcome with grief at what she had done. Bertha, finally reaching her, scooped up the pistol and tucked it into her waistline before unceremoniously dropping Kim's mangled form in front of the bawling girl.

    "Once." Bertha repeated, before stomping down on Kim's upturned face. What was left of her body flopped one time then lay still; at this point not even having enough blood left for a decent puddle.

    Bertha turned away from the two wrecks and focused on her next goal. There was one actual warrior left to deal with.

    -=-​

    "Unh..."

    Phyr regained consciousness face-down on the ground, her head feeling like it was about to split. As she pushed herself up she felt something underneath one of her hands; upon inspection, it appeared that she was holding the aluminum bat again.

    Phyr didn't have that when she passed out. What was going on here?

    Looking up, she was given her answer. Crouched down and waiting, with her hands on her knees, was Bertha. Knowing that she now had Phyr's attention, she brought one hand up and beckoned.

    How generous of her. This slaughter might kind of look like a fight.

    -=-​

    Phyr ran in with an overhead swing, knowing full well that if she had any chance of doing any real damage it would be to the head. Bertha apparently agreed; ready to catch the swing in the nook of her crossed arms, then stepping in to knee Phyr in the chest. Both allowed the bat to drop, with Phyr stumbling back as Bertha happily advanced.

    Bertha began to throw alternating hooks, and Phyr's head jerked from side to side as the fists connected. Teeth rattled loose and flew as Phyr's face was pounded, scarlet spittle dripping from her swollen lips.

    Bertha paused and Phyr swayed on her feet; up until this point mostly kept upright by the brute force of blows, her legs were now unsure what to do. They were not given much time to dwell on it, though, as Phyr was soon taken hold of once again.

    One hand digging into Phyr's shoulder and the other wrapped around her neck, Bertha started to push and pull respectively. Phyr was more out of it than not at this point, but what little was left could feel the growing strain on her spinal cord. If this continued for much longer, her head would... would...

    Losing the last shred of consciousness she had left, Phyr fell into what could very well be her final dreamless sleep.

    -=-​

    Bertha was disappointed in her foe giving up so early, but it was to be expected. Not many hung on until they were completely decapitated. It was what made those events so special, really.

    Ready to wrap things up, she continued to add tension...

    ...until a stabbing pain hit her from behind, and she was forced to drop her opponent.

    -=-​

    With a scream, Des buried her crowbar bent edge first into Bertha's spine. She did not fully realize what this would do for a person, only that Phyr was in trouble.

    Bertha fell to her knees and, in-between spasms, attempted to reach back to remove the embedded object. Des took this opportunity to dash around to her front, pick up the softball bat, and begin pounding Bertha's skull.

    "LEAVE!"

    Ping

    "PHYR!"

    Ping

    "ALONE!"

    Ping

    Bertha fell back, coming to rest on the crowbar, but Des mounted her and continued beating away.

    "DON'T!"

    Ping

    "YOU!"

    Ping

    "DARE!"

    P-kttth

    "HURT!"

    Krk

    "MY!"

    Krkle

    "FRIENDS!"

    Sqssh

    Bertha's head began to deform and crack, and her huge body rocked and bucked under the tiny girl. But as Des' frenzied assault refused to yield, the jerks and spasms eventually slowed to a halt.

    Eventually realizing that she was just beating bits of brain into the dirt, Des wound down and tried to catch her breath. Finally understanding the full meaning of the cooling corpse underneath her, she smiled and whispered "I did it."

    Then immediately afterwards threw aside the dented bat and broke down entirely.

    "I did it." she sobbed, cupping her blood-stained face in horror. "I did it! I-"

    "You sure did." growled a voice from behind, as the machete blade pressed up against her throat.

    "You little bitch."

    -=-​

    Moor was beyond playing games now. In fact, she barely felt the usual glee as she pulled the machete and slit the flower girl's stupid little throat.

    Des was still for a moment, unsure of what was just happened. Then, raising her hands to feel her neck, she began to scream.

    Well, no, of course she couldn't scream. She tried to scream, but what she did was gurgle.

    For a few seconds she attempted to pinch her throat closed again -- as if it was a problem that bobby pins could fix -- before collapsing face down on the corpse of Bertha. She was so small, and the body below her so large, that her head landed against Bertha's toned but now useless midsection. Shivering at the cold despite the desert heat all around her, Des' last moments were spent mouthing silent screams as she watched her own blood pool in the navel and flow between the abs of the Goliath she just slew.

    -=-​

    Moor gathered up phlegm and spat a loogie down onto the crisped back going through it's last spasms on top of her... friend. It wasn't fair. That tiny wench deserved to die a couple more times, and so much slower.

    This venture was a complete bust. She didn't care about the future of humanity. She didn't care about founding a new or better tribe. Hell, she didn't even miss dickings hard enough to tag along for the breeder.

    Ven could just fuck off forever with her boy-toy now, as far as she was concerned. At least someone would get something out of this.

    Fuming silently to herself, Moor turned and just so happened to catch Phyr creeping towards her.

    "So..." Moor panted, clutching her chest with her free hand. "You want some too, huh?"

    -=-​

    Phyr had awoken just in time to watch her closest friend die a quivering, pathetic heap.

    Needless to say, she was not in the best of moods.

    Her head still throbbed with every heartbeat, but she felt that she could still pull this off. Moor was probably much closer to her last legs. Hell, it was amazing that the psycho got back up at all.

    Moor swung her machete downward with a roar of fury, but her movements were sluggish and Phyr easily stepped to the side in time. Moor attempted to follow with an upwards diagonal, but ducking and leaning away slightly allowed Phyr to avoid that too.

    "Keep dancing... all you want..." Moor taunted between ragged breaths. "I only... have to get you once..."

    This was true. If all Phyr did was stay here and dodge, it would only be a matter of time until she slipped up and became Slasher Movie Victim #7.

    However, this was assuming that Phyr was not working towards an endgame herself.

    Moor was caught by surprise as Phyr came even further in, lowering down to a crouch over the two corpses she was standing next to. Moor didn't quite understand the logic behind this, but was not exactly going to turn down an offering like that. Moor began to swing at the point-blank target, ready to bury her blade in the woman's scalp...

    ...then stumbled back as a pop rang out, the pistol Phyr just pulled out of Bertha's belt shooting another round into her torso.

    "God... dammit..." Moor raged, dropping her weapon to clutch her stomach. "How many bullets does that thing hARGH!"

    Phyr's aim dropped low and she fired again, turning one of Moor's feet into a red mist. As Moor fell forward to her knees, Phyr snatched up the discarded machete and forced her head up to look at her with the tip.

    "Where are Ven and the breeder?"

    "Okay..." Moor barely got out between pants. "...Okay. I'll tell you."

    Moor had to stop a moment, to spit out the blood in her mouth, before continuing.

    "We were ambushed... during the night... they took the breeder. Tracked them... to a cave. Ven went in... said that she could sneak past everyone by herself. Still waiting for her to come back... when you putzes showed up."

    Phyr drew back, and Moor fell down to all fours.

    "Lead me to this cave."

    "You... kidding?" Moor asked with as much incredulity she could manage. "You blew open... one of my feet... you tactical taAAAH!"

    Moor's left hand split as Phyr shot again, the spurt of blood flecking Moor's already stained face further red.

    "Not my problem."

    -=-​

    It took a while, and a whole lot of pratfalls, but Moor eventually managed to hobble Phyr over to an out-of-the-way cave mouth.


    Moor turned around to exactly what she expected: Phyr's pistol aimed directly at her head. With a gulp, and raising her remaining intact hand for a "hold up" gesture, the desperate woman began her final case.

    "Listen. I... have no love... for Ven. Only reason... I came along... is dead. Let me leave... never see me again."

    They stood there for a moment, Moor hoping against hope as Phyr mulled over her options.

    Then slowly, Phyr lowered the gun.

    "Damn right I won't."

    Moor let out a sigh of pure relief, but the air was soon replaced by cold steel as Phyr stepped in and impaled her on the machete.

    "Damn right."

    -=-​

    Moor clung to Phyr's shoulder as she was stabbed over and over; still trying to barter, as if it somehow wasn't too late to go back.

    "Don't care..."

    Skkkth

    "...about Ven..."

    Thhhp

    "...help you..."

    Ssslth

    "...get her..."

    ttthrrrip

    "...please... do anything...."

    Phyr halted her assault at this, pulling out the machete with a wet slurp and stepping back to allow Moor to once again fall to her knees. She looked up at her executor; and while her eyes still had that unnerving beadyness, they were now clouded over and softened. Despite her pleas otherwise, she was just about ready to be tucked into bed.

    "You'd do anything?" Phyr asked?

    "...anything..." Moor repeated dreamily.

    Phyr leaned in on that desperate, pleading face and whispered "Can you bring Des back?"

    Moor swayed for a moment, seemingly not understanding, before her head tilted slightly to the side.

    "...who?"

    Wrong answer.

    Stepping back to get the most optimal arc, Phyr swung and buried the machete in Moor's mouth.

    The blade plowed through her teeth, tore her cheeks, and sliced her tongue in two. The force that embedded itself in the back of her jawbone sent her flying, and she landed face up on the ground.

    Staring at the ceiling, gurgling and sputtering in attempts to get air through all the viscera and shrapnel, she weakly brought her hands up in an attempt to remove the blade buried in her.

    Only for them to flop back down limply as Phyr stomped on the embedded blade, pushing it the rest of the way through and severing the top half of her head from the rest of her body.

    Her fresh corpse spasmed, but she did not feel it. Her ravaged lungs let out a final death rattle, but she did not hear it. The last thing she knew, as her tiny pupils finally widened with relaxation, were the feet of her killer walking away without so much as a glance back.

    -=-​

    Phyr ventured further into the cave, pistol ready and waiting.

    At least she didn't have to worry about going in literally blind. A phosphorescent lichen covering the walls illuminated the tunnel with a dim green glow. Somewhat unnerving, but she supposed that any mutation that wasn't actively trying to kill her was a welcome one.

    Turning a corner, she found the breeder. Maybe.

    The figure was facing away from her and squatting; but it was also completely naked, and thus there was no doubt of the gender. Ven definitely didn't have that.

    Phyr tried to recall the breeder's actual name -- so to call out to him -- but the figure noticed her and turned around on it's own.

    This was definitely the man taken from camp, but even in this bad light he seemed... odd. His hair appeared a lot less full than she remembered, he was a bit scrawnier, and shadows played across his face in strange ways. Phyr knew that the runners only brought as many provisions as they could easily carry, but even if they straight-out starved him it didn't seem likely that he'd be wasting away yet.

    "Hello", the breeder said.

    "Uh, hi?" Phyr nervously responded.

    "Hello. Hello. Heee-lo."

    Turning away again, the breeder broke into a sprint further down the tunnel.

    "Hello! Hello!"

    Listening to the meaningless greetings fade away to echos, Phyr briefly wondered what the hell was wrong with him before pushing it aside and giving chase.

    -=-​

    There were many branching paths as they descended further and further down, but Phyr was never in any danger of getting lost. The breeder was moving at an odd pace; never too slow to be caught, but also never too fast to lose his pursuer.

    Phyr had just begun to start putting two and two together when a body lunged out from another tunnel at a fork, tackling her to the ground.

    Phyr realized that this was Ven and reacted accordingly, bringing up her gun to fire point-blank. But with a metallic glimmer her hand exploded into agony, and her index finger tumbled down to rest on the stone floor. She would be allowed to keep her weapon for now, but Ven would make sure that she could not actually use it.

    Phyr scrambled away to get some distance, but a knife plunged through one of her retreating feet and pinned it to the ground. Out of ideas, she pounded ineffectually at her opponent until it rested the blade of a knife against her throat.

    "Stop."

    Phyr dropped her hand in defeat, knowing that she had been bested, and instead focused on looking over her enemy.

    Ven... had seen better days.

    Her clothes hung in tatters, at this point glorified rags. She was spattered with... cuts? Rashes? Burns? Whatever they were, they looked bad and possibly infected. The worst of the lot, on the side of her neck, was a nasty looking shade of purplish-black. And her eyes were... oddly shimmering. Had she been crying?

    "Listen" Ven said, in-between pants. "We're leaving."

    -=-​

    It couldn't go down like this. After all she'd been through, and everything that was lost, Phyr refused to let this venture end without Ven's head on a stick.

    "Lighthouse will never forgive you" Phyr spat up at the source of all her rage.

    "You think I care?" Ven shot back. "After all this, I'll be happy just to get out of this he- this hel..."

    The knife drew back as Ven, grimacing, brought her hands up to clutch at the wound on her neck. Phyr, seeing her opportunity, shoved Ven off her and got to work on freeing her foot.

    "Hel... hell..." Ven repeated, writhing as whatever was wrong with her ran it's course. Eventually, getting herself under control, she forced herself onto her knees and looked up.

    Only to have the pistol --now held in Phyr's other hand -- shoved into her mouth.

    "Oooh", Ven mumbled around the obstruction.

    "You said it" Phyr replied, before opening fire.

    -=-​

    Ven was dead after the first shot, of course; the bullet severing her spine and leaving out the back of her head. But Phyr did not come all this way for just that. Removing the barrel from her slack mouth, Phyr unloaded a few more rounds into Ven's twitching body.

    After she had her fill of that she "returned" the knife used on her foot, plunging it down into Ven's chest like she was readying a trial for the next king.

    Ven's body, kneeling and broken, found an odd sort of equilibrium after all the damage done. It refused to topple and fall, standing tall like a macabre statue celebrating her death.

    Phyr... liked that look.

    Leaving it be, Phyr turned and headed on to wrap up the last loose end. That goddamn breeder better be worth it.

    -=-​

    Phyr found the breeder at a final dead end, in a tall, ceilinged room filled with the rustling of lichen. He had apparently been waiting for her.

    "Hello." the breeder said.

    "Hello yourself" she replied, and shot him in the knee. She was well past playing cat and mouse, and he didn't need to run for anything the girls back at home wanted him for.

    As she stepped forward to claim her prize, she heard a few thumps behind her. She did not know what she expected to see when she turned.

    But it wasn't this.

    They may have been human. Once. But not any more. Pale and white, their smooth, featureless bodies lacked so much as a face. But that was not quite right. When it drew nearer she realized that she could see the makings of a face beneath its tintless skin -- eyes, nose, a mouth -- it had all just been covered and enveloped.

    As one reached out, and grabbed hold of her gun arm while she was still frozen in shock, her body began reporting countless needles of pain where it clutched.

    Her other arm was seized by a similar monster, and as her pistol fell from her slackening grasp she knew that she was trapped.

    Desperate for any means of escape, her panicking gaze eventually turned upwards. It turned out that those rustles... were not what she was thinking. Completely covering the ceiling, the pale creatures crawled past one another like roaches.

    "Hello."

    Sobbing, Phyr turned her gaze back forward. Despite the bum knee, the breeder had managed to rise to his feet and began to make his way towards her. As he limped along more of the pale creatures fell from the ceiling and took hold of her, tearing away her clothing until she was as bare as the day she was born.

    "Hello."

    The breeder was right up on her now, and Phyr was now close enough to see many details she could have spent her whole life never knowing. His hair was falling out, nothing more than wisps of it remaining. His skin had begun to -- for lack of a better word -- expand, thin films now covering his nostrils and eyes. But she could still make out through the cover something else. Phyr thought that Ven's eyes were "shimmery", wavering in shape as if covered in tears. Now she could tell that the pupil was actually deforming as something inside the eye occasionally rolled over for a better position.

    But the worst thing was what she could not actually see. As the breeder cuddled up to her, she could feel that he was... excited.

    "Please." Phyr begged. "Please. Anything. Anything bu-"

    "Hello" the breeder repeated as he jerked forward, and Phyr got in full what everyone was fighting so hard over.

    -=-​

    Phyr started to weep and scream, but her cries were cut off as the breeder's hands wrapped around her throat. As the hands passed her face she noticed that the breeder's palms were now covered in tiny barbs; this was apparently both how the creatures climbed so well and why their grips hurt so badly.

    The spines were even worse digging into her tender neck, but all she could do was writhe in pain.

    She mewled and whimpered, trapped in a cruel mockery of what the thing in front of her was originally intended to do. This could not possibly get any worse, she thought to herself, before the breeder locked lips with her and proved her wrong.

    Phyr could feel an appendage extending from the breeder's mouth and into her; something along the lines of a tendril or proboscis. Gagging as it cut off her air, it forced its way down her esophagus and buried itself deep inside her. Was this creature like a giant mosquito, readying to suck out her innards?

    As the breeder's thrusting escalated, and she felt the upper intruder begin to throb in an all-too-familiar fashion, she realized that it was worse. it was not to suck things out, but to pump things in.

    Utterly dominated and broken, Phyr's eyes rolled into the back of her head and she faded away as the monster released it's payload in all the ways it could.

    -=-​

    The two guards fingered the triggers of their pistols nervously as they followed their leader further into the cave.

    They were surprised when Lighthouse, a few days after Phyr and her crew stomped off, organized a "rescue party" to go out and find them. They were even more surprised that said party was only the two of them and Lighthouse herself. When one of them finally mustered up the courage to ask about this, Lighthouse told them that since they were present as Phyr made her choice it was only fitting that they also saw where it led her.

    So far they had discovered the rest of Phyr's allies. Seeing what happened to them, they were not holding out much for the girl herself.

    Lighthouse led point, carrying an old fashioned double-barrel hunting shotgun. The type of thing which reasoned that it didn't matter how long it took to reload if the one shot loaded was all you needed. Technically the two should have been in front of her -- being her personal guards and all -- but putting a spread weapon in the back was asking for disaster, and they were not exactly chomping at the bit to be first here regardless.

    Lighthouse signaled to stop as a figure came to be in front of them. She was naked, and clearly worse for wear, but there was no mistaking who it was.

    "Hello" Phyr said.

    "Goodbye" Lighthouse responded, and fired.

    -=-​

    The three of them gathered around 'Phyr' watching it in morbid silence. The body was almost cut in half by the shotgun blast, but besides being unable to stand up it seemed not to be bothered.

    "Hello" Phyr said again, reaching out a hand towards the nearest leg.

    "Don't let it grab you." Lighthouse said quickly. "The barbs on it's hands are hollow, letting it inject it's seed even after losing other... methods."

    "Hello."

    "Why does she keep saying that?" one of the guards asked.

    "The thing using her body now has access to her memories, but doesn't really understand them." Lighthouse elaborated. "It knows that's a sound humans make when they see each other, so it uses it as a lure. Like a hunter mimicking mating calls. My old crew used to call them 'Greeters' because of that."

    "Old crew?" One guard asked.

    "Used to?" the other added.

    "Back in California. They don't call them anything nowadays, except perhaps-"

    "Hello." Phyr continued.

    "Exactly."

    Lighthouse motioned to the guards and, bringing out canisters of gasoline they were ordered to carry but until this very moment did not understand why, carefully doused the creature in accelerant.

    "Hello" Phyr said again, not caring as her mouth and chest wound were filled with gas.

    "Do you know what cartographers did back in the old days before the whole world was known?" Lighthouse asked, pulling a box of matches out of her pocket. "They didn't even bother trying to guess what was in the unexplored parts. They just doodled a mighty beast prowling that area and wrote 'Here there be monsters' underneath it."

    Lighthouse struck a match, and tossed it onto the creature.

    "Phyr called me a coward. She was right. Make no mistake, we are running from something."

    Turning away from the bonfire, and motioning for the guards to follow as they left, she continued.

    "The monsters from those old maps are returning to claim the land they once owned. We cannot stop them, only race ahead as the world behind us disappears. Because the day we lag behind is the day we fall off the world, never to be seen again."