From a crevice Mallocrest watched the man tread over the crumbling rock under the muddy red sky, picking his way to get better footing. He had to know the kind of peril he was in. In the open like that he could be picked off by a dakkeroo or charged by a pack of ghowats. Worse, he could be spotted by an anterpen, spawn of the Desiderasha.
Mallocrest watched him slip and recover a few times. He was probably dying of thirst. Mallocrest might lose a precious round of ammo or two if he interfered. “Shit.” He cinched his backpack, chambered rounds in his forty-five pistol and his three-seventy-five semi-auto rifle, jumped out of the crevice, and hit the ground running.
Five ghowats leapt from a craggy hill, probably waiting most of the day for prey to wander through. “Damn.” Mallocrest doubled his pace. The ghowats charged the man, his lethargic pace certainly encouraging them. Each step of their razor sharp hooves shattered rock, spraying it like liquid. They bellowed, a sound like a man’s scream, their feline teeth bared, four horns whipping the air in front of them as they galloped.
“Run!” yelled Mallocrest. The man turned toward the beasts, then bolted in the opposite direction away from Mallocrest. “No! Towards me!” At his current vector, the man would be overrun by the ghowats before he could get to him. He fired off a round with his forty-five and the man turned. He waved him to change course and roared. “Towards me!”
The man pivoted and slid, falling to his knees, but scrabbled up and ran towards Mallocrest. They would come together with just a little time to find some ridgerock to provide escape. Ridgerock had deep, narrow cuts very close together. It was hazardous for most things to cross, but the pointed hooves of the ghowats were especially susceptible to slipping in and getting lodged or broken.
These beasts could climb anything, so they had to escape, then disappear. No easy task. Finding a space too small for them wouldn’t be enough. In an area this open, they would wait them out, and their body fat would last far longer than the men’s. Mallocrest surveyed the hills and picked out a few spots that looked promising to have caves or crevices.
When they reached each other, Mallocrest took him by the arm and changed their bearing to keep as much distance from the ghowats as they could. Both of them were sucking air, but the fellow stumbled a lot. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” said Mallocrest.
The man gasped. “Irradiated hope.”
“What?” Mallocrest spotted some ridgerock, but to get there would shorten the ghowats’ path to them too much. He had no choice. He had to buy them some time. “Damn, damn, damn,” he said. He dropped to a knee and aimed his rifle at the lead ghowat. He pulled the trigger releasing an explosive crack, and the ghowat stumbled, rolled end-over-end landing on its side, still and lifeless. The other ghowats stopped and gawked at their companion.
“Run!” he said, slinging his rifle to his shoulder and sprinting toward the ridgerock.
When they got there, he saw it was a big enough patch he could pick a direction. “Watch your feet,” Mallocrest said. “You get lodged, you’re cooked. You break a leg, I have to carry you, and that would make me cranky.” The ghowats collected at the edge of the ridgewalk, the new leader tentatively stepping into it, two of them splitting off to find a way around. “But keep moving.”
When the man seemed to catch his breath, Mallocrest asked him his name.
“Gerstonge,” he said.
“What do you mean by ‘irradiated hope?’”
“The great city. I must find it,” said Gerstonge.
Mallocrest let it drop as they trotted up the hillsides, a quick search availing them the small cave he was hoping for. He shuffled Gerstonge in and sat him down. “Keep quiet for a while.” He pulled out a canteen and let him drink.
Watching the shadow of the entrance, he gauged about an hour to have passed.
“Looks like we’re good,” he said.
“Thank you,” said Gerstonge.
“What’s the story with the city?” Mallocrest asked.
“It hates the city—the Desiderasha does. The city glows with radiation, they say, so they call it the irradiated city, supposedly a dangerous, poisonous, and horrible place, but people keep going because they say it’s a lie. It isn’t radiation, it’s the light of truth.”
“You’re talking about the Corruscaton? The city of prophecy sitting between five mountains and giving safe haven for all men? The last standing army for the final battle against evil?”
“Yes. See why I risk this journey?”
Mallocrest hung his head and shook it. “I lost two rounds for a fraggin’ myth.”
“I’ve seen it,” Gerstonge said. “With my own eyes I saw it as a child when my caravan went to Thargain. The City of Life can give you anything.”
“Yeah? Can it replace a couple rounds of ammo?”