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The End: Chapter 10
Back at the hotel, we find the others coming out of the kitchen. I note the bloody knife in Tobias's hand. He takes in my quizzical look, jerks his head toward the walk-in and I understand. The marauder has been dispatched. I feel no remorse, except that I did not drag the blade across his throat myself, felt his miserable life drain out of him. There will be no prayers said for this death, no funeral pyre, no soul to wish well. Just an eternity rotting in an old freezer. A fitting end for such a scourge.
The sun has begun to sink into Lake Superior as we move out.
"We'll stick to the shoreline as much as we can. It'll take a bit longer than going straight down but there's a decent chance of finding a boat or something. Otherwise, if everything goes well - " At this both Tobias and Gabriel scoff, Thomas turns to glare at them. "-We should get there in a little over a week."
As we crest the hill leaving the town limits, I turn for one last look. A pang of regret stings me at the loss of what had been my home, my sanctuary. I make a silent promise to myself that one day, Solo and I will return. After hours of steady hiking we make camp with no fire, eat a dinner of dried berries and venison jerky, then set up sleeping shifts. We are on the move again at first light.
"We'll be near Paradise by tonight." Thomas says, reading the map as we go.
"Paradise.." I hear Markus grunt behind me.
It's another full day before we reach Paradise, having lost a large amount of time when we had to make a wide arc around our original trail to avoid an enormous horde. We scout from the woods, observing the town from a distance. The houses are all either boarded up or burned out, human remains in advanced decomposition litter the streets.
"There!" Thomas says, pointing to the far end of town where a curl of smoke has risen above the rooftops. "Someone's here. Guns and ammo only, stash the packs, and Hannah-" He shoots me a stern look"- Stay here."
"Umm...No?" I am already removing Solo's harness to stash with the packs.
Thomas grits his teeth and we lock eyes. Eli knows our tempers well enough to step away. The others, however, seem interested, almost entertained; Tobias and Markus are actually grinning at the impending clash. Thomas speaks slowly, deliberately.
"You. And the Wolf. Will. Stay. Here."
"Oh? Is that an order?"
"Yes." he growls back
"I'm not one of your soldiers, Tho-"
"You will stay here!" He nearly yells, pounding his fist on a tree,
He sounds and looks so much like our father in this moment that I am transported back, 16 again, attemptnig to sneak out to yet another concert I'd been forbidden to attend.They even have the same pulsing neck vein, Thomas seems to hear it in his voice and we are both, at once, remorseful. I beause I miss our father, Thomas because he despised him. He reaches out and rests a calloused hand on my shoulder.
"Alright!" I cut him off. "I'll stay."
"Tobias, you stay with her."
Gabriel opens his mouth to object, but I shake my head and he holds his tongue. Before they go he pulls me aside.
"I don't like this."
"It's ok." I assure him. "Tobias is unconditionally loyal to Thomas. He won't let him down."
Gabriel nods, though he doesn't look convinced, kisses me, and follows the others.
"So..." Tobias begins once they have gone. "What do you think we'll find once we get to the island?"
I'm in no mood to chat.
"Probably the same thing we'll find here; disease and death."
He's not at all deterred by my surly countenance as I'd hoped he would be and, instead, continues on.
"Well, aren't we an optimistic little ray of sunshine?"
I begin whittling a stick, irked by his sarcasm.
"Come on, darlin'. If I don't get to be part of the action, you could at least humor me with a little conversation." He comes nearer, dropping onto a log beside me, soliciting a growl and a snap from Solo.
I immerse myself in the task of sharpening the stick into a murderous point. Solo seems to sense my annoyance and sits himself between Tobias and I, eyeing him warily. After a long silence, Tobias tries again.
"You planning to skewer me with that thing?"
As much as I want to keep up what is essentially pouting because I've been left behind, I can't help but smile. Not looking up, I answer him.
He laughs warmly. "Ya know, you're just like your brother. Maybe just a little meaner."
I accept his jab and finally look up, pointing the stick at him.
"That's right. I am. So you'd better watch it." I smile sweetly.
"Oh, little Hannah...you know I like a little danger.."
"You may not like it as much as you think." I warn.
Just then, the walkie crackles to life.
"Gear up. We're leaving." Thomas's voice comes through, sounding unsettled.
Tobias and I look at each other, confused. We were supposed to camp here tonight, scavenge supplies in town. We hold our curiosity, however, and are ready to move out when the others get back.
"What was it, Thomas?" I ask as we start out, skirting around the outside of town.
"Let's just get out of here. Now." He pulls out the map and quickens his pace, stepping out ahead of me without another word.
We all fall in behind him; Markus and Connor, then Gabe and myself, Solo at my side and Tobias bringing up the rear. I tug on Gabe's sleeve.
"Just leave it alone. It wasn't secure, that's all."
I am silenced by his tone and short, clipped words. We hike another four hours, well into the night before stopping and even then, it's only to eat. After a brief, silent meal, we move on again. Whatever they'd seen in Paradise, there would be no rest tonight.
At last, Thomas feels we've put enough distance between us and Paradise and we stop to rest. Again, we sleep in shifts. I volunteer to take first watch with Thomas. Solo sleeps between us soundly and I attempt to goad from my brother what had driven him to push us on for so many miles. He evades my questions, eyes fixed on the glowing embers of what had been our fire.
"Should be near Sault St. Marie soon."
"Let's just focus. Now, we're going to go down around the point and approach the island from the back side. If we don't find a boat, we're going to have to improvise."
I chew a piece of venison jerky thoughtfully, watching the darkness.
"I need you to let me help with scouting and all. I'm an asset, not a babysitter for the supplies."
Thomas sighs heavily.
"Let me tell you something, 'Nan. I know you're an asset. I also know the tings I've seen. I know you haven't told me everything about your time on the road, but the fact that you're alive, that you made it to Grand Marais and made a home there..that tells me you've been very lucky. You got out of the major cities before shit got to it's worst..." He pauses, draws a long, slow breath. "The infected...they're easy enough to deal with. Don't get outnumbered or caught off guard and you're fine. They're not hunters, won't stalk you, they're mindless beasts. Easy to figure out. It's the people. though. The marauders...they're the real enemy. They're still got cognitive thought. They'll hunt you like an animal and what's worse, they're good at it. Now, with the panic settled, they prey on survivors; people like us."
"I know this, Thomas."
"Have you ever seen one of their camps?" He doesn't wait for me to answer. "You don't understand... men they can't recruit, they kill right away. Women and children, though..." He stops again, and though the light from the glowing coals is dim, I am certain he shudders at the thought of what he is about to say.
"Sometimes they eat the kids right away. Saw one camp where they had them doing manual labor, but others...they keep them with the women and torture them all the same, just for fun. And when they're all used up, they kill them. Eat them, too, if there's enough meat left on the bones. I can't risk that happening to you. I won't. We ran across more groups of those sick fucks coming across the country than we did safe-zones and healthy, sane people. The last communique we received was a desperate lone woman, obviously a civilian, on a military channel saying the refugee camp was being taken. At first we thought she meant by infected. Then she started screaming and we could hear the marauders laughing while she begged them for mercy." Thomas hangs his head, elbows on his knees. "That was someone's sister, mother, daughter. Begging those monsters as they stripped her of her dignity, then her life. No...Not you." He shakes his head vehemently. "Not if I can help it."
I consider telling him about the weeks I spent in a marauders' camp. That they had already dished out their torture. That I survived it, learned from it. But seeing how it comforts him to think I have not been subjected to such ugly, vile things, I can't bring myself to say it. Instead, I settle on reassurance.
"They'll never take me, Thomas. Not alive, anyway. I won't beg for anything. Ever." Though I have omitted the facts of the past, my words still hold truth. I would turn my gun on myself before I ever let them take me again.
"Just promise me one thing. I know Gabe means well and wants to stay with you and protect you...but you listen to me. If I say run, you run. You don't hesitate, you don't wait for anyone, and you don't look back."
I rest my hand on his broad back. "I promise."
A few hours later, Markus and Tobias relieve us and I am grateful to lie down on my bedroll and, after swallowing a vidodin to alleviate my throbbing shoulder and ribs, fall asleep with Solo at my feet keeping watch. His anxious whine rouses me not long after I doze off. I sit up abruptly, sending a sharp pain down my side. Though Tobias and Eli are watching the perimeter, they don't have Solo's keen hearing. They recognize his anxiety and that he has picked up on something they haven't and begin waking the others.
"What? what is it?" Connor asks
"Don't know, we haven't heard anything...but he does." Eli tells him.
We all look to Solo, his hackles raised, golden eyes fixed on a distant point in the dense forest around us. His lips curl back in a snarl, the rumbling in his chest growing louder. Still, we see and hear nothing.
"Marauders." I tell them all quietly, translating Solo's body language.
"How do YOU know?" Tobias challenges.
"I know HIM." I answer, eyes on my companion. "And he is telling us it's them."
As if in confirmation, Solo looks up at me and whines again.
"We should go." Markus' voice comes softly in the dark.
In the near pitch-black I am almost certain I see Thomas flash a smile.
"They already know we're here, brother."
Instantly, they are all in combat mode. Thomas is, once again, their commander in battle and they fall in beside him, save for Gabriel who appears at my left.
"I'll take her." He says, more to Thomas than anyone.
My brother nods curtly.
"Tobias, Markus, go left. Connor and Eli; right. I'll take the center."
They move out fluidly, leaving Gabe and I alone in the thicket.
"Can you climb with that arm?"
"Climb? You think I'm going up a tree?"
Gabriel opens his mouth to reply and the shooting starts. He grabs my good arm roughly and pulls me after him as he runs into the trees away from the rifle cracks. I crane my neck to see if Solo is with us and find him at Gabriel's heels, keeping pace easily. We reach an enormous pine and he stops, taking me by the shoulders.
"You can't fight hurt like you are. Get your ass up that tree. Now." His voice is a low growl and I can see it will do no good to argue.
He boosts me up the tree and kneels next to Solo, rifle at the ready...and then the shots stop. The forest is silent, not even a singing bird, for too long. It begins to feel stifling and then I hear it; rapid footfalls of many people, coming toward us. Looking down through the branches, I can see Gabriel tense, fix his rifle firmly against his shoulder, let out a deep breath in preparation for his shot...
When Thomas bursts into view with the others close behind, I breathe a sigh of relief. Solo, seeming overcoem with the mounted tension, rushes them anyway, snarling, but swerve away at the las tmoment as if he'd just realized who they were. They've hurredly swept through camp and gathered our packs, we will need to move quickly.
"How many?" Gabe inquires.
"Six. Half-starved, I think they're been on us since Paradise. Must've seen that smoke, too." Eli answers.
I have manuvered my way down to the lowest bough, where Gabriel is waiting to lift me down. Solo comes to my side, licking my hands furiously as if I'd been gone for hours.
"Weapons?" I am always happy to see additional firepower.
"Three handguns, poorly kept, hardly any ammo. Left the guns, they were shit, but we've got the ammo." Tobias says, holding up two small cardboard ammo boxes.
"Let's move. If there's any infected around, you can bet they'll be here soon." Thomas orders, setting out into the darkness after a brief look at his compass.
We eat on the move, not stopping to rest until well after sunrise. After a few hour's sleep, we reach the outskirts of Sault St. Marie. Again. we observe from a distance. The once quaint downtown area has been razed; nothing remains except rubble and bodies...and the hundred-strong horde of infected milling throughout the streets. We immediately and unanimously agree to go around, no matter how much time it might add. We simply are too exhausted to attempt to handle a group that big, not to mention whatever or whoever had caused such destruction might still be there. Finally, although it took much longer than expected (and we are nearly through our food rations), we are within a day's travel from where we intend to cross to the island. Having seen no sign of infected or Marauders for days, we build a small fire and Thomas, Markus and Connor go out to hunt. I argue to go along but I am rebuked, again due to my injuries.
As we await their return, Gabriel walks the perimeter while Eli examines my wounds.
"Well, you head is looking better, ribs should be feeling better by now."
"Everything feels fine,Eli." I lie. While the headaches and acute pain in my side have subsided, I am plauged by a constant ache and stiffness in my neck and shoulder. Tobias returns from a wash in the lake, shirt slung over his shoulder, and drops down next to me on the ground. Solo snaps the air and snarls.
"Don't like me much, do ya, Chief?" He pats Solo's hindquarters and withdraws just quick enough to avoid the powerful jaws. Solo stalks around him stiffly until Gabriel returns and seats himself on my other side where he finally lies down, resting his head on Gabe's boot.
"Don't." I tell Tobias sternly.
"Don't what, darlin'?"
"Don't touch him and don't call me darlin'."
"Oh don't be that way..." He reaches an arm around me and in a second, I have it twisted behind his back. Gabriel and Solo are both on their feet, bristling. eli, ever the level-headed one, calmly sets down the pistol he's been cleaning.
"Easy, everyone. Let's all take a deep breath. Hannah, he doesn't mean anything by it, you know that-"
bullshit I think to myself, recalling that night in the station.
Eli continues "- T, you're an asshole. Keep your paws off my sister."
"Hey, hey, I'm sorry-" Tobias rubs his shoulder exageratedly as I release him and sit back down. "- It's just she's got this whole 'last woman on Earth' thing going for her...very appealing."
Gabriel, still glowering at him, offers me his hand.
"We're going down to the shore."
"Uhhh, Thomas wanted us to stay here." Tobias reminds him.
"Well I'd say it's a good thing he's not my superior, then." Gabriel retorts as we walk away.
At the water's edge, Gabe lets my hand go.
"I can't stand that guy."
"I know. I can't stand him either sometimes. But, he's harmless enough. Just needs a reminder of his manners now and then."
"I don't like the way he looks at you."
I bite back the details of what occurred while they were gone after the marauders,deciding instead to attempt setting his mind at ease.
"We grew up with him, and Thomas trusts him completely, which is not any easy thing to achieve."
"Yeah, well, I don't. I think if he thought he'd get away with it..." He doesn't finish the thought, but he doesn't need to.
"Don't worry about Tobias. I can handle him."
The moon reflects off the calm, still water, creating a sparkle effect. I slip my good arm through Gabriel's and lean against him.
"We haven't had much time to talk since we left. You ok?"
He knows without my saying what I'm asking him.
"i miss the old codger, that's for sure."