A Rayn Mirago Novel #4
There is a reckoning coming.
Atlanta is within striking distance.
The four companions continue forging a path through the Beastlands, battling both the jungle and its inhabitants as they make their way toward the Enclave and a final confrontation with Jacob and his followers.
As the bond between Alee and Trace grows stronger, the last whispers of doubt Rayn had about him are left miles behind. In her heart, she knows he would lay down his life to protect any one of them, but she needs to make sure that that never happens.
With a renewed sense of purpose, and Luk standing by her side, as he always has, Rayn promises herself that they will all make it back to Graceland and the future that awaits them there.
But first, the embattled city of Birmingham blocks their way.
BUY THE BOOK
Have I made a mistake?
I kick out with my left leg, slamming my foot into his right knee. He crumples to the ground, screaming out in pain before I plunge my knife into his neck. Blood sprays out of the mortal wound, splashing onto my shirt and face.
Have I doomed us all?
Alee screams and I whip my head around just in time to see her sling two knives in my direction. They fly past me, one on each side, striking two separate targets just behind me. Each collapse in a heap. She nods at me and I manage a small smile before pulling my pistol and firing at two assailants rushing at Luk. The first falls dead, while the second, wounded in the shoulder, slams into him, knocking them both to the ground.
Maybe we should have just stayed in Graceland like Luk wanted.
Trace appears out of nowhere and leaps onto the attacker, swinging his bola like a mace. The heavy ball strikes home and his target tumbles off Luk onto the ground.
This is my fault.
“Is that it?” Luk yells over to me as he gets to his feet.
“That’s it,” I reply, wiping the blood off my face.
“Is everyone all right?” Trace asks, walking directly over to Alee and taking her hand.
Everyone nods, and Luk steps up to me and gently touches my face with the hem of his shirt.
“Just a little something there,” he says, smiling grimly.
“We need to do something,” Alee says. “We can’t stay here anymore.”
I know they’re looking to me to lead them, to tell them what to do and to get it done, but I’ve no idea what to do. We’ve been camped out on the road overlooking Birmingham for two days, and we’re no closer to formulating a plan to make it through the city. Worse than that, we’ve been attacked by roving bands of thugs three times. Eventually, they’re likely to send a larger force to investigate the disappearance of their men.
I stare into the faces of my compatriots; Luk, loyal to a fault, Alee, the fiercest of our group, and Trace, who I now believe would lay down his life for any of us, and I realize something. These are more than friends, more than traveling companions, they’re all family. I need to put aside my doubts and move us forward to get us to our goal...and back.
“You’re right,” I say to Alee. “We need to make our move now.”
“So, what’s the plan?” Luk asks, leaning in a little closer.
“I’ve studied all the maps in my head, over and over. The city is only about twelve miles across. We could normally make that in less than one day.”
“But it’s not going to be that easy.”
“What is?” Trace says, his back to us as he watches for any other intruders.
“Come on,” I say as the four of us climb up the sloping hill to the end of the abandoned highway that overlooks the city. We all lay down in the grass, supporting ourselves on our elbows. I point toward the city. “Most of the taller buildings in town have collapsed, on their own, or on purpose. It’s created a dangerous maze of rubble with plenty of points perfect for ambushes.”
“What about skirting around the downtown area?” Luk asks.
“A lot of that’s worse. There are barricades on all the main roads, and patrols of fighters roam through the battered remains of the houses and businesses.”
“Well, what about going around the city altogether?” Luk asks, looking over at me.
I sigh. “There’s no cover at all. We’d have to go at least ten miles north or south to find an area where we could safely cross, and with these mutated plants, not to mention the rippers, I’m not sure that’s a great idea.”
“So what do you suggest?” Alee asks.
I look at all of them, one at a time before speaking.
“I think we need to go directly through the city.”
No one says anything for a few moments, and I’m about to start explaining my reason when Luk speaks up.
“Sounds good,” he says, winking at me before looking at Alee and Trace.
“Maybe we should vote on it,” I say, a bit of doubt creeping into my voice.
“I don’t know about Trace, but we don’t need to vote. You’ve kept us safe so far, so if you think the city is the best choice, I’m with you,” Alee says.
Trace nods at me.
“When do we do this?” Luk asks.
“I think tomorrow morning. It’s too dangerous to try and make it through that mess in the dark.”
The three of them nod in agreement, and I feel the heavy weight on my chest get a little heavier.
“I say we retreat back down the road so we can get some real rest tonight, as well as try and find something for dinner and maybe stock up on our food supplies,” Luk suggests.
“Good idea. Let’s go,” I say as we all scramble back down the hill.
* * * *
We move about two miles down the road, to the edge of the “dead-zone” as I’ve been calling it. While Alee and I set up camp, Luk and Trace head out to see what they can find for dinner and for our meals for the next few days. We cut dozens of low hanging branches off a grouping of pine trees, dragging them back to camp and piling them up until we have an impressive collection.
“Start putting those up between the trees,” I say to Alee, pointing to the natural ring of small oaks and maples surrounding our camp site.
She begins propping the evergreen limbs up, layering them carefully and intertwining the pliable branches to create a wall of sorts.
“Why are we doing this again?” she asks.
“To hide us as much as possible, especially the fire.”
“Good thinking. I knew there’s a reason you’re in charge,” she says before heading back to work.
I sigh and shake my head. I don’t want to be in charge. I don’t want to be responsible for keeping everyone safe, but we all have burdens to bear. I move to help Alee, and within a few minutes we have our camouflage walls constructed. It certainly won’t keep a hunter, or ripper out, but maybe it’ll keep us hidden. I thought about heading back to Jasper’s place, but that just means covering those miles tomorrow.
Not long after, Luk and Trace return with two small deer and an impressive collection of nuts, berries, and various greens. I notice how Alee looks at Trace when he walks back into our camp, and how similar his reaction is; there’s even a bit of hand holding, although they stop whenever they think Luk or I are looking at them.
* * * *
After a satisfying dinner and time spent drying the remaining meat, Trace and Alee are sitting side-by-side next to one of the larger trees playing some sort of game with a pair of dice that she found some time ago. The fire has nearly died out, and we make no attempt to restart it. The air is warm, and it has no use now, other than to attract unwanted visitors. I’m leaning back against Luk, laying between his legs while I rest my head on his chest. This is my favorite time of the day; the few moments when a sense of quiet calm settles over us. The first of the stars are just starting to emerge, although the thick canopy of leaves high above our heads obscures most of them.
Luk strokes my hair gently, his fingers slipping through the strands.
“Do you think going through the city is the right move?” I ask quietly.
“I don’t know,” he replies after a slight pause.
“That’s not helpful.”
“What do you want me to say, Rayn? All we can do is make a decision and then follow that road as far as we can.”
“But what if it’s not the right road?” I ask, not really sure what I want to hear.
“Then we turn onto a new road.”
For a few moments, I just stare up at the darkening sky that manages to peek through the leaves.
“And if there’s no place to turn?”
“Then we go straight through, together,” he replies while slipping his hand down my side and taking my fingers in his.