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The assassin got down from his gray horse and beat against the monastery door. Fatigue tugged at his legs as if sucking him into the desert dust, so he leaned back against the gelding’s flank and waited. It was a good beast. If names meant anything, he’d have called it Patience. But what you called something didn’t matter much. What you did was all that counted. What you did was what you were judged on.

Four down. One to go.

The assassin struck the door again, every blow leaching a little more of his energy into the arid air. What if they didn’t let him in? Could they know of his mission? It was possible, though news didn’t travel faster than a pony could carry it, and few enough messengers ventured into this godforsaken wasteland. Why had his quarry chosen to live out here? Guilt? Inhabiting an old National Guard base on the edge of the Dead Zone was the modern equivalent of a hair shirt and whip. Perhaps the man thought this was his penance. Perhaps he sought forgiveness. The assassin would provide it once the debt had been paid.

A slot in the metal door slid back with a thunk that snapped the assassin out of his reverie. He straightened up, ran his dusty sleeve across dusty lips and stepped—swaying a little—forward.

“Who are you? What do you want?”

A chill wind accompanied the voice and teased the assassin’s sunburned face.

“My name is Hunter, John Hunter, and I seek refuge.”

Eyes gazed out at him, and then he saw the business end of a crossbow emerge from the dark slit in the door.

“We have nothing to share, especially with bandits.”

“I mean you no harm. I have traveled many miles to visit this place.”

The voice said nothing, so the assassin spoke again. “I seek an audience with the abbot.”

“The abbot sees no one.”

“He will wish to see me. Give him my name, but be quick about it.”

The slot slid shut, and the assassin slumped against the horse again. All now depended on whether the abbot would allow him in. A decade spent on a mission that was only partly completed could easily end in failure if the monastery door remained closed. He might have enough food and water to reach the nearest settlement, but he’d arrive too weak to fight off those who would wish to take his precious horse and the weapons hanging from his belt. And that was assuming his good beast could make it that far. He patted its flank and ran his fingers along its ribcage.

The door opened.

Two men stepped out, shielding their eyes against the bright midday sun, their crossbows pointed at him. He could have dropped them both, even in his current weakened state, but he’d learned over the years that it paid to be patient, so he showed his weaponless hands and led his horse into the blessed darkness.

Behind the door the monk waited in a passageway lined with crudely cut timber planks inset with alcoves containing what—to the assassin’s tired and sun-blinded eyes—looked like religious icons or offerings. The hooves of the horse echoed like gunshots as it followed him, as grateful as he was for the respite.

The monk in his sand-stained black robe led Hunter under an archway and into what had once been the central compound of the Mt. Preston National Guard base. Where military vehicles and prefabricated huts had once been, log-built cabins and storehouses now stood. A water tower rose above the level of the roofs as a family of ducks waddled toward an open door that Hunter suspected housed a pool of standing water. He could hear the quiet laughter of children. It seemed to be coming from underground.

“John? Is that you?”

An old man scurried across the square toward him, a hand shielding his eyes and his boots throwing up a cloud of dust. It was him, true enough. Thirty years had shrunk the man in every direction, but behind the wrinkles and thin white beard Hunter recognised his quarry.

The abbot thrust his hand out as he stepped into the shade of the guardhouse porch. “It is you! And you haven’t aged a day!”

Hunter took the gnarled hand. “You always were a liar, Abner. I look—and feel—like shit, but I’m glad to find you alive.” And he meant it. If the man had died already, the journey would have been wasted. Such a long journey.

“Come with me, my old friend, and we will care for you. Now, what do you wish? Refreshment, sleep or would you prefer to clean yourself up first?” The old man wrinkled his nose involuntarily and Hunter couldn’t suppress a smile.

“If you can tolerate my stench, I would appreciate some food and water. But first, I must see that my horse is tended to.”

The old man nodded. “Of course. A fine beast indeed. Come, we will stop by the stables.”

Hunter scanned the community as he followed the abbot. He saw women and he could still hear laughing children, but the only men he’d seen so far had been the two crossbow-wielding guards, the monk who’d greeted him at the entrance and the abbot himself.

“You wonder where the people are?” the abbot said. “Our friars travel from town to town bringing the word of God to the desert folk and they return to us with gifts from the grateful people. It is how we sustain ourselves.”

The bitter smell of urine and manure tickled Hunter’s nose and throat as they reached the stable. He led the horse to a trough and waited as it drank, resisting the temptation to fall to his knees and join it. Then he found the cleanest bay, took the horse inside and filled the manger with hay before turning to the abbot.

“Did you exchange this hay for deliverance from sin?”

“You do not approve, John? You do not think that a man’s spiritual sustenance is as important as his physical needs?”

Hunter walked beside the abbot as he made his way from the stables to a long wooden building that sat near the water tower. “A starving man couldn’t give a damn about the afterlife while he’s clinging on to this one.”

“Quite true, but we never ask for more than those we have helped can afford. But tell me, John, what have you been doing since it happened? And what brings you here? You own a fine horse and you bear weapons. Do you also have ammunition?”

Hunter wiped his filthy sleeve across his eyes and rubbed them until he could focus properly in the relative gloom of the building’s interior.

People sat at a dozen or so benches arranged in three rows and they stood as the abbot came inside. The old man asked them to sit again, and seated himself at an empty table, gesturing Hunter to join him.

“I am sorry. I ask too many questions of a weary traveler. Joan will bring us some bread and stew.” He waved at a large woman who’d emerged in a cloud of steam to see what was going on. She smiled and nodded at the abbot before appearing at the table with two bowls, a hunk of brown bread and a pitcher of water.

Hunter said nothing as he ate and drank. Only now, with food and drink in front of him, did he realize how close to starvation he had come. The abbot ate more slowly, and pushed his half-finished bowl of stew—the finest Hunter could remember—for his guest to consume greedily.

“Have more, if you wish,” the abbot said. “I will ask Joan to refill your bowl.”

Hunter, shook his head. Having slaked his thirst and filled his belly, minor concerns such as shame and civility were reasserting themselves. “Thank you, Abner, but I do not wish to become a burden.”

The abbot smiled before leaning forward. “I am sorry, but I must know. You don’t have ammunition for your weapons do you, by any chance?”

“Yes, I have 87 rounds left. Made by a guy in Chicago. Not a hundred percent reliable, but five out of six are true.”

Hunter reached into the holsters at his hips and placed the two revolvers reverently onto the table.

“Good heavens, those look like antiques!” The abbot’s face could not conceal his desire.

“No, but they’re good replicas. Made in the late 1990s. They take Winchester cartridges and that fella in Chicago’s got a nice little business hand-making the rounds, though he’s mainly supplying rifle owners.” Why was he talking to this man as if he was an old friend? He was here to kill him.

The abbot shook his head. “Oh, how we could use weapons like that and someone able to handle them.”

“Why? Surely you’re safe enough out here?”

The abbot got to his feet. “Come with me. There’s something you need to see.”

Hunter hauled himself up. He didn’t want to go anywhere. He didn’t want to see anything. He wanted to sit here for a few minutes, drink something alcoholic and then sleep for a week. But what he wanted didn’t matter much. He had a job to do and millions of lives to avenge.

When they emerged from the canteen and stepped into the quadrangle—this was what the abbot called the central part of the former army base—the heat hit him like opening an oven door. His mind flitted back to the days when electricity and gas flowed limitlessly and ovens didn’t have logs burning behind them. It was hard to believe that there had been a time when every home had one.

Steps ran down from beneath a canopy and Hunter followed his prey beneath the surface through steps and a tunnel cut into the sandstone.

“This wasn’t here when we appropriated the base,” the abbot said, his voice amplified as it bounced from wall to wall. “We needed somewhere to store our supplies and also to keep the more vulnerable members of our community when the weather got as hot as it is today.”

Hunter grunted. “It’s only going to get hotter, year after year.”

“I know.” The abbot had stopped in front of him, shoulders slumped as if a great weight had settled on them. He turned slowly. “I also know why you’re here, John.”

Running his hand over the weapon at his hip, Hunter held the abbot’s gaze. “Then why didn’t you run?”

“Where would I go? And, in any case, I deserve it. I have spent these decades trying to attone, just a little, for my deeds so that when I face our Father’s judgement, the scales will have shifted, even by so little as a feather’s weight.”

He began to move again, and the silent Hunter became aware of the sound of children playing. The air was cooler down here, but it was also close and Hunter had never liked tight spaces. Not since he got out of the bunker and first saw with his own eyes what the external cameras had recorded in the year he’d spent underground.

The man calling himself the abbot was also there that day, as were the other four—the ones Hunter had already tracked down and executed. He could have saved himself half a lifetime of toil and pain if he’d simply put a bullet through their heads before they’d all gone their separate ways but such is the way of regret; you generally can’t see it coming.

Each had left the bunker with supplies, weapons and portable energy generators. Each had left with a vow to do some good in the shattered world. All had lied, and so Hunter had gone after them to see justice done.

They had been scientists and administrators, whereas he was their head of security, and it had been his misfortune to be on duty that night. He’d paid the price of being locked in a small bunker with the men and women responsible for Armageddon and watching as the world fell apart, knowing that everyone he loved was out there among the dying.

No, he was being unfair. They weren’t responsible for the solar flare—that had been the clenched fist of nature and no one was to blame for that. But, by their actions, they turned disaster into apocalypse, and for that he would never forgive them. He could barely forgive himself for allowing them three decades to right their wrongs. But soon that burden would be lifted. Soon they would be dead.

“Where’s the transport?”

The abbot paused outside a door, grasping the handle. “Transport?”

“The FMTV—you all took one. Where is it?”

“Oh. Yes. We were attacked. They followed us on horseback and we were forced to abandon it.”

“We?”

His cheeks flushed and his lips creased into a grin. “This was, let me see, two years or so after we left the bunker. I had met someone—rescued her in fact—and we had children with us. Not mine, you understand. We found them along the way. It was impossible to pass them by. They were so pitiful.”

“And you came here?”

“Not at first. We had many hiding places, but then we came across this base. The people living here took us in, and we helped them by turning it into a refuge for all. Mind, it was surrounded by farmland back then.”

He turned the handle and the door swung open. Children shrieked and Hunter could hear running footsteps. When he got inside, it was to find the abbot surrounded by a gaggle of laughing girls and boys while a woman stood beside a blackboard with a smile on her face.

“Come now, children, release Father Abbot.”

Hunter felt his gut tighten as the certainty of purpose that had fueled him for decades began to dissipate.

“This is Maria Rodriguez, who teaches the children,” the man who had once been Abner Preston said. “Maria, may I introduce John Hunter; an old…friend…of mine.”

She was a striking woman of late middle age with white hair and sand-blasted skin. Rodriguez returned Hunter’s handshake with interest.

“I have never met anyone I knew from the old world,” she said, her face tight with grief. Hunter had seen that expression before. Rodriguez had, for a moment, allowed her mind to wander back to the barely remembered paradise of three decades ago. Did she know what role her sainted abbot played in making the aftermath so much worse than it had to be?

Abner tugged at his arm. “Come now, John, we have more to see yet.”

And so Hunter followed his old colleague through cool tunnels that had been cut out of the rock. They visited the coolroom where all the perishable supplies were kept and then returned to ground level where there was a larger stockroom lined with metal shelves that were almost entirely empty.

“This was once full,” the abbot said. “The people that choose to remain in this wasteland are generous with their support, as long as we continue to take in their children and their sick. But then Custer came.”

They were now in the abbot’s quarters—a modest room off the central square beneath the feet of the water tower. Hunter sat on a rusty steel chair as Preston poured from a bottle behind him before handing a chipped glass tumbler containing an inch or so of amber liquid. “Enjoy that, it’s the last of my bourbon. I doubt either of us will ever taste its like again.”

Hunter sipped at his drink, relishing the long forgotten sensation of heat as it passed down his ravaged throat. Coming here had been a mistake. He’d taken a plow to land better left buried, turning over the furrows of joy and sorrow. Now he would have to reap what he’d sewn. He chuckled to himself at his metaphorical cleverness. He always had been a smartass.

“Who’s this Custer?”

“Well, I don’t suppose it’s his real name. Rides around with his posse of bandits and found his way here in the end. He’s got a Winchester, but most of his gang has flintlocks. They outgun us, so we’ve been paying them off with supplies. They’re due back soon, and they’ll strip the last of what we’ve got.”

“Won’t the folks who supplied you before help?”

Abner Preston shrugged. “They’ll help as they may, but they’ve got problems of their own. Custer’s gang’s been ambushing convoys coming down from the north. Killed a fair few Fed guards. No, I reckon we’re on our own. Except you’re here now, John. God be praised.”

“Drop the act, Abner. You’re no more religious than I am.”

“I was a different man back then. I found my savior when wandering the wilderness. He has given me the strength to do some little good to set against my evil deeds of the past.”

Hunter grunted, drained his glass and leaned back. The chair creaked beneath him and he gestured at the sun pouring in through the window looking out on the quadrangle. The light flickered from time to time as people walked by. “Why did you stay here? You could have gone north, gone to Canada. Made yourself useful among the farming folk up there. Why remain in this wasteland. Do you enjoy being constantly confronted by what you did?”

“I have to be reminded, John, or I shall never find true repentance. But I am not responsible for the grasslands of Illinois being turned to desert. You know that perfectly well. The solar flare was the last straw for Mother Earth and three centuries of climate change were squeezed into three years.”

“No, I don’t blame you for global warming. But you are responsible for the fact that there aren’t enough folks left to rebuild anything like a civilization. If you’d acted more quickly, the meltdowns could have been avoided and tens of millions more would have survived.”

The abbot’s head dropped and Hunter found himself looking at the man’s bald skull, wondering what he was truly thinking and feeling.

“All that is true, John. But will you not help preserve what little we have here? If not for my sake, then for the women and children?”

Hunter rubbed his dry eyes and ran his hand across his forehead. “I sure could use that bath,” he said.

Someone knocked on the door, sending Hunter’s hand to his hip, but relaxed as a child ran in and handed the abbot a sheet of paper.

“It’s from Custer,” he said. “He will be here at sundown.”

 

Hunter brushed the gray horse and patted its flank. Its ribs were no less pronounced, but the twelve hours it had spent resting, eating and drinking in the shade of the stables had brought about a remarkable change. “Not quite ready to lie down and die, old friend?”

He felt bad about the beast because it deserved better. He lifted the saddle onto its back and tightened the cinch before closing his eyes and pressing his face against the cool leather. Was he really going to ride away and leave these people to starve? He’d spent decades trying to make up for the fact that he’d let his criminally negligent colleagues escape from the bunker when justice demanded their execution. Three were now dead, and the world would mourn none of them.

But Abner Preston—Father Abbot—was different. He had sought redemption by sheltering those in need and founding an order of traveling monks who brought comfort to the people of this dead zone. He was as guilty as the rest, but he had repaid part of his debt by three decades of good deeds. At least, that was the story he told, and everything Hunter had seen reinforced the tale.

If Hunter rode off into the desert, then Custer would take the last of their food and the settlement would crumble into the sand, the people driven into the desert to die. It wasn’t his problem.

Except that it was.

If he’d executed Abner when it was in his power to do so, then everything would have been different. Yes, it would probably have been worse. Especially for those the abbot was sheltering. But at least Hunter wouldn’t now be faced with this impossible choice. He could stay and attempt to face down a posse of armed men, knowing that he’d almost certainly fail, or he could ride into the desert and leave the place behind. The end result might well be the same, with the single exception that in one of the two scenarios he’d still be alive.

On the other hand, if he managed to kill enough bandits, the guards might be able to fight off the others with their crossbows.

“Damn him,” Hunter said, slapping his hand on the saddle.

“Don’t cuss at the horse, mister. He’s a fine beast.”

Hunter looked down to see a small figure approaching. It was a girl who might have been twelve or she might have been a malnourished sixteen-year-old. Dark hair was gathered at her nape and topped by an ancient Cardinals cap that looked as though it was held together by threads. She wore a golf glove on her right hand. It looked as though it had once been white.

Golf. Yes, once golf mattered. How things had changed.

“I wasn’t cussing at the horse.”

She ran her hands over the animal’s hip. “I been lookin’ after him. He says he likes you ‘cos you treat him right. But he wants a name and he ain’t got one.”

“Oh, he said that to you did he?”

“Don’t look at me like that. I ain’t crazy. You not heard of horse whisperers?”

“Yeah, but that isn’t what…oh, whatever. What should I call him do you reckon?”

The girl turned her gaze back to the horse and pondered the question for a moment. “How ’bout Amazon?”

“The river?”

She shrugged. “Old folks is always grumbling about how long it takes to get food and stuff. I heard ’em say Amazon used to send it, so I figured it must be a horse or some such. I ain’t never seen a better one than this.”

Time was—before the fall—when “Amazon” wouldn’t have been given a second glance if he’d been grazing in a field, but natural selection had seen to it that his stocky stature and rugged stamina had suited him well to the new world. He was a plodder. He was the tortoise; he finished the race when other, faster, beasts fell by the wayside.

“Are you gonna see off Custer? He’s a bad man.”

“What’s your name, kid?”

Her face scrunched up. “My folks called me Ruth, but I go by Roo. And I’m seventeen.”

“Is your hand injured?”

She clutched the glove to her chest and then shook her head. Without looking at him, she pulled off the mottled glove and he gasped. All the fingers were there, but they were withered and red scars ran along the edge of each. “My folks did their best. Paid a doc to cut the webbing away, but he messed it up. And then, when they asked for the money back, he betrayed them and it was only on account of my aunt that I weren’t left out for the coyotes. She brought me here. People here don’t seem to mind too much, but I ain’t never gonna be married, that’s for sure.”

She was right about that. One of the few things the Restored Federal Government was good at was passing laws, and mutants weren’t allowed to breed on pain of death.

“So, are you gonna face off against Custer, or were you fixin’ to bail on us?”

And, with that, the trap shut tight.

John Hunter wouldn’t call himself a good man. He’d stood by while others had made a bad situation worse. Alone since the day he’d left the bunker, he’d tried to build a new life for himself, but shame and guilt had gotten between him and any chance of happiness. For years, he’d been committed to seeing justice done by acting as a lawman or vigilante as the situation required but, in the end, he knew that if he was to find peace, he would have to deal with those he’d allowed to escape. Gunning down a bandit in a straight fight made the world a slightly better place, but executing the criminals that had caused the nuclear disaster would only mean that justice had finally been done. And yet he could not rest until he’d tracked down everyone in that bunker and dealt with them.

He looked down at Roo. She’d replaced the glove and was now staring at him as if trying to divine his thoughts. She was a sharp one, that’s for sure. “Can you read, kid?”

“Course I can. I ain’t stupid and I ain’t a kid!”

Reaching into his saddlebag, he pulled out a dog-eared journal bound in cracked leather. “Here, can you look after this for me?”

“What is it?”

“Before I tell you, I want you to swear that you won’t open it.”

Her eyebrows lifted, causing the dark lines of sandy grime to gather together on her forehead. “What’s the point of havin’ it if I can’t read what it says?”

“Will you swear it?”

She considered this, looking from him to the book in his hand. Then she nodded. “I swear.”

“Good. This is my journal. If I go out to face Custer and his gang, I might not come back. And if that happens, I want you to read it so at least someone knows the truth. But only if I don’t come back. It’s a heavy burden.”

She nodded again. “Okay. But you better come back. I reckon we’re all a whole lot safer with you around.”

“I’m no hero, Roo. I just want to see justice done.”

 

Five figures on horseback led a small convoy of rusty metal carts towards the gates of the monastery. John Hunter sat waiting for them on his gray horse as the two crossbowmen covered him from above.

The horsemen came to a halt before one nudged his beast towards Hunter.

“My name is George Custer.” He wore a buckskin jacket and a wide-brimmed hat that left his face in shadow. “We come for our tribute as agreed.”

Hunter fought to keep his voice under control. He knew well enough that confidence—feigned or otherwise—was ninety percent of the battle in a one on one gunfight. In a six on one, however, there really was no winning at all.

“I am Hunter. Turn your horse around and ride away,” Hunter said, marvelling that his racing heart hadn’t made his voice tremble. “There is nothing here for you.”

“Oh, is that so? Now didn’t I just go and explain nice and polite to that there abbot what would happen if we was denied our dues? I got people to feed too, you know, and his friars, they go and take what’s rightfully ours.” Custer spoke as if his mouth was missing several teeth.

Hunter’s horse stepped back and forth as if outraged by the blatant lie. “You mean they were given it before you could steal it?”

Custer leaned back, his saddle creaking as a zephyr kicked up some desert dust. He raised his hand to the brim of his hat and Hunter saw him. And choked.

Where his face should have been was a mass of livid red scars, as if someone had taken a potato peeler to his skin, leaving ragged flaps of dead leather hanging from his cheeks. His teeth had been shaped into points and his nose was nothing more than a pair of black slits in the center of his ravaged face. From out of the shadow cast by his brown sweat-stained hat flared two blue eyes framed by yellow, greasy hair.

“Not a pleasant sight is it?” Custer said. “It’s what comes of bein’ born in the radiation zone. I was a right perty baby, by all accounts, and then my skin began to fall off and my folks stopped callin’ me George. From then on, I was kept hidden and I was just the cursed child. So, when I growed up and won this here Winchester, I took my revenge on those who were ashamed of me and took the name for myself.”

Hunter shook his head as if unwilling to face the horror as fear and pity fought within him.

“You see that fella over yonder,” Custer said, gesturing at the monastery. “He was to blame for what became of me.”

“How did you know?”

Custer gave a chuckle that gurgled in his throat. “I may be an ugly son of a bitch, but that don’t make me stupid. Plenty of folks have made that mistake.”

“You’re right. He and four others I’ve already killed.”

Now Custer erupted in laughter. “So, you came here to kill him and he sends you out to face me! You sure have been made a fool of. But I like you, so if you ride away now I’ll let you go. Heck, I might even have a place for you in my posse. We got a lot of mouths to feed and could use some help.”

Hunter sighed and shook his head. Damn that girl. Had it not been for her, he might have taken Custer up on his offer. “Sorry, but I made a promise.”

“A man of his word is hard to find in these times. I’m sorry, I truly am.”

In a blur, Custer swung the Winchester out of its saddle holster and fired.

But John Hunter was already diving sideways from his horse, pulling out his weapons. He rolled to one side as the rifle came to bear and fired twice.

Custer roared with pain, red misting the air as his hand snapped to his shoulder. His horse reared and, whether guided by its rider or through sheer animal terror, it turned and galloped away.

Hunter fell back as something hot lanced into his side. The five other horsemen were advancing now, four with flintlocks pointing at him, the other reloading. Hunter felled that man, then turned his guns on the others.

One man fell to the sand, but the revolver in Hunter’s right hand misfired, sending a shock up his arm and so three remained to encircle him in a ring of lead.

He waited for death. But then something flew past his head and one of the three dropped with a shriek. The sand puffed up at his feet and he swung his pistol up, pulled the trigger and prayed for no more misfires. The man groaned in agony as he clutched his stomach and, before Hunter could bring his gun around, the last man was galloping away towards the convoy of carts.

Hunter gasped as he turned to look up at the monastery walls. He could feel a pulsing pain as something warm and slick spread down his side. Roo stood there holding a crossbow with a look of combined triumph and shock on her face. As he watched, she was grabbed from behind and disappeared.

Leaning on the horse, Hunter walked to where he could see the body of Custer lying in the scrubby sand beside the still form of his horse.

He rolled Custer onto his back.

“You ain’t dead then.”

The bright blue eyes gazed up at him as Hunter tried desperately to focus on anything but the ruined face.

“He set you up, you know that? The abbot. Told me who you were. Offered me all the food they had if I’d finish you.”

Ice ran through Hunter’s veins as he saw the truth in the injured man’s eyes. So, that was it. Abner had known that Hunter was coming. Probably warned by one of his wandering priests. And he’d done a deal to betray his own people in return for being rid of the shadow of death that was pursuing him. He was too craven to do it himself or even to have it happen within the monastery walls, but Custer made the perfect instrument.

“Tell me about your folk.”

Custer’s eyes narrowed in surprise as the dark bloodstain on his shoulder slowly spread. “We got about a hundred. All sorts. Men, women, children.”

“Mutants?”

“Some of them. But they take a lot of feeding. We were about to head north when the abbot sent me a message. The food in that there monastery would see us on our way.”

Hunter paused for a moment as both men fought the pain of their wounds.

“Are you gonna finish me off, then?” Custer said.

Hunter peeled back the filthy buckskin jacket to examine the bullet hole. “That shouldn’t kill you, not if you get treatment. Any of your folk good with a needle and thread?”

“Sure.”

“Come on then.” Hunter stood and looked down at the stricken man. “You can have my horse. I’ve only got one place left to go.” He thumbed at the monastery behind him. “But play dead until I’m inside, you hear? And don’t come back here. Find your supplies someplace else. Got me?”

“Got you. Good luck with finishing that double-crosser off.”

Hunter turned and walked back towards the gates as the carts began to rumble away. He looked up and could hear cheering coming from inside as the bells began to ring.

He was ten yards from the entrance when the crossbow bolt thudded into his temple. He was dead before he hit the sand.

 

Roo had seen it all. She hadn’t been able to stop the guard shooting her friend, but when she’d wiped her tears, she’d watched as the dead Custer had gotten to his feet and ridden Amazon away. She didn’t understand what she’d seen, and she figured the only place she was likely to get any answers was in the journal Hunter had left her.

That night, as she sat in the dormitory long after the others were asleep, she slid the book from beneath her bed and took a tallow candle from its alcove so she could read in the women’s privies.

It was filled with diary entries written in a neat, condensed hand that, as she flicked through, deteriorated. Within the spine was a small phial of a clear liquid.

By the time she’d finished reading, she knew exactly what to do with it.

 

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