Chapter 1:

A Small Bargain

The Shattered Road

It was late afternoon, a few hours before curfew, and those desperate enough were hoping to get something out of the local merchant man.Bookmark here

The first in line was a little boy, probably nine. Wearing his father’s work boots and covered in dirt.Bookmark here

“I already told you, bones are worthless here. Next!” The boy grumbles as he carries his bag outside. “Can I help you?”Bookmark here

A bald man with religious tattoos on his arms and face steps forth and presents a jar, with something tapping from the inside. “I know you really want that medicine, but this won’t cover for it, kid.”Bookmark here

The man remains emotionless while walking back with the jar before tossing it to the bushes on the way out.Bookmark here

“Next!”Bookmark here

“What is it?” Asks the merchant to the one-armed woman in line, wearing an ammo vest over her torn plated pants. She places a box of enlistment documents on the table. The merchant shifts through it. “These are pre-war, not worth much now.”Bookmark here

“Just give me whatever you can.”Bookmark here

“Fine.” He places a small box of ammunition.Bookmark here

She shakes the box. “Do you hear that empty space?”Bookmark here

“You want more, bring me something different. Next!” Bookmark here

“I will…” She sighs while turning back towards the door.Bookmark here

As she walked out, a tall man stepped in. The doors to the centre shut close, lifting dust and sand in the air.Bookmark here

“What can I do for you?” Bookmark here

The tall man lowers his hat as he walks towards the counter, those in line just let him pass as soon as they see his badge.Bookmark here

“A hunter...never thought I’d see one up close.” The tall man places something large on the counter, wrapped in shredded cloth.Bookmark here

The tall man pulls the cloth away, revealing the remains of a wild boar. Bookmark here

“What the hell is that thing?” The merchant got as close as he could before the smell made him recoil. He got goosebumps as he noticed the odd shape of the boar’s eyes, the unusual growth pattern of the tusks, and the prints under the belly.Bookmark here

“How much?” The tall man raised his head just enough to look at the merchant from the shade of his hat.Bookmark here

“Forty.”Bookmark here

The man places a shredded paper on the counter. “Your poster very clearly said one-hundred at least.”Bookmark here

“For exotic beasts, yes.” He says while pointing at the text. “Not this mutated mess.”Bookmark here

“What a shame, that corpse will start secreting pheromones soon, I heard the wild boars can rile up if their leader is killed.”Bookmark here

“This...this is…?” The tall man cuts a small hole in the boar’s skin, revealing more pheromone spores. The merchant panics as the tall man packs the boar into the cloth again.Bookmark here

“But if this is not worth your time, I could sell elsewhere, I heard the wards are looking for more fresh meat for their studies.”Bookmark here

“No, please…” The merchant quickly composed himself before fetching a large bag of gold from behind the counter. “Not a word to the wards, I need this more than they do.”Bookmark here

“I’m well aware of that. Pleasure doing business.” He bows his head and turns towards the exit, closing the doors before more sand gets in.Bookmark here

It’s a long ride back to the orphanage, although not as long on horseback. Past the windless farms, the rotten hills, fields of the dead and rusting armor and tanks; up until the dry path leading back home. Avoiding any and all distortions along the way.Bookmark here

He makes it to the front gates. “It’s Joaquin, he’s back!” Yells someone from inside.Bookmark here

“Get inside, Charlotte is getting worried!” Bookmark here

The rusted gates open and Joaquin makes his way inside. Plenty of the dolls run to his legs to hug and greet him.Bookmark here

“Did you find any buttons?” Bookmark here

“Did you kill anything big and hairy?”Bookmark here

“Girls, give him some space, it’s been a long day for him and so for you! Get to bed now!” A young lady walks towards Joaquin.Bookmark here

“I got it.” He pulls up the bag of gold.Bookmark here

“Oh my god, so much!”Bookmark here

“We might even have enough to buy new clothes for the girls.”Bookmark here

“Or medicine for the string man.” She giggled for a moment before realizing something. “We are nowhere near our goal…”Bookmark here

“Chin up, Charlotte.”Bookmark here

“I know, I know...we’ll talk more in the morning. Come on, at least pretend to look asleep this time?”Bookmark here

Joaquin sighs as he removes his hat and coat, leaving them at the entrance. Inside the orphanage several areas were blocked with debris, some isolated due to damages.Bookmark here

Plenty of girls sit around coloring, running between rooms, or playing in groups.Bookmark here

The sound of strings echo throughout the rooms. The man playing is a mute man who is also staying with Joaquin and the girls. Bookmark here

String man stops his playing as Joaquin approaches the door, he enters. “How was the food?”Bookmark here

He smiles and plays some notes while looking at Joaquin.Bookmark here

“Don’t worry Jules, I’m staying for the next two days.”Bookmark here

Jules plays a bit more before stopping his strings completely, looking scared.Bookmark here

Joaquin looks concerned at “What is it now ?” Jules moved his head, as if trying to locate a sound. He stands up, and plays very loudly. Downstairs, all girls stop what they are doing to listen.Bookmark here

As Jules speeds his playing, the wind outside gets violent. “Girls, shut the windows!” Bookmark here

Joaquin nears the windows and then sees it. Outside is a figure caped in dark flowing fabric, wearing a broken mask. It made a high pitch giggle, and from it’s chest many insect-like claws emerged.Bookmark here

Joaquin leaps through the window and speeds towards the creature. Bookmark here

“Careful girls!” Said Charlotte as she held the dolls near her. Jules keeps playing as the masked creature moves around.Bookmark here

The creature’s mask shakes violently as each claw launches forward. Joaquin unloads all his bullets. It tries blocking with the claws, but it's not very effective.Bookmark here

Jules lets out a sharp note as one of the claws falls off after a hit, which angers the creature. The fallen claw vaporizes.Bookmark here

Using both of the claws, the creature tries to slam Joaquin, but he rolls back. Only for the other claw to hit Joaquin in the stomach. Bookmark here

The dolls let out a gasp. “No, Joaquin!”Bookmark here

He glares sharply towards the orphanage when he hears Jules speed up. Bookmark here

He can feel the blood, but he sees the creature creeping towards the gate. Joaquin bites down as he continues to shoot. Bookmark here

Joaquin reloads, and the creature’s hit is blocked by Joaquin’s leg. He then launches himself over its chest, unloading again into the mask, breaking more pieces off.Bookmark here

The creature shakes slightly, and it’s claws go limp. Joaquin then takes the fallen claw, and stabs the dying creature. Bookmark here

“Are you alright, Joaquin?” Asks one of the girls as she nears the front door.Bookmark here

“Get back!” Yell Everyone stopped when they heard a squeal from inside the mask. Ouf of the mouth, came a skinny chicken with white eyes, aiming it’s shark beak for Joaquin.Bookmark here

Two bullets to the belly of the chicken and it falls on the dirt below. Jules stops playing.Bookmark here

All the girls and Charlotte run outside. “What is that thing?”Bookmark here

“I never thought I'd see something like this.” Joaquin remembered the boar from the shop, which had similar-looking alterations on its body, but nothing this extreme.Bookmark here

The body starts turning into smoke, and more distortion spots start to appear near it. Charlotte pulls on Joaquin’s sleeve. “We need to get out of here now!”Bookmark here

The walls of the orphanage crumble, panels from the ceiling fall down. And through the cracks in the walls, Joaquin can see more of the distortion making its way through.Bookmark here

“Get the girls! Get everything!”Bookmark here

“Joaquin, help me carry the savings, quick!” Calls Charlotte as both of them lift the bags inside.Bookmark here

Inside, everyone got to packing. Joaquin ties his horse to their old family carriage, and helps placing their possessions inside. Bookmark here

By the time they finish, the distortion cloud from the other side of the roads is nearing the body and the house. Many smaller bundles off the road could be seen.Bookmark here

“Everyone get inside!” Yells Joaquin as he shoots into the cloud to make it back a bit. Before hopping on his horse and riding out of the house with the girls and their stuff. Bookmark here

On their way out, Charlotte notices that their safety barrier was shattered, with claw marks on the ground.Bookmark here

“If that thing back there was just from our home, what could we find out there?” Asked one of the girls. Bookmark here

“I don’t want more of them!”Bookmark here

Joaquin looks back slightly as she rides onward. “Don’t worry girls, I promise you that any monsters we find, I won't let them harm you!”Bookmark here

If only he could imagine the horrors he would encounter.Bookmark here

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