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Aiden attempted to speak, but he could feel the words shoved deep down inside of him like crumpled paper. Of course, it didn’t matter. He knew that it was impossible to reason with Stalkers, and he knew that they weren’t going to cross the daylight and ****** him up. Not with the Sunburst smiting the earth.
Aiden was lucky to be under the crumpled overpass when the heat hit. It gave him a moment to catch his breath. The Stalkers hid under the awning of an abandoned gas station across the street. They were shouting at him, reciting their creed. “Believe as you are told!” and “to refuse Samael’s will is to reject redemption!”
Aiden wanted to reply, but he never could find the right words within him. No smart remark, no quick-witted reply ever came to his mind.
Got to make it back to Josie’s, just gotta get back.
The dirt beneath the overpass was hard and powdery and dry, but prickly pear cactus and blue bunchgrass hid in the shade with Aiden. He sat with his back to the Stalkers and focused on the yellow needles that projected out of the paddle-shaped leaves of the cacti. The plum purple pods that sprouted out of the plant were close flowering. Aiden had come out into the badlands with Stephan to harvest.
Quite observations only emboldened his antagonists, and they yelled louder, but he knew better than to humor them. Can’t reason with someone who’s screamin. Aiden’s father voiced chimed in his head. Just sit quiet, and they’ll eventually run out of steam. The Stalkers grew tired of shouting and hunkered down, only starting up with their barking when he shifted positions.
Getting caught in a Sunburst was like taking a dip in the arctic waters. The cold kills quickly, but not instantly. Even if a Duster found shade, they’d still sweat out in a few hours. They could last for a couple of minutes, a few hours or several days. It could be a drizzle, or it could be a monsoon. Aiden always had a knack for detecting when the next heat wave was going to strike the earth.
He couldn’t quite put a finger on what triggered his sixth sense; maybe it was instinctual, or maybe it was paranoia. Most Dusters didn’t know what caused the stirring in their gut. It was as if someone stuck an egg beater inside their intestines and started to churn. The best way Aiden could describe it, and he didn’t even like this explanation, was that it was as if as if the sun’s rays were similar to the ebb and flow of the tide. There was a sort of rhythm to the solar flares, even if Aiden couldn’t consciously comprehend its erratic flow.
The sun was going to set soon, and Aiden would have to make a run for it. He knew that in the long spans of burnt out flatlands was the brick skeleton of Burnie, Texas. He could lose the Stalkers in there. Beyond Burnie was a valley where a lake used to be. The drop off was sharp and composed of cragged, crumbling limestone, but it was possible to jump from precipice to precipice. Aiden could make those jumps quickly, as he had practiced a million times before. He assumed that the Stalkers were expecting him to run in that general direction. They had chased him toward the valley for the better part of an hour. Aiden knew it was possible that they were herding him towards the edge of the cliff.
There’s a chance that they’re hoping I lead them home too.
Aiden stood up and faced his antagonists again. He pulled down the tattered remains of a shirt that he used to protect his face from the sun and drank the last of his water bottle. The Stalkers perked up and stood from where they stooped in their island of shade. When Aiden had finished, he returned the bottle to his backpack. The sun was beginning to dip, sending streaking flares of red, orange and yellow into the darkening sky. Aiden looked into the setting sun and closed his eyes. Even behind the ski goggles, behind his eyelids, he could feel its rays prying into his eyes. The soft foam of the goggles was wet and cool against his skin despite the heat that pressed in on him.
He wore a black and red serape. Beneath that was a Texas Tech Red Raiders hoodie and a cotton shirt soaked in sweat. These layers of clothing were necessary for survival; they trapped his sweat and protected it from evaporating. His clothes felt warm as they stuck to his skin and restricted his movement. Even his jeans were beginning to stick to his legs. The hiking shoes that he wore were full of sweat, and his toes had become pruned and were starting to irritate. God only knew how much perspiration he had spilled that day.
His were eyes shut as he shook his legs awake, rolled his shoulders, and flexed his fingers. He kicked his worn-out shoes into the dirt to ward off the lactic acid that was oozing into his legs from muscle fatigue. He tried to breathe in the stillness, before the escalation.
Aiden was far from having a runner’s body; he was wasn’t tall, he wasn’t lean, but he was compact; hard to move. But he wasn’t slow or immobile either, he was robust and stalky and when he moved it was quick and sharp, like a jab to the jaw. Aiden was never going to win any marathons; his strides were too short and his body to dense to sustain itself at speed necessary to beat out the elite runners, but he had a modest, contained, locomotion that was easy to maintain.
Aiden would have bet against anybody that he could run longer and further than anyone else. This was why he had to lead the Stalkers on. Stephen was tall and lanky and prone to muscle cramps; there was never a question who the diversion would be so that the other may escape.
The Stalkers weren’t yelling anymore; they prowled along the perimeter of the shade, clutching clubs fashioned out of old two by fours. They had carved out round handles and wrapped them in black electrical tape. Nails and serrated metal were driven into the edges of the wood. The fanatics had dipped their clubs in tar to fill cracks and eradicate splinters. Nonlethal blows were possible because the face of the weapon was left broad and bare. They had collected garments of white and stitched them into patchwork cloaks. The scarecrow sutures of mismatched cloth stained from years in the sand and dirt.
Beneath the hoods and all the broad, flowing cloth, Aiden could scarcely make out their gender, let alone their identity. Instead, the Stalkers had stripes to identify and distinguish status among their ranks. A red clay stripe made from plant pigments signified a life taken. A black stripe signified a life captured. Aiden had heard the stories spoken in hushed tones by the Dusters and drifters and outlanders around bar tables in The Park.
The figure that paced at the front of the pack was completely covered with black and red stripes. It tossed its club back and forth and never took its gaze of Aiden as he turned his back on the Stalkers once again.
Aiden could see the shimmering remains of Burnie. When the Sunbursts first started wildfires became an epidemic. The small town ahead was one of countless that had burned in the uncontrolled flames. A brick outline was all that remained that stood crowded around the crumbling pavement and the steel skeletons of scorched cars. Aiden had a dozen hiding spots in mind, all he had to do was get a step ahead of the Stalkers and slip down one of the storm drains and dip into the shadows. Aiden needed a lead in this race. The Sunburst was still sinking behind the endless expanse of flat desert when he stepped into its searing heat and took off. He could hear them forming up behind him. He could hear dozens of feet pounding the dirt in rhythm as the sun dipped below the horizon.
Aiden would have preferred to be chased by lions rather than wolves, at least with the cheetah the race was over quick. Wolves run their pray until they keel over from exhaustion. The Stalkers started their goading again, attempting to seduce him into surrender or provoke him into a fight. Either outcome would save them a lot of sweat, effort, and time. They were still two miles outside of Burnie, and the chase had already slowed down to a grueling marathon pace.
The Stalkers were taking turns to keep the pressure on him. They ran in a line, like a train, one right behind the other. The Stalker at the front of the line sprinted after Aiden, forcing him to pick up his pace until the Stalker got exhausted. The train would then pass the drained cultist, and the Stalker who had been leading the pack took its turn at the back of the line. They would repeat this cycle until he gave in or collapsed.
Aiden kept his eyes on Burnie, watching the old town inch closer into view. He tried to push their insults to the back of his head. He tried to focus on keeping ahead of the sprinter. He tried to focus on the ebb and flow of his pace. But, he couldn’t. They were right on his ass, and they were going to catch him before he ever reached the skeletal remains of the small town. There was one Stalker that sounded feminine. She had a horrendous hyena laugh that she’d let loose every time she came sprinting after him. It was wearing him down. Her snorting got louder and louder as she got closer and closer to him with each turn she got at the front of the train. Aiden could feel his heart jolt each time he heard that laugh. He caught himself holding his breath as she came rushing after him.
Sweat was beginning to seep into Aiden’s eyes, making it difficult for him to focus on the road. The soot-stained brick walls of the small town were drawing nearer, and the Stalkers were almost on top of him. Aiden could feel spit coagulating in the back of his throat. His was breath depleted and became shallow and rapid. The muscles in his legs began to scream, as they tightened and shrank away from the labor. His range of motion was constricting, his strides diminishing in length with each step.
They were entering Burnie. Dirt and dust gave way to the pavement. Crumbling brick wall protruded out of the endless expanse like the bones of some long dead beast. Aiden glanced through burnt up doorways and windows. The light in the sky was waning-closer to black and purple than gold and orange. A hot wind kicked up and began to blow through the gaps in the brick bones of Burnie. The breeze howled as dust and trash whisked down the streets and through alleyways.
The Hyena was almost within swinging range. Aiden’s imagination projected images of the madwoman raising her cudgel into the back of his mind. The Stalkers were too close for him to dart away and slink down a storm drain. All that was left was the cliff, and Aiden was running out of pavement as he neared the edge of town.
The outskirts of Burnie and the line of the ravine was drawing closer. Aiden picked up speed. This was it; this was the final push. The Hyenas laugh crackled through the air as she rotated to the front of the line for the last time. This was it. Aiden knew exactly where to jump. He knew where he needed to land. He visualized the precipice in his mind. Aiden began to open his stride, forcing his legs to extend out of their tight circular motion, his hands opened as he unclenched his fists and began to pump his arms. Aiden opened his mouth wider as if this would let in more air into his dying lungs. The Hyena’s feet crunched against the cracked desert dirt; she was closing in.
Aiden’s legs were denying him. His body was shutting down, and he knew he wasn’t going to make the final yards, he wasn’t going to make it to the ledge. His legs had nothing left to give. The Hyena’s panting laugh felt like it was right in his ear, he could feel her raising the club. Aiden did the only thing he could do.