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Once word got around that King Solomon was generous with his rations and fought like a demon, the Grims began to migrate over to his camp.
Even the miserly rations he gave to newcomers dwarfed those doled out in Reverend Cross’s camp.
And the dishevelled, often half-dead Grims who made the pilgrimage to the Freelands lived in hope of one day having the kind of portions that Solomon and his loyal supporters enjoyed.
Solomon had been extremely resourceful in his sourcing of materials and labour.
And, under his watchful eye, vast slums of metal and wood and stone and brick, eclectic yet somehow totally cohesive, rose up from the dirt beneath the freeway bridge.
He was building something here, and he wanted everything right.
The buildings weren’t aesthetically pleasing, but they stood of their own accord and kept away the elements.
As the years went by, there was even some sort of comfort to be obtained.
Mattresses and pillows and duvets were all found or made.
Cooking pots and kitchen utensils were created seemingly from nothing, or found and put to good use.
The freeway tenement stretched for miles, a vast, mindboggling diorama of what a little gumption and imagination could do.
Looking down on it from above, it looked like an immense skull with the eyes and mouth blazing day and night.
The vast fire pits had been positioned with this goal in mind: to intimidate anyone stupid enough to come down here causing trouble.
Any newcomer to the camp was given basic food rations and asked to do something to help, whether it be cooking, cleaning pots or foraging for fresh supplies.
They were given a blanket and were told that if they continued to help out, they would be given a bed and the materials to form their own private dwelling…
Smoke rose from the tenement in vast, multi-coloured clouds.
Davey felt both humbled and awed by the sheer size of the slums that stretched out below him.
A curious mixture of smells drifted up to him on the wind; smoke, stale piss and shit, charred meat, unwashed skin and hair, bleach, and a strong chemical scent that hit the back of his throat like a karate chop from an adept master.
The message was clear; Enter at your peril.
As if to reinforce this, the eyes and mouth of the skull belched huge columns of flame.
It looked like hell had begun to leak through the crust of the earth.
A primal roar rose up from below, enough to intimidate even from this distance.
He had no desire to enter the slums, but he heard more boots on the ground behind him, heard fresh sirens joining the hunt.
If there had been another way, he would have taken it, but a glance over his shoulder revealed at least three cullsmen on their way towards him.
They were all armed and he knew that there would be no trial, no interrogation, not even the chance to explain.
In this scenario, the cullsmen meant instant death.
He had a very simple choice.
Live or die.
He ran down the slope as fast as his legs would carry him, hurdling tufts of grass and broken concrete.
The footsteps of the cullsmen followed him until he got about halfway down the slope.
He turned and saw that he had a good lead on them.
A few petulant blasts of their shotguns sounded around him, but he knew he could outrun them now.
He gambled that they’d not want to come into the Freeway tenement and he was been right.
The sirens and flashing lights of the Cull Crew slowly faded as he became immersed in the sights and sounds of the Freelands.
As Davey set foot on the ground at the base of the hill, he looked back and saw the cullsmen halfway up the slope.
They almost seemed to be part of a different world, and he supposed they were, since he had already been swallowed whole by the tenement.
He noticed a couple of big, black-robed Grims had turned towards the slope too, aiming rifles tipped with wicked blades at the cullsmen.
Their sunken eyes stared out from beneath their hoods, seeming to dare the cullsmen to come and get the new arrival.
One of them placed a hand in the small of Davey’s back and pushed him further into the milling crowd.
The cullsmen paused where they were, gesticulating to the armed Grims, but not coming any closer.
The Grims gestured back – the gist of the conversation was clear to Davey but the actual words and gestures being used were nonsensical – and the cullsmen turned their backs to the tenement and started walking back up the hill.
Davey wanted to breathe a sigh of relief, but he suspected he had just put himself in more danger, so he was loathe to relax just yet.
‘Hey, Joker, I told you I’d see you again,’ said a familiar voice.
Davey turned with a start and saw the Grim who’d tried to choke him in the alleyway.
Before either of them could react, one of the spear-wielding guards had moved in and put his blade to the Grim’s throat.
He said something that Davey couldn’t understand but the Grim raised his hands defensively and backed away.
The other bayonet-wielding Grim stared at him as he put a protective arm round Davey and moved him further into the tenement.
The heat from the flames hit Davey as he passed the haphazardly placed chunks of masonry that served as the perimeter wall of the tenement.
Everywhere he looked he saw an eye-melting array of colours.
People were bustling everywhere like the one time he’d been to a foreign city.
It was an overwhelming assault on every one of his senses.
The idea that he was never again going to see his family struck him, but this fascinating and dangerous new world made the problems of his past seem distant.
A sound from his right made him jolt and he turned to see a rainbow-coloured bird in a gold, bell-shaped cage. It was flapping its wings at him, pecking the cage and screeching at the top of its lungs.
He stared at it for a few seconds, then tried to put his hand on the cage to placate it.
It lunged for his hand, its razor sharp beak catching his palm, and he leapt back, straight into the path of an old, bearded Grim.
‘Watch what you’re fucking doing, lad,’ the Grim spat, shoving him out of the way with a gnarled hand.
‘Sorry,’ he said to the Grim’s back as he shoved his way through the crowd.
Davey backed away from the cage, glancing around to ensure he wasn’t going to walk into anyone else’s path.
He walked through a stone archway which had some sort of writing on it, but he couldn’t make out what it was.
A group of girls who looked to be roughly his age skipped past, hand in hand.
They were dressed in tattered red and white gingham dresses, hair matted, faces soot-smeared.
They hollered and whooped, singing the words of some song that had at one time seemed to mean something to him; ‘Daddy finger… daddy finger… where are you?’
The last girl caught his eye and smiled at him. Beneath the filth, she was pretty, in spite of her missing front tooth.
She watched him for a second, her face beaming, then waved and ran off after her friends.
Davey watched her go, then looked around, feeling utterly dwarfed by his surroundings.
High above him, the city was shrouded by the smoke rising from the tenement’s vast, blazing fires.
Two huge blood-streaked dogs circled each other, fangs bared. Their guttural growls added to the music that seemed to have suddenly grown as he further penetrated the camp.
The stone walls round here were painted with vast, technicolour murals.
The most noticeable one was of a smiling sun and moon both stabbing each other in the chest with swords.
Blood dripped down their colourful bodies to form the legend, Life sucks and then you die so suck some steam in by the fire.
A second was jokingly entitled ‘King Solomon’s Facebook wall’, and it had all manner of scrawled messages on seemingly every free millimetre of space.
Another depicted a huge, blood-drenched, bearded man sitting atop a throne of bones.
At his feet lay a huge pile of human skulls, some of them adorned with cullsmen helmets.
All hail King Solomon, was the legend beneath this one.
He stared at this one in particular, unable to take his eyes off it. Something about it made his skin crawl.
‘Impressive, huh?’ said a voice from behind him, making him jump.
He turned, wide-eyed, to see the girl who had been smiling at him earlier.
‘Oh, yeah,’ he nodded.
‘Everything you’ve heard about the king is true,’ she said, her voice suitably tinged with awe. ‘He’s heard about you already and has asked me to take you to meet him.’
Davey’s heart began to race at the thought of meeting the infamous King Solomon.
He was arguably more feared than the cullsmen.
The girl’s hand gripped his tightly.
His hand was clammy but this had nothing to do with the roaring flames that they walked past. Some of them were hot enough to singe his eyebrows and the hairs on his arm.
The sickening smell of burning hair lingered in his nostrils.
A small group of Grims slowly approached the fire, performing what seemed to be a bizarre tribal dance.
They threw something into the flames and retreated quickly, covering their faces with soot-covered hands.
The flames erupted, changing rapidly through a vast range of colours.
As the multi-coloured flames blazed, the Grims roared, ‘Hail King Solomon. Death to those not in his Freelands.’
They took swigs from what looked to be bottles of beer, though Davey wondered where they had got these in a supposedly dry world.
They roared again, threw the empty bottles on the fire – producing another burst of flame and change of colour – and clapped each other on the back, watching the shimmering flames.
‘Come on,’ the girl said, leading Davey on. ‘He doesn’t like to be kept waiting.’
‘Oh, sorry, I was…’
‘I know, I know. We all remember our first time seeing a flamebow. But you’ll make him mad. And trust me, you don’t want that.’
A vast cloud of multi-coloured smoke began to drift from the flames.
The Grims were now approaching the fire, cupping their hands and dragging handfuls of the smoke towards their faces.
Laughing like maniacs, they inhaled deeply.
Then tried to grab the next handful of smoke.
‘What are they doing?’ Davey said, again pausing to watch the bizarre spectacle.
‘Never mind them. There’s plenty of time to explain that later. We must meet with the King now.’
Davey took one last look at the Grims – now capering and rolling around in the dirt, their grins so wide it seemed their faces were going to crack – and followed the girl through narrow, dimly-lit passages of stone and corrugated steel towards the centre of the tenement.
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