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Davey was asleep in his shack when he heard the first explosion.
It sounded like the heavens had been torn in two.
It wasn’t as bad as the explosions that transformed before into after in vast clouds of obliterated blood and brick and bone.
But it was pretty damn close.
At first he shrugged it off; explosions were commonplace here in the Freelands, with one seemingly marking the passing of every hour.
But this was a big one and the sound of the screams that accompanied this one were different.
He looked out and saw fire raining down on the far side of the Freelands.
Huge petrol bombs were being slung over the walls by unseen assailants.
A large group of Grims were already running from that direction, terror etched into their dirty faces.
Confusion and terror reigned.
‘Get to the fucking armoury,’ one Grim bellowed, standing like a roadblock in the sea of his peers rushing the other way.
‘He’s right, we gotta protect the King,’ another said.
Some of them peeled away towards the armoury, but most kept on going the way they were headed – either oblivious to what the Grim had said or more concerned with self-preservation.
Davey moved against the tide, heading towards the hospital where he figured he would find the King.
He tried to keep his body hard, resist the tide, but it wasn’t long before he buckled beneath the strain.
He was knocked to the floor.
Dazed, he found himself lost in a forest of moving legs that threatened to crush him.
He curled up, trying his best to cover his head and stomach.
Breath raced out of him as a careless foot flattened his abdomen.
Another glanced off the top of his head, making him cry out in pain.
In the chaos, no one heard him.
He shoved a foot aside as it came for his face, making its owner go careening to the side to fall a few feet from him.
He too was instantly set upon by the feet.
Davey’s right leg flared up as someone’s full weight landed upon it.
He screamed with the pain, but it was only fleeting.
Another leg hit him in the belly, making breath explode from his lungs.
One came down, somehow fitting through the small gap in his arms and hitting his face hard enough to make pain flare up on the opposite side.
He cried out.
Realised that he had to get to his feet.
He reached up, wincing as another foot landed hard in his groin.
The pain made him want to curl up in a ball and sob, but he knew that to do so was to invite death.
He’d be crushed in the stampede, for certain.
The number of Grims had increased now.
He reached up, dirty hands grasping for the black robes of the Grims above him.
The relentless tide of feet knocked him back down.
The back of his head collided hard with the floor, making him transparent flecks of light floating around before his eyes.
Get up while you still can! He implored himself.
Another blow to the leg made him cry out, made the feeling in that limb disappear.
He grabbed the robes of the two Grims trying to get past him and pulled with all of his might.
One looked down, a look of dismay on his face.
‘Stop,’ he screamed, but the Grims knocked him down too.
More Grims fell over him, leading to a pileup with Davey being squashed into the mud at the bottom.
Already his breathing was beginning to labour as their weight began to crush the air from his lungs.
Panic had set in now and his struggles further suffocated him.
‘Keep calm, young un,’ the Grim who’d tried to rescue him said.
Slowly dirty hands came down, eager to pull the bodies from the pile.
‘Someone falls ya pick ’em up,’ the Grim winked. ‘Grim etiquette.’
Davey’s world was spinning by the time they managed to get him back to his feet.
‘Where ya going, lad?’ the Grim asked him, a kind smile on his face.
‘The hospital. To see the King.’
The Grim nodded. ‘I thought it was you, Davey lad.’
He threw a protective arm around Davey and used the other to shove his way through the crowd.
‘Defend the King! Get to the armoury,’ someone was shouting.
‘Fuck that! I’m saving my own skin!’ another Grim shouted.
The tin sector of the camp was in flames when Davey reached the makeshift hospital.
King Solomon was just on his way out.
He still looked a bit worse for wear, but he had a gun in his hands and a few replacements on his gun belt. Duke was tucked under his other arm.
‘If it’s a war they want, it’s a war they’re going to fucking get,’ he said.
‘You need to get out, Your Majesty,’ the Grim who’d saved Davey said.
The look King Solomon gave him could have stripped paint from a wall.
‘To the armoury,’ King Solomon shouted, pointing the way.
The small band of Grims that followed Davey and King Solomon from the hospital snowballed into a large group by the time they reached the armoury.
‘What are you doing?’ Davey hissed in the King’s ear. ‘There’s maybe one bullet for every Grim here. You’re going to get all of us killed.’
The King’s reply was hidden by another explosion that rocked the whole tenement.
Metal screeched in the distance as some of the shacks in the tin sector collapsed.
A heavy repetitive thud echoed all around.
One of the Grims climbed up onto the wall and looked through a set of binoculars improvised by gaffa-taping some old spectacles to the end of two toilet roll tubes.
‘They’re smashing the outer walls to shit with their bulldozers,’ he shouted.
‘Probably all of Serenity. About thirty dozers in all. Each smashing up a different section of wall.’
‘You can run. But you can’t hide from God,’ Cross’ voice declared through the loudhailer.
He sounded positively demonic.
A barrage of grenades landed.
Dirt flew high into the air, along with bloody chunks of Grim.
Automatic gunfire raked the air.
‘They’re getting closer,’ the Grim said, panic in his voice.
‘How many on the other side of the tenement?’ Solomon asked.
‘None I can see.’
‘That’s where we put the rocks,’ Solomon grinned. ‘We might be alright here.’
‘Repent. You filthy heathens. Repent,’ Cross’s voice came over the loudhailer.
It was getting closer, no question.
‘We gotta get out of here,’ Davey said.
The armoury’s paltry contents were soon snapped up.
At the realisation that Solomon had been playing them all along some of the Grims revolted, spitting at him and calling him some extremely inventive curse names.
They left him, Davey and a small band of roughly a dozen Grims to their own devices.
Explosions and screams filled the air.
Gunfire crackled all around.
Duke squirmed out from the King’s grip and disappeared into the carnage.
‘Come on,’ Solomon said. ‘They’re coming this way.’
As he said it, a homemade bomb landed in the field in front of them.
The crudely built shacks of the tin sector were turned into deadly shrapnel that raked Davey and Solomon.
Davey cried out as a long piece of metal embedded itself into his right cheek.
‘Grit your teeth, Davey lad,’ Solomon said and pulled hard.
A hail of blood came out after it, but the pain relented a little.
Solomon led them down the log forest path, away from the explosions and flames and screams.
The Grims loyal to the King were doing their best to fend off the advancing army of God.
But they seemed to be low on bullets, an unexpected bonus for Cross and his congregation.
Cross’s dozer had a minigun mounted and he was two feet away from one of the catapult vehicles.
‘Rain down holy fire upon these sinners,’ he shouted, face aglow with malice. ‘They have staked their claim on the fires of hell. Now let’s take those flames to their door.’
He smiled at the scenes of devastation all around him, then began to sing, ‘Onward, Christian soldiers.’
Another explosion punctuated his song, sending one of the wooden fence posts flying high into the air and impaling one of the gun-wielding Grims.
He fell, blood pissing out of his stomach.
The Grims seemed to have ran out of bullets, so they were attempting to rush the dozers and stab the occupants.
A seemingly suicidal gesture, but one of the Grims had managed to climb on the nearest bulldozer and had taken down two of Cross’ soldiers already.
Their blood ran down the dozer’s white paintwork.
‘Though some of us may die, the majority will live. And those that die will not really die for they shall sit by God’s side. So, onward Christian soldiers,’ Cross shouted over the loudhailer.
A chorus of voices joined him in his song.
Another barrage of explosions and fire bombs tore the sky.
‘Hell is at hand, sinners. Hell is at hand.’
‘The Freelands is huge,’ Solomon said. ‘There’s no way they can wreck all of it. There’s always going to be something left.’
‘There won’t be much left of us if we don’t get out of here soon,’ one Grim said, sounding scared out of his mind.
‘Relax, brother,’ Solomon said, whacking a giant palm on his arm. ‘We’ll be fine.’
They found themselves running round the outside of the King’s secured compound.
Davey still had barely gotten to grips with the way around this maze, but the King seemed to know it well, taking turns like they were second nature.
‘They’ll not get the dozers through the interior wall,’ Solomon said. ‘We made it so no vehicle can get through.’
‘Will they not just blow their way through?’ Davey said.
Solomon shook his head. ‘No. We knew what we were doing.’
Davey said nothing.
‘We sealed off the east side with stones and trenches, so they couldn’t attack from that side. We forced them to go in from the west. Cos that’s right where we want them. And while they’re trapped there, we open the warehouses. Then we sneak out the back way.’
Solomon pointed through the snaking log maze, ‘See, we’re nearly there.’
Davey saw what he hoped he would never see again; the grim edifices of the warehouses housed at the heart of the Freelands.
‘Shit, something’s wrong,’ Solomon said, the panic in his tone worrying Davey beyond belief.
The King was always cool, always composed, even in the face of fire bombs raining down upon his beloved Freelands tenement.
Davey listened and heard the clamouring of a thousand wasted voices.
He glanced round the corner and saw a seething mass of humanity approaching the log maze.
There were more bodies than the eye could see.
He recognised them as being the grotesque cattle from the warehouses.
‘Holy shit,’ Davey said.
Solomon’s hopeful expression dropped.
‘I’m not sure I can put a brave face on this one, lads. I think we might be a bit fucked.’
There seemed no escape as the starved, ravaged prisoners began to flood into the narrow alleyway.
Behind them was Cross and his band of zealots, marking their progress through the Freelands with explosions, gunfire and screams.
In front of them was a hungry mob.
The lead man – whose legs were bowed horrifically from his time in the tiny cage – saw Solomon and let out a shrill scream.
His emaciated finger quivered with rage as it pointed at him.
He began to lurch forwards.
The others, seeing Solomon there too, began to follow.
Davey finally got to see what Solomon’s fighting prowess was all about.
It was well worth the wait.
The man who’d shouted and started the onslaught of starved figures into the alley fell, the imprint of a giant fist in his cheek.
He hit the deck hard and was immediately trampled by his compatriots.
Blood raced from his broken jaw and he was already crushed to death by the time the next one reached Solomon.
‘Get behind me, Davey lad,’ Solomon said, raising his fists in a tight boxer’s guard. ‘Johnny lad, you guard from the other side. Make sure Davey is safe.’
‘We’ve got no chance,’ Davey said.
Solomon turned quickly to glare at him with his good eye.
‘I mean… I know you’re tough, but there’s hundreds of them. And we’re stuck right in the middle here.’
‘Put your faith in me, Davey lad. For the gods themselves walk by my side. If it’s our time, then it’s our time, but I’m not feeling death’s hand on me yet, lad.’
The next prisoner reached him and Solomon uppercutted her hard enough to almost take her head clean off her shoulders. Her skinny neck cracked as her head flew back.
Without breaking stride, Solomon threw a left hook into the mouth of a woman whose taloned hands were lunging for him.
Solomon’s fist actually seemed to go through her mouth and out the other side.
She fell, showering blood all over her companions.
‘We gotta get down this alley,’ Solomon said.
Davey eyed it; every inch packed with the spitting, snarling things that had once been visitors to Solomon’s camp, but were now something else altogether.
‘We haven’t got a chance,’ he said.
Solomon began swinging as the main section of the crowd reached him.
His belief in himself was staggering; even in the face of hundreds of enemies he was determined to go down swinging.
The other Grims panicked and began firing their guns into the crowd.
Bodies fell, soon replaced by more.
The dead formed a carpet for them to walk over.
Another explosion boomed not far from them.
In spite of the bullets flying through the air – and Davey’s desperate lunges with his now-empty gun’s bayonet – Solomon was eventually overwhelmed.
He struggled to the end, spitting and snarling and swinging right up until the sheer weight of bodies dragged him to the floor.
His enraged bellowing echoed horribly in the narrow corridor.
Unbelievably, he popped up, a section of his left ear missing.
The wound dripped blood that matted up his beard.
He punched the tickets of another half dozen of his attackers before they again dragged him down.
The Grim in front of Davey was next.
They tried to back up, but they could hear Cross’s rifle fire advancing down the twisting corridor behind them.
Rock and hard place.
Shit and shitter.
Nowhere to go.
Finally, Davey took his turn at the batter’s plate.
The party had not a bullet between them now.
King Solomon’s gamble had failed.
Had cost dozens – if not hundreds – their lives.
It seemed the crown did lie heavy after all.
Davey hit the deck hard, the air crushed out of him by both the impact and the dozens of bodies that clamoured for a bite of him.
A sea of faces, more animal than man now, surrounded him.
He jabbed a thumb in the eye of one, cracked the teeth of another with a wild swing, put another down with a hard headbutt.
But there were just too many of them.
The sheer number of them pinned his arms to the floor, crushed the breath from his lungs.
He barely had room to breathe let alone fight.
The screams of the Grims who’d been with him sounded all around him, along with greedy slurping noises.
Please let it be quick, he thought. Don’t let me suffer too much.
And with that he closed his eyes and waited for death to take him to his side