For more than two weeks he had wandered this desolate land that still, surprisingly, held life. He felt no closer to his destination. Sure, he learned the wasteland was not a certain death, though for an unwary traveler, it should have been.
The first several days, as he relied on the food and water he carried from the south, Zero saw very little. There were signs of animals passing through the scrub, and across the small creeks, yet he could not make himself test the water. He could not stand trying to eat the tiny plants. Eventually he would have to, yet what if the first one he tried turned out poisonous? So, he disdained the local vegetation and his meager supplies continued to dwindle.
He also felt certain he was not alone. A furtive sound here, a small scent there, it all led to his belief that the wasteland was not death for humans. At least it wasn’t if you were careful. So, at each sign he would attempt to trace the source. Many times he tried and failed until finally, on the fourth day when his supplies finally gave out, he met his first wastelander. It was a young boy, probably no older than ten, yet with a haunted look in his eyes. Even now Zero was not sure why the boy trusted him enough to stop and talk. But he did. In truth it was quite fortuitous for Zero. Within minutes, a storm sprang out of the north, and had it not been for the boy knowing where shelter could be found, he would have spent a night drenched to the bone. As it was, they spent a cold night shivering beneath the remnants of some building.
When Zero made to start a fire, the boy frantically stopped him, warning of the dangers it would attract. He claimed that many strange creatures wandered the lands now; Creatures seemingly come alive from myth. Some had no precedence. Yet, they all lived now. It was claimed the firestorm created many, and woke the others from their ancient slumber. The boy couldn’t be sure, but he certainly knew better than to look for trouble. If the creatures weren’t bad enough, the hunters were. No one saw the hunters. No one knew what they looked like, but they knew they were there. Almost daily one could find the remains of someone foolish enough to have come across them. The boy couldn’t figure out how Zero had not seen any.
They talked deep into the night, the boy relating all he knew about the land. How to tell if the plant you were thinking of eating was poisonous or not. How to avoid the more dangerous predators out there. He even gave advice on how to approach others like him. It was probably because of the way Zero had made his earlier approaches that the other refugees avoided him. Zero learned a lot, yet the boy could not tell him what he needed to know. He knew of no weapon that could help his people. He knew of no way to free them. The boy seemed to find it unfathomable that people would group together like that. They would become a big target for the hunters. It was always safer to remain alone and mobile.
Part of what the boy said made sense. Sure, the hunters would find them easier if they were in a community, but isn’t it true that safety lies in numbers? The more people in the community, the harder it would be for the hunters to overcome the defenses. Zero tried to explain this to the boy, but he was adamant about the mistake it was. Nothing would convince him otherwise.
When Zero woke the next morning, the storm had passed. The sun had just broken over the horizon and promised a warm, dry day. The boy was gone, vanished as if he never existed. Zero wasn’t surprised.
Since then, he followed the boy’s advice and found other survivors more receptive of him. Slowly he learned more and more about the land that he traveled through. He continued north, never really knowing where he was heading.
He stopped for a moment to take a small drink from his water skin. As he lowered it from his lips, he caught sight of a couple off in the distance. Slowly he headed towards them, following the boys advice again. Perhaps they would know what he needed. As he grew closer, he noticed the couple watching him. He was just about to raise his hand in greeting when the shot rang out. Without thinking, he dropped to the ground looking for somewhere to hide, though he knew it useless. He was in the middle of a killing field. The land stretched out for miles with nothing to break the monotony of the landscape.
“Nice shooting Tec. You got both of them with one shot. I never could have done that!”
Stantion couldn’t hide the awe from his voice. This was only his second foray into the wasteland hunting. Humans were such easy prey. Stantion couldn’t figure out why the elders were all afraid of them, but it was true. A deep-seeded fear lay within his entire people. All humans needed to die, and Stantion was now helping with that. Tec, his father and mentor, slowly lowered his rifle.
“Did you see where the other one went? He was approaching from the south, yet as soon as I took the shot on the others, he vanished.”
“What other one? I only saw the two.”
“You weren’t looking like I told you. You must learn to look Stantion. I’m telling you, there was a third human down there, approaching the others. Come on. We’ll find him soon enough. We have to make sure those two are dead. He must be cowering in a fold in the land.”
“But Tec…they are dead! You took them both out with one shot to the head. No one can survive that. Why must we go down there? We’d be exposed to counter-fire.”
Tec shook his head and lightly smacked Stantion in the back of his head.
“Humans don’t use weapons any more. They think that by forsaking weaponry of all kind, they will not be killed. It is a foolish wish, though one that serves us here. We will not face any danger. We must make sure they are dead though. Either could be the traveling man. If we were to leave without being certain of his death, then we would never know if the prophecy was averted. Plus, I want to know where that other human went.”
Slowly Tec moved forward towards his kill, eyes scanning all around for the slightest bit of movement. After a moment, Stantion followed, muttering to himself about his father seeing things.
Zero lay completely still on the rocky ground. He watched as the two hunters slowly walked out of the west, towards him. He was stunned. They weren’t Others, like he assumed they would be. They appeared completely human, though the closer they came, the less certain of this he became. There was something different about them. Some simple thing, yet vastly important, that made them different from all the people he knew. These must be the dreaded hunters of whom the boy warned him. Worse yet, they were walking straight towards him, obviously on their way to make sure of their kills. There would be no way they wouldn’t see him. What would happen when they did?
Zero remained as still and silent as he believed possible. He knew if he ran, they would just shoot him down. What could he do? Then, just when he felt it inevitable they would see him, they inexplicably stepped right by. They continued the short distance to the couple, knelt to examine them, and then stood again. The taller of the two glanced back towards where Zero lay. Certainly he would see him now, Zero thought. He didn’t though. With a shrug of his shoulders, he turned away and the two headed off to the north. The direction Zero had been going.
Zero lay on the ground not moving an inch as he watched the hunters depart. He watched till they were nothing but specks on the horizon, and then watched some more. Eventually, hours after they left, he slowly crept over to the couple. They were dead as he knew they would be. What were their names? Who were they? Why were they killed? The questions haunted Zero, yet no answers revealed themselves.
Finally, as dusk was beginning to settle over the land, Zero headed off, not north like he had been travelling, but east. It seemed the safest direction for the time being, since he had no desire to meet up with the hunters. He walked long into the night before finally stopping beneath the tattered remnants of a sign that seemed to read Lo Al mo .