A/N: written for the Review Game's Writing Challenge Contest, June 2014. from the 10th-17th, please go to the Review Game and vote for my piece!
the prompt was, "All things begin and end in this city, this boiling pot of corruption, misery, and hypocrisy."
The air was cold as Dane left the safety of home, deep in the confines of the city. The sidewalk was empty as he walked, and he shivered inadvertently, shoving his hand deeper into his pockets.
Go in, sniff around, come back, Dane reminded himself. Easy.
He had never been good at convincing himself about these things.
Ever since the collapse of the government, the city had been at war with itself. It had been several years, but territorial-type struggles continued without end, small groups of survivors searching for rations and supplies and anything needed to survive. Things were running low, however; at this point, most of the city was a populous of empty buildings filled with skeletons. Secret-keepers, they called them, the skeletons and multitudes of the dead- their mouths were shut forever and would never tell who or what killed them. The windows to their resting places had been broken and boarded up again, and Dane clung close to them and the stone walls as he slipped around pools of light from the streetlamps that were left.
It was a regular routine for him now; it didn't matter how far away the other groups tried to keep, someone was always sent to forage for more. It was a never-ending process. Tonight, it was his turn, and he typically didn't ever go home empty handed.
He reached the self-imposed border of the territory with ease, the streetlights distancing themselves behind him. Dane took a deep quiet breath as he approached the line, taking care to step soundlessly across the sidewalk. With no hesitation, he hopped over the wide divide between sidewalks, still clinging to the walls and shadows. When he got to the next corner he felt his heart rate double, but he pressed forward silently. Now was not the time to panic and turn back.
He crawled forward in small increments, taking time to listen and reevaluate where an escape could be made if necessary. The dark sky was coming to his advantage, and the dim lights of the opposing group's main hub was still a ways off. He pulled a switchblade out of his pocket, clutching it tightly in his palm.
Three blocks passed by easily, and he was now only one row away from the oncoming lights. He crept along, trying to find the street that would lead him directly to the marketplace. He would camp there and wait for his opportunity.
Dane crept forward, stopping on the next street corner. At once his heart leaped into his mouth- he heard footsteps. Without a moment's thought, he backtracked to the door just behind him. He flipped his switchblade open as he reached for the handle, and with an expert's hand he slipped it into the lock and swung it open without a sound. With the same motion he moved inside and slowed the door as it closed, suppressing any noise from the lock clicking shut.
He backed away from the door, quickly surveying the room. Everything was clear except for a thick layer of dust on the tables and chairs. No doubt the building had been empty for years.
Silently Dane moved from room to room, not stopping until he found the stairs. Tiptoeing up the less-dusty stairway, he heard the door in the front swing open from down below as he made it to the top of the stairs. He ducked into an old room overlooking the street, crouching carefully behind the door and stopping to wait.
Seconds seemed to last an eternity as he sat, listening for any movement. He shut his eyes, knowing he would hear if they started up the stairs. He hoped they were alone.
A minute passed, then two. He was sure somebody else was here, but he knew better than to give himself away. He could be patient.
Dane looked around the room now, spotting a pair of dingy skeletons in the corner. From the way the bones were positioned, it looked like they had last been embracing as they died. He pursed his lips. You'll have another companion here soon, he thought. Let me kill one for you.
Another minute passed. Curiosity prickled at his brain, but he silenced it as he focused on the sounds of the old building. Dane willed himself to stay completely still, wishing his heart would slow down as to not give him away.
"Hello?" a voice echoed.
Dane smiled. He had won out.
The voice came from the floor below. Knowing the concrete floor wouldn't creak beneath him, Dane stood up slowly, preparing himself. He knew the other man was on to him. He would come looking soon.
I'm ready for ya, Dane thought, tightening his grip on the handle. Again he waited, listening.
"Hello…" the voice rang out again.
Dane slid his thumb up and down the side of the handle. He was patient, but if nothing else, he wished he would hurry.
Finally, he heard footsteps coming up the stairs. He leaned further back against the wall, slowly moving away from the door-frame so it wouldn't hit him if it opened. The door soundlessly began to swing open, and Dane took a deep, silent breath, calming his racing heart and holding his knife to his chest.
The door stopped, halfway open into the room, and Dane watched between the crack of the frame. He could see the man's arm, still outstretched, the hand against the door that separated them. For a long moment they both stood still, but the other man's arm eventually dropped slowly out of sight. Dane waited a few seconds before creeping towards the door, hoping he might be able to sneak up behind him. He peered around cautiously into the hall.
A slight whistling sound caught Dane's attention and he instantly tucked and rolled out into the hallway. He landed in a crouch and turned, finding the other man pulling his knife out of the door-frame. Their eyes met and Dane leaped forward, brandishing his knife ahead of him.
The hallway echoed with an exchange of knives and fists, clashing and grunting between each shot as they attempted to deny the other a successful hit. Dane parried as best he could, knocking at the other man's fists to send the knife in another direction. Successful though he was at keeping the blade away from his body, he managed to land himself several cuts along his fingers and hand every time he did so. Dane knew quickly they were evenly matched, and after a particularly heavy parry from the other man, he pushed back a few feet. The two men stared at each other, gasping lightly for breath. The other man's eyes flitted around for a brief moment before launching forward.
Dane countered quickly, managing to swipe his knife across the man's forearm, tearing skin. If it bothered him, he didn't show it, and the man retaliated in turn by nicking Dane's free hand. Lightly stinging, he clenched his fist and threw it forward, managing to punch the other man in the stomach.
The other man reeled away, and Dane followed him, raising his switchblade above his head. He brought it down quickly but the man managed to raise his blade. A huge clang reverberated in the space, and Dane jumped back instinctively. No reason to give a window where he could help it.
"You should leave," the other man said, rising to his feet.
Dane looked at him, surprised.
"Stop picking on us!"
"Everyone takes in this place," Dane said coolly. "I'd say 'give' too, but that's never been true. You look like you should be old enough to know that."
The man clenched his jaw. Without another word, Dane launched forward.
Again the sounds of the frantic exchanges of knives between the two men echoed up and down the hall. Dane tasted rust in his mouth, and realized his lip was bleeding. When that had happened, he didn't know, but he made sure to land a clean cut on the other man's cheek to make up for it.
The other man eventually landed a lucky shot, a deep cut on the top of Dane's shoulder. Dane pulled away quickly, pressing at the blood that seeped into his shirt.
"Don't you ever wonder," the man panted, "if it's worth it?"
Dane frowned, watching him carefully.
"If living and dying like this is the only way?"
"Suits me just fine," Dane said.
"This city is all you know," the man spat. "You could be happy if you left."
"You talk too much," Dane growled. He clenched his jaw tightly and sprinted forward, keeping his head low and his arms outstretched. As he neared, Dane pushed away the man's knife to the side and tackled him. The man's knife had buried itself in and out of Dane's shoulder-blade as they fell, and they both cried out when they hit the floor. Dane quickly propped himself up on the man's chest, pinning him to the floor. The man stabbed wildly at Dane's thigh, the closest thing to his hand, only nicking skin in some places and occasionally causing giant spots of red blood to pool in his jeans. Dane brought his blade high again, and, despite the man screaming beneath him, swung it down hard into the man's chest, burying the blade up to the hilt in the man's flesh.
At once, the man's eyes went wide and the scream died instantly in his throat. His fingers curled, trying to grasp at anything within reach. Dane grabbed the man's switchblade, forcing it out of his hand and throwing it over the bannister of the stairs. He heard it clatter on the floor below.
Blood began to ooze out of the man's mouth now, and Dane crawled off to the side. Dane panted for a few seconds, wincing at the pain that was starting to escalate in his shoulder and thigh. He pulled some cloth out of his pockets, dabbing at the blood and applying pressure to the biggest cuts.
Once tended to, he looked up at the man lying on the floor, his lifeless eyes still staring at the ceiling.
"Congratulations, secret-keeper. Don't tell them I was the one that killed you, hmm?" Dane muttered, leaning over to shut the man's eyes. He noticed he had been carrying a bag, and Dane twisted it off the lifeless arm and shouldered it himself. "All things live and die in the city, my friend, and only fools try to change that."
The man's voice echoed in his head. You could be happy if you left.
Is it worth it? Dane wondered. He thought of the people he'd known who'd died along the way, and how despite the hardships, he'd always managed to find food and survive.
Dane looked over the man's face again. Nah, this life is fine, he snorted, adjusting the strap on his shoulder before starting to stagger around the lifeless body and limping toward the stairs. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.