Last of the Hand

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Bryson took a drag of his cigarette, his eyes glued to the landscape before him. What had once been beautiful Wyoming countryside had been reduced to a barren wasteland. The Foundation knew that people would come out here in hopes of escaping the cities, so they did their best to poison the land in any way they could. What fruit or animals that still lingered were tainted, more likely to eat you than be eaten. His mind started to wander back to that day when he felt a soft tap on his shoulder.

“Tyler, we got a message.”

It was Coleman, his second-in-command and probably one of the last people still alive that called him by his first name. Tossing the cigarette aside, he turned to look at the man and for a brief moment, he couldn’t recognize him. He looked so…haggard. Dark bags hung under his eyes and a bandage was wound across his forehead. “From who?”

Coleman handed him a small slip of paper. “L.S.”

Written on the paper was only a few words, but enough for Bryson to know what their leader wanted. It read, “Meet at the Library. It’s time.”

Coleman glanced back at the farmhouse nearby, where the rest of their men were currently holed up. Bryson could tell he felt uneasy about it all, Coleman had a habit of furrowing his brow when he was upset about something. Sure enough, the man asked, “Is it really a good idea, leaving like this?”

Bryson rose to his feet, stashing the slip of paper back into his pocket. He gave the countryside one last glance before turning back towards the farmhouse. “Hell if I know. C’mon, it’s time to move.”

The Way that was located in the farmhouse was fairly easy to open compared to the others they’d found. That, and the Foundation hadn’t managed to booby-trap it yet. A few weeks back they lost two good men to a Way the Foundation had managed to tamper with. They went in and it closed not a second later, sending them to god knows where. One by one him and his men stepped into the shimmer, letting it take them to the one place they knew was safe, the Library.

L.S. had been waiting for them on the other side. Despite being their leader, Bryson never felt comfortable around him or her, whichever they were really. Something their leader had on them made them nearly imperceptible, like staring at someone who was on a distant horizon. “Glad you could make it, Bryson. Good to see that rumor of your squad being wiped out by the hounds was wrong.”

Bryson gave their hand a quick shake, before turning his attention towards the others in attendance. Was there always this little people among their ranks? “Lost some good men, but talking dogs won’t be enough to do us in.”

L.S. just nodded silently and walked past Bryson towards the center of the room. Their voice was suddenly much louder, enough to reach the farthest corners of the area. “Ladies and gentlemen, I believe we can start now. You probably know why I’ve gathered us all here. I’m of course speaking of the Library disconnecting from our reality.”

Murmurs and whispers among the people present continued to rise until L.S. tapped their cane on the wooden floor. “I mean for us to join them. Our world is dying, tainted by the very people that once claimed to be its saviors. I have spoken with the Library’s council and they will help with relocating us to a suitable reality.”

Bryson couldn’t help but speak-up at this point, taking a step forward towards the center of the room. As he spoke, he could feel not only the other members’ stares upon him, but also the Docents’ and Pages’. “You want us to run away then. Run away from our home.

L.S. turned back towards Bryson and although he couldn't see their face, Bryson didn’t doubt that they were frowning. “Our home is dying, Tyler. I do not mean for us to die with it. There is no longer anything we can do.”

Bryson could feel anger rising up from inside of him. Was all they had done for the past several months been for nothing then? Had he watched friends, family, and subordinates die for nothing? “Then why not use the Library’s power?! Is there not something they-”

“It is not our duty to intervene in your world’s affairs,” boomed a voice from the darkness above them. He watched as one of the Library’s elders, a gigantic centipede bearing runes over it's expansive body, descended from above. It stopped just short of them, it’s hundred or so eyes turning towards him. “The Library is neutral in all conflicts of the Wanderers. I am sorry.”

Bryson was practically trembling in anger at this point. How could they so easily abandon their world, the place where they had been born? There were countless realities, but this was their reality. “I’m not leaving. I’m staying.”

L.S. nodded and replied in a regretful voice, “I am sorry to hear that, my friend. Any of you who wish to stay with him are free to do so.”

Bryson felt a tinge of fear as he turned to look back at his men. They would surely abandon him, would they not? He was on a suicide mission for sure, and here they were being offered a ticket out of that hell that awaited them on the other side of the Way. Despite these worries, they all stood with their hands raised, Coleman in the lead. He gave Bryson a smirk as he said, “We’ve been with you this long, Captain. We’ll go the rest of the way.”

For the first time since it had all started, he felt truly happy.

Despite L.S. 's insistence that the Serpent’s Hand leave with the Library, they seemed more than willing to give any supplies they could spare to Bryson and his men. Finally, it came time for them to leave through the Way. Everyone was in attendance, including their leader. “I suppose there’s no chance of you reconsidering?”

Bryson shook their head, glancing back at his men who were all waiting for the word to leave. “Nah, sorry. I do have one last request, though.”

“Anything. You need only ask.”

Bryson had a small smirk as he asked, “Mind showing us your face? Not like we’ll get the chance to see it again.”

Telling by their body language, he assumed his request came as a bit of a surprise to their leader. Despite the apparent surprise, L.S. nodded and removed a ring from their finger for just a few moments, letting everyone see them as they truly were. Bryson couldn’t help but chuckle at the revelation. “Didn't see that one coming. Man, to think I even liked some of your movies. Catch you on the flip side, L.S.”

“May you find peace in the clearing at the end of your path, Tyler.”

Bryson walked confidently into the Way, ready for whatever awaited them on the other side.

Three Months Later

The meeting in the Library had felt like almost a lifetime ago, like a dream of a dream. Three months had passed since then and their numbers had dwindled. The Foundation’s fervor in destroying the human race had only increased as time went on and they kept churning out more and more horrors to crawl across this desiccated world. Now, his squad had found its way to central China. Around a month or so ago they were able to get into the Foundation’s info banks, if only for a few minutes or so. That was enough to find out they had plans to resurrect some sort of giant creature capable of wrecking untold havoc.

“Think this might be the last one,” Coleman said from behind him.

He turned his attention from the Foundation base in the valley back to the man. Coleman had a cigarette between two fingers of his remaining hand. The other had been taken in a skirmish with horsemen that’d been lying in wait for them. They had become a common sight at all the battlefields across the globe, either through Foundation involvement or happenstance. “Yea, I’m getting the same feeling. Besides that..when did you start smoking again?” Despite the dreary situation, a grin crept onto his face as he looked up to his old friend.

Coleman returned the grin with a smirk of his own and a shrug. “Thought the end of the world was a good enough time as any to start up again. The guys are all ready, all we need is your word and we can storm the place. Locke found a spell in one of his grimoires that will take us right into their containment room.”

Bryson nodded, setting aside the binoculars. “I’m ready. Let’s get this-”

He was cutoff as a deafening explosion erupted from the Foundation base below them. Both men peered down into the valley and Bryson immediately knew they had been too late. The monster the Foundation had in its custody was already resurrected and it had just burst through the front entrance to the base. Foundation soldiers seemed to be doing their best into wrangling or capturing it, but they were quickly being wiped out.

“Guess it’s our time to shine.” Coleman said, flicking his cigarette away.

He turned back towards the dozen or so men they still had. Although he hadn't looked into a mirror for god knows how long, he didn’t doubt that he looked much like they did, gaunt and half-dead. Despite that, they were all grinning and had their eyes locked onto him. Bryson felt much the same way that they probably did. This was going to be their last battle, one last hurrah for the human fucking race. Never much one for speeches, he just shouted, “Let’s give them hell, boys!”

A chorus of cheers and cries sounded off in response. Locke began to cast his spell and within moments they all found themselves relocated to outside the Foundation base, only a few hundred feet away from the rampaging monster that was doing its best to swat away the Foundation soldiers at its feet. Bryson could almost feel a sense of finality swelling up inside of him. They had done their part, saved who they could and killed what they could. He was idly aware of Coleman on his right, charging in alongside him towards the monster. He was chanting magic before he even knew it, as were the others. The creature reared its ugly head towards them, just now taking notice of the new enemies. It began to charge at them, forgetting all about the soldiers still desperately trying to control it.

Four Hours Later

The fight had moved from the valley and into a prairie still untouched by the Foundation’s poisons. He didn’t know who had gotten the last strike on the beast but it now lay face-down in the grass, dead. As for Bryson’s men, they were all gone. Bryson slowly dragged his way across the dirt towards Coleman’s corpse, which lay only a few feet from him. As he reached it, he realized Coleman was still breathing. Pulling the second-in-command’s head into his lap, he watched as his eyes slowly drifted open and hazily looked up towards him. “Hey, Tyler. We win?” he asked weakly, a smirk on his lips.

Bryson couldn’t help but chuckle, even though it hurt to do so. “Yea, we won. We got him.”

Coleman nodded, his hand sliding down towards the sizable hole in his gut. Bryson could see what was left of his innards and quickly turned his attention back to his face. Coleman still had that damn smirk as he said, “Bryson, I think I'm dying.”

All he could do was nod, as his throat had become tight and unyielding. He was idly aware of tears that were forming at the corner of his eyes.

Coleman opened his mouth to say something else but passed before he could form the words. It was only when Bryson went to close Coleman's eyes that he realized a large piece of shrapnel was embedded in his own abdomen. It looked like he wasn't coming out of this unscathed either. Looking out over the prairie, he did not feel any regret or sorrow though. His chapter had come to an end and he was at peace with himself. He never considered himself a god-fearing man, but he offered a silent prayer for somebody to save what remained of this world. That was, if it was still capable of being saved. As the sun began to rise, Tyler Bryson left for the clearing at the end of his path.

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