The Dreadland Chronicles were inspired by Stephen King's The Dark Tower series. If Roland Deschain was the last gunslinger, who was the first?
In The Dreadland Chronicles we follow four young boys as they come of age during their travels through a post-apocalyptic world. Meat is the leader with Window serving as his right hand man. Einstein is the brains, and Billie-Bob is a natural born sniper who provides cover for his friends. They form the fist ka-tet as they work to bring peace to a brutally indifferent world.
Artwork by James Skiles
She had once been royalty, before the world they all knew ended, and she had used what resources she had at her disposal to bring them to this desolate place. Far from the danger that now stalked the remnants of a civilization that teetered upon the brink of extinction. Surrounded by dense forest and mountainous ridges that served as a natural barrier against any but the most determined foe. They had come to what was once a summer home but now served as a refuge from those who would do them harm.
The ladies screams filled the short hallway and William turned from the window he’d been gazing out of, watching the forest for anything that might threaten his charge. Doctor Forester was hurrying down the hallway towards him, the blue smock he wore pressed tight against his wide girth.
“You must speak with her William,” Doctor Forester said as he struggled to catch his breath, “she can’t go through with this, and I don’t have the facilities to save her if she does.”
“It was her choice, you know as well as I do how stubborn she is, besides it’s not our place to question her.” William returned to watching the forest.
“Is that all you have to say?” Another scream punctuated the doctor’s words.
“You better go to her, she’s going to need you,” William said without turning away from the window. It was the way of the world, fate was not as set in stone as many believed it to be. There was another reason they had come to this place. To follow a path the lady felt had been laid out for her.
He listened to the doctor’s footsteps retreating down the hall as another set approached. These were much more stealthy than the doctor’s had been, and in the window next to his head he spotted the reflection of a man dressed in camouflage clothing.
“Sir, the outlooks have spotted a group of riders approaching.”
“How long do we have?”
“About an hour.”
William nodded, dismissing the man as another scream came from the room at the end of the hall, this one more primal than the others before, more terrified, and the sound tore at his heart. Though he may have been her personal bodyguard, nothing more than a well trained servant, he harbored a deep love for his charge. A love that would compel him to give his own life if needed to spare hers.
It wouldn’t be long now, and as her last scream faded to silence, another cry replaced it. That of a child, crying out for its first time as it took its first breath. Turning from the window William quickly strode down the hallway to the room at the far end.
Inside he found her, lying motionless in the massive four poster bed that dwarfed her small figure. Her eyes were closed, her hands folded over her chest, dark hair framing a delicate face. Doctor Morrison was pulling the blankets up to cover her head when William entered the room. He stopped him and knelt beside the bed, taking one of the lady’s hands into his own as his emotions surged at the sight of her dead body. Sorrow and anger battled for dominance as he bowed his head and placed her cold hand against his forehead.
I’m sorry. He thought to himself as he warmed her dead flesh with his own body heat. Then he stood, ready to do as she had asked.
“There isn’t much time,” William said, “give me the child.”
A nurse handed over a swaddled bundle and he looked down into a wrinkled face. From outside a shot rang out, followed by another.
“I thought you said we had time,” Doctor Forrester said.
“Obviously I was wrong,” William said as he turned to leave the room.
“What are you going to do with the child? What about her? What about us?”
“It’s now every man for himself, but remember your oath to her, just because she’s no longer with us doesn’t mean you’ve been released from your obligation. As for the child, that’s really none of your concern. The less you know the better.” With that he turned and raced down the hallway as the sound of booted feet came from the main entrance.
“Give us the child,” a familiar voice shouted as gunfire erupted in the entrance.
William raced down the rear steps, the bundled child held close to his chest as he fled through the house and onto the rear deck. Gathering up the reins of the horse he’d stationed there he pulled himself into the saddle as the sound of booted feet came from the deck above his.,
Hunkered down low he held the baby close to his chest as he jabbed the horse in its flanks with his heels, and sent it racing across the open ground towards the distant tree line.
If he made it to the forest he could lose his pursuers among the trees. A bullet whickered over his head as he neared the tree line. It was obvious they didn’t care if they hit the child, confirming his worst suspicions.
Then he was in the trees, darting to and fro to avoid the slender trunks as the sound of bullets pelted the leaves around him like a lethal rain shower.
Weaving back and forth William clung to the side of the horse, riding on its flank as he had been taught when he was a child, so as not to be knocked from his saddle by low hanging branches. The ground sloped down towards the sound of rushing water, the pounding hooves of his pursuers thundering through the forest behind him. They would make good time racing across the field, but once they reached the forest their progress would be slowed as his had been.
Allowing his horse to pick its own way down the hill that was growing steadily steeper, he glanced back over his shoulder to find two of his pursuers already within sight. He recognized the one on the left, that wide brim hat a dead giveaway for the one known as Preacher. It was a nickname he’d earned because he always allowed those he hunted down an opportunity to make peace with the god of their choice before he took them out. If they had called on the Preacher, that meant they were dead serious about ending this child’s life.
But why. It was a question he’d been asking himself ever since he’d learned of his lady’s pregnancy and the resulting flight from the royal court. What did this child represent? What was his purpose? How could his survival threaten a dynasty that had outlasted the very reign of man?
Somewhere within those endlessly circling questions that spun about like a whirlpool that consumed all it came into contact with, the truth lay.
As they neared the bottom of the hill, his pursuers matching him step for step he scanned the bank of a narrow river, looking for a place to cross. He would be vulnerable then, his back to those who would run him down to the ground, he knew he couldn’t make it easy for them.
Coming out of the tree line he laid into his horses flanks with the whip, driving the beast forward at an insane run, the horse struggled at first, its massive lungs pumping the air in and out as it ran headlong along the bank of the river. Behind him he heard his pursuers and chanced to take a look back. When he did his horse hit a hole with one hoof, screaming in surprised agony as the bone snapped and his flight was brought to a jarring stop.
William was thrown from his mount, the baby clutched close to his chest as he curled his body around the child to protect it as they slammed into the ground. They rolled through the grass, small rocks and limbs dinging his back, and arms, and legs. Stars exploded behind his closed eyelids as he hit his head on a larger stone, and he struggled to remain conscious as they rolled to a stop.
Getting to his knees he gently laid the child in a shallow depression. The baby watched him with an interest that belied his age. Strangely enough the child had not once cried out during their flight, as if it were instinctively aware that it must remain silent if it wished to live.
Shaking off the effects of his fall he pulled himself to his feet and turned to face his pursuers as only a true gunslinger could. His hand loose above the sandalwood butt of his revolver protruding from the holster on his hip, he pulled the brim of his hat down to shade his eyes as he squared his shoulders to meet their attack.
They came around the bend in the river, riding low against the backs of their mounts, digging their spurs into the bloodied flanks of their massive steeds.
Faster than the naked eye could follow he slid his revolver from its holster, bringing the barrel up as he focused on the point he wanted the round to strike, thumbing back the hammer, and squeezing the trigger all in one fluid movement.
The .44 caliber slug covered the dwindling distance between him and the approaching riders almost instantly. Slamming into the crown of the hat of the rider beside Preacher, shattering bone on impact, jelling the brain, and killing the man instantly. His lifeless body, no longer able to hang onto the reins, was thrown from the saddle, coming to rest in a shattered heap that would become his final resting place.
The man known as Preacher drew his mount up short, stopping twenty yards away, and slid down from the saddle. With measured steps he moved away from his mount, never taking his eyes off William who tracked his every move.
“It doesn’t have to be this way,” Preacher said, “give me the child, let me return him to his rightful place.”
“The child has found his rightful place,” William said as he returned his revolver to its home.
Preacher shook his head slowly from side to side as he spread out his arms and turned to look at the wilderness that surrounded them. “You call this backwards world his rightful place, he belongs in the royal court, not out here among the savages.”
“You ask me to return this innocent child to die?”
“That’s not your decision to make. Ours is but to follow orders, do as we’re told, fulfill the obligations of our forefathers.”
“What about protecting the innocent? Isn’t that what our forefathers really wanted? When did we become servants to the royal court?”
Preacher shrugged, dipping his head to the left, and as he did he made his play but William had seen it coming. Two shots rang out as one, their deadly voices rolling away like distant thunder as both men stood facing one another.
Preacher looked down at his chest, at the hole that had suddenly appeared there, dark red blood pumping from the wound to stain his vest. He could no longer hold his pistol steady and he let his hand drop to his side as he fell first to his knees, then onto his face.
William staggered back, Preachers slug having slammed into his shoulder, and he felt the sickening way his arm hung lifelessly from his side. Blood stained his shirt, trickling down beneath his vest. He had to find a place to hole up soon. A cry from the horse reminded him of its agony and he quickly dispatched it to ease its pain.
Gathering up the reins for Preachers horse he retrieved the child and painfully climbed into the saddle, turning towards the stream he urged his mount across. He had reached the other side of the stream by the time the rest of his pursuers rounded the bend. The sight of Preachers dead body would stop them for a moment, but it would also drive them to double their efforts to bring him down and return the child to the royal court.
First blood had been drawn and it had become a feud
As his pursuers gathered around the two bodies William faded into the tree line and began making his way up the steep incline. He had to find a place soon to take care of his wounded shoulder if he hoped to survive.
Joe knelt at the side of the small grave and wept for the loss of his unborn son’s life. They knew it had been a risk when Darlene became pregnant. It was not the time or place for such an event. But they had hoped everything would work out all right, and had taken every precaution possible, but some things weren’t meant to be.
Before the dead walked Joe had been leading an average life with his wife in the suburbs outside of Washington D.C. An analyst for the government he’d seen a problem looming on the horizon and had taken the necessary steps to protect himself and his family. Purchasing several secluded acres along the edge of a small lake in the mountains of West Virginia. He knew it wouldn’t be long before the end came, and when it did, he was as surprised as everyone else.
At the time Zombie fiction had become quite popular, with several highly rated television shows appearing weekly. No one cold have predicted that life would imitate art when the earth passed through the tail of a comet and the recently deceased were reanimated by an extraterrestrial virus.
With his wife Darlene, Joe fled into the mountains as society collapsed and the cities became free fire zones as survivors battled for what supplies remained, and the dead filled the streets in their endless search for sustenance.
As he stood up he became aware of the sound of a horse approaching and through the trees to his left a rider appeared, slumped over his saddle, blood staining his right pants leg. His left arm was wrapped around a small bundle and from the shadowy depths Joe heard a baby crying.
Darlene was drawn from the depths of the cabin, her features pale and drained, and with Joe at her side, together they approached the wounded rider.
“Where did he come from?” Darlene said.
“I don’t know,” Joe answered as he surveyed the man’s strange dress. His jeans were stiff, dark blue, stuffed into well worn boots that came up to mid calf. He wore a leather vest covered with odd patterns, swirls and vortexes that made little sense.
“Protect the child,” the man whispered as the horse stopped, rolling its eyes as it lolled its head back and forth, nibbling at its bit. The rider slid from the saddle, and Joe caught him before he hit the ground. Darlene stepped in to ease the swaddled baby from his arm.
She held the bundle close to her chest, tears welling up in her eyes as she cradled the child, looking from Joe to the stranger with an expression of maternal need.
Joe pulled back the vest the stranger wore, exposing the wound in his shoulder as the stranger stirred. His eyes snapped open, and Joe was mesmerized by the brilliant green of his gaze.
“Where’s the boy?” the stranger said as he struggled to push himself to his feet.
“He’s safe,” Joe said as he stepped back and the stranger towered over him. He noted the leather gun belt slung low around the strangers waist, the odd designs worked into the leather, the hoops filled with massive 44 caliber rounds, their blunt heads pointed at the ground. The Sandalwood butt of a pistol protruded from the leather holster.
Gunslinger, the thought filled Joe's mind.
The stranger looked from Joe to Darlene, and back again, his gaze pinning Joe to his spot.
“I’m Joe, this is my wife, Darlene,” Joe said as he extended his hand and nodded to his wife at his side.
The stranger glanced at Joe’s hand, ignoring it as his gaze drifted to the tiny cross at the head of the small grave, then back to Darlene.
“The future of all worlds depends on his survival,” he said, his gaze dropping to the bundle in her arms as the sound of other horses approaching came from the forest that had birthed the stranger.
Faster than Joe's eye could follow, the stranger drew his revolver and spun around to confront the new arrivals. So fast it was as if his pistol had magically appeared in his massive hand. Before either of them could react, four men emerged from the forest and the stranger opened fire, his pistol speaking in a deadly voice, as the first two men met their end before they even recognized the threat.
The other two ducked into cover and returned fire as Joe and Darlene dropped to the ground, Darlene held the small bundle close to her body as rounds whizzed through the air above them.
Joe looked up to find the gunslinger still on his feet, wading into the fight, his gun singing a song of death as bullets filled the air around them like angry bees.
As suddenly as it had begun the fight was over, the last remnants of gunfire fading into the mountains like distant thunder. Joe pushed himself to his feet and crossed to the stranger who stood weaving back and forth. The four intruders dead in the dust before him.
The stranger, gunslinger, unbuckled his belt and passed the holster to Joe, nodding towards the baby in Darlene’s arms.
“It's his birthright,” he said
Without another word he dropped to his knees and fell face first to the ground.
I hope you enjoyed this brief foray into the world inhabited by Window and his friends. To read more about their adventures in a post apocalyptic world follow the links below.
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