“Here’s how it is. No one knows how it got to this point, and no one cares. The world is too harsh to look in to the past.”
Jacob rolled onto his back and pointed a shotgun at the vaguely humanoid shape standing over him. Before he could pull the trigger, the creature, whose rust-colored skin looked like an other-worldly fusion of flesh, earth, and hundreds of obsidian shards, slapped the gun from Jacob’s trembling hands with inhuman strength. Weaponless, Jacob held his hands up defensively as the monster straddled the man and stared down at him with faceted emerald-colored eyes, raising two stump-ended arms above its head.
Jacob closed his eyes and tensed for what he knew would be a finishing blow from the creature. Instead, the crack of a gun rang through the abandoned streets, causing Jacob to open his eyes hopefully. A greenish liquid oozed from the fresh bullet hole in the creature’s forehead, and the monstrosity collapsed to the ground, temporarily pinning Jacob beneath its dense mass.
“That’s the last of ‘em near as I count. Get up, Jake. We need to scram before more catch our scent.”
Jacob rolled his head to the side and saw a middle-aged man carrying a still-smoking rifle walking toward him. Splotches of green blood dotted the man’s clothes and he strode with the purpose of a trained soldier. Jacob caught his breath and scrambled out from under the creature’s body, rising to his feet and taking in the battlefield scene. Skeletal frames of high-rises, with every window broken or cracked, lined the ancient pavement, the entire area long ago abandoned to the slow reclamation of nature. An eerie silence hovered over the area, and Jacob noted the bodies of dozens of creatures like the one he had just seen die littering the streets.
Jacob turned to the other man. “What the hell were those things, Sarge?”
“I don’t get paid to name ‘em, son. Just get paid to kill ‘em.”
“Erthen,” shot a female voice from behind Jacob. He turned and saw Leah, the team’s medic, helping another soldier to his feet. “Half man, half rock. During the War, some folks thought it’d be a good idea to fuse humans to raw minerals. Not sure how they did it, but you see the result. They don’t look human and they don’t think human. They’re something else now. They’re Erthen. They might be monsters, but they hurt and they die just like you and me.”
“And if we don’t get the hell out of here, we’re all gonna find out just how easily we die,” barked the middle-aged man. “Those things tend to move in bigger groups than what we just faced. There’s probably more out there. We got the fuel, now lets leave this piece of the past to rot.”
The small group quickly made their way from the battlefield, sticking to the back alleys and side streets that they had followed on their trek into the necropolis. Several minutes passed in near silence as the group did their best to glide through the streets unseen. Suddenly, the group’s leader held his fist up, and the rest of the team stopped in their tracks. Jacob looked past his friends and saw a metallic barrel roughly the size of a refrigerator with one large robotic arm and several antennas extending from the main body hovering in the street ahead of the party.
“God damn Combine scout!” cursed the Sergeant under his breath.
Leah moved to his side and whispered, “What are they doing this far north? I don’t like this, Mark.”
The middle-aged man nodded in agreement. “I’m not sure what those bastards are up to, but if they want this city, they can have it. We’ve pretty much picked it clean anyway. I don’t think it’s seen us, so if we just backtrack we should…”
From the alley behind the group, a cyborg stepped out from the shadows. “You are trespassing in and stealing from land currently claimed by the Combine. You have the right to surrender. If you relinquish this right, you will be summarily judged.”
Mark pulled his team into a tight circle. “I’m not sure how many ‘bots this guy has with him, but the Combine isn’t known for fighting fair. I’ll do what I can to draw their fire. You guys take the fuel and rush past the scout. These guys can’t keep up with you once you get to the hills outside of town. Now go!”
The man pulled his rifle from waist, loading a new round in the chamber as smoothly as a trained professional, aimed it at the cyborg, and said, “The War’s over. Stop trying to win it,” before pulling the trigger and rushing at the half-man, half-machine.