“That must be it,” Adela murmured as she paused to look at the twisted cross hanging loose from a concrete wall spider-webbed with vine-filled cracks. The young ranger was tall and slender, with an ample chest and long blonde hair that she wore pulled back in a ponytail. She wore a pair of loose-fitting black leather pants designed to survive several days of traveling, and a brief halter that provided just enough modesty in the sweltering southern heat. Her only equipment was the sword slung over her back and the empty satchel tied to her waist. The rest of her equipment had been stored in the crook of a nearby tree, where it would be relatively safe from thieves and curious animals.
The cross’s warped metal frame still held several jagged shards of red glass and the tangle of rusted wires that had once lit it from the inside. Back before the Rupture there had been stainless steel letters embedded next to the cross, proudly declaring that the building had been the East River General Hospital and Trauma Center. Those letters had long since been ripped away by the weather, so long ago that even their faded imprints had been washed away to blend in with the rest of the dirt and vines. Here and there entire sections of the walls had collapsed, leaving piles of shattered concrete studded by crooked rebar. The glass facade at the hospital’s entrance was a shattered wreck, and the corrugated metal door that had kept the elements out of the garages had long since been stolen to keep them out of some scavenger’s shelter.
Normally, Adela would have avoided such a ruin as best she could. Most places had been picked completely clean in the years shortly after the Rupture, those that hadn’t been immediately infested with monsters from the other world. But the winter had been particularly cruel that year, and several fevers continued to plague Crivedale, the village Adela called home. The witch who served as the village’s healer had sent Adela in search of the old medicines, swearing that they could be restored to their original potency by the witch’s magic. After sending some time studying the maps of the old world, Adela had settled on East River as her best chance. It had been only a small town before the Rupture, quite a distance from any of the known cities or kingdoms, and its hospital had been located on the very edge of the town, far from the highways and rivers most salvagers travelled.
The field where the ranger crouched had once been the hospital’s parking lot, the crumbled asphalt having prevented anything larger from taking root. Instead the grass had grown to nearly waist height, fed by the heavy spring rains. She studied the ruins, looking for any sign that they might have been taken over by some monster looking for a lair, but the birds continued to sing and the crickets continued to chirp. If there was something living in the hospital, it didn’t seem to bother the animals very much. Still, it was better to be safe than to be sorry. Her sword whispered as she drew it from its sheath, holding it down and to the side as she crept up on the hospital.
Adela froze as she neared the hospital’s entrance. Standing in the shadow formed by the corners of the building was a slender pole, roughly shoulder high, on which someone had mounted four skulls, each of which faced one of the cardinal directions. She had seen similar stakes before. Known as potkoli, they were set by goblin tribes at the edge of their camps to ward off evil spirits and to warn the tribe’s shaman of any approaching danger.
But this looked like it hadn’t been cared for in a long time. The leather thongs that held the skulls in place looked to have been chewed on by various animals, and the stake itself had sagged to the side. Judging from the weathered condition of the bones, the potkoli had to have been at least a year old, probably more. Typically a tribe would replace or repair them every few months, to make sure that the totems were as scary looking as possible.
‘So either the moved on, or something chased them away, ‘ Adela decided as she approached the staff. She reached out to test it with her blade, but froze as one of the leather bindings gave way and the top most skull tumbled to the ground. It bounced as it hit the ground, spining end over end before coming to a stop facing her, as if accusing Adela of causing its misfortune.
“Well, fuck you, too, buddy,” Adela muttered as she lowered her sword. She stepped over the warped door frame and into the darkness of the ruined hospital. Thin rays of sunlight managed to filter through cracks in the floor above, just barely providing enough illumination for her to explore by. Various obstacles kept her pace down to a slow crawl, as she often found herself forced to pick her way past piles of crumpled gurneys and other obstacles the goblins had created to defend their new home. She would also stop to occasionally clean some of the dirt from the wall, looking for the directions that had been painted at the corners of each intersection. Sometimes the directions were too faded to follow, but in some places they had survived the years well enough for her to decipher their meaning. The witch had been quite clear with her instructions: Adela had to find the Pharmacy, as that was where most of the medicines would have been kept.
“And of course it would be upstairs,” Adela sighed. The ranger glared at the red arrow pointing to a nearby stairwell, as if that would somehow cause the arrow to change its mind and point in a different direction. Going up in ruined structures was never a good idea, especially in ones that had already started to collapse. There was a good chance that her extra weight would cause the floor to give way, and then she’d be trapped and injured, far from where anyone would be around to rescue her. Easier to just slit her own throat at that point. Not that exploring the ground floor was necessarily much safer, but at least Adela could be confident that if the roof dropped in on her head that it wouldn’t be her fault.
Taking a deep breath, Adela began to climb the stairs, wary of any traps that the goblins might have left to protect it. The stairs double backed before coming out in the middle of a long hallway. Another red arrow pointed to the left, where not twenty feet away the floor had already given out and fallen to the ground below. There was just enough floor left that she could squeeze past the whole by walking with her back flat against the wall. She made it a point not to look down, instead keeping her eyes focused on the far wall until she was past.
Fortunately, the pharmacy wasn’t much farther. Adela’s nose wrinkled as she approached her destination, picking up the stale odor of old death. The door to the pharmacy had been ripped off of its hinges and lay to one side of the hallway, but there was no sign of blood or other indications of violence. Leading with her sword, she stepped into a room filled with corpses.
The bodies of a dozen goblins lay twisted in various positions on the pharmacy floor. They had been reduced almost entirely to skeletons, though the scavengershad left behind the occasional scrap of dessicated flesh and hair. Tiny amber bottles lay scattered around the bodies, some still clutched in small bony hands.
“Must have been one hell of a party,” Adela murmured as she studied one of the bottles. The paper label was faded and crinkled, too far gone to tell her what its contents had once been. She made a mental note to mention this scene to witch. Unless the old woman had some way to tell which pill was which, there was a good chance she could end up poisoning one of her patients the same way the goblins had been.
Adela hopped over a low counter and made her way through several rows of shelves, picking through the various bottles for ones that looked promising. She skipped the ones made of glass or that looked to hold liquids. It was going to be a fairly long trip back to Crivedale, and she needed to make sure that her cargo would survive the trip. She focused instead on plastic bottles holding pills. Where possible, she tried to get ones that still had a readable lable, but the majority were too far gone for that. After abount twenty minutes of searching, the satchel she had brought was reasonably full. She slung it over her shoulder, crossing the sheath of her sword to keep the lumpy bottles from slamming into her back as she moved. Then it was back the way she came.
Adela managed to make it back to the hospital’s lobby without incident, but there her luck ran out. She had already stowed her sword, having mistakenly decided that the ruins held no more danger for her, and was humming an old traveler’s song as she headed for the door. Her only warning was a blur of movement at the edge of her vision. One second she was ambling along and the next she was hammered to the floor by a powerful weight. Her attacker bounced to the left as Adela rolled to the right, but when she reached for her sword she discovered it was gone. Her hand closed over empty air where the hilt should have been.
Her eyes went wide as she spotted it several feet away ... in the hands of the goblin that had attacked her. The creature that had stolen her sword was almost a foot shorter than she was, with wiry muscles and dirty purple skin the color of bruised plums. Crooked teeth crowded its mouth, stretching thin lips, and its yellow eyes almost seemed to glow in the darkness. The goblin jabbed at her with her sword, growling, “Shikshik! Kas! Kas!”
“I ... I don’t know what that means,” Adela answered as calmly as possible. She swallowed against a suddenly dry throat. She took a tentative step towards the door. “I was just leaving-”
.... There is more of this story ...