Ella was not happy when the caravan met in the sleeping quarters that had been given over for their use in Ark.
“Are you all fucking children? Because I’m sure as hell not your mom, and that’s all I was doing today. I couldn’t get through five goddamn minutes without one of you arguing with the other kids.”
“They complained I was drinking too much wine,” someone called out, a slight slur audible in his voice. “How am I supposed to react to that?”
“You nod and smile because you’re a fucking alcoholic and they’re pointing out the obvious, Rudy. Besides, I know damn well that you tried to take an entire bottle for yourself.”
She rounded on a contingent of veteran traders off to one side. “And where were all of you? You know how weird Ark can get, why was I the only one putting out fires? It’s not just my ass on the line if we get back and Morton finds out we have all the same stuff we left with. A little backup would have been nice.”
Several of them had the grace to look ashamed, but Ella kept glaring toward the group in general. Angela walked up to her and whispered something in her ear.
“Fine,” she said, tossing her hair. “That’s it. Try not to kill anyone before the negotiations tomorrow.” She left the building quickly, Angela close behind her. No one spoke much once she was gone, though some low muttering was audible.
Luke quickly claimed a space for his sleeping bag well away from everyone else. It was only around dusk, but he knew from experience that if he didn’t establish his place early, he’d be sleeping in the moldiest corner of the building. He sat for a while after that, reflecting Ella’s words. The trip had been far more perilous than the general run of Crater’s caravans, but so far they had virtually nothing to show for it. He knew part of her anger stemmed from their failure to trade anything so far, as she had repeatedly reminded them. As the most senior trader in the caravan, she apparently felt the brunt of that failure landed on her own back.
Not that Luke was any closer to accomplishing his personal goal for joining the caravan. He wasn’t sure what he had been expecting, but he had yet to trip over any information that might lead to him returning home. Unless he learned something significant at the elvish settlement, it was starting to look like the entire trip might be a dangerous, pointless waste of time. He wasn’t even sure what he had thought he might find with the caravan. The longer he ruminated on his failure, the stupider he started to feel.
“Hey. Are you busy?”
Luke looked up to see Tony standing above him with a bucket. He took a moment to rein in his initial inclination to snap at the other boy.
“Not really, I guess. Why?”
“We need some more water. Want to go with me to the river?”
Luke hesitated. He remembered the feeling of trepidation that had washed over him at the meal, but it had passed almost as soon as they’d left the Ark folk behind. It felt like getting out of the crowded quarters might do some good for his mood.
“Sure,” he said, only to have a bucket thrust into his hands. Tony grinned and held up the second bucket that had been concealed inside the first.
“Good. I don’t want to have to carry both of them.”
They left the brick building that housed the caravan and started toward the river at Ark’s edge.
“I’m surprised a hero like you actually has to fetch water himself,” Luke said. Many of the guards were still treating Tony with respect and even deference after his attack on the cryptsil.
“Oh, you know,” Tony said with a modest shrug. “It’s important to stay connected to the little folk. I was just like you, once upon a time.”
“I don’t believe it,” Luke said with mock seriousness. “Your time’s too valuable for this kind of thing. Shouldn’t you be out there strangling monsters with your bare hands or something?.”
“Nah, slaying monsters is more of a morning activity,” Tony replied lightly. “It’s important to have some me time, you know?”
Luke started to respond, but Tony stopped short. Luke turned to look at him and saw him staring at a figure behind them. He held a torch in one hand—an actual open-flame torch—but wore a hood that hung low over his face and concealed his features. The feeling Luke had had at the tables returned, and he recalled the long looks he’d gotten from a few of the Ark residents.
“Hey! Who are you?” Tony called. The figure didn’t respond.
“What the fuck is he doing?” Luke asked in a lower tone. “He’s just standing there.”
Before Tony could reply, the man spoke.
“You are Luke. The one from another world.”
“Shit,” Luke breathed. It wasn’t phrased as a question, and nothing about his demeanor suggested the man was friendly. Luke looked more closely and saw a crowbar clutched in the man’s other hand. Glancing around, he saw another figure in the direction they had been walking, this one visible only as a silhouette in the light of the torch. Luke couldn’t think of any reason for them to position themselves like that unless it was an ambush. The river was still a few hundred feet away, and the nearest building was a fair distance behind them. “Tony, we should run.”
“Fuck that,” Tony said. “This asshole can—”
Luke saw a blur of motion out of the corner of his eye. He turned his head to see a third person running quickly toward the two of them.
“TONY!” Luke shouted. The other boy turned just in time to duck under something the man swung toward him. He tackled the figure, taking both of them to the ground.
The other two started moving in closer, moving unhurriedly. Luke saw Tony’s bucket and a baseball bat on the ground, forgotten by the pair as they struggled in the dirt. He dropped his own bucket and grabbed the bat, but hesitated, unsure whether to focus on one of the assailants closing in or to try and help Tony. He waited too long. While he was turned toward the first attacker, something smashed into his upper back, sending him sprawling into the ground. Groaning, he turned to see the third man holding a heavy oaken cane, stepping toward him. Luke desperately groped for the handle of the bat he’d dropped, lifting it up just as the cane was swung down toward his head. He managed to block the blow by holding both ends of the bat, but it sent a jarring shiver up his arm that only worsened the pain in his shoulders.
The hooded man threw his torch to the ground and reached down to grab Luke’s hair from behind his head. He writhed around, but couldn’t get a good angle to swing the bat, and the other man swung the cane again before he could break free. A sharp pain in his hand forced Luke to drop the bat, and he yelled out a desperate, wordless cry. The man with the cane held him still while the first man fished a rag out from a pocket. He wrapped it around Luke’s mouth, muffling his shouts, and tied it roughly in place. Together, they grabbed Luke’s arms and legs and lifted him up despite his best efforts to break free. Luke started to panic as he flailed around ineffectually, but after only four or five steps, the pressure around his legs disappeared and the cane man gave a surprised shout. The hooded man growled from above him and dropped Luke to the ground, sending another jolt of searing pain through his shoulders. He looked up to see Tony swinging the baseball bat at the cane man, who’d dropped his own weapon and was leaping backwards to avoid the blows.
The irregular flames of the torch on the ground threw odd shadows about the combatants’ faces, giving Tony a wild look as he swung at the assailant. The hooded man stalked toward him while the boy was focused on the other man, his crowbar raised. Luke forced himself to stand despite the shooting pain in his shoulders. He clawed at the gag around his mouth to try to warn Tony, but it was too tight to get off in time. Without any other option, he charged the hooded man, tackling him at the legs. In the few moments of initial surprise, he grabbed at the crowbar the man held, trying to rip out of his grip. He succeeded in taking it, but at the same time the hooded man punched him in the head, throwing stars all across his vision. The gag still covered his mouth, making Luke feel like he was suffocating as he tried and failed to breathe deeply. He kept ahold of the weapon, but too slow to stand before the hooded man managed to get up. Against every instinct he had, Luke stayed immobile while his attacker reached toward the weapon he held. At the last moment, he swung with every bit of strength he could muster, sinking the curved claw head into the upper arm of the hooded man. He screamed and stumbled back, blood streaming from the wound..
Luke stood to see his opponent holding his arm with his other hand, looking toward him. The hood had fallen during the fight, revealing a middle-aged man, and while his face was still half in shadow from the torchlight, Luke could make out a snarl on the man’s face as he stared at him. The boy backed away warily while assessing the rest of the fight. Over to the side, Tony was still battling the other assailant. Somehow his opponent had managed to pick his cane back up, and now both were swinging at the other in some weird mockery of a sword duel. A quick glance behind him told Luke that the third attacker was motionless on the ground. He hoped he’d remain that way for the foreseeable future.
Now that he’d lost control of his weapon, the hooded man didn’t seem as eager to close in on Luke. The boy considered running, but without the ability to breathe freely through his mouth, he wasn’t confident of his chances. While the two of them stared at each other, Luke worked one hand around the piece of cloth tied to his mouth. Careful to keep an eye on the man in front of him in case he made a move, Luke worked the gag out of his mouth, pulling it down around his neck. Trying his best not to choke from the dryness of his mouth, Luke took a few more moments to catch his breath. Then he started shouting as loudly as he could.
“Help! We’re being attacked! Someone help!”
The hooded man cursed and looked over at his partner. “Adam, run!” He bolted off back toward Ark without waiting. After a few moments, the other man saw his companion’s flight and disengaged from Tony, moving to run himself. Tony started to chase him, but Luke called out.
“Wait! Don’t go after them.”
Tony looked back, a wild look in his eye. Smeared blood covered his face, though Luke couldn’t tell if it was his own or someone else’s. “Why? We can take them!”
Still trying to catch his breath, Luke took a moment to reply. “What if there’s more of them? What if the whole damn settlement wants to kill us? We have to be careful.”
Slowly, Luke saw his words sink in for Tony. He calmed down, and threw the baseball bat down in disgust. “I knew these fuckers were—”
“Hello? Is someone out here? I heard shouting.”
Both of them tensed up as an unfamiliar voice called out from the direction of the settlement. It was a woman’s voice, not someone from the caravan. Luke glanced backward. The torch was still lit, and the glow clearly illuminated the still body of the third attacker on the ground close by. His face was a mess of blood.
“Fuck,” he said, thinking furiously. His mouth was still dry, and his shoulders hurt like hell. Tony looked over at him, clearly at a loss for what to do. The voice had come from close by, there was no time to move or extinguish the torch.
The speaker appeared as a walking black figure, much slimmer than the silhouettes of the men who attacked them. After a few moments she came close enough for the light of the torch to illuminate her features. She was a middle-aged, dark haired woman with a look of concern on her face.
“Did something happen?” she asked as she approached. “I heard—Oh no!” She ran over to the fallen figure, kneeling over him. After a moment she turned to Luke and Tony, in time for them to see the change in her expression from worry to fear.
“We were attacked,” Luke said quickly. He could think of nothing to tell her but the truth. “That guy and two others came at us. The other two ran away, but he got knocked out.” He hoped so, anyway. Luke prayed he wasn’t dead. The woman relaxed a little, but not very much.
“I recognize him. This is Margaret’s husband, Robert. If you two stay here, I’ll go get help, and we can…figure out everything that happened.”
Luke glanced at Tony. The doubt was clear in her voice, but she wasn’t openly accusing them of anything. He’d rather not have this woman telling the story to the other residents and maybe turning them against him and Tony, but he couldn’t think of a way to stop her other than physical force. Tony shrugged back at him. Luke quickly came to a decision
“Ok. Go find someone,” Luke said. Better to be as open as possible if this turned bad. They had the truth on their side, hopefully that would be enough.
The woman walked off hurriedly, relief clear in her bearing. Once she was out of sight, Luke turned to Tony, but caught sight of his hands for the first time since the end of the battle. They looked like they’d been painted red. He glanced back again at the fallen form of their attacker. Even beneath the blood, it was obvious he’d been beaten badly. It looked brutal.
“Jesus, what did you do to that guy?” Luke asked, his eyes wide.
“I made sure he wasn’t gonna get up to help his buddies any time soon,” Tony said. He didn’t sound at all remorseful.
Luke shook his head, trying to think of how to handle the situation.
“One of us should stay here, but the caravan needs to know what happened. Can you go get Ella? And maybe Angela, too. They both know these people, hopefully they can help.”
Tony nodded, but hesitated before leaving. “This wasn’t a random attack, Luke. They knew your name and had a gag ready. What did they want?”
“I don’t know,” Luke said, shuddering as he thought of how close they’d been to abducting him.. “But we can try to figure that out later.” Tony nodded once more and ran off toward the caravan, leaving Luke alone with his unconscious assailant.
A few minutes after he left, Luke realized that his heart wasn’t beating any faster than he’d expect given the situation. As far as he could remember, it was the first time he’d been in a dangerous situation without a panic attack threatening to overwhelm him. He didn’t know what the difference was, but he was grateful that he was able to think clearly. He had little doubt it would be necessary before long.
The Ark people got there first, but not by much. The dark-haired woman who had been there before returned with three of the bald, bearded men—Stewards, they had called themselves—who had greeted the caravan upon their arrival at Ark, including Kiango, the African man who had been Ark’s spokesperson. There was also a large, barrel-chested man that stayed quiet, who Luke guessed was there more for protection than anything else. One of the Stewards took the burning torch in the dirt and knelt by the fallen figure, feeling at his neck. Kiango wandered around the scene with his own torch, occasionally peering at something in the dirt, while the last bearded man turned toward Luke
“Where’s your friend?” Luke’s heart fell at his aggressive tone.
“Hey!” someone called out before he could respond. They turned to see more figures approaching, holding a modern flashlight rather than the torch that the Ark folk had brought.
Tony had returned with Ella and Angela as Luke had said, but someone else was with him as well. Simmons brought up the rear of the party, and had been the one to shout out as they walked up. Luke hoped he stayed under control. He’d seen the mustached guard condescend to non-Crater folk before, and that was probably about the last thing that this situation needed.
“What’s going on here?” Ella demanded as they walked up. Simmons closed his mouth, looking irritated.
“My name is Bartholomew, and my companions are Arnold and Kiango,” one of the bald men said smoothly. “One of our people has been injured. We are here to learn the facts of the matter.”
“As I hear it, the fact of the matter is that some of your boys jumped ours,” Ella said. She glanced at the unconscious man on the ground. “They did what they had to do to defend themselves.”
“You think this was—-” Arnold started angrily, stalking over toward them, but Bartholomew held up a hand.
“Of course, if Robert and any accomplices he may have had initiated the unpleasantness tonight, we will offer our most sincere apologies for their actions, but that has yet to be established.” He spoke in an oily voice that reminded Luke of a politician, an image reinforced by his vague words.
“What are you trying to say?” Simmons said in a low tone, shooting a glance to forestall Tony from his own angry diatribe. “You want to think very carefully before you accuse one of our people like that.”
Ella massaged her temples, but she didn’t contradict him. Bartholomew smiled.
“I am not—-” he started, but Kiango, returning to the group, interrupted him.
“Perhaps we should let them explain the entire story before coming to any conclusions,” he said mildly. Bartholomew nodded irritably.
“Fine. What happened?”
Tony told most of the story, with occasional interjections by Luke to give his own viewpoint. Kiango watched with a sharp gaze while they spoke.
“May I have a word with the two of you?” he said once they had finished, looking at Bartholomew and Arnold.
The pair looked exasperated, but walked off a few feet to converse quietly with the dark-skinned man.
In their absence, Ella looked over Luke.
“You alright?” she asked. “Tony gave me the quick version, I’m impressed you two managed to fight them off.”
“It was mostly Tony,” Luke said quickly. “I think they were after me, if it wasn’t for him they would have already dragged me off somewhere.” He shivered at the thought of what might have happened to him if the assailants had succeeded.
“I couldn’t have taken three guys by myself,” Tony chimed in. “You kicked ass out there.”
Luke flashed him a quick smile. “Yeah, well, I’m glad you were there. Now I just hope they can find the other two.”
Simmons frowned and started to say something, but the three Stewards returned from their conference.
“Luke, Tony, is there anything you can tell me about why you might have been targeted? I very much doubt this was a random attack.” Kiango spoke in a much gentler voice than the other two had, and Luke blinked at the sudden change.
He and Tony exchanged a glance. “When they first surrounded us, they asked if I was the one from another world,” Luke said finally. His words caused a stir from the Ark folk, though Kiango remained focused on the two of them.
“I see. And do either of you remember anything that might help us identify the other men who attacked you?” Behind Kiango, Bartholomew and Arnold wore dour looks.
“One of them said the name ‘Adam’,” Luke said. “And I got the other with his crowbar. He has a gash on his right arm.” He’d prepared the answer after thinking while Tony had gone to get Ella and Angela.
The old man nodded and looked back toward his companions. “I think that should suffice for tonight. A team is on the way to take Robert to the infirmary, and I believe you’ve given us a starting point to continue the search.”
“That’s it?” Tony asked, surprised. “What changed?” Ella glared at him, but the old man just sighed.
“After looking through the scene, certain details jumped out at me. Such as the fact that there are two buckets, but three weapons lying on the ground. That suggests three attackers and one or two people that they fought, which dovetails quite neatly with your version of events. I am also unfortunately familiar with the temperament of the man lying on the ground, and have little trouble believing that he was the aggressor in this situation”
“If you’re investigating the other assailants tonight,” Angela said, “would you have any objection if I went along?”
Kiango turned to look at her. “Not at all. As it turns out, there was a man who sprang to my mind immediately when the name Adam was spoken, and I suspect we will be paying him a visit shortly.”
After a quick discussion with the other folk from Ark, they started back in the direction of the main settlement, joined by Angela. Only Kiango stayed back. He called out as Luke was about to leave as well.
“Young man. May I ask you to speak with you for a moment?”
Tony had already gone ahead, and Luke hesitated. He looked to Ella, who nodded. “Ok, sure,” he said.
“Thank you.” He followed the old man a little ways away, but well within sight of Ella, who remained where she was.
“I wanted to apologize for the behavior of my fellow Stewards. There is a natural tendency to side with those who are familiar to us, but such an easy path often leads us astray. Your friend may be overly forceful with the use of his fists, but it is clear to me he did not initiate this conflict.”
“That’s ok,” Luke said. “I’m glad you figured it out. But why did they attack us? Everyone reacted when they found out I was from a different world, why was that?
Kiango let out a heaving sigh. His intense gaze softened, and he looked worn out and tired. “In answer to your question, let me tell you a story. There was a man who survived the end of the world, and in the aftermath began questioning everything he thought he knew, as many of us did in those days. One of the issues he pondered was how a benevolent God could allow a terror such as the Empty to fall upon mankind. Unlike many of those who lost their faith when faced with that very question, this man came to the conclusion that he had been chosen. That the Lord had picked him to create a haven for His true believers to be safe from the terrors that had been brought to our world.” The ancient man sighed once more. The flicker of the torch he held deepened the shadows cast by the lines in his face, making him look even older than his true age..
“He fell victim to the oldest sin in all of history. Hubris. But people followed him, and under this man’s leadership they built a settlement from nothing, eschewing architecture built with the superior techniques in the old world to raise their buildings from scratch, structures little better than mud huts. And they believed such a place could serve as an Ark for this new world. I am sure you can see where the story is going.”
“Are you the man who thought he was chosen?”
“What? No! I am no less a sinner than any among us, but I pray I have better sense than that. No, that man died, and in his wake his followers realized his folly. I arrived here during that period when the folk here turned to a council of Stewards to guide them rather than a charismatic madman. We walked back to what I hope is the path of God, though sometimes I do wonder.”
The ancient man shook his head. “All of that was a long-winded way of saying that the folk here have a long history of odd beliefs, and one that runs deep through some parts of the settlement is a belief that anything to do with nihil and other universes is a new form of the occult practices warned of in the Bible.”
Luke missed a step, quickly catching himself. “So they think I’m a witch?”
“More or less. It’s nonsense, in my opinion, but one of the tenets of our settlement is that each resident is permitted their own interpretation of the Scriptures, save where it becomes clear they are doing the work of the Devil.” His voice turned grim. “What happened to you and your friend is unambiguously such an instance. This will not go unpunished, believe me.”
Luke heard a bit of the brimstone preachers he’d listened to growing up in the old man’s voice and shivered. Then something occurred to him.
“How do you know about nihil? And that other universes exist for that matter. It’s common knowledge in Crater, but I don’t know where it came from.”
For the first time that night, Kiango sounded surprised. “You mean they didn’t tell you the origin of their knowledge?”
“No, the leaders in Crater keep it to themselves.”
Kiango walked in silence for a moment. “I cannot speak about this right now. I apologize, but it’s something I must think about. We will discuss this again before you leave, I swear to you.”
It wasn’t an outright no, but Luke was still disappointed. He’d hoped for something more concrete.
“I think it’s time we both returned to our people. Sleep well, Luke, and we will speak again soon.”
Kiango left quickly. He looked disturbed, but Luke had no opportunity to question him further. Without any better option, he returned with Ella to the building set aside for Crater folk. Even with her there, he kept a wary eye on every shadow he saw on the way back. Luke spent a long time in his sleeping bag that night, wondering why Kiango had been so upset by his request for information.