Luke was shaken awake at dawn by an exhausted Angela. Tony stood next to her, looking sleepy and annoyed. Angela had awoken them both to let them know what had happened once she’d left with the Ark folk.
The ‘Adam’ Luke had heard a reference to was assumed by the Stewards to be Adam Forrester, a resident with too quick a temper and too great a fondness for drink to be well-regarded by his peers. He had denied the accusations at first, but after a few hours had broken down and admitted his part in the attack. The Stewards, enraged by the actions of their people once they were presented with proof, had taken the name of the hooded man and tried to imprison him, but apparently he had been tipped off. They found his home empty, and a horse taken from the stable. There was no hint as to where he had gone, and without any further leads the Stewards had elected not to chase him any further.
“Apparently the likely punishment is banishment anyway,” Angela told them. Luke struggled to comprehend her words through the haze of tiredness. “His friends will probably join him before long, at least once that guy with a slab of meat for a face recovers.”
Luke shivered as he remembered the hooded man’s expression while they’d looked at each other at the end of the fight. He hoped he never crossed paths with him again. Still, at least the perpetrators had been found and the settlement hadn’t blamed him and Tony. He resolved to thank Kiango the next time he saw the old man, despite his frustrating vagueness the previous night.
“Where are they holding Adam?” Tony asked. Angela snorted.
“They’ve got some real high-tech facilities here. He’s chained around a tree near the center of town.”
Once Angela had stumbled off to get some sleep, Tony turned to Luke.
“Let’s go see the bastard,” he said. Luke frowned at him.
“To find out what they wanted with you! You don’t want to know why they tried to drag you off?”
Luke already had an idea from his conversation with Kiango and had little inclination to learn the details, but there was no putting Tony off of the idea. Together they crept out of the building to avoid waking anyone and headed in the direction Angela had mentioned.
She hadn’t lied when she said it was in the middle of town. A large oak tree stood tall in a clearing free of any buildings and off the main path of the settlement. A man was curled up at its base, a chain wrapped around the trunk and cuffed to his ankle.
“Wake up,” Tony said, kicking at the fetal figure. It wasn’t a strong blow, but Luke still winced at his action. The Stewards already thought Tony was excessive in the force he used. Maybe he should have fought harder not to come.
The man looked up blearily, and the moment Luke saw his face he recognized the man that Tony had faced in an impromptu swordfight. He had a wide, distinctive nose and brown hair cut short enough to see his scalp. It was the same man who had worked with his friend to try and drag Luke off, and suddenly it was hard to fault Tony for kicking him. Luke’s breath came in heavy and his pulse sped up, but he controlled himself. If he didn’t go into a panic attack during the actual fight, there was no way in hell he would while facing the man who had done it while he was chained up.
“Wha’ do you want?” Adam said, squinting at them. There was no sign of recognition in his eyes.
“What we want,” Tony said squatting down next to him, “is to know why you’re such a piece of shit.”
“What are you—” Realization dawned in his face. “Look, it was all Johnny’s idea. He told us we should just keep a lookout, see if he,” he gestured toward Luke, “went off by himself. I didn’t actually think we’d end up doing anything!”
“Why do you even care?” Tony demanded, brushing off his excuses. “Why does it matter if he’s from another world?” Luke stayed quiet beside him, but he was listening intently for the man’s answer.
“It’s a sin,” he said after a slight hesitation. “Man was meant to stay in the place appointed to him by God. The Empty are His answer to this crime against Him.”
“So God’s an asshole, then?” Tony said disdainfully. “He didn’t even choose to come here! Why would you attack him for that?” Adam’s eyes widened at the blasphemy.
Tony stood and went to kick him again, but Luke put a hand on his shoulder to stop him. He crouched next to the sitting figure, looking him in the eye.
“What I don’t understand,” Luke said, “is why carry me off? Why not just beat the shit out of me right there? You might even have been able to pull it off if you’d hit me straight away instead of gagging me and trying to drag me away. So why go through that extra effort?”
Adam looked around desperately to avoid his gaze. Then his expression turned shifty and he looked back at the two of them. “If I tell you, will you tell the Stewards it was all Johnny’s idea? Get them to let me off easy?”
Luke exchanged a glance with Tony and shrugged. He doubted it would change much even if they shouted out Adam’s innocence to the whole settlement. The look in Kiango’s eyes when he’d talked of their sins was still burned into Luke’s mind.
“Sure,” he said. “I’ll tell them.”
Adam’s shoulders slumped. “Alright. If it was just us, we probably wouldn’t have done anything. It’s a sin to cross between worlds, but you’re still a guest and all that. But there was a day, before any of you even arrived, when Johnny took me and Robert out of Ark to meet someone.”
Luke gestured impatiently and he went on. “They told us they were looking for someone from another universe. Any human who had crossed between worlds. They wouldn’t say why, but they offered to pay real well for it. Johnny knew Robert and I felt the same way as him about that kind of stuff, so we made a pact that we’d go through with it if we ever had the opportunity. I swear, I didn’t think we’d ever actually do anything! Who really expects to meet someone like that?”
His last words struck Luke as another attempt to shift the blame off of himself, but the rest of Adam’s story worried him. Who would be seeking someone from another world?
“What did ‘they’ look like?” Tony asked while Luke mused. “You said ‘someone’ earlier. Did you recognize them?”
“No, I don’t know who they were,” Adam said. “No idea what they look like, either.”
“What do you mean? Were they wearing a mask or something?”
“I don’t think so. I can’t remember their face at all.” Adam didn’t sound at all troubled by this lapse in recollection.
“What are you talking about?” Tony said impatiently. “Was it a man or a woman?”
Tony looked close to strangling the man, but Luke asked another question.
“Doesn’t that strike you as odd, Adam? That you can’t remember anything about them?”
“Not really. I barely remember what happened. The entire thing is a blur except for the deal they offered.”
Tony and Luke looked at each other again. Luke gestured for them to step away from the prisoner.
“What the fuck is he on about?” Tony asked in a low voice. “Is he trying to pretend he’s insane or something?”
“Maybe, but this seems like a pretty shitty way to go about it.”
“Well, what if he’s trying to hold back whoever made the deal with him?”
“He didn’t have to tell us anything about them in the first place,” Luke pointed out. “He could have just said they wanted to hold me for ransom or something.”
“Carver told me something when he first found me that really stuck with me. He said
“So what, you think he’s telling the truth?” Tony sounded disbelieving.‘there’s more unbelievable shit in this world than you can imagine’. Is it really so hard to think that it’s possible something out there could have messed with this guy’s memory somehow?”
Tony shook his head. “Fuck me. If that’s true, you know that means there’s someone—or something—out there with some weird-ass powers that wants you, right? What if it tries this again?”
“I don’t know.” Luke was scared now. Fighting bigoted humans was one thing, but this was something else entirely. If it could make someone forget what it looked like, what else was it capable of?
As if he didn’t have enough to worry about.
“Should we tell the others at the caravan? They might know something about what could do this.”
“Yeah. We should at least tell Ella.” The pair left the man chained to the tree, ignoring his plaintive cries to remember their deal.
“So he told you he was hired by some mysterious entity that he can’t remember to kidnap a world-jumper for some purpose he also doesn’t know?” Ella sounded skeptical, and Luke couldn’t blame her.
“You didn’t see him, Ella,” Tony said. “He really thought it was totally normal that he couldn’t remember anything about them.” Initially he’d wanted to go to Simmons first, but Luke had convinced him that Ella and Angela were more likely to know about odd beings after being raised by Carver. He didn’t mention the fact that he still didn’t completely trust the guard. They’d have to have a talk about him sometime, but it wasn’t the right time.
“All right,” Ella said, pinching the bridge of her nose. “Let’s say he’s telling the truth. How was he getting paid? What was the currency?”
Luke looked down. “I don’t know,” he said. “We didn’t ask.”
“Right. I think Ang and I might have a talk with him ourselves. If he is telling the truth…fuck.”
“Yeah, it’s not great,” Luke said.
“Ideally, we would send you back to Crater,” Ella said. A jolt of fear ran through Luke. “But that would mean traveling with a smaller group, less protection. I don’t think it would be a good idea to risk it.” She ran a hand through her hair. “We might have to take the whole caravan back early.”
“No!” Luke almost shouted. He glanced around the room where some people were still asleep. He was relieved that he hadn’t caused anyone to stir. “We can’t do that.”
Even with the threat, Luke hated the idea of going back. Since the beginning, he had thought that his best chance at finding a way home was to talk to the elves, and if he got sent back to Crater, he might never have the chance again.
Ella was looking at him oddly. “Um…we can’t go back without trading anything,” Luke said quickly. “We still haven’t actually done what we came for, right?”
Ella sighed. “That’s not my main concern. But…if we turned back now, it would still take almost a week to get to Crater. Langrendi only adds about three or four days onto the trip.” She gave Luke a piercing look. “If you’re ok with it, we can continue on. No one outside of the caravan knows where we’re going anyway, so it shouldn’t matter which direction we travel. But we’ll have to be extra vigilant. You two spend a lot of time together, so you’ll have to keep an eye out in particular, Tony.”
Tony spoke quickly. “We’ll all keep him safe.” He didn’t meet Luke’s eyes.
“Uh huh.” Ella looked at him skeptically. “Do me a favor and keep this to yourself until we leave Ark. I don’t know how the people here would react, but we already know some of them are touchy about other worlds. With the way this trip’s been going they’ll see this as a sign you’re the Antichrist or something.”
Luke and Tony agreed to keep it to themselves for the time being. The others started waking up soon after. Luke had thought before that living after the apocalypse did not lend itself to rising late, but he had hoped that he would have time to lay down for a while before everyone else got up. Though that plan had likely been foiled by the new information he’d gotten anyway.
Instead, he went to get breakfast and did his best to act like nothing was out of the ordinary. It was going to be a long day.
For the first time, the traders who had been brought with the caravan to work as negotiators had a chance to do their jobs. They entered a room with their counterparts from Ark to work out a deal, and the rest of the caravan was left more or less to their own devices. Luke and Tony agreed that while they’d gotten away with it once, it was probably best not to wander around the settlement now that the residents had all woken up. Hopefully Adam’s confession had blunted any ill will the Ark folk might have for them, but neither wanted to rely on that assumption. Fortunately, there was no shortage of people within the caravan who wanted to know the story of what happened the previous night. Luke let Tony tell the story (and embellish it greatly) while he shrugged off most of the compliments he received. Sometime after midday Abby pulled him off away from the rest of the caravan.
“Are you ok?” she asked. “I know that you have trouble in dangerous situations sometimes, and I wanted to let you know that I’m here if there’s anything you want to talk about.”
“I’m fine,” Luke said. It was touching that Abby cared enough to talk to him about it, but he still felt good. As far as the battle went, anyway. “I think I might finally be getting past it. There’s only so many times you can almost die and still freak out about it, right?”
Abby gave him a long look. “Not really. That isn’t how people work, usually. If it is getting better for you, that’s great. But you shouldn’t try to force yourself to act like it’s not a big deal.”
Luke shrugged. “I’m really not. At least I didn’t last night. I just…didn’t panic.”
“All right, then.” Abby seemed content to let it go at that, for which Luke was relieved. If his problem with panic attacks was getting better, then he wasn’t very interested in delving into the reasons behind it. The results alone were good enough.
Ella returned in high spirits that evening. “We’re not getting tossed out of Crater!” she shouted to the room. No one was as excited as her at the success, but there was a general cheer around the room anyway. Luke listened to her rehash the negotiation later that night.
“We guilted the hell out of them. I don’t think we would have done half as well if Luke and Tony hadn’t gotten jumped like they did. You did good, boys.” She raised her waterskin toward them in a toast. The trader woman had suggested breaking out some of their precious stash of spirits, but had been overruled by almost everyone else.
“So are we leaving tomorrow, then?” Luke asked when he finally found a moment to talk to her.
“Yep. Some of their people and ours are exchanging goods right now, and we’ll take off in the morning. Don’t want to overstay our welcome.”
Luke nodded, and wandered away once there was a break in the conversation. He was ready to leave Ark behind, but Kiango still owed him some answers before they did so. But without any idea where the old man might live, and still leery of wandering the settlement on his own, Luke didn’t have the slightest clue how to go about finding him. He wandered outside the caravan building to consider the problem.
Realistically, he had no reliable way of locating the old man without raising the suspicions of other people in the caravan. He had promised they would talk, but he’d also been very hesitant to reveal anything that might be of any use. Luke paced around the building, nervous that he would have to leave yet another settlement without learning anything that would help him. Living in Crater and traveling with the caravan hadn’t been all bad, but the dangers he had seen only reinforced Luke’s desire to get back to his own world.
His fears turned out to be for naught when, near sunset, the same man who had accompanied the Stewards to the scene of the fight the previous night approached the caravan base. Luke was passing by the front of the building, in time for the man to give him a long look.
“You’re Luke, right? The one who was…targeted last night?”
In the chaos of the previous evening, Luke had taken little notice of the man save for his size. He had a bushy black beard, but unlike the Stewards he had a full head of hair to match. His eyes darted all around while he spoke, never actually landing on Luke for more than a second. Luke couldn’t tell if he was nervous or if it was just a tic, but either way it was unsettling.
“Yeah, that’s me.”
“Good, that makes my job easier. Come with me, Kiango wants to talk to you.”
Alarm bells went off inside of Luke’s head. There was no guarantee that Kiango had actually sent the man, and Luke was wary of wandering off with what was essentially a stranger. What if he felt the same way as the three men last night? If he hadn’t been looking for a way to find the old man, he would never have agreed to go. As it was, Luke thought he was likely being paranoid. The chance that he’d come up with the exact excuse Luke was waiting for seemed low. He took a breath and followed the man away from the caravan.
It only took a few minutes before he started to regret his decision. After introducing himself as ‘Zachary’, the big man was content to stay silent. Despite the reassurances he continued to tell himself, Luke couldn’t help looking all around while they walked, searching for any hint of an ambush. His failure to find anyone following them did little to ease his suspicion. If anything, he grew more paranoid the longer they walked, gradually becoming more certain that he was being led into a trap.
The fear crescendoed when Zachary knocked on a nondescript brick building. Luke tensed, worried that he would have accomplices ready to finish the job the men last night started. Instead, the familiar lined face of Kiango appeared at the entrance, beckoning Luke to enter.
“Thank you, my friend,” he said to Zachary. “I will impose once more to ask you to wait and escort our young friend back once our conversation is finished. It won’t be long, I assure you.”
Zachary shrugged his shoulders, glancing around the area, and sat down on a log set outside Kiango’s home. Luke moved to follow Kiango within, closing the door behind them.
The interior of Kiango’s home was modest, with few of the comforts that Luke had come to expect in most homes even in this world. The floor was earthen, hard-packed dirt that ensured nothing within stayed completely clean. There was a mattress in one corner, barely large enough to fit the shrunken form of the ancient man. A fireplace built into one wall was the most ostentatious furnishing, a feature that Luke guessed wasn’t standard in most of the Ark houses. A fire was already burning within, and a metal board set above the flames held a kettle from which steam was already rising.
“Would you care for a cup of tea?” Kiango asked, reaching into a short cupboard beside his bed.
“Sure,” Luke said after a moment of hesitation, prompting the old man to smile and withdraw two mugs from within.
“I apologize for taking so long to reach out to you,” Kiango said while he went about pouring the tea. “The negotiations with your group took much of my energy today, and the implications of what you told me are troubling.”
“Why is that?” Luke asked. “What’s so bad about what I said?”
Kiango sighed and handed Luke a cup of hot tea, gesturing for Luke to sit on the mattress while he himself used the top of the cupboard as a chair. Luke felt awkward about taking the more comfortable seat from a man who was probably four times his ages, but could see no polite way to decline.
“I fear that, in your ignorance, you inadvertently revealed information that your settlement would likely rather keep private. I needed time to consider what I might do with this information, as well as whether I should tell you what I know of the subject.”
Luke felt a touch of nervousness at Kiango’s words. He hoped he hadn’t done anything that would hurt Crater. “What did you decide?”
Kiango took a sip of his tea. “I came to the conclusion that I still know too little to act on what you have told me. It is lucky that I was the one you informed rather than anyone who has a prejudice against worlds beyond this one, or we may have been forced to cut all ties with your settlement.”
Luke’s stomach dropped. He wasn’t sure how often Ark was in contact with Crater, but he was certain that losing the possibility to trade with them would not have been looked upon with any favor. He took a quick gulp of his tea and scalded his tongue. “Why?”
“Because it suggests our settlements have both had contact with the same being. I mentioned to you last night that I came to Ark soon after the prophet died. Not long after I got here, someone else arrived as well. He called himself Smokey.”
Luke blinked. “Like the bear?”
“That’s what he said.” Kiango shrugged. “Stupid name, I know, but the man himself was quite knowledgeable. Everything I and others in Ark know about nihil and other universes comes from him.”
“Who was he? Or what?”
“I don’t know,” Kiango said, raising his hands. “He looked human, but I rather doubt it, personally. Something about the way he talked…it’s hard to describe. At any rate, he came and told us what we know, but many were suspicious of his motives. He knew too much about the Empty, and some of the residents started whispering that he was an agent of the Devil. Then he came saying that he wanted to make some kind of deal, and that pushed the sentiment against him over the edge. He was run out of town without ever giving us the details of what he was offering.”
“How do you know it was this same…person who told the Committee in Crater?”
“I don’t know definitively,” Kiango said, shrugging. “But it’s an easy leap to make. I know he went to other settlements in the area, and there’s no other way I can think of for them to have gotten the same information.”
It sounded rather flimsy to Luke—what if they had heard it second-hand from another settlement?—but for his purposes it didn’t really matter. If this Smokey knew about nihil, he might know how to move between universes.
“Do you know where he is now?”
Kiango looked at him, furrowing his brow. It was an odd question, but Luke wasn’t too worried. Even if the old man figured out the motivation behind it, the Committee were really the only ones who could hamper his efforts.
“I have no idea,” Kiango finally said. “He never came back, and while I have spoken with others who stated he came to them in their own settlements, that was years ago. I don’t have the slightest idea where he might be now.”
In other words, a dead end. Frustrated, Luke gulped down the rest of his lukewarm tea and stood up.
“Thanks for telling me. I should probably be heading back to the caravan soon, though.”
“Very well.” Kiango looked amused at his sudden departure. “However, a word of warning before you go. Your question suggests that you intend to seek this being out, yes?” Luke started to deny the statement, but Kiango held up a hand.
“Well allow me to caution you anyway. There’s little I enjoy more these days than handing out unsolicited advice.” There was a twinkle of humor in his eye, which quickly faded as he grew more serious. “If you do ever happen to encounter Smokey, be careful. I only interacted with him for a short time, but I don’t believe that he thinks as we do. Some of the things he said…suggested a worldview far removed from a human’s perspective. I may not subscribe to my fellow residents’ views on beings from alternate worlds, but I cannot say that I was sorry to see him go. Don’t let your guard down around him.”
His words were sufficiently vague and sinister to unsettle Luke, but he was also irritated at the lack of concrete details. He made his goodbyes and left the old man’s home to return to the caravan base with Zachary. Now that he knew Zachary was truly sent by Kiango, the return trip was less frightening than before, though Luke still found himself glancing twice at every shadow. When they arrived back at the entrance of the caravan’s building, the big man surprised Luke by speaking for the first time since he’d found him.
“I’m sorry for what happened to you. I’d ask that you don’t judge our settlement based on the men who attacked you. Most of the people here are good folk, even if our ways might seem odd to you.”
He held out his hand, which Luke remembered only at the last moment to touch briefly rather than the longer shake he was more accustomed to.
“I’m sure you’re all great,” he blurted, unable to think of something to say. He still wasn’t sure how he felt about Ark as a whole, but he wasn’t about to say that to a man who looked like he could palm his entire skull.
After watching Zachary walk off toward the village, Luke returned to the building where everyone else was already setting up their sleeping spaces. He didn’t talk to anyone for the rest of the night. His thoughts alone were more than enough to occupy him.