Despite Luke’s best efforts, the paranoia started to creep back in. He’d grown more comfortable traveling in the weeks the caravan had spent on the road, but the implications of what he’d learned in Ark sent him spiralling back into the same pattern of watchfulness that he’d fallen into at the beginning of the journey. Someone out there wanted him specifically, or at least someone like him, and though rationally he knew it was unlikely that they would attack the caravan, he couldn’t shake a feeling of unease.
No one else in the caravan shared his worries. Their talk with the prisoner apparently hadn’t convinced Ella and Angela that he was telling the truth, and while they informed the rest of the caravan, neither of them seemed to think the threat was very credible. Everyone else followed their lead, and no one had so much as mentioned it to Luke after leaving Ark.
The one silver lining was that Tony was hanging around Luke more than Simmons since departing the settlement. He was evasive when Luke tried to ask why.
“Simmons can be a real prick sometimes, don’t worry about it,” he said. “Besides, it’s better if I’m nearby if something happens.
“Glad you’re finally coming around on Simmons,” Felicity said. Along with Abby, it was the first time in a while all of them had been together. “The man practically radiates smugness. I’m surprised he doesn’t choke when he talks, he’s so busy sucking his own dick.”
Tony coughed up a piece of jerky, pounding his chest to regain his breath while tears appeared in his eyes.
“Yeah, like that,” Felicity said lightly. “Thanks for the demonstration, Tony.”
“Eat me, Liss,” he said, flipping her off. Luke hoped the banter didn’t escalate into a real argument. Playing peacekeeper between the two of them could be exhausting; he’d gained a lot of respect for Abby over the course of their trip.
“He is certainly a piece of work,” Abby mused as she stared over toward Simmons. She didn’t even seem to notice the byplay. “I wonder if it’s worth addressing.”
The others looked at her, confused. “What are you talking about?” Felicity asked. “He’s an asshole, but that’s not something you can really change. I don’t think so, at least. Maybe I could cut out parts of his brain, but that would probably be counterproductive, really.”
Tony looked at her askance. “You know it’s fucking creepy when you start talking like that, right?” She gave him a wicked grin.
“It’s people like him holding us back,” Abby continued, still looking over at the guard’s group. Tony and Felicity’s words didn’t even seem to register. “But then, he’s not really very good at the nice guy act. Maybe it’s not worth forcing the issue.”
“Abby?” Luke asked. “You all right?”
She snapped out of whatever reverie she was in to look over at him. “Fine,” she said, smiling. “Just lost in my thoughts.”
“Can we stop talking about that guy?” Felicity asked. “I’m tired of him.”
“All right,” Abby said. “What about this person who’s looking for Tethers? You two haven’t said much about what that man who attacked you had to say.”
“I don’t even know if he’s looking for Tethers,” Luke said. “All the guy in Ark told us was that they wanted someone from ‘another world’. Is anyone who comes here from somewhere else a Tether?”
“I don’t believe so,” Abby said, furrowing her brow. “But I can’t say for sure. That may be a good question to ask the Committee.”
“So what do you know, then?” Felicity asked impatiently. “If someone’s gonna be after you, we have to be as prepared as we can.”
Luke appreciated the assumption that they would help defend him, but he couldn’t think of much useful information to tell her. “All we really know is that they can mess around with memories somehow. Adam didn’t even remember what they looked like, but it didn’t seem to bother him at all.”
Felicity cocked her head. “I’ve never heard of anything that could do something like that. Have you guys?” She looked around at the other two, both of whom shook their heads. “Are you sure he wasn’t just fucking with you?”
“No!” Luke protested. “There’s no way he was faking it. Right, Tony?”
Tony looked around awkwardly. “I mean, I didn’t think so.” Luke raised his eyebrows at this tepid endorsement and he went on. “Look, after what Ella and everyone said…I don’t know, man. Don’t you think someone would have heard of something like this before?”
“You just said you’re hanging around in case something happens!”
“I mean, yeah,” Tony said defensively. “But that doesn’t mean it’s likely.”
“It’s good to be vigilant,” Abby chimed in. “But you shouldn’t accept everything you hear without proof, either. We’ll keep an eye out, but I wouldn’t worry about it too much.”
“If you say so.” Luke was a little frustrated that Tony would turn on him so easily, but hearing everyone’s opinion did make him start to doubt himself. He’d been assuming that anything was possible in this world, but no one else that had actually lived within it seemed to share that belief. Perhaps he had been too quick to swallow everything Adam had told him.
Not that that would make it any easier for him to sleep. The part of Luke that was scared of what might be looking for him wasn’t the most rational piece of his psyche. When he set up his sleeping bag that night, it wasn’t logic that spurred him to keep an eye out for every shifting shadow.
It was a three-day journey from Ark to Langrendi, and Luke’s anticipation started to outweigh his apprehension as they neared the elvish settlement. Since the onset of the caravan trip he had thought that beings from another world would be the most likely to be able to tell him how to get back to his own, and though he’d found a tenuous lead toward that goal in Ark, he was hoping to find something more actionable in Langrendi. He was also curious to see the creatures that he’d heard so much about, both in this world and his own. They were some of the first extradimensional beings he’d heard about that weren’t completely horrifying, and he wondered how closely they matched their portrayal from Earth’s fiction.
There was also a part of him that was simply glad to reach the final leg of their journey, and to soon begin the walk back to Crater. A lot had happened in the course of their trip, and a deep-set exhaustion was starting to set in that no amount of sleep could remedy. After nearly a month of constant walking and travel rations, he missed the comfort of the settlement.
He knew that others felt the same way as he did. At least Tony for certain, as he had been spouting a near-constant stream of complaints since leaving Ark. While Luke was glad that he no longer spent so much time around Simmons, the other boy was getting on the nerves of both himself and Felicity. Only Abby seemed immune to his whining, though Luke didn’t have the slightest idea how.
“The bottom of my shoe’s starting to come off,” Tony complained. “If we have to walk much longer I’m gonna be barefoot.”
“What a fucking tragedy,” Felicity snapped. “I forgot the rest of us have velvet slippers and a personal fucking masseuse to rub us down every night. Just keep walking, Aguero.”
“Aren’t you used to this kind of thing from working with the builders?” Luke asked, redirecting Tony as he opened his mouth furiously. “This is nothing compared to breaking down a house, right? I should know.
“Yeah,” Tony said, still glaring toward Felicity. “But with them you get breaks and days off. Here we just keep going all day, every day.”
“Oh,” Felicity said, opening her eyes wide. “Are you saying this is hard? Because I thought my brother and I just sat on our asses doing nothing. We’re out here all the time, so it must be a walk in the park for you, right?”
“Fine,” Tony grumbled. “Going with the caravans is work. You don’t have to be such a bitch about it.”
“Can you two not?” Luke asked wearily as Felicity opened her mouth. “We’re so close to the settlement. Can you go an hour or two without fighting each other?”
“History says no,” Abby said. “But feel free to keep trying, Luke. It’s nice for someone else to make the attempt for once.”
Tony started to respond, but before he could speak a thundering roar echoed around the caravan. Luke ducked instinctively, but it lasted much longer than any gunshot, and recent experience told him the sounds were different anyway. He stood back up, embarrassed, but he was far from the only one to have that kind of reaction. Everyone looked around as the sound continued unabated. It wasn’t deafening, but it was loud enough to reverberate around the plains and make it impossible to identify the direction it was coming from. After ten seconds or so, the roar abated.
“What the hell was that?” Tony demanded. All over the caravan, his question was echoed, and no one had an answer
“I don’t know,” Luke said, gazing around the landscape. They were traveling along more fertile grassland than they’d seen for most of the journey, but the green fields were low enough that nothing should have been able to effectively hide from sight. “You guys would know better than me.”
“I’ve never heard of anything that had a roar like that,” Felicity said, shaking her head. “And I’d really rather keep it that way, to be honest. That sounded terrifying.”
Luke agreed. But no threat materialized, and after a few minutes the caravan started moving again, only to stop again when a sound became audible once more. It was different this time, fainter, but it started and stopped with a regular rhythm, growing gradually louder.
“What the hell is that?” Tony asked. “Wingbeats?”
“One big-ass bird if it is,” Felicity said, scanning up above. Light gray clouds covered the sky, revealing nothing out of the ordinary that Luke could see. Until an enormous shadow passed over them, sending him toward cover once more.
“What the fuck,” someone said as everyone turned up toward the sky. Only an outline was visible, the silhouette of something huge hidden above the clouds. It was indistinct and amorphous, but it quickly passed them by, with two large shapes next to the main body moving in time with the sound they heard. Everyone in the caravan tracked it, eyes wide, until it was gone without any sign it had ever been there.
“I’ll say it again,” Tony said finally. “What the fuck was that?”
“Not a bird,” Abby said, shaking her head. “More like a whale with wings.”
“It came from the same direction we’re heading,” Luke said.
Felicity looked over sharply. “You think it came from Langrendi?”
“I don’t know!” Luke responded. “I don’t know anything about what’s out here! But it was bigger than anything from this world, right?.”
“I guess we’ll find out,” Felicity said grimly. “We’re moving again.”
The caravan continued, though more than a few of the travelers appeared shaken by the flying creature. Once they were within sight of the elvish settlement, little more than a dot on the horizon, the wagons halted once more
“Ground rules,” Ella said once everyone had circled around. “It’s been pointed out that we may have not done the best job preparing everyone for their first trip into Ark.” She glanced over at Angela, who shrugged. “So let’s take a quick moment to make sure no one starts another interspecies war. First off, no one mention the first one. Or Carver, or anything to do with killing elves, orcs, or dwarves. They might take it personally. Second, don’t talk to the elves. They probably wouldn’t talk back, but if they choose to do so, they can be…unpleasant. And that wouldn’t end well for any of us, so let’s just head off the whole thing at the start. It probably won’t be an issue anyway, orcs do most of the talking.”
She looked around at everyone. “We probably won’t spend the night inside their settlement, we’ll do our business and get back on the road. Anyone who’s been there before, anything else?”
A few people shook their heads. “All right. Easy enough. Let’s get in, trade our shit, and get out.”
The circle started to break up, but one of the guards called out. “What about that thing in the sky? It came from this direction.”
Angela spoke up in response. “I know some of the orcs pretty well. Let me talk to them, it might be a delicate question if it came from here and wasn’t just passing over.”
Most of the caravan accepted that, and they started back toward the settlement soon after. Luke was a little surprised that Simmons didn’t speak up during the meeting. The guard missed few chances to argue with Ella and Angela that he saw.
But they made the rest of the brief trip without interruption up until they neared the entrance into Langrendi itself. If he hadn’t been told beforehand, Luke wouldn’t have glanced twice at the village. Like most settlements, the other races had appropriated an abandoned old world town. There was little to distinguish it from a thousand other small towns Luke had driven through in his own world, though the large green man that walked out to greet them would have likely attracted some notice.
He walked in an open, friendly way with no hint of aggression, but his sheer size was still enough to cause some momentary alarm. He had to be over seven feet tall, perhaps eight, and each of his arms was close to the diameter of Luke’s torso. Luke had little doubt that he could rip him in half, and stared at him so long that it took a few moments to realize that he wasn’t alone. The other creature was clearly a dwarf; though he wore a well-trimmed goatee rather than the long beard Luke might have expected, he barely topped four feet and looked quite squat. Both wore modern clothes, with the orc sporting what looked like two flannels cut and stitched together, while the dwarf had on a set of jean overalls adjusted for his odd-sized frame.
“Greetings!” the orc rumbled as he approached, smiling. Luke caught a glimpse of what looked like filed-down fangs in his huge mouth. “Welcome to Langrendi, friends.” He spoke English well, but there was an odd musical quality to his voice, an accent that sounded vaguely familiar to Luke.
Ella moved to the front of the caravan. “Greetings!” she said, the barest hint of uncertainty present in her voice. “You are Sasheya?”
“I am she,” the enormous being agreed. Luke felt a jolt of shock. There was absolutely no visual indication that the orc was female. She indicated the dwarf “And this is Audur. I welcome your return to Langrendi, Ella.”
The horses pawed the ground uncomfortably, and a few guards shifted as well. Luke understood their feelings. No matter how friendly, a huge green monster was bound to cause some unease.
“Is there a reason we meet out here rather than inside the settlement?” Ella gestured at the wagons ladened with goods. “We have many goods for trade, would it not be preferable to discuss a deal to our mutual benefit in comfort?”
She spoke more formally than she usually did, Luke noticed. He wondered whether it was to stay in line with the orc’s own culture or just the natural result of speaking with something that could probably twist her head off like the cap of a tube of toothpaste. The dwarf had remained quiet so far, but his expression (assuming it was a he) was no less friendly than his companion’s.
“Unfortunately, matters are…tumultuous within Langrendi at the moment. The Elders would prefer that any business be conducted outside of the settlement itself.” Sasheya looked regretful, and Angela took advantage of the momentary pause to cut in.
“Can I speak to you in private for a moment?” The green woman nodded, and they walked a few paces off to speak in a low voice. Most of the caravan started talking amongst themselves, but the dwarf ambled up to a guard near the front.
“Hey, any chance I can take a look at that?” Luke was close enough to hear his words, his voice nearly as deep as the orc’s, and he could hear the same odd accent. He had definitely heard it before, but couldn’t identify why it was so familiar.
The dwarf pointed at the gun holstered at the guard’s hip, prompting him to cover the top protectively. “Uh, I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“I’m not gonna fire it,” the short creature griped. “I just want a quick look. Just a peek!”
“I’m not giving you my gun,” The guard looked bewildered, but turned from the dwarf so his weapon was hidden.
“Come on! The Elders turn their nose up at those things, I never get a good look at it. I’ll throw in a good word with Sasheya, get you some of our best stuff!”
“No!” the guard said, annoyed now. “Back off! No one touches my gun but me.”
“Fine.” The dwarf said in a flat voice. “What about this wagon? Can I look around the bottom of it?”
“Whatever,” the guard said, glancing around. No one objected now that the dwarf’s attention was on something less lethal. “Just don’t break anything.”
The dwarf was beneath the nearest wagon before he finished speaking mumbling to himself as he looked at…whatever he was looking at. Luke stared at his feet, the only part of him still visible for a few moments until Angela returned with the orc, the latter with a disturbed look on her face.
“Audur!” she said, looking around. “Where are you?”
“Down here!” He stuck his head halfway out of the wagon to look up at the orc woman. “What is it?”
Sasheya replied in another language, not harsh and guttural as Luke would have expected, but with a similar melodious sound as their accents. They spoke for a few moments while everyone in the caravan stood around watching until Audur leapt up from the wagon and started jogging toward Langrendi without a second glance.
“All right,” Sasheya said once he had left, clapping her hands together. “Shall we attend to the business for which you have come?”
“Certainly,” Ella said, glancing back toward the caravan. “Fae, can you bring out one of the big blankets? I think it’s in the far wagon.”
Several of the traders went about setting up a place to sit in the middle of the road while Ella, along with a few others, started haggling with the orc woman.
“Jesus. I didn’t know they were so big.” Tony was staring at the orc woman, who was still nearly as tall as they were while sitting cross-legged on the sheet that had been set out.
“Why’d the dwarf run off like that?” Luke asked. No one answered, but Felicity frowned and pointed off in the distance.
What’s that?” Indistinct figures could be seen moving among the grass of the plains. No one had an answer for her.
It seemed Sasheya also noticed the movement after a few moments, because she sighed and apologized to Ella before standing up and walking to the edge of the caravan toward the approaching group. Gradually, everyone turned to look in that direction. After a short time, they got close enough to be identified as a group of orcs, but these creatures were far different in appearance from Sasheya.
The most obvious contrast was in their apparel. As Luke watched the approaching orcs run across the landscape, he saw that none wore any form of clothing on their upper body. Unlike Sasheya, many of them had large chests that identified them as female, and they were as bare as their male counterparts. Thankfully, all of them wore some kind of kilt or skirt around their waist made of fur or leather, the design unique to each individual. Black paint covered much of their body, spiraling designs that Luke couldn’t follow without feeling dizzy. Each carried an axe or hatchet of different construction, some or iron or steel while others had a head of stone. As they neared, Luke got a good look at their faces and realized that these orcs did not file down their teeth. White fangs curved down even while their mouths were closed, lending them a predatory look.
Sasheya said something in the same tongue she’d spoken to Audur, but her tone and body language was much more harsh while she faced the orcs that stood before her. Nearly a dozen of them faced her, and several in the back carried animals over their shoulders, dead deer and goats that dripped blood down onto their bodies, smearing red over the black of their paint.
One of the group of orcs replied to her in a growling voice, ignoring the group of humans at her back. Sasheya raised a hand to point toward the settlement. The other orc spat on the ground and stomped away, followed by the rest of the tall green beings.
“I apologize,” Sasheya said smoothly. “Let us resume our discussion.”
Ella looked like she wanted to ask about what happened, but only sighed and returned to the sheet. It seemed, however, that the negotiations were destined for interruption, as only a few minutes later a pair of people approached, this time from the settlement itself.
A low murmur went around the caravan when they realized that while one of the figures was quite small, the other was the wrong size to be either an orc or a dwarf. It would have been easy to mistake the being for a human, at least until it was close enough to see the unearthly grace of its movements.
For Luke, with his knowledge from his own world, the ears were the most obvious sign. They were tall and pointed, almost even with the top of its head. It was also far slimmer than any but the most petite human woman, but it walked with a confidence that belied its small frame. Unlike Sasheya, who had features Luke would have comfortably described as masculine before learning of her gender, there was no obvious sign of whether the approaching elf was male or female. While its size might have suggested a woman, its face was androgynous, and like Sasheya it had no bust to speak of.
It wore a robe over a simple white shirt. The robe was a mixture of black, green, and red that had been swirled around to make a pattern similar to tie-dye, the colors faded by the passage of time. The creature gazed over the caravan as it approached, with no trace of its thoughts visible on its face.
“I will speak not more than once,” it announced. Its accent was much thicker than that of the orc or dwarf, and it took Luke a moment to decipher its words. Its voice was beautiful, perfectly matched to the melodic tones of the creatures’ accent. Everyone in the caravan turned and waited for its next words. Out of the corner of his eye, Luke saw Ella’s head in her hands. Even Sasheya looked a little uneasy.
“I require one of you to tell of the passage of the journey to this place. Which among you will have an accurate memory?”
“I can,” Luke said before he realized he’d opened his mouth. “I mean, I will.” Tony and Felicity looked at him, eyes wide, and Ella was shaking her head subtly but vigorously.
“Very good. Step over here.” Everyone watched silently as Luke stepped over to the elf. He was startled to realize that he was a little taller than the creature, though it had a bearing that still made it seem like it was looking down upon him.
“Walk.” The single word was enough to convey a tone of casual, even contemptuous command. Without waiting for a response, the elf strode away from the caravan. Luke looked back long enough to glimpse a resigned look on Ella’s face before following.
Several paces away, the elf continued to speak without looking at him. “Tell me of the shape in the clouds.”
Luke took a moment to marshal his thoughts. “It happened when we were about an hour away from Langrendi. We heard a roar that—”
“I have no care of the roar,” the elf said. “Speak of the shape. The appearance and direction of travel.”
Luke stopped himself from sighing. The arrogance the elf had displayed made him think it would not appreciate such an exhibition. “It was enormous, and moved in time with what looked and sounded like wingbeats. Whatever it was kept traveling in the direction we came from.” He kept his sentences short and to the point, hoping that would earn his questioner’s approval.
“And that direction is?” the elf prompted.
Luke pointed to the road the caravan had been using. “That way.”
The elf looked him up and down, slowly. It wasn’t a pleasant look. Luke felt like he was being weighed and assessed, scrutinized for his smallest flaws.
“That is no answer. Does the road curve beyond? Does it bend, twist, or remain straight forever? What direction did the dragon travel?”
“Dragon?” Luke said incredulously. “It was a dragon that was flying over us?”
“Answer the question!” The elf’s air of haughty calm broke instantly as it shouted at Luke. “What direction?”
“I don’t know!” Luke replied, heat creeping into his own inflection. He hadn’t paid much attention to the minutiae of their journey. The traders had determined their route.
“Then you are useless.” As quickly as it had come, the passion left its voice. Its aura of cold reserve restored, the elf turned away toward the caravan.
“So you lost a dragon and don’t know where it went?” Luke’s heart was pounding at his confrontational words, but he had to prolong the conversation. He had questions of his own.
The elf turned back around, regarding him with a flat gaze. All emotion had fallen from its beautiful, alien face, and it once again gazed at Luke as if he were an insect, something too far beneath it to merit even anger. The contrast with the fury it had shown a few moments before was chilling.
“You cannot comprehend the obstacles faced by the Elders. Explanations are wasted upon you. I will find one who is aware of the direction you have traveled.”
Luke called out one more time, desperate to find what he had come for. “How did you come to this world?”
“Magic far beyond your comprehension,” came the careless reply. There was no surprise at the change of subject, or anger at Luke’s presumption. The elf didn’t even look at him as it walked away, leaving Luke alone to ponder its response.