By the time Luke was back amongst the rest of the caravan, the elf had already pulled Ella away from her discussion with Sasheya. It seemed that it hadn’t had the patience to ask for another volunteer and had picked its own instead. Luke could see them speaking out of earshot of everyone else, her body language deferential.
“Are you all right?” Abby asked upon his return. “We heard some shouting.”
“Yeah, I guess it doesn’t take much to rile them up,” Luke said. He almost blurted out what he had learned from the elf, but at the last moment glanced around and changed his words to be more circumspect. “Did you know they can do magic?”
He heard a snort from somewhere nearby. Luke looked around and saw nothing, then glanced down to see Audur on one knee. The dwarf had been fiddling with a wheel on one of the wagons, but looked up at Luke after his last comment.
“What?” Luke asked.
“Well, they can’t anymore, can they?”
“What are you talking about?” Luke asked. Abby stared at the dwarf interestedly.
“There isn’t any magic here, is there? Can’t be done on a plane that isn’t thick with it. You think the Elders would have stayed here if they had another option?”
Luke furrowed his brow at the dwarf’s words. He went on in an affable voice, unconcerned with their confusion. “‘Course, I like it just fine over here. Makes it a whole lot easier to create with your hands when magic isn’t mucking up all the what-d’you-call-’ems—physical laws. Plus the Elders can’t do whatever they—” Audur cut off abruptly with a guilty look and the air of someone who said something he shouldn’t.
“So you can’t do magic here?” Luke said. The dwarf’s words were hard to interpret when he spoke fast. At least he was more intelligible than the elf.
“Me?” Audur laughed, a deep rich sound that garnered glances from others around the caravan. “Never could. There’s a few dwarven wizards, but it doesn’t come naturally to us and orcken like it does to the Elders. That’s what put them in charge back in Heimr. Hard to stand up to someone who can turn you into a grease stain with a wave of their hands.” He glanced around furtively at the elf after his last words, relieved to see that it was still off with Ella. Luke got the impression that he didn’t have much of a filter.
“Then it was a spell that took you to this world?” Abby looked at him quizzically, and he stared at the dwarf to avoid her gaze.
“Sure,” Audur said with another snort. “The same way it was some fireworks that blew up that city in the Second Global War or whatever you call it. Doesn’t quite cover the size of the thing, does it? Devising a method for moving between planes was the greatest undertaking of magic in the history of Heimr. And look where it got us.”
“The Elders can’t do any magic at all anymore?” Abby asked softly.
“No. Until today, we thought there wasn’t a drop of magic on this entire plane.”
“What happened today?” Luke asked.
Audur suddenly looked nervous and glanced around. “Uh, I don’t know. I have to go fix a…horse. Excuse me.”
He rushed off, walking quickly back toward Langrendi. Sasheya looked at him with an eyebrow raised, but was still talking with the other traders while Ella was away. The elf didn’t even appear to notice him leave.
“Interesting,” Abby said. “I wonder what changed today?”
“I have an idea,” Luke replied. “But wait until we’re away from the settlement. Seems like a touchy subject for them.”
Abby hummed her agreement. The afternoon turned slowly to dusk while they waited for the conclusion of the negotiations. Ella finished her discussion with the elf and returned to finish the negotiation with Sasheya. There were no more interruptions, and by the time night fell, the traders walked back to the wagons with smiles on their faces.
A few traders who were known among the residents of Langrendi were permitted into the settlement itself to load up the goods they were taking back to Crater. The rest of the caravan set up camp nearby. Luke was impatient to get back on the road, both to start the journey back to Crater and because he wanted to talk about what he had learned. He went to bed early that night.
“It was a WHAT?”
Felicity was far from the only one to utter an exclamation at Ella’s words, but she was the loudest. The trader shot her a reproachful look, and Felicity held up her hands.
“Sorry, I wasn’t ready to hear that we passed a fucking dragon when I woke up this morning. Although, to be fair, that fits what we saw better than any theory I had. Which might say more about my theories, honestly.”
Luke told Ella what he heard from the elf first thing in the morning, and she in turn insisted on gathering the caravan to inform them of what had passed over them the previous day.
“I don’t know how much this changes,” she said to the gathered group, “but it’s good to keep in mind. We’ll tell the Committee if nothing else.”
Behind her, Angela cleared her throat. Ella glanced back at her. “Right. You all will have to tell the Committee. Ang and I have been talking. Now that the trading’s done, we’re thinking that it would be best if we split off from the rest of you on the way back to Crater.”
The silence in the wake of her statement was in sharp contrast to the babble of voices from a moment before. Luke caught a displeased look on Simmons’s face as he stared at Ella.
“Going to Darkend would add a good three or four days onto the trip back,” she went on. “That would be enough to put us behind schedule, which isn’t fair to all of you. But Ang and I aren’t going back without knowing how our dad is. We’re just not. So we’ll split off by ourselves and the rest of you won’t get chewed out by Mort.”
There were a few nods, but Simmons called out from the side.
“How will he get back to Crater, then?”
“He won’t.” Ella cocked her head at the guard. “There’s no real reason for it. He was sick of the place before we even left.”
“But that must change now with his…disability, yes? He won’t be able to roam the way he did before.”
“We’ll worry about it, Simmons,” Ella snapped. “It’s not your concern.”
Simmons frowned deeply, but didn’t reply. Soon after, the familiar sound of hoof on cement filled the air and the wagons started rolling once again. Luke trudged on with the rest of the caravan.
“I wonder why Simmons was so upset,” he said idly a few hours later. Tony had eschewed the mustached guard’s company once again to join him, Abby, and Felicity.
“I’ll never understand how he feels about Carver,” Tony said, shaking his head. “He hated him so much after Hobble, ranted every day about how he was the reason shit went so bad over there, and then all of sudden he was worried about him. He kept bothering you, right, Abby?”
“Mm-hm,” Abby nodded. She was tending to one of the horses while they walked, examining its gait while it carried the load of the wagon.
“That’s when he got all oily, too,” Felicity said. “At least when he was bitching about Carver you knew how he felt. Now he’s always trying to be everyone’s friend. It’s creepy.”
“Because he wants everyone’s support back in Crater,” Abby said distractedly. She was crouching awkwardly to look at the horse’s hoof while they were still moving. “He’s not really being subtle about it.”
“Support for what?” Tony asked, baffled. “I can’t believe you guys are shitting on him for trying to be nicer.”
“He’s fine, he’ll just need a better diet once we’re back in Crater.” Abby popped up and patted the horse on the neck before turning to Tony. “And sure, he’s nice enough to try to get Carver executed.”
“What are you talking about?” Tony said loudly. Felicity’s eyes also widened at Abby’s words.
“Or something equally awful, anyway,” she shrugged. “It’s the only explanation that makes any sense to me. Do you really believe that his opinion about Carver shifted so dramatically overnight? He hated the man with a passion, but was so concerned about his condition that he ran ahead with us to Darkend to ensure he would survive. We know he didn’t care about Carver as a person, and there’s few other possibilities that explain his actions.
“You’re making a pretty big leap there,” Tony protested. “Why would he care that Carver’s executed?”
“I don’t know,” Abby said. “That might not be it. He hates him, but if that was all it was he could have sat back and watched him die of infection. He really wanted Carver back in Crater for some reason.”
“It sounds flimsy to me,” Tony said doubtfully. “It’s at least possible that he just had a change of heart, right?”
“No,” Abby said flatly. “He’s not that good at hiding his emotions. Believe me, I can tell.”
“Whatever it is, seems like he won’t get his way,” Luke said. “Probably for the best.”
Tony shrugged. “He can be an asshole, but I think you’re all blowing this way out of proportion.”
“Assholes gotta stick together, huh?” Felicity grinned, slapping Tony on the back. To his credit, he responded only by rolling his eyes.
“Just keep an eye on him,” Abby said. “He’ll show his true colors sooner or later.”
Not long before they stopped for the night, Ella and Angela left the caravan. They loaded up some of the rations, restocked at Langrendi, into a backpack, and took an exit to a different freeway that offered a more direct route to Darkend.
The caravan seemed emptier without them, Luke reflected as he laid down on the grass just beyond the hard asphalt that night. He had to admit that other than Ella, he hadn’t done well at getting to know anyone he hadn’t known beforehand. With two of his friends gone, it was starting to feel like he was surrounded by strangers once again. At least they were returning to Crater. The settlement wasn’t home, but even in his own mind, Luke couldn’t pretend that it wouldn’t be good to be back.
The next few days passed without incident, but this fact did little to induce Luke to lower his guard. The threat he had learned about still lingered in the back of his mind, and even while he was with his friends he kept one eye open.
Despite his defense of Simmons, Tony continued to hang around less with his group and more among Luke and the others. Felicity had cut down on her unmaking practice since leaving Hobble, and while Abby cared for the horses, they took little of her time each day. Luke, of course, had no demands on his time and nothing to do but walk with the others. The days passed quickly, and Luke started to worry about what would happen when their journey was finished. Once they were back, everyone would return to their normal duties, and he would again have to find something to occupy himself. He still had no inkling of a job he wanted to do long term. Working as a builder sounded unappealing, but so did everything else he could think of.
He waited until Felicity and Tony left on a hunting trip before trying to ask Abby—the least judgemental of his friends—for her advice on the matter, but before he spoke a word, a cry rose from the back of the caravan.
“What the fuck is that?” someone yelled. Several people looked around with confused expressions, but without any instructions to the contrary the wagons kept rolling.
Luke fell back to the rear of the procession to try to see what the commotion was about. A line of guards and traders were staring out at something off to the side of the road while they walked. Following their gaze, Luke made out movement in the distance, but his brain couldn’t reconcile the odd flowing motion with any kind of living being. No one seemed overly concerned, merely puzzled about what they saw. Whatever it was, it quickly became apparent that it was moving toward the caravan faster than they were traveling away.
As it closed in, Luke started to make out more details of its appearance. The being—if that was what it was—looked like a mock-up of a human made out of rope, with thick yellow cords running through the center of each appendage and long extensions splitting off like branches from a tree. Its appearance was similar to that of the Bleeder in some ways, but its form was made up of far fewer fibers than the other monster. It was closer to a stick figure with extra extensions than a true outline of a human form.
The thing’s bizarre movements were evident even when it was off in the distance, and became no less disturbing as it roamed closer. Each step it took triggered a wavy, undulant motion that traveled from its feet through the top of its “head”, a loose collection of cords that formed an approximation of a sphere. The motion reminded Luke of when he had shaken a jump rope to send waves through it when he was little; it gave the thing a lopsided, top-heavy appearance with every step it took.
Curiosity turned to alarm as it became clear the thing was moving directly toward them, advancing deceptively quickly through the field beside the road. Several traders called for the wagons to pick up speed, but no matter how fast they traveled, the cord-thing seemed to match their pace without effort. After ten minutes of ineffectual flight, the thing was barely thirty feet away from the caravan, still moving with its undulant motions.
“Fuck this,” one of the guards said, unholstering his pistol. “It looks like a good breeze could knock it down, why are we still running?” He stopped and turned, taking aim at the creature.
Luke looked back in time to see the creature’s absolute lack of a reaction to the shot. He guessed that the bullet had gone through without hitting any of the cords that made up its body.
“Get an axe,” he shouted, “Or a knife. Cut it!.” He looked around, seeing nothing in the vicinity that could be of use. Abby stared at him, her brow furrowed, but more shots rang out before she could respond. The guard, not hearing or ignoring Luke had fired again, along with several other armed members of the caravan. The monster showed no visible response to the gunfire, but in the time they stood still to shoot at it, the thing crossed the distance to stand in front of the foremost guard.
Surprised, the man tried to scramble away, but the creature was on him before he could move. The entire caravan watched in horror as the thing twisted, and the largest cord at the back of its torso wrapped around the guard like some grotesque python.
“What the fuck? Get it the fuck—” The guard cut off abruptly as the offshoots of the thing’s central cord wound up around his mouth. His eyes bulged as yellow strings curled into his ears and nose. The other guards stood around him shouting, but none touched the thing to try to pry it off. Luke felt sick watching the monster extend itself, pushing more and more of its body into the guard. He ran toward the nearest wagon, looking for something sharp, but without any idea how the goods were organized, he found nothing of use.
“Move!” One of the traders finally had the presence of mind to pull out a knife at her belt to try to cut away the monster still wrapped tightly around the guard, but her efforts proved futile. Whatever she cut off fell to the ground while the rest of the thing kept writhing around the guard’s body. It was impossible to tell what parts were necessary for the thing to function. After what felt like hours, the undulating cords finally released the guard, falling still on the ground. What was left looked like nothing so much as a loose pile of moist, yellow rope.
The guard started screaming as soon as his mouth was clear, and everyone in the caravan clustered around him, trying to talk all at once.
“It hurts!” he screamed. Abby knelt down next to him, speaking soothingly, but no matter what she said, he went on screaming.
“Felicity,” Abby said once it was clear that the man was incoherent. “I need Felicity.”
“She went out to hunt!” a trader said, sounding panicked.
“Then go find her,” Abby responded sharply, her eyes on the guard.
Three or four people darted off, and perhaps fifteen minutes later, returned with the girl in tow. She stepped up next to Abby, her face white.
“They told me what happened. What do you need?”
“Can you take out whatever went inside of him? There’s nothing I can do here, I don’t even have anything to knock him out.” The guard’s screams had turned to quiet moans, but his expression displayed no less pain.
Felicity hesitated and looked over at the pile of cords that had been wrapped around the guard before their grisly work was done. She shook her head. “No. I don’t know what that stuff’s made of or where it is inside of him. I’d have to take out whole chunks of his body at a time.”
“That might be our only option,” Abby said grimly. “It is quite literally the only thing I can think of.”
“I don’t think it would work. I’d have no way of knowing if I’d gotten all of the stuff inside of him. Or any of it. I could take out his whole liver or something and leave whatever the fuck that is untouched.”
Abby sighed heavily. “All right. Move him to the back of the wagon for now.” A pair of guards moved to follow her orders, but when they turned the affected man toward the field, he cried out.
“Wait! Wait!,” He looked out in the direction the monster had come from. “It doesn’t hurt as much…it’s going away!”
He looked up at Abby and started screaming once again. “No! It hurts! I…I can’t! I can’t stand it!” He turned his head back toward the field and whimpered.
Abby waved for the guards to put him down and dropped to one knee. “It doesn’t hurt when you look that way?” The guard’s gaze was still fixed far into the distance. Luke and many of the others watching the spectacle peered in that direction, but nothing out of the ordinary could be seen.
“No, it doesn’t. I have to keep looking. I can’t stop.” Luke almost missed the guard’s words from his spot several feet away. He was speaking quietly, nearly pleading.
“Ok. We won’t make you.” Abby turned to the others. “Keep his sight line clear in that direction. There’s nothing I can do for him out here.”
A few of the traders quickly cleared a space in one of the wagons the way they had done for Carver, the car now laden with entirely different goods than it had been when they set out. The afflicted man—Luke heard from someone that his name was Andrew—was able to walk to the wagon under his own power, so long as he kept looking in the same direction. The caravan resumed traveling, much subdued.
“Why the hell does he have to stare out that way?” Tony muttered, gazing at the empty field. “That’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever heard. You think it’s safe to bring him back to Crater?”
“You think it would be better to leave him to die in the middle of the road?” Luke asked.
“I don’t know. What if more of those things are growing inside of him? And what would they even do in Crater that they can’t out here?”
“I have no idea. But Abby’s the closest thing we have to an expert, and she thinks it’s worth a shot to bring him back.” They’d given their friend a wide berth since the attack, as had nearly everyone else in the caravan. A couple of brave guards had scooped the remains of the cord-creature into a glass jar with a long stick, and Abby was staring at the contents while sitting in the back of the wagon with Andrew.
The guard remained relatively quiet for the rest of the day, but he did start screaming again any time he couldn’t look toward whatever he was staring at in the distance. Abby attempted to sooth him with little effect. It seemed the only cure to whatever pain Andrew was feeling was to look at something none of the rest of them could see.
Abby took a brief break when they stopped that night to eat with the other three before returning to her patient. She still held the jar of what now looked like a pile of what looked like a pile of greyish guts stacked in the jar. She stared at it continuously while they ate.
“Is it a good idea to hold on to that stuff?” Tony asked. “What if it comes to life and tries to go inside someone else?”
Abby glanced at him only briefly before returning her gaze to the jar. “It could have easily done that when it first appeared if that were the case. This is the only clue I have for what’s afflicting my patient. It’s a risk I have to take.
“Only it’s not just you taking the risk, is it?” Tony asked, his voice tense. “It’s everyone else who has to stay around that stuff. It’s like holding a bomb that you don’t even know is defused yet.”
Luke put a hand on his friend’s shoulder, but uncharacteristically Felicity broke in to cut the tension.
“It kind of looks like nervous tissue, doesn’t it?”
Abby peered within the jar on the ground. “Does it? It’s difficult to tell with it all bunched-up like that.”
Tony looked affronted that he was being ignored, but merely crossed his arms after Luke shook his head at him.
“I mean, it could be,” Felicity said. “Trust me, I’ve done enough dissections to know what the stuff looks like. That thick part is about the right size for the spinal cord.”
“It could be,” Abby said thoughtfully. “I assumed it was some kind of extradimensional material, but you might be right.”
“Nerves don’t get up and walk around though,” Luke said. “How would that work?”
“Neither do blood vessels,” Abby pointed out, “but you yourself should be able to attest to the fact that such a statement is less than absolute these days.” Luke had to acknowledge that she had a point.
“However,” she went on, “It’s not a certainty. I can’t tell without taking it out of the jar, and that I am not willing to do.”
“I can check it,” Felicity said excitedly. “Hold on one second.” She closed her eyes for a moment. The other three looked at her in silence until she opened them once more, grinning widely.
“Look,” she said, pointing at the jar.
About half of the material that had been inside was gone.
“That wouldn’t have worked if it was anything else. That thing we saw was definitely made of nerves.”
“That’s disgusting,” Tony said, looking at the jar. “How the fuck does that happen?”
“Good question,” Felicity said. “It’s so similar to a Bleeder. Is there another world where there’s just parts of people walking around like it’s normal? Because fuck that.”
Luke was about to agree, but a yell came from a wagon nearby.
“I have to go. I have to GO!”
“That’s Andrew,” Abby said, jumping to her feet. Luke, Tony, and Felicity followed suit and ran toward the wagon. They made it in time to see a figure darting away from their fires into the night.
“What happened?” Abby asked, looking toward a bewildered trader holding a strip of jerky.
“I don’t know! He asked for some food and by the time I came back he was muttering about the pain again. Then he started yelling and jumped out of the wagon.”
“I bet I can tell you which way he’s going,” Luke said, looking into the night. It was pitch black beyond the range of the light from their camp, but he gazed in the direction Andrew had been staring as if something would pop out from the darkness.
“We should get all the guards together, start a search for him,” Abby said. Luke shivered. He didn’t relish the idea of walking out into the night.
Though the security team with the caravan—most of whom had known Andrew for years—quickly organized a search, they found little success. The afflicted guard had a head start on them, and though they had a good idea of what direction he was headed in, finding him in the dark proved to be next to impossible.
“I think the man is well and truly gone,” Simmons said grimly a few hours into the search. He had remained at the caravan camp to help organize the search, as had anyone who didn’t carry one of the few flashlights they had with them.
“Can’t you track him or something?,” Luke asked. “He had to leave footprints or something, right?”
The guard looked at him askance. “In the dark? You know most of us stay in the settlement, right? Could you track his footprints?”
Luke shrugged, embarrassed.
“I doubt we’ll catch up to him now. He’s too far ahead.” he went on. “I’ll have to start calling them back.”
“There’s no way at all to find him?” Abby asked. Simmons shook his head.
“I’m sorry. He was looking east, but there’s a hell of a lot of ground to cover that way. He’s probably already further than I’m comfortable sending my people at night, and by morning he could be anywhere. I don’t know how we can get him back.”
Abby nodded slowly. “Thank you for your efforts.” She turned away from the guard, expressionless.
Luke left as well after several more guards returned to report that they found nothing. The image of the nerve monster forcing its way into Andrew’s body stayed with him that night, and long after that.