1.25

“What the fuck, Tony?”

Naomi was the first to speak as she turned away from the grisly scene inside the truck.  Tony wore an unabashed expression.

“He was already suspicious.  All he had to do was hit the gas and we’d be fucked.  I solved the problem.”

Abby looked at him for a long time without speaking.  Luke stared at what remained of the truck driver’s head.  Even in the middle of a battle, the casual execution had been disturbing.

“What’s done is done,” Abby said finally.  “We still have to hurry.  If we wait too long they might start looking for the truck.”

“What do we do with it now, then?” Naomi asked.  “Drive it into the canyon?”

“We could…” Abby replied, drawing out the word thoughtfully.  She glanced back in the direction of Crater.

“We’re never getting back in there on foot,” Luke said, wrenching his thoughts away from the dead man in the truck.  “They were already suspicious of us.  Can’t imagine that would go away if we tried to come back in less than an hour later.”

“Right.  And I would say that we are in no position to forgo the advantage these explosives offer.”

Tony turned to the pair of them.  “So you’d rather drive this thing through a camp with a hundred armed gunmen?” 

Luke and Abby glanced at each other.  He shrugged and nodded at Tony.  “More or less.”

“Right.  Someone want to help me with this, then?” Luke had expected further complaints, but Tony just opened the driver door and started pulling at the corpse behind the wheel.

He walked up beside the other boy, grabbed the cleanest spot he could find on the dead man’s shirt and pulled him to the ground.  The corpse fell to the earth with a sickening smack.  He stared at the lifeless body.

“Do we bury him, or…?”

Tony looked at him incredulously.  “Yeah, sure.  Let’s waste a few hours giving this motherfucker a proper send off while his friends keep capturing and killing people in the settlement.”

“All right!  Sorry, I’ve just never seen a dead body before.”  The Empty, with their lifeless eyes, were in a whole different class as far as he was concerned.  “You’re right, that makes no sense.”

“If we’re lucky, this won’t be the last corpse you see today.  It’s gonna take a lot more killing to get these guys out of Crater.”

Luke stared at Tony.  He seemed almost like another person since Crater had been attacked.  He had never been this ruthless when they were in danger during the caravan trip.  Naomi interrupted before he could think of how to respond.  “At least throw him in the bushes or something so we’re not leaving a goddamn body in the middle of the road.”

She and Abby were standing on the back tires of the truck looking under the tarp.  “Jesus, that’s a lot of hardware.  Where the hell are we gonna put it?”

“I don’t know.  If we can get past their base without raising the alarm, we can park the truck somewhere, but…”  Abby stared at the blood covering the passenger side of the cab.  “I don’t feel optimistic about the possibility.”

Luke and Tony did as Naomi suggested and tossed the body into a shrub by the roadside.  Though it was still fairly obvious if anyone was actively searching the area, Luke hoped a casual observer might pass by without noticing the corpse.

“Well, Luke, are you ready?” Abby asked once they were done.  Luke glanced inside the truck.

“Nobody brought any bleach with them, did they?”

He didn’t wait for the others to shake their heads before sighing.  “Is it even worth it to stop at the gate?”

“I doubt it,” Naomi said.  “Better to go in at top speed, just ram right through.”

“Shockingly, I’m in agreement with Naomi,” Abby said drily.  “The element of surprise gives us the best chance.”

“There’s no other road that leads into Crater?” Luke asked.  She shook her head.

“The Committee made it that way deliberately.  The other roads were broken up by construction crews, and there are walls around the whole thing except at the dam and the entrance.  Even if we could smash through a wall, I don’t think we want to go off-roading in this thing, considering what we have in the back.”

Resigned, Luke got up into the driver’s seat.  He stayed near the edge, where the least amount of blood had landed.  The passenger window and most of the right side of the windshield were smeared red, obstructing his view.  “Where will you guys be?”

“We’ll ride in the back,” Naomi said immediately.  “There should be enough room.  Try not to hit any bumps, I have no idea how volatile this stuff is.”

“Fine.”  Luke waited for them to load up and turned the keys, still in the ignition. 

The truck roared to life without issue, and he carefully started down the highway, swerving around the numerous potholes in the old road.  He was terrified that every minor bump would trigger an explosion.

“Pick it the fuck up, Luke.  We don’t have all day!”  Tony’s voice floated up to him from the open window.

“Don’t blame we when we blow up,” Luke muttered, but he started to speed up.  Encouraged by the fact that he was still alive, he continued to accelerate until he was nearly up to the same speed as the original driver when they first saw him.  He’d forgotten how great it was to drive instead of walk.  He watched the terrain it had taken them fifteen minutes to walk through disappear in less than a minute.

As the entrance to Crater materialized in the distance, he started to tense up once again.  It was one thing to make a plan to burst through a street filled with dozens or hundreds of armed enemies, but the approaching reality quickly drained his bravado.  Abby, Tony, and Naomi were hidden under the tarp, so he would be the only visible target to shoot at.  He was relying entirely on surprise and the speed of the truck to get through the checkpoint.

Luckily, there were no gates to block off the road inside, so Luke took a deep breath and slammed the pedal to the floor of the truck.  The engine roared and he accelerated even faster, blowing past the gates in an instant.  He couldn’t see either of the guards who had talked to them before, but he imagined the look on the suspicious woman’s face and gave a wild laugh.  There was a euphoria in what he was doing, an adrenaline high that started to drown out his anxiety.  The blurry forms of the invaders flew by too fast to count, and by the time he was a block away he let out a yell, convinced that he’d gotten through them without a scratch.

Then the bullets started flying.

Some of the invaders must have been incredibly quick on the draw, as it couldn’t have been more than a few seconds before they started shooting.  Even over the wind and engine, Luke heard the report of gunfire through the open window.  He wasn’t sure if the first few bullets hit, but as they kept firing, damage started to appear on the truck.  With a crash, a whistling hole appeared in both the windshield and rear window, each one surrounded by a spiderweb of cracks.  Luke ducked down as far as he dared, straining to see where he was going.  A few more shots cut the air, but he himself remained unharmed.

He tried to find a road to turn down to cut off their line of sight, but between his increasingly obscured forward view and the truck’s high speed, every cross-street passed him by before he could prepare to make the turn.  Finally, after a half-minute passed without any sign of gunfire, Luke slowed down and hoped that they’d made it far enough that they were out of range.

His hopes were dashed a moment later as he heard a thumping sound and the steering wheel tried to jump out of his grip.  The truck slowed even further, and he had to fight to stop it from veering into a building.  After a few tense moments, he finally saw a cross road in time to make the turn, and laboriously cranked the wheel to the right.  A few hundred feet down the new road, he let the truck slow to a stop and wiped the sweat from his forehead, breathing heavily.

“Don’t stop!” Abby said, peeking out from under the tarp.  “They’re probably already running down this way!”

“Where am I supposed to go?” Luke said.  “I’m pretty sure they hit a tire, we’ll be driving on a rim before long.”

“Then that’s what we’ll have to do,” she replied grimly.  “They’ll get the truck—and us—if we can’t lose them in the settlement.”

“Ok, but where do we go?  You know this place better than I do.”

“Take a left ahead,” Abby said.

Going as fast as he dared while trying to keep control of the bucking truck, Luke followed Abby’s instructions to forge a path through the maze of Crater’s streets.  She had him circle blocks, back out of random turns, and take lengthy detours to confuse anyone following them.  Once they gained a little more ground he stopped to pop out the windshield with his feet, a difficult task that he only managed by bracing against the driver’s seat.  His visibility improved greatly once it was gone, to his relief.  He didn’t anticipate the bugs, however, and Luke was splattered at least twice while they tried to lose their pursuers.

At some point, the rubber on the flat tire fell off entirely and left them driving on the rim.  While the sound was horrible, and Luke worried that it would draw the attention of their enemies, it actually made driving a little bit easier without the flat rubber flopping around on the ground.  He still traveled far slower than he did before, but he was confident that they were outpacing anyone following them on foot.

The most difficult moment came when they turned down a street and saw a patrol of invaders searching the nearby buildings.  Luke stayed on a steady course, but he wasn’t moving nearly fast enough to run them down, and they again had to duck under several shots before turning a corner and getting away.

Finally, Abby directed him to turn down an inconspicuous alley and turn off the truck.

“I think we’ve gone far enough.  Even if anyone meets up with that patrol, it should be difficult to determine where we went.”

Luke nodded his agreement, and he hopped out of the cab to meet the other three.  “What now?”

“I think we have to go find Simmons’ group,” Abby said reluctantly.  “None of us know how to use the materials we took.  Hopefully one of the guards over there does.”

“We gotta hurry, then,” Naomi said.  She knelt by the mouth of the alley, touching a black trail on the ground.  “Looks like we left a trail.”

“If we’re lucky, the marks won’t stand out too much,” Abby said, “but you’re right.  We should hurry.”

“Yeah.  Those assholes could have already broken in and grabbed the Committee,” Tony said.    “We gotta move.” 

 Though Luke didn’t recognize the area where they’d parked, it was relatively close to the restaurant where Simmons and the others had been holed up.  When Abby knocked, the door was answered quickly by the same guard as before.

“You’re back.  Good, come on.”  The inside was still dark, but Luke thought there were more people inside than there had been last time.  The guards led them to Simmons, who was speaking in a low tone with several others near the back.

“Did you stop the bomb delivery?” he asked, without preamble.

“We did one better,” Naomi said cheerfully, “we stole the whole damn truck!”

“What?” the old guard looked alarmed.  “They must be searching for it already!  Why would you bring it back into the settlement?”

“To give a chance of winning this fight,” Abby said, staring at him.  “You sure you can’t think of any uses for a truck full of explosives?”

Simmons sighed, blowing his white mustache up toward his nose.  “True enough, I suppose.  I hope you hid it well.  We’ve found more residents who slipped through the cracks and made contact with another group of holdouts, but we’re still dangerously outnumbered and outgunned.”

“We can use it to blow a hole in their defenses and get to the Committee,” Tony said eagerly.  “They won’t know what hit ‘em!”

“Right, or we can use them for something useful,” Simmons said bluntly.  “Think, Tony!.  I know you’re worried about Tom, but it doesn’t matter if we link back up with them if we get shot in the head two minutes later.  We’ll have to determine exactly what the material is to find the best use for it.  Owen!”

He called out to another guard, ignoring Tony’s furious look.

“It’s a good plan,” the boy insisted.  “They’ve gotta have a ton of people over there.  If we blow them up, that’ll be like half of them gone in one shot.”

“Wishful thinking,” Simmons shook his head.  “Don’t be stupid.  The bulk of their numbers are likely either still patrolling for residents or guarding prisoners.  If they had dedicated an army toward keeping the Committee in check, they would have already been able to break in.”

He turned to the other guard.  “We’re leaving.  I need you to ascertain the condition of some munitions.  Get your gun.”

A glint in the man’s eye when the bombs were mentioned.  “I’ve always got my gun.  Let’s blow these fuckers up.”

“Reconnaissance only right now.  You’ll get your chance, but we have to know what we’re dealing with.  You able to guide us back over there, girl?”

His question was directed at Abby, who nodded.

“Good.  Rest of you stay here, we’ll be back soon.  With a plan.”

***

“What if they’re already dead?” Tony demanded.  “We have to get over there as soon as we can.”

Luke forced himself not to sigh.  The other boy had been pacing since Simmons, Owen, and Abby left, and complaining about Simmons’ disapproval of his plan the entire time.

“You heard what Simmons said.  If they’re still just waiting around Sarah’s office, they’re probably waiting until they’ve taken the rest of the settlement to commit more people.  We have time.”  He could tell that Tony understood his logic, but logic wasn’t what he wanted right at that moment.

“Fuck this.  Fuck everything.” Tony looked like he was about to yell, but contained himself at the last moment.

“I wonder where they holed everyone else up,” Naomi said.  To Luke’s surprise, she had been sitting more or less quietly since the others left, contrary to her normally hyper nature.  “I didn’t see any sign of them when we left the settlement.”

“Somewhere away from the road, I guess,” Luke shrugged.  “We’re not in any position to fight our way outside yet though, let alone free everyone who’s been captured.”

At that moment, the door opened once again, allowing sunlight to flood in and burn Luke’s eyes.  He held up his arm and saw the group return, led by Simmons.

“All right, I think we have a chance to turn this back into a battle rather than a massacre,”  He rubbed his hands together.  Owen wore a manic smile, and even Abby seemed happier than when they’d left.

“What is it then?” Tony demanded.  “What’s this great plan you’ve got?”

Simmons looked at him and smiled, an expression Luke had rarely seen on his face.   “We’re going to get our guns back.”


“How long does it take to rig up some goddamn bombs?  It’s what they’re made for!”

A guard grumbled from one end of the street.  They had a group posted at both sides, on the lookout for any patrolling invaders.  Owen knelt with a backpack full of demolitions near the center of the street, working quickly to wire them together.

“Sure, any idiot could make them blow up,” he said cheerfully.  “The trick’s in making sure it happens at the right time.”  Luke was starting to wonder if the man was demented.  The worse their situation, the happier he seemed to be.  Apparently he knew his way around a bomb, however, so he let his concerns lie unvoiced.

A few minutes later the man spoke again.  “Ok, we’re all set here.  I can make this shit go up any time.”

“Good,” Simmons said.  “The stairs to the vault are off to the right from here, past the offices.  Watch my back while I open it up once we’re inside.

There was a group of twenty or so people who had gone on the raid, but only six or seven of them were armed.  They huddled on the far side of the street from where Owen had been setting up, and the man gleefully pressed a button on a small remote in his hand.

An explosion ripped through the silence of the street, and though they’d been out of the blast zone, Luke had difficulty hearing over the ringing of his ears.

“All right, fucking move!” Simmons roared in a tinny voice, and they charged toward the hole in the building made by the explosion.  Inside, a series of cubicles were arranged to the left and right, and a long glass window with a series of stalls stood in front of them.  On the other side, a squad of invaders were looking inside to investigate the sudden noise.

They raised their weapons, and Luke dove to the side along with several others.  His movement had been unnecessary, however, as the bullets slammed into the glass and stayed there, barely cracking the surface.  Cursing, the attackers started moving toward a door set into one stall on the far side of the room.

“Keep moving!” Simmons yelled.  “This way!”

He turned right, and, true to his word, a door stood beyond the largest office with a diagram of a stairway on the front.  Tony, in the rear, barely made it through before the invaders burst through the door on the far side of the room.

Hurrying down the stairs, Luke saw that a metal wall with a circular portal stood at the far side of the room, with a circular combination lock inset in the center.

“Ok, keep them off me,” Simmons said, rushing for the lock.  He started turning it as Luke heard the door above them open and footsteps start down the stairway.  As one of the people without a gun, he crowded toward the back while Tony and the guards took up positions around the bottom of the stairs, weapons raised.

He expected to see the attackers’ feet appear, but they were cautious in their approach.  They fired a few bullets down the stairs, but otherwise waited up above.  Luke frowned at the behavior..

“Shit,” he said after a moment.  “They’re waiting for us to go back up.  Even if we get the guns out, they’ll be able to hit us pretty easily.  Is there any other way out of here?”  He directed his question toward Abby, but Simmons answered first, still turning the combination lock.

“There’s not.  We return the way we came or not all.”

“Then we’re fucked,” Tony grunted, training his gun on the empty stairwell.  “We gonna draw straws for who gets to go up first?” 

“Patience, Tony.  Ah, there we go,”  A click sounded out from the door, and Simmons pulled it open with a small flourish.  “In we go.  Three of you stay here in case they decide to take their chances.”

Several of the guards nodded and kept their weapons pointed at the stairs.  The rest of them crowded into the vault.  Luke’s eyes widened when he got his first good look around the space.

Racks of guns covered the walls.  Most were handguns of one type or another, but there were a fair number of rifles as well.  Boxes of ammo were stacked around the room, more than he could count.  It was more or less how he imagined any armory from his own world would look, if less organized.  He couldn’t imagine how long it must have taken the combined efforts of everyone in Crater to amass such a haul.  Incongruously, a metal filing cabinet was pushed against the back of the metal vault.  Simmons made a beeline for it.

“Start packing up everything we can carry,” he ordered.  “Two or three rifles, otherwise stick to the handguns and ammo.  We only have so much room.”

Distaste flashed briefly across Abby’s face at the order, but she complied with the rest of them.  Most of the people on the raid had backpacks or bags they’d acquired one place or another, but even so Luke doubted that they’d be able to haul away more than a tenth or so of what was in the vault.

“This is great, but none of it is gonna help us get up those stairs without a bloodbath,” Tony said.  He started shoving guns into his bag, looking toward Simmons.

The mustached guard turned away from the open cabinet, eyebrows raised.  “That is what this is for, my boy.”  In his he clutched a small oblong object.  It wasn’t until he saw the silver handle that Luke understood what he was looking at.  A hand grenade.  They had fucking grenades stored in the vault.

“The hell is that?” Naomi asked, looking puzzled.  Luke supposed without access to movies it wasn’t too obvious what purpose the object had.

“It is the means for our egress,” Simmons said.  Naomi rolled her eyes beside Luke.

The group finished gathering what weapons they could carry and returned to the small room outside of the vault.  Simmons closed the door and ensured it locked once more.

“No movement?” he said once he was finished.  One of the guards who’d stayed outside shook his head.  The immediate obedience they displayed around Simmons unnerved Luke a little.  The old guard must have held a higher rank than he thought.

“Good.  Everyone move out of the way,” he said, holding up the grenade.  The guards obviously knew what it was, because they hurried back, pressing back against the vault door.

“Let’s see how you fuckers like it when you have a real fight,” Simmons said, and pulled out the pin.  He threw the grenade up the stairs and ran back farther in.

“Plug your ears!”  Just as he shouted, an explosion shook the roof above their heads.  Luke only just managed to cover his ears in time, and still the noise left his ears ringing too loudly to hear for the first few seconds.  No one else faired much better, he saw.  Gradually, they regained the ability to function.  

As soon as he was able, Simmons pointed up the stairs and gestured for the guards to storm the invaders’ position.  As the lone member of the team untrained in firearms, Luke took up the rear.  He didn’t hear any gunfire before he reached the top, but the scene that greeted him was grisly all the same.  More than half of the invaders who had been guarding the bank laid bloody and still on the ground, while several others were writhing in pain.  While Luke watched, Simmons calmly walked up to each one that still moved and put a bullet in their heads.  When he was done, he looked at the rest of them with no more emotion than if he’d been tapping them on the head.

“All right.  Chances are more are on the way as we speak.  We need to get back to the restaurant to regroup, and then we can see about killing our way into the Committee.

Tony nodded, a vicious smile spreading across his face.  The rest of the group was more restrained, but there was elation in their demeanor.  Luke understood how they felt, even if he still felt queasy about the way Simmons had executed the people on the ground.  Their situation suddenly seemed a lot less hopeless.

The group left the building quickly, using the same hole they’d used to get in.  The march back to the restaurant was long and silent.  Luke stayed alert for any sign of a patrol, though he figured that the others would likely spot it long before he did.  The moment Simmons killed the men and women in the bank stayed in his mind, replaying over and over.  Even Abby didn’t seem to be bothered by it as Luke was.  He told himself that the old guard just did what had to be done, but the thought did little to dispel his instinctive revulsion.

Once they were back in the restaurant, the group immediately began sorting through their haul.  Luke had grabbed whatever had been nearest to him, but the others had been more discerning in matching ammo to the guns that they took. 

He never learned the final count, but they certainly had far more guns than people after the raid.  The restaurant held around twenty-five able bodied people, including Luke and his friends, and they had made contact with a group that added ten or so to that number.  In short order, everyone had been given a handgun, two for some people, and several backup clips to carry around with them.  Luke reluctantly took one as well, though he wasn’t confident it would be any use in a situation where he was called to use it.  

“It will be necessary to scout out the area before committing any action around Sarah’s office,” Simmons said after the rest of them had gathered around him.  “They’ll know we hit the armory by now.  We don’t want to rush in to find they’ve doubled the guard around that area.”

“Fine, but let’s get fucking moving,” Tony said impatiently.  “I want to take those fuckers down.”

“We will,” Simmons assured him.  “Let’s head out.”

Save for two or three guards left to watch over the elderly, everyone swarmed out of the restaurant and marched toward the street in one large group.  Tony hurried to the front impatiently, and after a moment of hesitation, Naomi, Abby, and Luke followed him.  Sarah’s office was much closer to the dam entrance than the canyonside, so Luke wasn’t too concerned about running into a large group, but he kept an eye out nevertheless.  He saw no one.

Finally, they stopped about a block away from the office.  Luke remembered walking down the street they were on the first night he was brought to Crater.  He wondered how he would have reacted back then if he could see where he would end up.  Probably without too much surprise, he decided.  Even back then, he’d known what a shithole this world could be.

“All right, a small group is going to have to scout out the situation over there.  Any volunteers?”

“I’m going,” Tony said immediately, to no one’s surprise.  Naomi volunteered as well, as did Owen, the guard that enjoyed bombs a little too much.  Considering his lack of any sort of skill at sneaking or using a gun, Luke decided to stay behind.  A few other guards he didn’t know rounded out the group, and Simmons nodded.

“Good.  Find out how many there are and how well they’re armed.  Don’t get caught.”

Tony nodded with the others in the group and they moved off, running around a corner toward the back of the building.  Simmons guided the rest of them down a side street nearby.

“And now we wait,” he said.  “Keep an eye out for patrols.”  Several guards moved to both ends of the street to keep watch.  Luke crouched down with his back to the wall and turned to Abby.

“I’m a little worried about Tony,” he said quietly.

“What do you mean?” Even as she spoke, the girl’s eyes were on one end of the street, alert.

“I don’t know, he’s been kind of…brutal since this stuff started.  Like the way he killed that truck driver.  No hesitation.”

“I was concerned that the method in which he killed him would make our job harder, but he followed his instincts and it worked out in the end.”  She turned toward Luke, staring him in the eye.  “I try to find the most effective solution for every situation, but believe me—if I had the ability, I would kill every last man and woman invading us with my bare hands to save Crater.  Brutality may be exactly what we need right now.” 

Before Luke could think of a way to respond to that, a voice rang out from the alley entrance

“Simmons!  You need to see this.”  Tony was standing by one side of the street, looking at the old guard.

“So fast?” Simmons said, but he walked toward the young man. 

Tony locked eyes with Luke and gestured for him to come as well.  Abby stood with him, and they headed over to the scouting group, all of whom were standing around the alley.  They had been gone for less than ten minutes.

“What’s going on?” Luke asked Naomi in a low voice.  

She smiled.  “You’ll see.”

“You have to see this yourselves,” Tony said.  “Come on.”  He walked back in the direction of the office.  Simmons frowned, but stepped after him.  Luke and Abby exchanged glances before following.

The next street over, Tony started to turn the corner that would take him to the front of Sarah’s office.

“What are you doing?” Simmons hissed.  “They’ll all see you.”

“No they won’t,” Tony replied.  “Look.”

He walked out in full view of anyone standing in front of the building.  Hesitantly, Luke peeked around the corner.  Rather than the full squad he expected to see, a lone figure stood by the entrance to the building.

“Is that Felix?”  he asked no one in particular.  A moment later, the figure confirmed his suspicion by waving and calling out.

“Come on!  There’s not much time.”

Simmons, Abby, and Luke followed Tony toward Felix.  The old guard frowned.

“Where are the invaders?  Did you—”

“No,” Felix said.  “They’re inside.”

“What?  Did they take the Committee already?”

“No,” Felix shook his head.  “They’re parleying.  One of their commanders came up, started yelling about a truce.”

“They come in here, take our people, and now they want a truce?” Tony growled.  “Why haven’t you offed them already?”

Felix gave him a grim look.  “Because we have bigger problems headed our way.  The Empty are congregating on the canyon floor.” 

Previous Chapter

 

1.24

The empty streets did little to relieve Luke’s tension.  After the way he and Abby had been so easily taken prisoner by Nice Bob and his friend, he kept a wary eye out for anyone who might be trying to ambush them.  If the armory was far enough, chances were good that they’d run into another group sooner or later..  Unfortunately, Tony didn’t seem to realize this.

“We gotta get some kind of weapon,” he said, hardly bothering to keep his voice down.  “Even an axe or something.  Anything that would let us kill some of these fuckers.”  He spoke with a smoldering anger that echoed around the area before them.

“Keep it down,” Luke hissed.  “They could be anywhere around here.”

Tony glanced around the empty street.  “Really?” he asked, sarcasm heavy in his voice.  “Where?”

“Just because you don’t see anyone doesn’t mean they aren’t present,” Abby said softly.  “Luke and I already got taken by surprise once.”

“Yeah well, I’m pretty sure I’d be able to tell if one of these idiots was trying to sneak up on us.  You just gotta be perceptive.”

“Right.  If you can hear them over all the shouting you’re doing—”

A nearby noise prompted all three of them to turn their heads.    Footsteps sounded from a side street ahead of them.  Alarmed, Luke looked around wildly for somewhere to hide.  His eyes settled on the building closest to them, and he pointed it out to the others.  Abby nodded, and they crept in that direction as the footsteps grew louder.  Luke’s instincts screamed for him to run, but the footsteps—and voice now, he could hear—were close enough that his movements might be heard.  They reached the door just as someone came into view down the street. Abby opened the door hurriedly and they dove inside. 

 She closed the door most of the way; a slit of sunlight entered the room through the crack.  Luke gestured for her to close it the entire way, but she shook her head and crouched at the threshold, moving her ear to the gap.  Realizing what she intended, Luke moved closer and closed his eyes.  A faint voice floated out from the street.

“Did you hear something?”

The response was nearly inaudible over the sound of Luke’s pounding heart.

“Sure.  These buildings are old as hell, there’s probably always something falling or breaking inside of them.”

“Well I guess we’ll be looking through all of them anyway.”

“Are you insane?  That would take all fucking week, I’m not going through every house on the block.”

“Are you insane?  You want to not do the one thing that Graves sent us out here for?

“Yep.  You could go either way, but I know Graves is crazy.  Like this shit with that vault.  Why do we even need those guns?  It’s overkill, we already got more than enough firepower to blow them away.”

“You’re a fucking idiot, Gary.  What happens if we leave them there alone and one of the assholes here manages to get in?  We’d be fucking screwed is what would happen.  Use your damn head, man.”

“All right, don’t be a bitch about it,” the first voice sulked.  “I’d like to see those fireworks when they go off anyway.  Never seen that much ordinance in my life.”

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure they could have just blown the whole damn settlement up if they wanted.  I wonder why they’re trying so hard to take in everyone alive.

“Hell yeah they could.  And that’s my point!  Even if there was anyone dumb enough to hide in one of the buildings around here, which there’s not, what’s it matter if they’re down three or four prisoners?  Let’s just get the hell back before they find out where the food’s stashed.”

There was a long pause.  “All right, fine.  If you rat me out I’ll fucking kill you though.  Let’s go.”

The footsteps picked up once more and moved down the street beyond Luke’s hearing.  The other two had clearly heard the conversation as well from the looks on their faces.

Tony started to speak, but Abby held up a finger again.  She listened carefully at the crack for a few more minutes before nodding and opening the door.  

“I just want to point out that I was completely right and I heard them before they saw us,”  Tony said, but he now spoke at a much lower volume.

“So did we,” Luke protested.  Abby ignored them both.

“It sounds like our problems may be bigger than we thought.”

“You mean how they were talking about blowing something up?” Luke asked, turning from Tony.  “The place where they keep the guns?”

“They put them in an old bank vault,” Abby explained.  “Solid steel on all sides.  It would have to be a fairly large bomb to blow it open.”

“That’s exactly what they’ve got from what they said,” Luke said.  “But why can’t they just get one of the prisoners to tell them how to get it open?”

“I’m fairly sure that only the Committee and a few high ranking guards have the combination for the armory.  Either they don’t have anyone who knows or they don’t know who knows.  Which is probably a good sign for your dad at least, Tony.”

“Yeah, well, I’ll hold off on celebrating until I see him myself,” Tony said, all traces of good humor gone.  “These guys are still fucking dead if I can get my hands on a gun.”

Neither Luke nor Abby had much response to that.

“We still need a destination first,” Abby said.  “The armory may not be the best place to go at the moment.

“It’s up to you two,” Luke said.  “You know this place way better than I do.”

“We should still check it out,” Tony said decisively.  “Look at their defenses, maybe pick a couple of them off if they wander off alone?”

“Who are you, fucking Batman?” Luke asked.  Tony looked at him strangely and shrugged.

Their course unchanged, they continued down the same street as before.  Tony was quieter, thankfully, but Luke was a little worried about him.  Whenever he glanced over the boy had an ugly look on his face, like he was stewing in his anger.  It wasn’t exactly an ideal time to have a discussion about feelings though, so he left the matter alone.

They encountered enemy patrols twice more on the way to the armory, narrowly ducking into an alleyway both times before they were seen.  Both of the groups were walking down the street without checking houses, similar to the pair they’d crossed paths with earlier. 

Eventually, Abby whispered to the two behind her.  “It’s only a few streets away now.  Be careful, they could be anywhere around here.”

“Hey!”

“Did you hear something?” Luke asked, looking around the empty street.

“No.  You want to stay focused, Luke?  We have a job to do here.”  Tony didn’t even look behind him as he spoke.

“No, really.  I’m pretty sure I heard something.”

“Hey!”  The call was a little louder this time, and now Tony and Abby reacted to the noise.

“Who’s there?” Tony called in a stage whisper.  Abby walked back the way they’d come toward a side street.

“Over here,” she said a moment later, turning her head back toward the two of them.  “It’s a friend.”

Luke followed her, turning to raise his eyebrows at Tony.  The other boy didn’t react, but walked over to the intersection as well. Turning down the street where Abby had been, Luke craned to see the speaker.

He found a pair of figures waiting .  After a second the larger of the two stepped forward, giving Luke a good view of his face.  It looked familiar, and after a moment he placed the muscular, red-headed man as a guard from the caravan.  Owen, he thought his name was.

“Is it just you three?” he asked, his voice gruff.  Abby nodded, equally terse.

The pale guard sighed and glanced at his partner.  She was a Hispanic woman around the same age as Owen perhaps thirty or so.  But after Abby answered Owen’s question, she smiled warmly and spoke to the girl in a familiar tone

“I’d worried that they dragged you out of your home, ‘Cilla.”

The girl shook her head.  “They raided the hotel first thing, but I was already on my way to the clinic.  I saw them hauling lines of people away and got the hell away from there.”

“Do this later,” Owen said, scanning the road around them.  “We’re too exposed.  Any of you have guns?”

Abby shook her head.  “Do you know somewhere safer?”

“Yes, it’s not far, come on.”

He trotted off, and they followed behind.  True to his word, it was only a few more block before he knocked on the door of a large commercial building.  There was little to differentiate it from every other structure on the street, but the door opened and two more guards met them with raised guns.

“We found a few more out there,” Owen said.  The guards nodded and let their weapons drop.  Stepping inside, Luke saw that the place had probably once been some kind of restaurant, judging by the stripped booths that lined the walls.  Faded carpet covered the floor, and the only light came from a pair of guttering candles in the back that did little to illuminate the front half of the room.  All the windows had been covered with fabric, leaving it dark and sunless within the space.  At least two dozen more residents were sitting inside, a fair number of them guards from what Luke could tell.  He was relieved to see that more carried weapons beyond the two that had been posted by the door.  One man stood up as they entered, a thin beam of sunlight illuminating his face long enough to give Luke a jolt of recognition before the door closed behind them.

Luke glanced toward Abby, who’s face had gone utterly blank.  After a moment she shook herself and walked forward with Luke and Tony.

“Good, more people.  Well done, Owen.”  Simmons nodded toward the red-headed guard, and Luke recalled that he had been part of the old guard’s clique during the trip.

“Do any of you have guns?” Simmons asked.  He kept his voice low, and Luke responded in the same tone.

“No.  We were heading for the armory, but these two found us before we got there.”

“Right.  It—”

“Is the Committee here?” Tony interrupted.  He was looking around the room, peering into the darkness.

Simmons shook his head.  “Our best intel places them in Sarah’s office.  At least, I presume so since there’s an entire group of goons surrounding the place.  I’m not certain why they haven’t moved in yet.  We were considering trying to break through, but unless we take the armory it would be tantamount to suicide.  We are outmatched in both manpower and firepower.”

“Sitting around here won’t solve anything,” Abby said.  “We overheard a few of them talking amongst themselves and it sounds like they’re planning on blowing up the vault.  That can’t happen.”

“So we heard.  And yet there is quite a difference between sitting around and waiting for the right moment.”  Simmons’ tone was sharp, rebuking.  Abby didn’t back down.

“How did you hear about it?”

“Because we’ve been busy gathering intelligence.”  Simmons gestured toward half a dozen people sitting against the wall.  Luke had missed it in the dark before, but looking carefully now he saw that they were bound and gagged.  And that several had blood smeared across their faces.

“Two different patrols have found us already, but we managed to subdue them without any gunfire.  Their people will realize that their agents consistently disappear from a single location, but we should be able to make our move before that happens.”

Someone else walked up to them from some dark corner of the room.  “Hey guys.”

Luke couldn’t see her face, but he recognized the voice.  “Naomi!  You’re all right!”

“‘Course,” she scoffed.  “Those guys are idiots.  I took down three of them and jumped out the window when they were clearing out the hotel.”

Tony stared at her.  “Naomi, you live on the third floor.”

“Fine, I was walking back from the kitchens and ran when I saw what was going on.  Happy?”

“A touching reunion, but perhaps we should remain focused on the task at hand,” Simmons broke in.  Luke had forgotten how pompous he could be.

“I don’t expect you to come up with a solution yourselves, but to keep you apprised of the situation, there is currently a truck laden with explosives on its way to Crater.  If it arrives, they will open the vault and our position will become even more precarious than it already is.”

“They don’t need to come up with a solution,” Naomi said.  “I already have the perfect plan!”

The older guard rounded on her.  “No, girl!  It’s moronic, you’ll be captured and we’ll lose some of the few personnel we still have!”

“Why?  It’s not like they have a uniform, and those guys,” Naomi waved at the prisoners, “already said they’re from all different settlements!  It’ll work!”

“I will not send my men out to die or be captured.  If you wish to go, you’re going alone.”

“No she isn’t,” Abby said, perfectly calm.  “I’ll go with you, Naomi.  The plan seems sound.”  She didn’t look at Simmons, but Luke felt like he could sense her glare.

“I’m going too,” Tony said.  “As long as we’re doing something against these guys.”

Simmons looked at him, wounded.  “You’re smarter than this, Tony.  We’ll get Tom and everyone else out, but going out with these…people won’t aid in accomplishing that goal.”

“I think it will.  I’m gonna make these assholes regret coming into this settlement.”

The old guard looked like he was about to argue further, but Abby cut in.

“Fine, but try to stay quiet and blend in.  Don’t glare at everyone we pass.”

“None of you will be able to blend in,” Simmons said, turning to her angrily.  “You don’t know anything about these people.  You’re walking to your deaths.”

“And if we don’t, everyone here will die anyway,” Abby shot back.  “It will just be a slower demise.”

Simmons threw up his hands.  “What are you even going to do if you manage to get your hands on this truck?  A vehicle packed with explosives isn’t the most inconspicuous form of transport.”

“We’ll figure that out on the way,” Naomi said.  “Maybe we’ll just drive it into the canyon or something, anything’s fine as long as they can’t use it.”

“Idiotic.”  Simmons shook his head.  “Fine, go. Just don’t lead them back here.  In the meantime, we shall think of a real plan to get our town back.”

“All right, then.”  Abby turned to Luke.  “Try not to worry too much while we’re gone.”

“We’ll be back before you know it,” Naomi chimed in.  Tony nodded.

“Wait,” Luke said.  “I’m going too.”

Abby hesitated.  Naomi spoke before she did.  “I don’t know if that’s a great idea, Luke.”

“Why not?” he demanded.  “I’ve done dangerous shit before.”  Once again, something in him rejected the idea of being left behind.  Waiting without anything to do would be far worse.

The other three exchanged glances.  Simmons wore a slight smile, barely visible in the gloom.

“You get—this look, sometimes, when you’re nervous,” Naomi said hesitantly.  “It might give us away if we have to talk to anyone.”

“If Tony can manage it, I’ll be fine.” Luke protested.  A look?  He hadn’t even realized it.

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Tony said heatedly, but Abby held up her hand and spoke over  him.

“It’s really better if you stay here.  It’s safer, and I’m sure there will be plenty you can do to help before the day is done.”

A thought occurred to Luke to justify his presence.  “Do any of you even know how to drive?”

Tony, Abby, and Naomi were silent.  Simmons barked a quiet laugh.

“My dad had me drive a bunch of building stuff through the settlement once,” Tony said.

“How fast were you going?  Because trust me, it takes some practice if you’re not going ten miles an hour.”

“Would you be able to do it?”  Abby asked.

“I drove pretty much every day for two years before I got here.   I think I’d have a better chance than any of you, honestly.”

There was another pause.  “Fine,”  Abby said eventually.  “But please try to stay calm while we’re among them.  And do not have a panic attack.”

“I won’t.”  It struck him as a singularly useless thing to say, as if he had any control over the episodes, but Luke thought he would be fine regardless.

“All right, let’s get going then,” Naomi said.  “Take it easy, old man.”

“Wait,” Simmons said, holding up a hand.  They stopped and turned back to him.  “One second.”

He walked to the candles in the back of the room and spoke to another guard.

“We need to hurry,” Abby said, her eyes locked on his form.  “We don’t have time for this.”

A few moments later, Simmons returned to them, holding something in his hand.

“If you’re going, you might as well take this.”  He held out a gun, a dark gray pistol of some kind.  Not for the first time, Luke regretted never getting into guns in his own world.

“There are only two bullets in the magazine, so it won’t  be of much aid here,” he said as Tony took the weapon.  He looked around, daring someone else to suggest they should take it, and gripped the handle tightly.

“Be careful out there,” Simmons said, and they departed the restaurant.

Luke blinked when he stepped back out into the sunlight, although he couldn’t have been in the darkness for more than a few minutes.  They strode out to the street after a quick  warning by Abby to walk as if they owned every stone they stepped upon.  Rather than passing by the attackers posted in front of the vault, they chose to take a detour in order to limit the number of people with whom they came into contact.  As a result, they didn’t encounter anyone else until they neared the settlement entrance.  When they did, however, it was like they crossed an invisible threshold.  One block was deserted, abandoned, and the next held a flurry of activity from a dozen different smaller groups.  It was clear these were all invaders; the average age was far below that of Crater and Luke could see a dozen guns or more at a glance.  

Whoever was leading the them did have the foresight to establish a perimeter, however.  As they approached the border of the makeshift camp, Luke saw a group of six or so guards that watched everyone going in or out, though they didn’t stop anyone that he could see.

They didn’t slow as they approached the checkpoint as that would have only served to make them more conspicuous.  There were a fair number of groups moving through, from several pairs all the way to a squad of a dozen people that trotted out toward the rest of the settlement, and theoretically there was nothing that Luke could see that made their group stand out from any of the others.  That didn’t stop his heart from pounding or his palms from sweating, but he endeavored to school his face into neutrality.  Next to him, Naomi looked more or less at ease and Abby might as well have been walking through an empty meadow for all the concern she showed.  Tony’s hand hovered near the gun in his waistband and his eyes occasionally darted around the area, but Luke hoped his demeanor could pass for paranoia rather than ill-controlled anger.

The guards barely glanced at them as they passed through.  Once they were on the other side of the checkpoint, Luke released a breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding.  It was lucky that no one had been looking at him closely.

“There’s so fucking many of them,” Tony muttered as they scanned the street.  Luke was forced to agree; there had to be near a hundred just in their area, and who knew how many more patrolling around the settlement.  He suspected that Sandy had underestimated their numbers by a good amount.

“Shut up,” Abby said quietly.  “Don’t talk until we’re out of the settlement.”

They had agreed that their best chance was to intercept the truck bringing the explosives before it got inside of Crater.  Hopefully it hadn’t arrived yet, or all their efforts would be for nothing.  

“Just walk out like we’re supposed to be there,” she said, and walked on, following her own advice.

Near the road that allowed entry into the settlement, Luke saw a group of a different kind.  Ten or twelve men and women sat on the ground with their hands and legs tied with lengths of rope.  Most of them were elderly, and while he didn’t recognize anyone, it was clear that they were prisoners from Crater.  Three or four armed guards stood next to them, hands on their weapons.

“That isn’t nearly enough to be everyone they’ve captured,” he said quietly.

“Stop,” Abby said out of the side of her mouth.  “Don’t look over there.  If one of them recognizes us, we die.”

Luke turned away and saw Tony’s knuckle go white holding the grip of the gun at his side.  Thankfully, no one paid any more attention to them on the way to the gate than they had when they walked in .  Luke wasn’t sure what they were all doing, but it seemed to involve a lot of reports and sorting of guns and other goods.  Men and women barked orders at the various crews, with nothing to differentiate them from the grunts as far as Luke could see.  For all that, it seemed like a fairly organized encampment, with few people hanging around doing nothing.  

The entrance to the settlement was marked by a pair of makeshift guard booths, stone buildings that looked like they’d been built from scratch.  Slits ran through the middle, foot-wide gaps in the masonry that allowed the guards inside to see outside and shoot while still providing cover if necessary.  The gray material traded by the Salesman could be seen lining the walls inside, presumably holding the odd architectural structure together.  The invaders had manned these outposts with their own soldiers, and no one was going in or out.  Cool gazes met them as they approached the checkpoint, and Luke’s hackles raised at the attention.  It was far more difficult to keep his nervousness off his face when he knew he was being studied.

Abby marched them up to the exit as if nothing was amiss.  She didn’t even acknowledge the guards until one of them called out.

“Hold on, there.”

He stayed in the structure, speaking to them through the slit while the guard on the other side ambled over from her own booth.  Neither seemed particularly concerned, but they were watching the four of them intently.

“Why’re you trying to leave?” the one in the booth asked.  “Plenty of town left to search, I’m sure.”  He was a heavy-set man, one of the few Luke had seen since coming to this world.  Sweat covered his brow, and his beady eyes looked out at them from under bushy eyebrows.

“We have business outside,” Abby said dismissively, and started to walk forward.  The woman grabbed her arm, giving her a more intense stare.  She was short and muscular, with hair swept back into a ponytail.

“What exactly would that be, then?” she asked quietly.  “‘Cause we got orders to keep everyone inside until every last asshole in this place has been rounded up.”  She stared at Abby for a long moment.

“Ah, maybe we should let ‘em go, Shar,” the fat man said, clearly uncomfortable with the confrontation. 

“Don’t be such a pussy, Evan,” she responded without taking her eyes off of Abby.  “We got a job that even you can handle and we’re sure as hell not gonna fuck it up.”

Abby tore her arm out of the woman’s grip with some effort, never breaking her own gaze.

“Well?” the guard asked quietly.  “What’s it gonna be?  I don’t know who the fuck you are, but you aren’t getting out early without a damn good reason.”

Abby hesitated, still not saying anything.  Luke could tell she was racking her brains for an excuse.

“We’re supposed to go help watch the prisoners,” he blurted out and coughed.  The woman, Shar, turned toward him.

“On whose authority?”

“Graves,” Abby spat out quickly.  Luke breathed a sigh of relief.  “You want to go against his word?”

“Graves,”  Shar repeated, and made a face as if she were tasting something unpleasant.  “That fucker’s been swinging his dick around since we got here.  He’s got no right to order anyone anywhere, far as I’m concerned.”  Luke’s heart sank.

“Not my goddamn problem,” Abby said in a low voice.  “Go take it up with him if you have an issue with it.”

Shar stared at her for a few more seconds…and finally averted her gaze, spitting on the ground.

“Get the hell out of here, sheep-fucker.   I’ll be telling Cynthia about this later.”

“Go ahead and tattle to whoever you want,” Abby said.  “Makes no difference to me.”

Shar snarled wordlessly and walked back to her post.  As they passed by the booths, Luke saw Tony turn to give the woman’s back a long, cool gaze.

They left the settlement in silence, not daring to speak until they made it a fair distance from the entrance.

“Jesus,” Naomi exploded a half-mile or so away.  “I thought she was gonna put a bullet in us right there.”

“I was a touch worried as well,” Abby admitted.  “Well done with that excuse, Luke.  How did you know they took everyone out of the settlement?”

“There’s not that many of them at their encampment, it’s the only thing that makes sense.”  He shrugged self-consciously.  “I don’t know many other places you can stash twenty-five hundred people.”

“I wonder where they all are,” Naomi said, glancing around.  They were walking down the road, and could see no sign of other people anywhere.

“I don’t know.  We could try to find them once we have the truck, but I’m sure they’ll be well-guarded.”

“Let’s focus on one thing at a time,” Naomi said.  “If we don’t stop this truck, we’re fucked anyway.”

The other three nodded, and they kept walking in the direction that they hoped would lead them to the vehicle.

Perhaps fifteen minutes later, Naomi stopped.  “Do you hear that?”

Luke listened over the sound of the breeze and indeed heard a faint rumbling he recognized as an engine.  The road curved off to the left a half mile down the road and their view was blocked by a rock formation, but the noise was growing steadily louder.

“Wait, what the hell do we do?” Tony asked suddenly.

“Wave it down, get it to stop,” Abby said.  “Then we force the driver out of the cab.  Keep your gun ready.”

He nodded and they waited for the truck to round the corner.

Luke’s eyes widened when he finally caught sight of it.  The thing was going at least eighty, getting closer to them every second.  He, Abby, and Naomi dove out of the way, but Tony stood with one fist clenched, still waving at the truck with the other hand.

“Tony, MOVE!” Luke yelled, but the other boy didn’t react.

Perhaps a hundred feet away, the truck finally started to slow down.  The brakes squealed, and it swerved past Tony with less than a foot between them.  Fifty feet down the road, it finally came to a stop.  A tattered blue tarp was tied over the back, but the bed was clearly loaded down with something.  Luke’s eyebrows raised.  There had to be a lot of explosives back there.

“What the fuck do you want?  I’m almost there.”  A voice drifted out from the truck.  The man inside wasn’t getting out, but waiting for them to come to him.  Abby dusted herself off and trod down the road, trailed by the other three.

“Let me talk to him,” she said quietly as they neared the truck.

Luke and Naomi nodded quickly, but Tony took a little longer to give his assent.  Abby gave him a long look before walking to the driver window.

The man inside was old, probably nearing Carver’s age.  He had a bushy grey beard but the hair on top of his head was thin and stringy.  He looked at them suspiciously.

“Why the hell are you out here?  I gotta get this stuff into that shithole ASAP.”

“Graves sent us,”  Abby said.  “Apparently he got word there’s something wrong with the explosives.  This girl’s a demo specialist, we’re here to see if any of it’s salvageable.”

She slapped Naomi on the shoulder.  The dark-skinned girl made a show of peering toward the back of the truck bed.

The driver squinted at her.  “Graves, huh?  How the hell would he know anything?”

Abby shrugged.  “Like he’d tell us that.  You know how it is.”

“Right.”  He paused for a long moment, staring at each of them in turn.  “Awfully young to be a demo expert.  Most of them I know are the ones who were in the army or some shit back in the day.”

“I’ve always been interested in stuff that goes boom,” Naomi said.  “We gotta hurry up before those assholes try to get smart with us.  I’m gonna take a look back there, ok?”

She walked away from the door casually.

“Hmm.  Hold on, girl.  You’re Graves’ people, right?  What settlement are you from, again?”

Abby paused a moment before responding.  “This kind of-”

An ear-shattering BANG rang out right next to Luke.  The truck driver fell back in the seat, his brains splattered against the shattered remains of the passenger window.  Luke looked over to see Tony’s hand extended, the revolver held in his grip.

He looked over at Abby calmly.  “So what was the plan for the truck again?”

Previous Chapter                                                                             Next Chapter

1.23

His whole world was darkness.  Luke floated through an empty void, half-aware, unable to wonder where he was or what had happened.  He had no conception of how much time had passed.  After a second, or an eternity, light crept in.  With nothing to illuminate, there was little to distinguish it from the darkness at first.  Then color faded in, breaking the monotony of his blank existence.  A building became visible, gray walls that stood resolute within the obscurity.  A second structure followed the first, then another, and another, and the leak became a flood as ground, trees, and sky filled in his vision.

As the void gave way to reality, Luke’s mental faculties followed a similar arc.  He was capable of recognizing that the images filling in before him were that of Crater, though deserted without sign of habitation.  He was able to wonder what had happened to him, though his memory failed to provide any usable answers.  By the time the voice called out to him, Luke was aware that he was not thinking as well as he normally did.  But he was capable of recognizing the voice.

“You’re in trouble, Luke.”  He saw that Sandy wore an uncharacteristically sober expression when he turned to face her.  For once, it seemed to reflect her actual mood.

“What happened?”  He felt groggy, disjointed.  He didn’t think that he normally felt this way when Sandy pulled him into a dream.

“You hit your head.  I did what I could, but you’re probably gonna have a pretty big headache when you wake up.  But you have bigger issues than that.”

“Why?  What’s going on?”  As his thoughts returned to him, he started to feel alarmed at Sandy’s solemnity.  Even her clothes were muted, a white sundress far less whimsical than her usual attire.  “Is it Carver?”

“No, I think he’s fine, it’s not that.  There’s people coming your way.  A lot of people.  With guns.”

Luke put his palm to his head and struggled to think through the fog.  “Coming this way…toward Crater?”  The elfish girl nodded.  “That can’t be good.  Did you tell anyone else?  Like Sarah?”

“I don’t talk to a lot of people in Crater, and you’re the only one who’s asleep right now.  Well, unconscious, but close enough.  I don’t know who Sarah is.”

Something seemed off about what she said, but he couldn’t hold the thought long enough to put the pieces together.  Forming complex associations was like trying to grab at water with his hands.  He focused on what she was saying.  “Shit.  How long until they’re here?”

“I don’t know.  Time’s hard for me out there.”  She rolled her eyes continuously for a few seconds.  “Less than a day for sure.”

“Ok.”  Luke struggled to think of something else that might be helpful.  “How many were there?  Did you recognize any of them?”

“A lot.  More than a hundred, I think?  I didn’t see anyone I know.”

“Fuck.  I have to tell people.  Can you wake me up?”

“Yeah.  I’ll do it right now.  You’ll be a little groggy, but if I did everything right it shouldn’t last long.”  Even as she spoke the words, darkness crept back in as the landscape disappeared. 

“Luke,” she said, and before continuing.  “Don’t die.  Please stay safe.”

Even in his addlement, Luke felt like he should try to comfort her.  “I’m not planning on it.  Thanks for the head up.”  He grinned at her, and a weak reflection of the expression on Sandy’s face was the last thing he saw before the darkness overtook him once more.


Luke awoke in a large room, his head pulsing with pain.  He instinctively touched his forehead and felt a cloth wrapped around it.  Even with the pain, his mind felt clearer and the dream loomed large in his memory.  He sat up, stifling a cry as the pounding intensified, and took a better look at his surroundings.

At least twenty beds filled the room, though only two or three were occupied beyond his own.  The walls were white, and raised curtains crisscrossed the ceiling.  They looked like they could be lowered to provide privacy for each bed.  He caught sight of Abby at a desk near the door and called out.

“Abby—” He tried to say more, but the pain of speaking stunned him into silence.  Groaning quietly, he saw the girl turn toward him, surprise evident on her face.

“Luke!  You shouldn’t be awake yet—” she hurried over to his bedside.  “You took a pretty bad hit.  I expected you to be unconscious for another day, at least.  You should try to rest.”

“I don’t think there’s time.  People are coming.”

Her eyebrows rose.  “What are you talking about?”

“I—had a dream.”  Too late, Luke realized how ridiculous his story would sound to someone who didn’t know about Sandy.  A drumbeat pounded against his skull.

“It’s all right,” Abby said soothingly.  “The dream wasn’t real.  You’re in Crater now, you’re safe.”

“No, we’re not.”  Luke considered how to convince her that he was telling the truth.  “I remember I hit my head.  On the rock, right?”

“Yes, Tony dragged you to the canyon and we carried you back,” Abby said slowly.  She sounded nonplussed by his urgent tone.

“Check me for a concussion.  I don’t think I’ll have one.”

“Luke, you are almost certainly concussed.  You were hit hard enough that I had to stitch up your wound to staunch the blood.  You might have permanent memory issues from this.”

Luke gently touched the side of his head and felt the ribbed edges of the stitching.  “Just check,” he pleaded.  “Can’t you look at my eyes or something?”

Abby sighed  “Follow my finger.”  She held up her hand and moved it back and forth in front of Luke’s face.  After a moment she frowned and put down her hand.  “Hold on one moment.”

She walked to her desk on the other side of the room and returned with a lit candle.  She thrust the flame in front of each of Luke’s eyes, frowning deeper as she stared at his pupils.  “What’s the name of this settlement?”

“Crater.”

“And do you remember where you were before you hit your head?”

“Yeah, the cave by the river,” Luke said clearly.  “Past the crevice with Tony, Naomi, Felix, and Felicity.”

“Hmm,” Abby said.  “Your memory seems good and you’re more or less clear-headed, with the exception of this dream.  It might not be as bad as I thought, which is a relief, but I you should try to get some rest.”

“Please,” Luke said desperately.  “Can you just ask Sarah to come here?  I’ll relax after that.”  There a niggling thought in the back of his mind that she had to know about Sandy, whatever the dream girl said.  He couldn’t articulate why.

Abby closed her eyes for a moment.  “Fine.  I hope she’s not too busy.”   She walked over to talk to another clinic staff member nearby.  Luke watched the young man she spoke to nod and leave the building.  Despite the step forward he’d taken, the knot of tension in his chest didn’t loosen at all.

“All right, Luke.  Will you sit back now?”

Reluctantly, he nodded and laid back in his bed.  Every moment that passed was torture as he imagined a huge group of armed people shooting their way into the setllement.  Realistically, he’d only been awake for a few minutes, but every second felt critical.

There was little else to do, however, until Sarah arrived and he could explain the situation. With nothing else to occupy him, he turned the problem of Sandy’s words over in his mind until he finally realized why it had been so odd that she didn’t know Sarah. When he’d first come to Crater, Sarah had implied that she had been the one to orchestrate his transport between worlds.  If Sandy had been the one to actually take him, how would she not know who Sarah was?

It was a question that would be quickly answered, hopefully.  Luke forced himself to wait patiently, telling himself that they had plenty of time before the attackers arrived.  Nevertheless, he felt a burst of relief when the door opened and the young man Abby had sent out returned.  The feeling fell away the moment he saw his face.  The young man’s eyes were wide, his expression scared.  He had returned alone.  Luke knew what was coming next before he spoke.

“There’s people at the entrance.  An army!  They shot the guards and came through the gate.”

It was already too late.

Abby glanced at Luke before focusing her attention back on the frightened young man.

“How many are there, Innes?  How did you get away?”  Her voice was steady.  Luke wasn’t sure if she was just that calm or hadn’t fully grasped the situation yet.

“I don’t know.  I only saw a few before I ran for it.  They were pulling people off the street, holding them at gunpoint.  I ran back this way before they saw me.”  He looked at Abby.  “They’ll get here before long, though.”

“Some of the patrols will have to realize what’s happening soon,” Abby said.  She sounded like she was thinking out loud.  “If we open the armory and get weapons to enough people, maybe we can fight them off.  But…” she looked over at Luke.

After a moment she nodded to herself and seemed to come to a decision.  “Innes, can I trust you to look after the people here?  We can’t move them.”  Other than Luke, most of the patients scattered in beds around the room were unconscious.

Though he was ashen-faced, Innes nodded.  “What are you going to do?”

“Luke, can you walk?” Abby asked.  He got out of the bed slowly, testing his balance.  Though his headache flared, the pain seemed to be gradually receding.  He didn’t have any problem standing.  “I think so.”

“Good.  I don’t know if they know you’re a Tether, but we can’t take that chance.  We have to get you out of here.”

Luke nodded and Abby turned to Innes.  “If Adriana finds out what’s happening, she’ll come here first.  Just bar the doors and try to hold out until then, hopefully she’ll have a better idea of what to do.”

“Be careful,” he replied.  “I didn’t see them shoot anyone once they got in the gates, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t.”

Luke and Abby left the hospital, glancing around the street to see if anyone else was around before stepping out.  The area was deserted, an unusual sight for midmorning.  Luke wondered how fast word would spread that the settlement had been invaded.  Hopefully faster than the invaders could advance.

Abby touched his shoulder and pointed to a cross street.  He nodded and followed her lead.  They crossed a number of streets in quick succession, heading deeper into the settlement, away from the outskirts.  Luke kept his head on a swivel, certain that at any moment he would find the barrel of a gun in his face.

After a few minutes, they started to see others walking around outside once again.  Apparently they were traveling faster than news of the attack.

Luke started to ask if they should warn the four or five people out in the open, but as he opened his mouth a gunshot rang out, frighteningly close.  He whipped his head around to see a pair of men standing at the end of the street, one with a gun held up in the air.

“Nobody move,” he shouted.  An older man, perhaps fifty, started to bolt but froze when the attacker leveled his gun and fired again.  It was either a warning shot or he had the worst aim in the world, as the bullet ricocheted off of a stone building a dozen feet to the side.

“That includes you, old man,” the gunman drawled.  He looked like a cowboy without the hat, wearing a flannel shirt, tight jeans, and cowboy boots.  A shock of red hair blew in the wind, unwashed and disheveled..  His partner, dark-skinned and almost half again as tall, loomed over him wordlessly with his own revolver in hand.

“All right gather up, come together now.”  Without lowering his gun, the young man—he couldn’t have been more than a few years older than Luke—herded the people to the center of the street, including Luke and Abby.  Once there, he glanced around the now empty block.

“Any of you got any friends who’d like to join this little party?  No?  Guess you wouldn’t tell me if you did, would you?  That’s all right, guess you lot will do for now.”

“What are you doing here?”  A woman asked.  She was clutching at the arm of a man next to her.  Though they were in good shape, both had to be in their seventies, easily.  “What do you want with us?”

“What I want is for you to march down this street so we can join your pals.  Nice Bob and I are just here to make sure you behave.”

“Nice Bob?” the man who tried to run looked at the big man, a tremor running through his voice.  The figure glared back at him.

“Yeah.  He got the name on account of his sparkling personality.  But every nice guy has his breaking point, so I’d still step carefully.

“He likes the sound of his own voice,” Abby murmured.  Red Hair glanced their way and Luke didn’t respond.

“All right, everyone get moving.  Sooner we go, sooner we’ll get there.”

“Get where?” the scared man asked.  Red Hair spat. 

“I already told you, with all your friends.  One big party for you Crater folk.”

The last member of their group, a mousy woman in her thirties who looked vaguely familiar to Luke raised an eyebrow.  “You’re rounding us up?  You wouldn’t happen to have been at Hobble, would you?”  Her words sparked Luke’s memory.  She was one of the traders who’d been on the caravan trip.  He’d traveled with her for over a month and never even learned her name.

“Nope.  Never heard of the place,” Red Hair said, far too casually.  He gestured forward with his gun.  “I don’t see you lot moving.  Do I gotta shoot a kneecap to get us going?  Nice Bob wouldn’t have a problem dragging you over there.”

Nice Bob grinned and cracked his knuckles.  Reluctantly, the six of them began shuffling forward.  After a few minutes of silence, Abby spoke.

“Where did you come from?”

Red Hair looked at her incredulously.  “Do you think I’m that stupid?  I’m not gonna start shootin’ my mouth off the second a pretty girl asks a question.  Keep walking.”

Luke saw Abby give a tiny sigh.

“At least tell us why you’re doing this,” the older woman said.

“We’re doing this ‘cause you all been making naughty plans,” Red Hair said, wagging his finger.  “We ain’t do it now, you’d be doing the same all over in a year’s time.”

“Preposterous,” the man who’d tried to run said.  “Crater would never resort to such savagery!  How could you possibly believe such nonsense?”

“Right, y’all are just paragons of virtue up here, never hurt a soul in your lives.”

“Well, for the most part, yes,” the same man said.  “I can’t speak for the entire settlement, but most of the people here are good.  We would never attack those beneath us!  Someone has been feeding you lies!”

Beneath you?”  For a moment, his casual air slipped and Red Hair dropped the Southern accent.  “Whoever said anything about anyone being beneath you, old man?  Seems like it might be the other way around at the moment.”

“Kill him, McGee,” Nice Bob said, speaking for the first time.  Red Hair stopped to look at his companion.

“Nah,” he said after a long pause.  “You gotta look at the big picture Bob—”

He was cut off as a bullet ripped through his spine, spraying blood through the air and sending him crumpled to the ground.  Everyone took off running, and though Luke saw Nice Bob raise his gun, but he turned a corner before the big man fired.  He ran for several blocks before he realized no one else was around and slowed down, breathing heavily.

A few moments later, Abby turned a corner and slowed down next to him.

“Thank God.  I thought I lost you.”

“Yeah, I just ran out of there.  I don’t even know what happened.”

“I think a patrol found us, but truthfully I’m not sure either.  I don’t believe anyone was eager to stick around.”

“Do you know what happened to anyone else?”

Abby shook her head.  “They could have gone anywhere.  I hope they didn’t get caught again.”

“Yeah, that old couple didn’t look like they should be running around too much.”

“Yes, well, they should be fine.  Everyone in Crater still pulls their weight, no matter their age.”  There was a note of pride in her voice.

“Those guys really didn’t like this place though,” Luke said.  He felt a chill remembering the casual tone Nice Bob had used to suggest murder.

Abby looked around.  “We need to keep moving.  They’re probably all over Crater by now, it’ll be a miracle if we don’t stumble into any more of them.”

Luke nodded, and they resumed walking.  Five minutes later, her prediction came true.  Abby cut down an alley toward a major thoroughfare, only to back up quickly and put an arm over Luke when she glanced into the street ahead.

“Fuck,” she said in a low voice.  Luke carefully peeked out to see eight people making their way down the street, four on each side.  Every time they passed a door, they kicked it open and briefly swept through the interior.  A single guard was left near the entrance to watch the street while they were inside.

“Can we find another way around?” Luke asked.

“Maybe.  We have to cross this street, but if we move farther down we might be able to pass by without attracting notice.”  As she spoke, she peered out toward the street and Luke saw her expression darken.  He turned himself to see one of the groups exiting a cabin similar to his own, pushing an elderly couple out the door at gunpoint.  They looked even frailer than the people that Luke and Abby had been caught with before.  One man broke off to lead the couple back down the street, keeping his weapon trained on them the entire way.

“Where the hell are they taking them?  I don’t understand what they want.”  Abby shook her head, glaring toward the people threatening the terrified couple.

“Me either.  But I think that woman might have been on to something back there?”

Abby glanced at him.  “You think these are the same people who attacked Hobble?”

“I don’t know.  There’s more of them from what Innes said, but it seems like a pretty big coincidence for there to be two well-armed groups running around attacking settlements.”

“Maybe.  But that doesn’t help us at the moment.  We should back up and find another cross street.”

Luke nodded his agreement, and they turned away back toward the previous road.  Abby’s eyes lingered on the retreating forms of the gunmen as they left, but she didn’t say anything.  She knew as well as Luke did that they would have little chance against eight armed foes.

They traveled in the opposite direction that they’d seen the invaders, hoping they were still only near the gate they had come in.  Luke followed Abby’s lead.  He could generally figure out where he was going, but Abby’s knowledge of the side streets and alleys was far superior to his.  He noticed while they traveled that the streets were even emptier than before.  He could count on one hand the number of people they passed by, and several of them already knew about the attack before they warned them of it.  It seemed word was getting around quickly, for which he was grateful.

Eventually they ran into the same main thoroughfare where they’d caught sight of the attackers, now much farther down the street.  Luke didn’t see anyone when he glanced around the area, and they moved through the open space quickly and without incident.  Once on the other side, Abby led him into a residential area that looked vaguely familiar to Luke.  All of the houses were in some amount of disrepair, and a few had been dismantled entirely.  Weeds grew tall through cracks in the sidewalk, while the height of the yellow grass in the yards made them look like miniature wheat fields.  No one lived there.  Luke glanced at Abby, but the girl seemed confident in where she was headed.

A few streets later, they walked into a cul-de-sac and his memory of the area crystallized.  Luke saw the house where he’d first met everyone, that first day with Naomi.  The roof was sagging in the back, as if it were about to cave in, and what little paint remained looked like the slightest breeze would carry it off into the sky.  Abby marched up to the door and pulled out a rusty key from under the doormat.  She opened the door after a moment of effort with the lock and they both stepped inside.

The windows had been long since stripped of their glass, but faded curtains still left the room in semi-darkness.  Luke saw that the bottles were still there.  He vaguely remembered Tony promising to clean them up and smiled.

Abby turned to him.  “I think it should be safe here, at least for a while.  I doubt they’ll go through every building in town unless they’ve already quashed all resistance.”  And then it wouldn’t be safe anywhere.  She paused for a moment before continuing.  “I’ll try to get someone out here when it’s safe to leave.”

Luke opened his mouth, but before he could say anything the door slammed open.  He and Abby both tensed, but when he looked toward the opening he saw Tony running in.

“Dad!” he yelled, stopping short when he saw Luke and Abby inside.  “What the hell?  What are you guys doing here?”

“Presumably the same thing you are,” Abby replied.  “You heard about the attack?”

“Obviously.  I was working over by the entrance.  I barely got away before they started shooting.”

“And now you’re looking for your dad?” Luke frowned.

“Yeah.  This was our panic spot to meet up if something ever happened.  If he’s not here…”

“He’s most likely with the Committee,” Abby finished.  “I’d imagine they’re a high priority target for the invaders.”

Tony’s face twisted into a grimace.  “Fuck.  I gotta find him, then we can figure out a plan to stop these bastards.”

“How?” Abby asked bluntly.  “By running around a town full of people with guns until you stumble into him?”

“I don’t know!” Tony said.  He paced, looking like a caged animal in the confines of the living room.  “It’s not like sitting here would be any more useful.”

“Of course not.  But walking back out there without a plan is suicide.”  Tony stared at her, tense, and she returned his gaze calmly.  Luke broke the strained silence.

“There have to be people who are fighting back, right?  Didn’t you say something about an armory before?”

Abby glanced at him.  “I suppose, but…” her eyebrows creased. 

“He’ll be there.” Tony’s voice was certain.  “If anyone’s fighting back, they’ll need guns to stand a chance.”

“And if these people were smart, they’d make sure they got over there first,” Abby retorted.  “It wouldn’t be difficult to learn where their stored with the number of prisoners they must have.”

Tony shrugged.  “It’s a place to start.”

“A place to start getting shot.”  But Abby looked at him and sighed.  “I suppose you’ve already made up your mind.”  He nodded firmly.  “Then I’ll go with you.”

Tony’s eyes widened at that, but he nodded again.  “I can’t sit back while these fuckers take Crater over.”

“I…agree.”  She sounded resigned.  “Luke, you should be safe enough here for a time—”

“What are you talking about?” he asked.  “I’m going too.”

“Is that a good idea?” she asked.  “You’re not exactly a fighter.”

“I can protect myself,” Luke said defensively.  He looked over to Tony, who wouldn’t meet his eyes.

“I mean, wouldn’t you rather stay where it’s safer?  We could die out there.”

“Would you?” Luke retorted.  “I’m not gonna sit here while you guys go do dangerous shit.”  He imagined sitting there with nothing to do for hours on end, unsure if anyone was alive or dead…anything was better than that.

“What if you have one of your…episodes while we’re out there?” Abby asked.  “We probably won’t be able to wait for it to pass.”

“I haven’t had one for a long time,” Luke said, averting his own gaze.  “I’ll be fine.”

“Fine,” Tony snapped, losing patience.  “Whatever.  Can we just go?  We don’t have time to stand around arguing all day.”

Luke looked toward Abby, and she nodded reluctantly.  “As long as you can swear you won’t shut down out there.”

“I promise.”  Even now, scared of facing armed men without so much as a stick to defend himself, Luke didn’t feel the kind of heart palpitations that indicated one of his attacks.  Maybe being terrified so often had made him immune.

“All right, let’s get the fuck out of here,” Tony said.  “We gotta be fast, they’re probably halfway through the settlement if no one stopped them yet.”

The trio left the ruined home.

Previous Chapter                                                                                Next Chapter

1.22

They stumbled through the gate, exhausted, but relieved.  The dirt of the road was ingrained deep in the travelers’ skin after more than a month’s travel beyond Crater’s borders.  Their feet were sore, their backs ached, but relief was palpable in their steps as they crossed the threshold home.  The wagons were emptier than they had been at the outset, but still carried a respectable variety of goods, the spoils of the journey.  Fewer returned than those who had set off, but those who remained were met by a small crowd that had assembled to see those they had missed.

Felicity nearly tackled her brother Felix with a hug, returned much more gently by the large man.  Tony’s father was there as well, more reserved in his bearing, but a large smile crossed his face when his son came into sight.  Abby was met by her mentor, Adriana.  She had never spoken of any family that lived in the settlement with her, but their reunion indicated she was far from alone.

Luke stood awkwardly to one side of the square, knowing that there was no one waiting to greet him.  Then he felt someone punch his shoulder.  He turned to see Naomi grinning at him and resisted the urge to massage the place she’d hit him.

“You’re still alive!  It wasn’t as bad as you thought out there, right?”

“What?” he said, avoiding her gaze.  “I wasn’t that worried about leaving.”

“Yeah right.  You made it sound like you were walking to your own funeral.  I bet it was boring as hell, right?”

“Pretty much.  There was just a bandit attack on one of the settlements, and then someone tried to abduct me.  Oh, and we saw a dragon.  Not too much that was going on.”

“You saw a dragon!  Like a real one?  I didn’t even know they existed!  Why the hell didn’t I go?  You wouldn’t believe how fucking boring it’s been back here.”

“So we’re just gonna gloss over the whole ‘almost abducted’ thing?”

“We’ll get to that,” she said dismissively.  “But you’re standing right here and a dragon’s not.  You saw something I might never have a chance to in my entire life.  I’m pissed, Casterley.”

She punched him again on the shoulder.  Luke managed not to wince.  “It was just a shadow.  None of us actually got a good look at the thing through the clouds.  You didn’t miss much, really.”

“No one thought to follow it?  How do you even know it was a dragon?”

“Fuck no we didn’t follow it!  No one in the caravan had a death wish.  We found out when the elves let it slip when inLangrendi.”

Luke explained what had happened at their final stop on the journey.  Naomi was interested in the different species there, especially the more feral-looking orcs, but she was still primarily interested in the dragon.

“I wonder why they wanted to know which way it went so bad.  It could be anywhere by now.”

Luke shrugged.  He would be just as happy never thinking about the dragon again.  A few moments later they were interrupted by someone yelling nearby.  He looked around and eventually caught sight of a small man standing on top of one of the wagons.  Gradually, everyone turned to look at him as he continued to yell.

“All right!  Everyone shut up!  You made it back, which is great and everything.  More importantly, you’re on time, so kudos for not being complete fuck-ups.  Take the night for yourselves, and we’ll unload everything tomorrow.  It sounds like it was an eventful trip, so I’m sure the Committee—” He glanced at Tony’s father, who shrugged, “—will find some of you to find out what happened, since Ella decided to fuck off and do whatever she wants.  Good job.”

He hopped off the wagon and strode off.  Luke stayed  by the gathering a while longer before leaving to find the bath system.  He’d hated feeling dirty back at home, and while he’d gotten used to it, he still didn’t enjoy it.

On his way out of the square where the wagons were parked, he saw a woman crying, comforted by a pair of guards next to her.  He heard one of them talking as he passed.

“We don’t know for sure what happened to him, Em.  He could still be alive.”

The woman cried even harder without responding.  A pit opened up in Luke’s stomach.  It had been less than a week since Andrew disappeared in the night, and already the event had fallen to the back of his mind.  The thought made him remember the other man who had died, near the beginning of the caravan trip in Hobble.  He didn’t even remember the man’s name!  Feeling much worse than when they re-entered Crater, he bathed himself and returned to the cabin he’d been given to sleep in.

It was only early afternoon by the time he was done, and he wasn’t sure what to do with the rest of the day.  There was no doubt a celebration planned for their return, but his sudden dark mood left him with little desire to seek it out.  Not for the first time, Luke wished he had his PC from home to play video games.  Or even a book.

He ended up laying in his bed, staring up at the ceiling, letting his thoughts drift freely.  After an indeterminable time staring at the flat gray material, someone knocked at his door.  He expected to see Naomi, ready to pester him more about the dragon, but felt like he shouldn’t have been surprised when he opened the door and saw Sarah.

“Welcome back, Luke.  I hope you are settling in well.”

“All right,” he shrugged.  “It’s nice to be off of the road.  What’s going on?”

“Would you mind coming with me for a walk?  There are a few things we need to speak about.”

Luke’s feet ached, but Sarah wasn’t easily put off.  And there was next to no furniture in his cabin and nowhere to sit other than the bed.  As he followed her out, he was surprised to see that the sun was already setting.  He had laid in bed longer than he thought.  Sarah walked down the sidewalk silently for a time.

“How did you find the trip?” she asked eventually.

“I don’t know.  Some of it was all right.  A lot of it was terrifying.”

“So I’ve heard.  I don’t know why this latest expedition was so much more…memorable than most.  Perhaps it was just bad luck.  Or perhaps not.”

“What else could it be?”

She shook her head.  “The Committee had an emergency meeting today to discuss the ramifications of all you encountered on the road.  We came to no conclusions, but some did raise the possibility that it was merely the natural result of changes in the world.”

“What do you mean?”

“Every year there are reports of new creatures that have never been seen before, by us or any settlement we have contact with.  The…thing that affected Andrew is just the latest example, if one of the more horrifying.  The simplest explanation is that a continuous parade of beings are migrating to our world, crowding it with dangerous creatures. If this is in fact the case, as more time passes it will become increasingly difficult to leave the settlement without encountering ever more perilous transplants.”

She stopped walking and turned to Luke, a serious look on her face.  “As of yet this is only a theory, but if there is even a possibility that future caravans will confront similar hardships, it is our responsibility to proceed with as much caution as is feasible.  We think it best if you refrain from joining any more excursions for the foreseeable future.”

It wasn’t too surprising to hear, but Luke was still a little disappointed.  Joining a caravan was the easiest pretense for leaving the settlement, and as terrifying as it had been he would likely need to do so again if he wanted to find a way back home.  Not that he could explain that to Sarah.

“Makes sense,” he said, trying to keep his face neutral.  “I’m not very eager to go back out myself, to be honest.”

“I expected not.”  She scanned his face for a moment and resumed walking.  “It’s even more imperative that you remain within the safety of Crater if there is indeed someone targeting you specifically, as you heard in Ark.  Since you were the individual most directly involved in those events, I also wanted to hear your account of what happened.”

Luke recounted the attempted abduction he and Tony fought off as well as the odd testimony of Adam, the prisoner they spoke to the next day.  He left out any mention of Kiango, fearing that it would lead to questions he didn’t want to answer.

“Interesting,” Sarah mused when he finished his recollection.  “And you are certain that this man was not lying about his motivations or memory?”

Luke shrugged.  “Tony and I didn’t think so at the time.  Ella and Angela talked to him after we did and seemed less convinced.”

“Right.  I’ll have to try to contact them, though that will be difficult with Darkend’s renewed hostility toward us.  Another headache.”  She shook her head again, as if clearing her thoughts.  The woman had always been imperturbable when Luke spoke to her before, but this was the most agitated he had ever seen her.  Though that still wasn’t saying much.

Sarah stopped at the corner of a cross street.  “Is there anything else you think we need to speak about?”

Luke shook his head.  She had been the one who wanted to talk to him!

“Then I hope you won’t find it rude if I ask you to return alone.  The work never ends, I’m afraid.”

Luke shrugged, and with a final farewell she turned onto a road that he knew would take her back toward her office.  He watched her go.  Resentment suddenly flared within his chest.  It was always present to some degree when he saw Sarah, the woman most directly responsible for bringing him to this world, but at that moment, as he remembered everything he’d been through on the trip, it felt closer to hate.  He called out at her back before he realized what he was doing.

“Do you know someone named Smokey?”

She stopped in her tracks and turned back to face him, about ten feet away.

“Where did you hear that name?”  There was an edge to her voice that hadn’t been there before.

“One of the settlements,” Luke said, thinking furiously.  Speaking out had been stupid of him.  “Someone said I should know who he is since I’m from Crater.”

He thought that she relaxed a little, though it was hard to tell.  “He was a resident from a long time ago.  He left, but it was not…an amicable parting.  Nothing you need to be concerned with, I assure you.  Please refrain from bringing him up with others, it may raise bad memories for many of the residents.”

Luke nodded, and she turned once more back toward her office.  He started back for his cabin himself, thoughts racing.  Sarah had spoken the lie as easily as if she were pointing out the weather.  If Kiango hadn’t told him otherwise, he never would have suspected a thing.  It made him wonder if anything else he’d been told was a complete fabrication.

***

Luke awoke the next morning, unsure what to do.  No one had told him to go anywhere, and unlike the others he didn’t have a job that he needed to report to.  He supposed that getting food was a good enough place to start, but he barely left the cabin before Naomi found him in the street.

“Hey!  What are you doing today?”

“I’m not sure, I was—”

“Great!  Come on, the others are waiting.”

“Waiting for what?” His question went unanswered as she pulled him into a jog.  His legs still hadn’t recovered from the journey, but Luke had gotten used to moving with sore feet in the last month.  

“Don’t you have work to do today?” he asked as Naomi guided him through the streets of Crater.  A few people they passed looked at them curiously, but most of the residents were used to Naomi’s odd behavior, offering only passing glances.

“Nah.  Blew it off.  This is more important.”

“Is it?  What are we doing, did something happen?”  Luke fought to keep his breath even, determined to keep up with the excited girl.”

“More important, more fun, whatever.  We’re taking a day off, Luke, you gotta stop being so nervous all the time”

“Right, because life’s been so easy and carefree for me lately,” Luke grumbled, but he asked no more questions until they reached the edge of the settlement.  “Wait, we’re going outside of Crater?”

“Barely.  It’s fine, I do it all the time!”

She finally slowed her pace down to a walk, and indeed the guards posted at the threshold didn’t seem to find it amiss that they were leaving the settlement unattended.  One nodded toward Naomi, she waved back carelessly, and they were out.  Luke had imagined it would be harder, somehow, when he wasn’t with a caravan.

“You said the others are coming too?”

“Sure.  They’re probably already by the cave.”

What cave?”  But Naomi appeared to delight in his confusion, and stayed vague as they made their way toward their mysterious destination.  

Rather than following the road as they had the last time Luke left Crater, they immediately veered off into the brush, curving back around toward the canyon on the other side of the settlement.  Short, prickly plants dug into his legs, and the heat was already starting to make him sweat.  Luke stayed quiet, but he was thoroughly annoyed with his companion by the time they approached the rim of the gorge, the buildings of Crater visible off to their right.

It was the first time he’d gotten a good look at the canyon since before the caravan trip, and the only time he’d ever seen it from anywhere other than the dam.  He had to admit it was a pretty good view.  The midmorning sun sparkled off the surface of the gently-flowing river, a long, winding landmark that curved off beyond his sightline, firmly entrenched within the borders of the canyon.  Though he couldn’t see it, the sound of water flowing through the gaps in the dam was faintly audible, a crashing sound that he well remembered from his trip through the interior.

While he gazed out over the water, Naomi peered over the edge like she was searching for something.  She scanned the canyon wall and cocked her head.

“Where the hell is it?  I thought it was right here.”

“What are you talking about?” Luke asked.  Before she could reply, a voice called out.

“Hey!  This way!”  Felicity was farther down the canyon edge away from the settlement, yelling and waving her arms, the other three close behind her.  Naomi waved back and they walked over to meet them.  As they got closer, Luke frowned at his friends’ appearance.

“I thought you guys would have already made it to the cave by now,” Naomi said.

“Abby thought you might have some trouble finding it,” Felix replied, an undercurrent of amusement audible in his voice.

Naomi looked offended.  “You think I can’t find a stupid cave?  We would have made it eventually.”

“I’m sure, but I’d prefer not to wait the day or two it would take for you to get there,” Abby said.  “It’s easier if we all go together.”  The group started to turn back away from the settlement.

“Get where?”  Luke asked, exasperated.  “And why are you all dressed like that?  Can someone explain what we’re doing?”  Naomi was wearing shorts and a worn t-shirt, typical for her, but everyone else looked like they were going to the beach.  Tony and Felix wore swim shorts, and while Felix had a white sleeveless shirt and backpack on, Tony wore no shirt at all.  Felicity and Abby both had shorts on, but Felicity had a swim top on over a loose shirt.

“Oh, yeah.  Here.”  Tony tossed another set of shorts at Luke.  “I took them from Cael’s place.  He owes my dad.  Hope they fit.”

“There’s a cave that we go to sometimes,” Felix explained.  “We almost never get a day off at the same time, but I guess it’s easier when you just got back from a month long trip.  It’s pretty cool.”

They started walking away, following the path of the canyon.  Luke looked at the shorts he’d been given.  They weren’t his style at all, black with flame designs all over them, but they looked close  enough to his size.  He followed after the others.

“No one cares that you leave the settlement to go out here?” he directed his question toward Felix at the back of the procession.  He knew the large man least out of everyone, but he had an easy manner.  He laughed at Luke’s question.

“As long as you get your work done, they couldn’t give less of a shit.  You could throw yourself off the edge of the canyon and no one would notice until you didn’t show up at your job.  And even then they’d probably never find you.”

In front of him, Abby frowned.  “That isn’t true.  The Committee sends out search parties the moment they realize someone’s missing.  We’ve both been on them before.”

Felix shrugged.  “Sure, but how long does that last?  It’s a token effort to make it seem like they care and then they give up.”

“You’re so cynical, Fel,” Abby said, shaking her head.  “What if another five people died running into something while they were out looking?  They have to make those kinds of assessments.”

“And they always decide that the answer is to stay as safe as possible,” the big man retorted.  “Crater’s going to die a slow death if that’s the way things stay.  The world’s changing, and we’re not.  Look at how this last caravan trip went.  There’s going to be a lot more casualties soon, trust me.”

“Calm down, kid,” Felicity said from the front.  “You’re creeping into asshole territory again.”

Felix snorted, losing his intense look.  “You’re two minutes older than me, Liss.  Pretty sure that’s not enough for you to boss me around.”

“We’re out here to have fun, Fel.  You remember what fun is?  Here’s a hint—it doesn’t usually involve preaching at everyone in earshot.”

“Fine.  We can walk in silence then.  That’s fun, right?”

“There’s a pretty wide gap between what you were doing and saying nothing.  I believe that it’s possible to find a happy medium.”

“All right, I get it.”  But Felix said nothing after that, and they walked without talking for several minutes until Naomi broke the quiet.

“So did you guys see anything interesting while you were out with the caravan?”

Luke opened his mouth to answer, but Tony beat him to it.  “Not really.”  There was a curtness to his tone that Naomi didn’t seem to hear, or chose to ignore.

“C’mon.  Everyone was talking about how it was the most dangerous run in years.  And Luke already told me about the dragon.  What else was out there?”

“Fine,” Tony said, his tone harsh, “did you want to hear about the suit of armor that walked around and killed someone, or the bundle of nerves that walked around and probably killed someone?  Or did you want to hear about the guys who were probably in a cult that wanted to abduct Luke and most likely kill him?  It was real fucking romp we had out there, there’s nothing I’d like better than to talk about it all day.”

A brief silence followed his impassioned outburst.

“He could have just said no,” Naomi said in a stage whisper.  Tony was probably close enough to hear, but didn’t respond.  Abby looked back at him, but no one talked until they stopped farther down the edge of the cliff.

“It’s over here,” Felicity said.

Naomi shook her head.  “Damn, I was way off.”  Casually, like she was hopping off the last step of a staircase, she jumped off the edge of the cliff down out of sight.

“What the hell!” Luke said, running over.  No one else was alarmed, and as he looked over the edge he registered that there had been no splash from the water below.  He looked down to see her cheerfully waving from a natural ledge carved into the side of the canyon.  There was a slope a little farther back, but the daredevil girl had chosen to jump down directly instead.  The water of the river was another twenty feet or so below her, but if she fell Luke saw no easy way for her to make her way back up.

“God,” he said shaking his head.  Naomi didn’t seem to realize his concern, but Felix was shaking with laughter when he turned around. 

“Yeah,” he said, “she does that.  You just gotta roll with it.”

The rest of the group took the safer route down, and while the ledge was nearly wide enough to support two of them standing beside each other, Luke still thought he wouldn’t have been comfortable jumping.

“How long are we staying on this thing?” he asked.

“Not too long,” Abby replied.  “It isn’t far.”

True to her word, they followed the ledge for less than ten minutes before an opening became visible, a small crevice like a gash in the side of the rock.  It was barely large enough for a person to pass through, and Luke had some trepidation looking at the small space.  He couldn’t make out anything inside—after a few feet the opening curved away.

“Well that’s inviting,” Luke said, staring at the hole.  Tony sighed next to him.

“I fucking hate this thing,” he muttered, but he entered first wiithout waiting for anyone else to speak, sidling sideways through the opening.  After a moment he vanished as if he’d never been there.  

“Is this really the only way in?” Luke asked.  He felt like a wimp, but a picture of getting wedged in the crevice, unable to move, wouldn’t leave his mind.  

“It is.  The first time’s the worst, you just have to go for it.”  True to her words, Felicity moved into the gap without hesitation.  Her movements were a little easier than Tony’s with her smaller frame.  Her brother followed after, clapping a hand on his shoulder as he went.

“It’s not as bad as it looks,” he murmured.  “If I can make it through, you definitely can.”

It did reassure Luke to see the large man pass through without any apparent difficulty, but he still didn’t step up to go next.

“See you on the other side,” Naomi said, and disappeared within seconds.

“She makes look so easy,” Luke said, staring at the gap.

“It is easier once you’re inside,” Abby said, the last one remaining outside with him.  

“Do you want to go?” he asked, but she shook her head.

“You can do it.”

He took a deep breath and stood in front of the crevice for far too long.  He’d never had a phobia of enclosed spaces, but he’d never had a reason to enter a hole this small either.  Finally, he stepped forward and turned sideways into the crack, moving deeper into the unforgiving rock.

His friends had been telling the truth that the space was a little more spacious than it seemed.  While he couldn’t turn to walk straight, there was enough wiggle room that he wasn’t in danger of becoming stuck.  The worst part was when he walked in further than the light reached and could no longer see where he was going.  There was no sound but his own footsteps, and he had nothing more than his forward hand to guide steps.

After what felt like an eternity, he heard a rushing sound and faint laughter coming from ahead.  A few seconds later, he burst out into the open, able to move freely once more.  A bluish glow suffused the environment, giving enough light to see his surroundings.  His friends stood a few feet in front of the exit hole, looking at the cavern before them.  Luke followed their gazes to the source of the light, taking in the sight for the first time.

The cavern was long, with a ceiling seven or eight feet tall.  It was more of a wide corridor than open space, but it was still far larger than Luke would have imagined from the crevice he saw on the outside.  The source of the rushing sound was visible, a small river that flowed across the back half of the room.  What took up most of his attention, however, were the light sources that filled the cave.

Veins of some kind of rock or metal glittered all along the cavern walls, shining brilliantly. They almost looked like natural murals, scintillating patterns outlined in the cave’s walls, whorls and waves and tessellations that flowed as if they’d been drawn on, except that they were embedded in the rock itself.  The whole room was suffused with the blue glow of their aura.

“It’s beautiful,” Luke breathed.  The others turned toward him.  He vaguely registered Abby exiting the crevice behind him.

“It really is,” Felix agreed.  “As far as I know, no one’s ever been here but us.  Naomi found this place, and we’ve never seen anything to suggest anyone else has ever seen it.”

Luke could believe that.  There was something intensely distant about the cave, an air of remoteness that felt like it was in some forgotten corner of the world rather than a stone’s throw from the largest remaining human settlement.

“How do they glow like that?  They’re so bright.”

He saw the half-lit form of Felicity shrug.  “No idea.  I’ve read about a few glowing rocks, but usually you need a black light to make them light up.  You’d think something like this would be in every geology book out there.  I’m guessing either they’re so rare no one really knows about them, or…they’re not native, somehow.”

Luke thought about that for a moment.  “How would rocks migrate from another world?”

Felicity shrugged again.  “Your guess is as good as mine.”

“God, you’re boring,” Naomi interjected.  “Who cares?  You want to talk about where the rocks came from, or do you want to dive in the river?”

“Sorry, what?” Luke asked, but Naomi had already darted off without waiting for an answer.  With an excited yell she cannonballed into the river and vanished under the surface.

“What the hell?” Luke said loudly.  “What if she hits some rocks under there?”

“That’s more or less what we said the first time she did it,” Abby said from behind him, “but it turns out it actually flows straight back into the canyon.  It was a stupid thing to try, but we’ve all done it since then.”

As if to demonstrate, she followed in Naomi’s footsteps and leapt into the water herself, leaving no trace of her presence on the surface.

“It’s fun,” Felicity said, catching sight of Luke’s stricken expression.  “Just make sure you dive low to get under the rocks and there’s not really much that can go wrong.  You’ll be under for less than thirty seconds.”

“You’re all insane,” Luke said, watching her perform the same maneuver and disappear.  There was no possible way what they were doing was safe.  Her brother quickly followed, leaving only Tony and Luke alone in the cavern.

“They’re probably already on their way back in,” Tony said.  “We’ve spent whole days doing this before, it’s actually pretty fun when you’re used to it.”

“Right.  Fun.”  His voice echoed slightly around the cave, sending his own doubtful words back to him.  Luke flushed slightly as he heard his tone, and again felt like a coward.  He’d done nothing but protest everything they’d done since walking to the canyon.  He contemplated jumping into the river to try to redeem himself, but Tony spoke again before he could move.

“Luke…” he paused awkwardly and cleared his throat.  “Before they get back, I wanted to ask you for a favor.”

“What is it?”  Luke turned toward his friend, painfully aware of his sculpted body even in the half-dark of the cavern.  But Tony was choosing his words more carefully than normal, and sounded embarrassed to even bring up what he was talking about.

“So, I’ve been trying to talk to my dad about…how I am, but every time I try the words come out wrong and I can’t think of how to say it.  I don’t want to keep pretending to be someone else around him, but I don’t know what to say.  Can you help me?”

“Sure.”  He could go over a script with him, maybe give him advice on how to frame it… 

“Great.”  Tony sounded relieved.  “I’ll talk to him, figure out a good day for you to come over.  He likes to get to know anyone I hang out with anyway.”

“Wait—”  He wanted Luke there when he came out to his dad?  He instinctively cringed at the thought of being present for such an intimate moment between parent and child.  He started to protest, but caught sight of Tony’s expression in the blue glow of the rock.  The other boy looked relieved.  Luke had never seen him look that vulnerable before.  The objection died in his throat.

“If you’re sure.”

Tony nodded eagerly, and Luke sighed.  There was no way that could go wrong.  Tony quickly turned toward the river and changed the subject.

“All right.  You go, I’ll be right behind you.  Just remember to dive low.”

Luke nodded, and started running before he could second guess himself.  He wanted to dive in head-first, as Naomi had done to get as deep as he could before the river met the wall of the cavern.  He burst forward, his heart beating fast, but a thrill running through him he’d rarely known.  He’d have never done this kind of thing back in his world.  All thoughts of what might happen if he hit the unforgiving rock wall fell away, and all that remained was finding the right spot to jump.

There.

The moment before he leapt, his foot hit a wet patch on the ground.  He slipped, and instead of diving deep into the quick-flowing river, he belly-flopped onto the surface.  Disoriented, Luke felt himself being carried down the river, faster than he expected.  He tried to turn his body to swim downward, but before he could twist himself downward, his head clipped the lip of the rock at the gap in the wall.  Blue faded to black, and he knew no more.    

Previous Chapter                                                                                   Next Chapter

Interlude 2 – Earth

The office building was nondescript, with little to differentiate it from any other corporate headquarters Deb had seen since coming to LA.  She suspected they had left the city proper, however, as the neighborhood Howitz drove them to seemed more suburban than anything else.

The—investigator?  Government agent? Deb wasn’t sure who she worked for—had been tight-lipped beyond the single question she had asked when they entered her car.  She had refused to tell them what she knew about Luke or if he was connected to the dream as she had implied. Izzy had asked questions incessantly during the drive, to no result.  Howitz remained a portrait of stoicism as she drove until they arrived at their destination well after dark.

The lights were still on in the two-story building, and Howitz gestured for them to follow from the small lot she had parked in.

“Pretty small building for a headquarters,”  Izzy said in a low voice as they walked toward the entrance.  Deb didn’t respond. She hadn’t forgotten the college girl’s insults.

A security guard sat behind a desk reading a newspaper inside the foyer.  He nodded toward Howitz and waved Deb and Izzy through with barely a glance.  Deb saw something about dreaming on the headline of his paper. At the rear of the foyer, Howitz stepped inside an elevator, holding the door open for the other two.  Once they were inside, she waved a keycard in front of the call buttons and pressed the floor buttons in what looked like a random sequence. Deb frowned at the display, but instead of rising toward the second floor, the elevator dropped.  Izzy looked startled.

“What was that?” she asked.

“Operational security,” came the reply.

The elevator shuddered to a stop and a bell sounded their arrival.  When the doors opened, both Deb and Izzy let out a gasp. The subterranean facility they’d been taken to extended far past the boundaries of the building above.  It resembled an enormous warehouse more than a basement, all metal surfaces and fluorescent lights. Huge glass spheres sat on iron pedestals arranged in rows all the way down the room,  iridescent colors flashing inside at random intervals. The ceiling rose far above their heads, supported by massive columns spaced between the spheres. Each wall had a number of closed doors, suggesting that whatever this place was, it was even bigger than what they could see.

Howitz stepped briskly out of the elevator, ignoring their reaction.  “Right this way, please.”  

“We can’t have been in there long enough to get this far down,” Izzy said, staring up at the tall ceiling.

The detective offered a small grin.  “Our elevator is deceptively fast. Follow me, please.”

She walked toward one of the doors to the side, her footsteps echoing in the vast, empty space.  After a moment of hesitation, Izzy followed and Deb fell in behind her.

“What is this place?” Deb asked.  “It’s like something out of a movie.”

“Our department has…adequate funding,” Howitz said, opening a door and gesturing for them to enter.  “Please have a seat. I will be back shortly.” 

The cramped space inside resembled the interview room from every cop show Deb had ever seen, right down to the incongruously large mirror that she presumed was a window on the other side.  Howitz closed the door behind Izzy, leaving the pair alone together in the cramped room. Deb pulled out one of the metal chairs and sat down, looking up toward the ceiling away from Izzy.

“What do you think they do here?”  the college girl asked.  “I thought they were with the FBI or something, but this place is more like a superhero’s hideout.”

“I don’t care,” Deb lied.  “I’m more interested in what you meant back at your apartment when you said Luke used to live there.”

The girl sighed and sat down in the other chair, a metal table between them.  “It’s what I was gonna tell you when you came over. Luke doesn’t live with us anymore, hasn’t for about a year.”

“What?  He never told me that!”

“Yeah, well, I’d guess there are a lot of things he didn’t tell you.  How often do you two talk again?”

“Don’t speak to me like that!  I called him on the first of every month, and he never failed to pick up the phone until now.  Why wouldn’t he tell me?”

“Not my business.  Although…” Izzy hesitated for a moment.  Deb guessed that there wasn’t a lot she didn’t think was her business.

“Yes?” she prompted.

“It had to do with a break up.  Maybe that’s why he didn’t want to go into it with you.”

“A break-up?  But he’s—oh.”

Izzy rolled her eyes.  “Gay, yeah. No wonder he didn’t keep you in the loop.”

Deb pushed on, ignoring the twist of guilt in her chest.  “Do you think that could have something to do with why these people are interested in him?”

The college girl thought for a moment before shaking her head.  “It was a pretty typical break up, as far as I know. I can’t think of a reason why the Feds or whoever these people are would care about it.  And it sure as hell didn’t have anything to do with the dream.”

“Right.”  The dream.  Howitz had mentioned it during the drive over.  How her son was connected to a vision shared by most of the planet was a complete mystery to Deb.  She worried in silence until the door opened once more and a small man entered.

He was average in height, but wiry.  Dark circles ringed his eyes and he hadn’t shaved for some time, giving him a tired, unkempt appearance.  In contrast to Howitz’s suit, he wore a casual t-shirt and jeans. As he entered he glared toward the mirror.  Deb cocked her head, confused at the difference in presentation from the woman who had first contacted them.

“All right, let’s get this over with.  Your names?” He slammed a small black device onto the table and pushed a button on top.  “We’re recording.”

“Who are you?” Deb asked.  “We came with-”

“Just answer the questions so we can get this over with, please,” the man said briskly.  “Someone elected to bring two randoms in right at the end of the day, so now I get to play interviewer.”  He looked meaningfully toward the glass once more.

“I think there’s been a misunderstanding,” Izzy said.  “Detective Howitz said that she was going to come back and-”

The short man snorted and chuckled.  “Detective Howitz?  Jesus, Maria, you’ve really gone off the deep end.  Can you two just answer the questions so we can all get out of here?”

The door burst open and Howitz stepped in, glaring at the odd man.

“Arthur, may I speak with you outside for a moment?”

The short man rolled his eyes.  “Oh now we’re concerned with privacy after bringing people down into the base without approval.  Sure, Maria, let’s talk it out.”

Howitz glanced toward the two bemused women.  “I apologize. This will only take a moment.”

They left the room, leaving Deb and Izzy to exchange confused looks.

“What the fuck was that?” Izzy asked.

Deb shook her head.  Faint voices were audible outside of the room, and Izzy shamelessly put her ear up against the door to listen.  After a moment, Deb joined her.

“-bring them here without telling anyone?  The boss won’t care, but I do. That shit can’t  fly anymore, we have to-” Arthur’s heated voice was cut off by Howitz’s quieter tones.  Deb strained to listen, but she couldn’t make out the woman’s words.

“You don’t even know what to ask.  I’ll get what we need and get them out of here,” Arthur said after a moment.  “The last thing we need is-”

“Why are you two so loud?”  a third voice became audible, male but higher-toned than Arthur.  The other two lowered their volume, and Deb heard nothing else for several minutes.  

She looked at Izzy, whose eyes widened as she kept her head by the door.  She gestured hurriedly and moved back to the chair. Deb followed and sat down just as the door opened once more and another new arrival entered.  He looked in his late twenties, tall and skinny, wearing casual clothes similar to Arthur’s. His sandy blond hair was unkempt, and he looked like he’d missed his last few meals.  He peered at the two women through round glasses, studying them with interest.

“Uh, hello?” Izzy said after a few moments of silence.

“Welcome, welcome,” he said suddenly.  “This might be a bit sudden, but before we start asking you questions, what about a tour?”

“A…tour?” Deb asked slowly.  She wondered if they were being pranked, somehow.

“Of course!,” the man said enthusiastically.  “You shouldn’t be here at all, really, but now that you are I can at least show you what we do here.  Two broken eggs make an omelette just as well as one, as they say! And who knows, maybe it will lead you to tell us something we don’t know.”

“Do they say that?” Izzy muttered. Deb pinched the bridge of her nose.

“Listen, I think there might have been a misunderstanding.  We’re here to help find my son, Luke. He’s missing, and—”

“I know that!” A flash of annoyance crossed the man’s face, disappearing as quickly as it came.  “He’s one of the candidates. But how can you help find your son if you don’t know why he disappeared in the first place?  Come on, follow me.”

“Candidates?” Deb asked, but the man had already turned away back into the main hallway.  She caught a glimpse of Howitz sighing heavily.

WIthout any other choice, Deb and Izzy fell in behind the strange man.  He walked deeper into the facility, trailed by Arthur and Howitz. They seemed to defer to the man who had pulled them out of the interview room, so Deb walked by his side.

“So do you have any idea where Luke is?”

“Patience,” he replied cheerfully.  “All will be revealed in time.” He went on after a moment.  “But, ah, to be honest, no. No idea.”

Deb closed her eyes in frustration.  She’d been beyond excited when Howitz had appeared at Izzy’s apartment, but the feeling was fading rapidly.

“What’re those for?”  Izzy asked, pointing at the glass spheres.  Different colors flashed within every few seconds, throwing prismatic shadows across the room.

A voice spoke up from behind them.  “They’re a giant money pit. Each one’s—”

Their host cut in.  “No need to get into every detail Arthur.  Their purpose is very technical, not something we need to go over right now.”  Deb’s opinion of whatever operation she’d fallen into plummeted even further.

“This is our data center,” the young man said, opening a door to reveal a room full of computers.  No one was using any of them, and none of them appeared to be powered on. He gave them a moment to look inside before shutting the door and walking further down the large hallway.

“This is our communications hub,” he went on, opening another door.  The room within was much more cramped than the previous one, with only a single table and a few chairs as furniture.  A young woman was sitting by herself with her feet propped on the table, and glared toward them as the door opened.

“What are you doing, Louis?  Who are they?”

“We’ll speak later Amelia,” the man said quickly, closing the door.  He looked pointedly at Arthur. “I thought she’d left already.” He shrugged, and Louis started to walk briskly on.

“Wait a second,” Deb said.  The young man turned and raised an eyebrow.

“What the fuck is happening?  You’re not explaining anything, you’re just pointing out rooms in your super secret base or whatever.  I’m trying to find my son, should we just go? Because none of this seems remotely helpful for trying to find Luke.”

“I wanted to give you an idea of the facilities before explaining their purpose,” the man said, looking annoyed once again.  “But fine, you want to skip to the end, we’ll do that.” He stood straight in what Deb suspected was an effort to make himself seem impressive.  All it really did was draw attention to his gaunt frame.

“All of this,” he said, throwing his hands wide, encompassing the room, “was built for a single purpose.  To study the boundaries of human consciousness, and to grasp the potential that has—until now—remained locked within the human psyche.”

Deb and Izzy exchanged a glance, nonplussed.

“So, psychic powers?” Izzy asked.  Howitz and Arthur winced.

NO!”  Their host shouted, stamping his foot down.  The sound echoed around the room. “We do not study clairvoyant bullshit!  This is about the energy inherent in human consciousness and perception.  No one has ever studied the topics we’re looking at before. No one even knew it existed until now.”

“Ok,” Deb said, unimpressed.  “What does that have to do with us?  What does that have to do with Luke?”

His eyes narrowed for a moment, then the man spun on his heel and stalked off further down the hall.  “Follow me.”

Her patience dwindling, Deb nearly called out, but Howitz put a hand on her shoulder first.  The woman shook her head. “Give him a chance. Louis…has a flair for drama , but he knows what he’s doing.”

“Does he?  Do any of you?” Deb replied.  “None of this has been remotely connected to Luke at all.  Who the hell are you people?”

She sighed.  “If you keep an open mind, it will all be explained, I promise.”

“Fine.”  It wasn’t as if she had a lot of other options at the moment.

The group followed the strange man to yet another door, this one close to the back of the massive hallway.  He opened the door to reveal a room similar to the one where they were interviewed, but here the walls were covered in maps.  One side consisted only of an enormous world map, ringed by a red circle that encompassed more than half the planet. A smaller red circle surrounded the southwest quarter of the US.  The next wall held a few smaller maps, individual depictions of the states in that area—Deb recognized California, Arizona, Nevada, and a few others. Red circles again enveloped parts of the map, along with X marks that formed no pattern she could make out.  She turned toward the third wall to see maps of individual cities that she was unable to identify. These maps were scribbled on more than the others, full of post-it notes and markings that made it hard to see what was underneath.

“All of this could be done digitally, of course, but there’s something about seeing things physically that just makes everything a little clearer.”  The man—Louis—stepped in the room, looking at each wall in turn with a gleam of pride in his eye. Deb and Izzy followed him in, revealing the fourth wall that had been hidden by the door.

Rather than a collection of maps, the final wall held a collage of newspaper clippings, pictures of people, and cutouts of other writing that Deb didn’t recognize.  She quickly turned back to Louis, who was still gazing around the room.

“So are you going to explain any of this?”  Before he could offer a response, Izzy gasped behind her.  Deb turned in annoyance to see her pointing at one of the pictures on the last wall, her eyes wide.

It was a picture of Luke.

A small cutout of some kind of report was next to it.  Deb stepped up close to scan the writing. Her own name leaped out at her, and she realized what she was seeing.  It was a copy of the police report filed when she had called him in as missing. There was no indication of which department had written the report, but her blood boiled to see that her worries were written off, in so many words, as the ravings of an overbearing mother.  She turned to see Louis and the other two looking at them.

“We’ve been interested in Luke for the last few days now,” Louis said before she could ask anything.  “He was right near the epicenter, and after we became aware of your report, we leveraged outside sources to confirm that he hasn’t been in contact with anyone in his social network for quite some time.”

“The epicenter of what?”

“The mass dream,” Louis replied, as if it should be obvious.  “San Diego was the origin point, and wouldn’t you know it, the last time we can place anyone talking to him was the night before the dream.  He’s not the only potential mark we identified, but I’ll be damned if he isn’t the most promising right now.”

“For what?” Deb asked, exasperated.  “Jesus Christ, how many times can I ask the same question?  What happened to my son?”

Louis glanced over at Arthur and Howitz, losing some of his bravado.  “That…is one of our current points of research. The use for the energy concentrated by the dream is unknown at the moment.”

“You don’t even have any theories?”

The man spread his arms wide.  “I have nothing but theories.  Intuition would suggest the form taken by the dream has some connection with the function, but what that connection might be is elusive.  The energy produced by several billion humans is not insignificant. Was it used to make a reproduction of the vision the sleepers saw? Create a facsimile of the creatures seen using a human base?  Or was his own dream amplified for widespread use? There’s just not enough data to say.”

“You make it sound like someone did this on purpose.”

“Oh, most certainly,” Louis nodded.  “There’s absolutely no chance this was a natural occurrence.  Even if a freak set of circumstances did allow for a phenomenon like the dreams to happen naturally, we would have been able to detect the energy given off.  No, that energy was harvested and used by someone for a specific purpose.”

“Uh, Boss?” Arthur piped up,  “that seems like something that should be…classified, maybe?”

“Right!”  Louis lifted his finger sternly toward Deb and Izzy.  “Under absolutely no circumstances are you permitted to share what I have just told you with anyone!  Understand?”

“Uh-huh.”  Deb pushed her palm into her forehead.  “Don’t worry about that. I think that’s probably everything I need to see.”

She turned toward the door, making Louis frown.  “But we haven’t even done the interview yet. Anything you can tell us about your son could help us find out what happened to him.”

“I doubt that.”  She turned to meet the ringleader’s gaze.  “Every single thing you’ve said sounds like complete nonsense.  I couldn’t care less about whatever fantasy you’re playing out down here, but you had to drag my son into it.  You found a report of a mother looking for her missing son and incorporated it into the bullshit you’re spewing in every direction.  I’m not wasting any more of Luke’s time with this absurdity. Don’t contact me again.”

She stalked out of the map room back into the huge hallway and started back toward the elevator.

“Arthur,” she heard behind her.  Louis’s voice was more subdued than it had been before.  “Can you go with her to open the elevator?”

“Sure thing, Boss.”

He hurried to catch up to Deb.  She didn’t deign to look at him, and a few moments later they were joined by Izzy.  The echo of their footsteps was the only sound as they walked, and though colors of all different hues were thrown across their faces by the ever-changing spheres, Deb’s thoughts boiled red.

She would have to go to the police.  Louis and his people didn’t strike her as dangerous, but who knew what they were getting up to down in their underground base?  It would be best for everyone if they were shut down. She should probably contact the media too. They had a weird enough operation going on that someone was bound to cover the spectacle, and it would give her a platform to talk about how Luke was missing.  Perhaps some good would come out of the debacle this had turned out to be.

Halfway down the hallway, Izzy’s voice startled her back into awareness of her surroundings.

“How do you guys afford all of this?”  She was still looking around the space, particularly fascinated by the scintillating spheres.  Deb supposed they were impressive if you didn’t have larger worries occupying your mind.

“Louis’s last name is Brodeur,” Arthur replied.  His earlier anger had dissipated, replaced by a weariness.  He seemed to expect some kind of response, but Izzy just shrugged.

“His family are some of the richest people in France.  Louis came to the US to get further away from them, but he’s never been hesitant about spending their money.”

“Oh.  So they just give him whatever he wants?  Wish I had a family like that.”

Arthur snorted.  “Hardly. But as long as he gets results, he stays funded.”  He looked over at Deb. “Trust me, you’re not the first one to say that kind of thing to Louis.  But he wouldn’t still be here—and I sure as hell wouldn’t be—unless he showed proof that the stuff he’s talking about isn’t a sign of his own insanity.”

“Whatever,” Deb said.  “I still don’t believe that anything here could possibly relate to my son.”

“Maybe not.  But even if he’s wrong—which is less often than you’d think, believe me—we still have resources to help find him if his disappearance was more mundane.”

“Right.  I bet you have the FBI on speed dial.”

“Well that just sounds ridiculous, but…yeah, more or less.  A lot of people have set up contact with us since the dream.  Turns out when you have an explanation for the unexplainable, people want to be your friend.”

Deb stopped in her tracks.  “What? Really?”

Arthur nodded, looking a bit smug.

After a brief pause, Deb kept walking toward the elevator.  “No. There’s no way. If that’s true, why do you even need me?  You could get any information on Luke that you wanted. I’m not falling for this bullshit.”

“I asked the same goddamn question,” Arthur said, anger returning to his voice.  “There was absolutely no reason to bring an entitled soccer mom down here. But Howitz pulled you in anyway, and for some fucking reason, the Boss wanted your help.  I guess it all worked out though, because you’re incapable of facing the idea that there might be something out there that you don’t know about.  It’s fucking incredible that you’ve learned everything about the universe from your two-story cookie-cutter home in the suburbs, but there it is.  We should pack this whole place up and bow down before your knowledge.”

They reached the elevators, and Arthur turned to the call mechanism before she could respond.  He inserted a key and the light went on at the top.

“It’ll take you up now.  Have a nice life.”

He turned and started the long walk back without waiting for a response.  Deb watched him go until the bell rang out and the elevator doors opened. Izzy spoke up once they were safely inside.

“That was pretty weird.  You should’ve at least given them a chance to prove what they’re talking about, though.”

“Then stay.”  Deb snapped. “No one’s forcing you to leave yet.”

The girl shrugged.  “I don’t have a ride back.  I figured you would call an Uber.”

Deb rubbed her eyes in frustration.  She had wasted half a day with nothing to show for it.  Luke was still gone, and she had no leads and no one to help her except a girl too broke to get a ride back home.

It was night by the time they left the building.  The security guard was gone, leaving the lobby and parking lot deserted.  Deb ordered the ride on her phone and sat down in a chair to wait. Only a few minutes later a car—a black sedan with dark windows—pulled up in front of the building.  Deb frowned, looking at her phone. The Uber was still on its way, and she didn’t get the feeling a lot of other people came to this office, especially at night. Her bemusement intensified when she saw the man who got out of the car.  He wore a black duster on a night far too warm for it, matching black gloves, and a wide-brimmed cowboy hat. He looked like the villain of an old western. Not a particularly good one, either.

“Great, another weirdo,” Izzy said quietly as he approached the building.

The man tipped his hat at them as he entered, grinning toward them.  An impression flashed across Deb’s mind that the expression was hollow, meaningless.  She shook off the abstract thought distractedly. 

“Evening ladies.  Could you direct me to the, ah, elevator?”

“Right back that way,” Izzy said.

“Appreciate it.  You two involved with the man downstairs?”

Deb frowned, answering before Izzy could.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Hm.  Interesting. Never mind me, then.”

He walked over to the elevator for a few moments, then returned to the lobby and sat in a chair across from Deb and Izzy.  Deb suppressed a shiver. His gaze passed over both of them, but he didn’t seem to look at them so much as through them.  Again, a  sense of discomfort rose within her.  Some primal part of her mind called out in warning. 

“Seems I’ll have to wait for one of them to come up.  So what’re you doing all the way out here, then?”

Izzy glanced out the door.  Developed offices and residential streets could be seen past the parking lot.  “What do you mean? All the way out where?”

“Oh, a bit of a…metaphysical comment, I guess.  But what brings you to this office if it ain’t the more…eccentric tenants?”

Deb narrowed her eyes.  “I don’t think we got your name.  What was it?” The fear was growing stronger, and though she could articulate no basis for the feeling, she couldn’t let it go.

He grinned toothily, meeting her suspicious gaze.  Deb did shudder now, unable to hold it back. Though there was no perceptible change in his face, she felt as if the grin grew wider.  It occurred to Deb that she couldn’t tell how old the man was. His face had no wrinkles, but he didn’t look like a young man either.  

“I’ve had a lot of names.  But here and now, you can call me Smokey.”

The twin glow of a set of headlights flashed through the window of the building, releasing the tension and sending a flood of relief through Deb.

“Looks like your ride’s here, Miss Deb, Miss Izzy.  You take care now.”

The two women quickly left the building and got into the car.  It wasn’t until they were in the car and safely on the freeway that it occurred to Deb that they had never offered their own names to the man. 

Previous Chapter                                                                               Next Chapter

1.21

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.

Previous Chapter                                                                            Next Chapter

1.20

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.

Previous Chapter                                                                       Next Chapter

1.19

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.

“Why?”

“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?”

“No idea.” 

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.

Previous Chapter                                                       Next Chapter

1.18

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.

Previous Chapter                                                                                  Next Chapter

1.17

Though he still worried for Abby and Carver, Luke had to admit he enjoyed traveling while the caravan was split up.  The heat of the desert was still stifling, but with Simmons, Carver, Ella, and Angela all gone much of the tension that had been so prominent since Hobble had vanished.  Without their most impassioned members stoking the flames, the factions found it easy enough to be civil toward one another. For the most part, they’d all known each other for years after all.  Luke was grateful, as the arguments and infighting had made the journey much more miserable than it had been when boredom was the worst he faced.

It also meant that spent less time with the court that Simmons had formed out of his faction.  With him gone, the other boy stayed with Luke for most of the day. It wasn’t hard to tell that something was on his mind, but it took several hours for Tony to work up his courage to talk about it.  After going back and forth between the caravan, he finally approached Luke once more.

“Hey.  How’s it going?”  Tony looked tense, glancing all around to make sure no one was looking at them.

“Fine, I guess.  I’m worried about Carver.  I hope Abby and the others make it in time.”

Tony shrugged.  “Yeah. But if they don’t, maybe it’s karma for him getting us involved in all that stuff in the first place.”

Luke wanted to defend Carver, but he didn’t relish the idea of an argument with Tony while their friendship was still so fragile.  He also wanted him to spit out whatever was on his mind.  

“Is there something you wanted to talk about?”

Tony glanced around again, a hunted look in his eyes.  He answered in a loud voice. “Sure, I can teach you how to shoot.  But we probably won’t even fire the gun today, I’ll just show you the stance and grip.”

His acting was atrocious.  The tone of voice alone would have made Luke instantly suspicious if he hadn’t known what was going on, and he spoke far too loud for it to sound natural.  But while Tony’s words garnered a few odd glances, no one seemed particularly interested in what they were doing. The two of them stopped to let the rest of the caravan pass them by, only walking again once they were well out of earshot of anyone who might try to listen.

“That didn’t even make sense,”  Luke said, trying not to laugh. “If anyone looks back, we’re just walking.  Neither of us even have a gun.”

“I had to say something!”  Tony said defensively. “People would start asking about it if we just walked off.”

“I think you made it more obvious, if anything,” Luke responded.  “But I don’t think anyone cares. Is it ok to talk now?”

“I guess,” Tony grumbled.  His eyes were still glued to the caravan in front of them, watching for any sign of interest.

Luke waited, but the other boy didn’t appear to be in any rush to say anything beyond that.  He sighed internally.

“So you said you had to think about some stuff yesterday?” he prompted.

“Yeah.  I don’t know, I’m still thinking it through.”  

“Is there something specific—” Luke started, but Tony cut him off.

“I think I might be gay!” he burst out, then immediately looked around as if waiting for someone to jump out at him.

It took a monumental effort not to laugh out loud at the look on his face, but Luke escaped with a sound he hoped could pass as a cough.  He wasn’t sure how successful the effort was, as Tony gave him a hurt look in response.

“I’m serious.  I’ve thought about it before, but I always thought gay people…disappeared, I guess.  Like they only existed in the old world. I thought I just had to be stronger or something.  But after you said you were…I don’t know. It makes more sense why I’ve never really liked girls like that.”

The last vestiges of Luke’s humor faded as he marshaled his thoughts.  This was an important moment, and his words could do irreparable damage if he wasn’t careful.  “It doesn’t have anything to do with how strong you are. You can’t change who you’re attracted to.  A lot of people tried in my world, and one way or another it never ends well.”

“But what do I do now?” Tony asked, a plaintive note in his voice.  Luke marveled at how he could swing a pickaxe at a monster capable of ripping him in half, but talking about his sexuality ground his confidence into nothing.  He looked scared, hanging on Luke’s every word.

“You don’t have to do anything.  You’re the same person you’ve always been, now you just know a little more about yourself.”  Tony didn’t look reassured, so Luke relented and went on. “If you want my advice, you should take some time to process and then think about telling the people in your life.  Trust me, it’s not easy to live while keeping something like this a secret from the people you care about.”

“I don’t know,” Tony said slowly.  “What if he doesn’t accept it?”

“Then you keep living your life.  It sucks, but it’s better than pretending to be someone you aren’t.  Believe me, I know.”

He looked over at Luke.  “You know?”

“Yeah.”  Luke took a deep breath.  “My mom…I told her I was gay when I graduated high school.  We lived in a really conservative area—somewhere it’s frowned upon to be anything other than what they say is ‘normal’.  More than frowned upon, sometimes. When I told her, she asked how I could do this to her.  Like I’d chosen to be gay just to spite her.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of with my dad,” Tony whispered.  He looked down at the ground, quiet. When he looked up, his eyes were red.  “I don’t know if I could handle it if he said that to me.”

“I can’t tell you how he’ll react,” Luke said.  He wanted to put an arm around Tony, but conscious of the caravan ahead of them, he refrained.  “But I didn’t finish my story. My mom didn’t handle it well in the moment, but then later, after I moved out, she started trying to talk to me again.  She apologized for what she said. Our relationship still isn’t great, but it’s better than it was. If you give your dad a chance, he might surprise you.”

Tony nodded and fought back the tears that threatened to fall.  “I have to think about it,” he said quietly. “Thanks. Give me a few minutes and let’s go back.”

Luke nodded and looked out toward the landscape while his friend composed himself.


They caught up to the wagon that had taken Carver ahead the next day, and while Tony gravitated back toward Simmons, Luke learned what had happened from Abby.  He was relieved that the old man was being cared for, but Simmons’s reaction perplexed him. His insistence that all he cared about was making sure the roamer was all right went against everything he had been saying since Hobble.

“We’re going to have to hurry on to Ark now and hope they have a lot for trade,” Ella said that night.  She and Angela sat around the fire with Abby, joined by Luke and Felicity. The two women were in much higher spirits now that they knew their father was being cared for.  Ella had already turned her mind back to the logistics of their journey. “We only have two stops left, Ark and Langrendi, so we have to try to offload as much stuff as we can.”

“That’s it?” Luke asked.

Ella nodded. “We’ll skirt around the desert now that we’ve hit Darkend, head north toward Ark, then out east to Langrendi.”

“Wow, so we’ll be with the elves in a week or so, then.”

“Yep.  You’ll have to watch what you say around them.  I’ll remind the whole caravan when we get close, but they can get pretty touchy about some stuff.

“Like what?” Felicity asked.  Though she had traveled more than him or Abby, they would all be seeing the elves for the first time.

“I’d say the main thing is to not mention Carver or anything about him,” Angela said.  “Definitely don’t mention that we’re related to him.  I don’t think we’d be in any danger, but we wouldn’t be winning any popularity contests after that.”

“So it’s not just him that doesn’t like them?”

“Oh no,” Angela shook her head emphatically.  “He’s basically the boogeyman up there. They’re not fans.” 

“What did he do?” Luke asked.  “Why do they hate each other so much?”

Angela cocked her head.  “Can’t you guess? He killed them.  A lot of them.”

There was silence for a moment afterward.  “Oh,” Luke said. He did feel dumb for not realizing it sooner.

“I guess we can tell you the whole story,” she said, glancing at Ella.  “You guys probably know it already, right?”

Abby nodded, but Felicity frowned.  “At least some of it. I don’t think I ever got told the whole thing.”

“Well, it started when all of them got here,—elves, orcs, and dwarves—probably seven or eight years ago now.  Within the first few months, they kidnapped some humans and kept them in their settlement. As you can imagine, no one in the area was too happy about that.”

“Why?  Why take humans?”  

“We don’t know,” Angela said.  “They never gave an explanation, and once the fighting was over no one ever asked, as far as I know.  But they did take them, a group of ten or so from a settlement called Smithton.” She shook her head. “It was a shitty place to start with, they all suck there.  But anyway, that abduction sparked a lot of conflict between the elves and humans. Crater wasn’t involved too much since we’re so far away, but a lot of the smaller ones around here were.”

She hesitated, and Ella picked up the story.  “They were slaughtered. It was mostly orcs and dwarves doing the fighting at that point, and all that stuff Dad told you, Luke, about how strong and tough they are is true.  They were probably killing three or four humans for every one of their own they lost. Humans had numbers on them, but at the rate they were going, they were still on track to lose.  And Dad turned that around.” There was a touch of pride in her voice as she spoke. “He developed new ways to fight them, all that stuff he was telling you. All of a sudden, the settlements around here were winning battles instead of dying off.  The elves started taking to the field themselves, and he killed them too. I think that’s what really shook them.

“Not long after that, this orc went around to different settlements, staying way back and shouting in broken English about how they wanted peace.  No one wanted to do that while they were winning, of course, but they started running away any time they encountered humans, and over time the conflict more or less petered out.  A couple years later someone from a settlement that didn’t fight with them got bold enough to walk up to Langrendi to try to trade and brought us to where we are today.”

She stopped to take a drink out of a waterskin.  

“Was Carver really that important in the fighting?” Felicity asked,  “or are you trying to hype him up?” Ella glared at her.

“You were there for the cryptsil.  Imagine if he was about ten years younger when he took it on.  It never would have made it out of the field.” She spoke forcefully, and Felicity held up her hands. 

“Whoa, sorry.  Didn’t mean to talk shit on him, I was just asking.  Were you two still with him during all of that?

“Nah,” Angela said.  Ella still looked a bit annoyed.  “We’d both decided to stay in Crater about a year before that with Ander and Winnie.  But I’ve heard the stories from people at the settlements out here more than enough to piece it together, believe me.  Ella’s probably heard it even more, she gets out more than I do.”

Ella shrugged and took another swig from her waterskin as if it were a bottle.  There was still a little alcohol around the caravan, but it was strictly rationed and no one was breaking it out without a special occasion.

“So what’s Ark like, then?”  Luke asked. “We’re going there first anyway, right?”

“Ark…” Angela said.  She glanced at Ella again, who snorted and laughed.  “You’re gonna have to see that one for yourself. It’s too good to spoil.”

“They’re…devout, I’ll give them that,” Ella said. 

Luke wondered what she could possibly mean, but no matter how he and Felicity pushed, the sisters wouldn’t budge on revealing the details.   They insisted that they would have to wait to see for themselves.


The next three days of travel were the best Luke had experienced since leaving Crater.  They soon left the barren desert behind for more temperate grassland, a landscape with more greenery than anywhere they’d been so far.  Blankets of verdant moss and half-grown trees had sprouted from the wrecks that dotted the roadside, while the greenery a little farther off offered a rich environment well-suited for the hunting that supplemented their food stores and occupied the time of so many in their group.

Luke was still never a part of the excursions himself, of course, but the outlet was enough to defuse much of the tensions that he had worried would resurface upon the return of Simmons and the others.  It helped that the mustached man was much less provocative than he had been; he made a few reconciliatory comments toward Ella and Angela and refrained from insulting their father further, a development that confused more than a few within his own faction and made Luke wonder if perhaps he hadn’t misjudged the man.

Tony still spent an odd amount of time with the guard and his group, but he no longer avoided Luke either.  They didn’t speak every day, and the other boy didn’t bring up the subject of his orientation again, but it was enough for Luke that there was no longer a weird distance between them.  He did at times feel alternately relieved and disappointed that Tony had never shown any specific interest in him; after the kiss early in their journey, he hadn’t displayed any further sign of romantic feelings toward Luke.

Nevertheless, the days passed much more quickly than before, and it wasn’t long before Luke found himself outside Ark’s walls.  For the first time since starting their journey, the wagons had been forced to leave paved roads, following a dirt path up to the settlement.  Luke felt a touch of nervousness standing before a settlement about which the only thing he knew was that it was highly religious, but he reassured himself by thinking that it couldn’t possibly be worse than Hobble.  The traders, it seemed, had a different sort of worry; they looked visibly relieved when a guard met them and allowed them entry into the settlement. No one had been reluctant to voice their worry that their first two stops hadn’t resulted in any kind of trade.

The walls of Ark looked much sturdier than the cobbled-together structure that Luke had glimpsed at Darkend.  They were made of actual brick and mortar, materials that couldn’t have been easy to come by. Three sides of the settlement were covered, while a river winding away protected the fourth.  The gate looked less professional, a simple iron fence with wheels on the end. Everyone in the caravan along with the three wagons came through, while the guard raced off to inform others of their arrival.

“I didn’t notice anything weird about that guy,” Luke said to Angela in a low tone while they waited.  “What were you talking about the other night?”

“Oh just you wait,” she grinned.  “Give it a minute.”

A group of seven returned with the guard to greet them, all older men wearing beards with a fair amount of gray.  One stepped forward to speak to them. He was a bald black man, even older than the rest, and relied on a gnarled length of wood to support him as he walked.

“Step forward, and let all of you be welcomed as guests within our Ark.”  Despite his frail frame, his voice still carried a strong note of authority.  He also spoke with a light accent that sounded African to Luke.

The traders arranged themselves into a line across the width of the street on which they stood.  Everyone else unaccustomed to the settlement looked confused, but after a few meaningful looks from those more familiar with Ark’s customs, they filled in the line.  Luke watched as the old men moved to one end of the line and leaned in to each caravan member for a moment before stepping down to the next person in line. It took a few seconds before he realized what was happening.  Each person in line received a kiss on the cheek from each old man, and was required to give a kiss in turn before they moved on to the next person. Several of the security team in particular looked uncomfortable at the proceedings.  Luke guessed that those were the ones who had never been to Ark before, since he shared much of their feelings. When it was his turn he looked around, but there was no option except to quickly touch his lips to the beard covering the face of the man in front of him.  And then to repeat the action six more times.

No one refused and risked offending their hosts, but several people—including Tony—looked a little disgusted at the ceremony when it was over.  Luke saw at least one guard covertly picking at his tongue for stray hairs. But the men who greeted them were beaming, and the same one who’d spoken before spread his arms wide.

“Welcome again, honored guests.  I am Kiango, and my companions are the Stewards of Ark.  We have much to discuss and many deals to make, but I suspect that none of it will not wait until tomorrow.  For now, let us take your horses and wagons to our stable and allow us to feed and water you after your long journey.”

His short speech was greeted with much more enthusiasm, and while the drivers were taken by the guard who had let them in to drop off the wagons, everyone else followed the old men in another direction.  It was still early afternoon, and the walk gave Luke his first good look at the inside of the settlement.

Unlike Darkend, Hobble, and Crater, which were located in old world towns and used repurposed buildings, Ark looked like it had been constructed from scratch.  Some few buildings were made of the same type of brick as the wall—with no foundation—but most were built with some kind of adobe or clay. Nearly all of them, no matter the building material, were quite small, much more cramped than any old world home would have been.  

Having been built from scratch, the urban planning of the settlement was also far more haphazard than anywhere else they’d been so far.  There was one main dirt path that the old men were leading them down, but outside of that space it seemed that buildings had been erected without regard for any kind of overall design.  Some were facing entirely different directions than others, and each had been placed to garner as much space between their neighbors as possible, regardless of whether that might inconvenience others.

Still, the amount of work it took to build what Luke couldn’t help thinking of as a shantytown must have been enormous.  If nothing else, he couldn’t fault the work ethic of Ark’s people. They passed a few people going about what looked like their daily chores—carrying buckets down toward the river, hanging clothes on lines, slathering some kind of clear substance on the walls of their homes—but far more waited for them when they reached a small clearing near the river.  Three long rows of tables had been set up, and twenty or so Ark residents were talking and laughing amongst themselves. There were even a few children running around by some sheets that had been spread out on the ground nearby.

“Sit!  Rest, recover yourselves,” the spokesman said.  “Food is being prepared now, it shall be brought out shortly.”

The caravan members complied, though a few waited for the veteran traders to do so first.  There was less hesitation when the food started to arrive soon after, however. Deer, roasted carrots and other vegetables, fish, and even wine made for a meal that rivaled anything Luke had had in Crater.  It had to be a strain on Ark’s resources to host so large a group, but no one made any mention of the hardship, only urging their group to eat more of the feast.

The hospitality far surpassed anything Luke expected.  A few hours later, he’d almost forgotten Ark’s odd reputation and the strange greeting they’d had upon entering.  Though he did little to try to speak to any of the residents, preferring to stay with Felicity instead.

“This stuff’s great,” she said, grabbing at yet another piece of meat.  “Tons of iron too. I’m still trying to recover from everything at Hobble.”  Her complexion had improved in the weeks since the fight, but there were still noticeable rings under her eyes.

“Yeah, I just wish I knew what their deal is,” Luke said in a low voice.  He couldn’t get Ella and Angela’s laughter out of his mind, and he still worried what might happen if someone from Ark found out he was gay.

“Don’t be so ungrateful,”  Felicity scoffed. “That kissing thing was kind of weird, but it’s not any worse than that hand grab stuff you did with Naomi.”

“Is anyone ever going to let that go?” Luke complained.

“Nah.  But I bet if you talk to some of them, you’d find out that they’re not that bad,” she said.  “Here, look.”

She stood up and held up her hand toward an Ark man circling the crowded tables.

“Hey, are you looking for a seat?  I’m leaving anyway.”

Luke tried to covertly shake his head, but it was too late.  The man had already made a beeline for them.

“Ah, you’re too kind, madam,” he said with a slight bow.  His eyes crinkled as he smiled at her. “I pray I offer no offense, but I must ask.  Has your time of the month already arrived?”

“WHAT?” Felicity asked, outraged.

“I apologize,” he said hurriedly.  “Our faith does not permit us to share a seat with such a person without it first being cleansed.”

“So you think I’m unclean?” she asked standing up and glaring at him

Luke snorted into his cup and schooled his face into an innocent look as Felicity turned back to him.  Before the uncomfortable-looking man could say anything, Ella appeared next to them as if from nowhere.

“Why don’t you move on, friend?”  she said. She pulled Felicity out of his face.  “Seems like there’s a bit of culture clash going on here.”

“Ah, yes of course,” he said with an apologetic frown.  “I am sorry once again for any offense I caused. It’s easy to forget how different our ways are from outsiders.”  He left quickly, while Felicity stared at his back, a look of disbelief still on her face.

“What the hell was that?” she asked, turning to Ella.

“Yeah, they’re weird,” the trader responded, speaking in a low tone.  “But they’re mostly friendly, and we really need to trade with them, so I’d appreciate it if you could just let this go.”

“Fine,” Felicity said, tossing her hair.  “I just didn’t expect to get interrogated about my period today.”

Luke gave her a meaningful look, which she didn’t deign to notice.

“Neither did I, my first time,” Ella said, smiling with amusement.  “If it’s any consolation, I guarantee you just ruined that guy’s day.  Hospitality’s a huge thing with these people, he’s probably going to take it pretty hard that he insulted a guest.”

“Yeah, well, I have to find somewhere to pee.  Make sure everyone knows this spot’s tainted when they pass by.  Maybe we should shout it out for the whole settlement, don’t want anyone dirtying themselves by sitting in this perfectly clean, blood-free spot.”  Felicity kept grumbling as she walked down toward the river. She hadn’t bothered keeping her voice down, and a few more residents were looking over in her direction.

Ella sighed, still standing.  “That girl’s going to get in a fight before we leave this place, I can feel it in my bones.”

“Yeah, I could see it happening,” Luke said, keeping his voice low.

“We really don’t have the luxury of pissing off an entire settlement.  We need to trade with these people.”  She sighed again as she caught sight of a guard getting red in the face as he argued with someone from Ark.  “Can you keep an eye on her when she gets back? This is the last time we bring so many new people here at once.”

She hurried off to defuse the brewing situation.  Luke returned to the remains of his food until Felicity sat down next to him.  She still looked disgruntled at her earlier encounter.  

“I take back everything I said before,” she said, folding her arms.  “They’re weird here. How long are we staying again?”

“Just one day, I think,” Luke said.  “And you want to say that a little louder?  I don’t think they could hear you at the far table.  Ella already looks like she’s gonna have an ulcer.”

Felicity snorted.  “Maybe she should have warned us what we were walking into.  It’s not like she didn’t know what to expect.”

“Is it that hard not to be a dick, though?” Luke said.  “Yeah, that guy was pretty insulting, but he obviously wasn’t doing it on purpose.  Getting in his face about it isn’t gonna make him rethink his whole religion.”

She gave him a strange look.  “Yeah, but he should know not to do that.  Is stuff like this super common in your world or something?”

Luke shifted uncomfortably.  Felicity was still not making any effort to control her volume, and a few people from Ark were looking over interestedly after her last comment.  One man in particular was staring at him with a slight frown on his face.  

“Not really,” he said quietly, hoping she would follow suit.  “I mean, you always hear about crazy religious people, but I never met any in person.  But you always have to find some way to get along with people who are different than you.  They’re just a bit more different than usual here.”

Fortunately, she finally seemed to realize his discomfort and lowered her tone.  “I guess. But you’d think they’d have some idea of how to act around people who aren’t like them.”

Still feeling like people all around were watching him, Luke was reluctant to stay on the same subject.  “Maybe. But at least the food’s good, right?” He took a big bite out of whatever meat was on his plate, and did his best to steer the conversation away from the odd nature of their hosts.  A pit had formed in his stomach, and no matter how he tried he couldn’t shake a feeling of dread that crept over him. He was relieved when Ella stomped over to their table and told them to follow her, despite the deep scowl on her features.

“Come on.  We’re done here,” she said, walking off with a trail of the caravaners following behind her.  Luke and Felicity joined them, leaving the Ark residents behind. The farther they got from the tables, the better Luke began to feel.

But he still couldn’t shake the feeling that somewhere, someone was watching him.

 

Previous Chapter                                                Next Chapter