The Believers – Chapter 8

Around the same small hill, they caught sight of the decrepit building. It didn’t look any different.  The door was still ajar, and the outside metal wall panels giving way to rust a little.  The original color had faded to a light tan color, almost the color of undyed leather, and the rust spots made a striking contrast.  The roof was mostly intact, but covered with leaves and twigs.  Nature was slowly but surely reclaiming the space inside, just as it was with the larger buildings in the abandoned cities.

“I suppose if it’s been here all these years, it won’t look much different than it did last summer,” Jameson mused.  Marlena nodded, smirking at him sideways.

“They built stuff to last, but not quite this long.”

The forest around them was silent.  The trees were not very thick here, and the sun came down thru them easily.  The Turned were nowhere nearby, except for the anomalies that lived in the building itself.  They could hear a few insects in the trees, chirping or singing.  Birds were less common, but there was an occasional robin or cardinal song from another part of the woods.

The last time the pair had been here had been far more exciting.  Xeren had threatened them both, just before a force from Carter’s Hill had rode up the trail and burned all of Xeren’s friends to death just outside the door.  Then the armored fighters had entered the building and been slaughtered, all except for one.  They’d been prepared for the Turned, but not for the infected snakes they’d found.  Their armor wasn’t able to protect them from snake-bites- and those who had been bitten first turned within moments.  There hadn’t been time for an effective response, and only one man on the team had made it out alive.

The snakes were still there, Jameson could tell.  Even before opening the door, he could feel it – the infection that lived inside him could sense their presence.  Some of the serpents approached the door, making him wonder if they would bite.  But once Marlena stepped inside, the serpents paid them little attention.  They dispersed quickly, finding the cooler parts of the building to hide in.

Much of what was left inside had been charred by their last visit.  The group from Carter’s Hill had brought a handful of flame weapons with them, and had vainly tried to use them on the snakes, then on each other.  Only one of the bodies remained there, burned so badly that there wasn’t enough flesh for the infection to animate it.  It’s armor had begun to rust, and the flame tank on its back had a large split in it- most likely caused by one of the wearer’s companions.  They hadn’t all been Turned at the same time.  All the other dead had risen, and left the building in search of living flesh.

Marlena headed back toward the crate they’d found on their first trip.  Most of its contents they’d taken with them the first time.  Jameson took a few moments to just look around, to clear his head of the lingering memory of his first visit there.  Then he moved toward the wall, to a large set of shelves.

His reading skills had been steadily improving.  He could now read the words on the edges of the books that the shelves presented to him, even if he didn’t know what they meant. He scanned over the books, running his finger along the edges of some of them as he did.  He knelt to look along the bottom shelf, then paused at one point.  There was a wooden box, enclosed in a strange sort of transparent skin, and on the front and top of the box was a symbol whose meaning was fairly obvious.  The other lettering on the top spelled out very long words that he couldn’t pronounce, but centered amongst them was an image of a skull and two leg-bones crossed underneath.  Even someone who couldn’t read anything would know that this box held something that could kill.  He called Marlena over.

She moved the box off the shelf, and onto the open floor.  It was a half meter long, perhaps a tenth of that wide and tall, and was fairly heavy.  “I can’t make out half of these words, but some of them are simple.  ‘Danger- high explosives.  Keep clear of heat and flame.’  Fairly straightforward.”  She pressed her finger down on the box, feeling the clear skin that covered it.  Then she turned to Jameson.  “Should we open it?”

He shrugged.  “I didn’t understand any of that except the part about danger, heat and flame.  Since we’re out of the sun, and there’s no fire around, sure.”

Marlena drew a knife, and carefully slit the skin near the box’s opening.  “The ancients put this stuff on a lot of things.  I don’t know what it is, but it’s watertight and protects anything inside from just about everything.”

“Not your knife, though,” Jameson observed.

She nodded, returning the knife to its sheath and unlatching the box’s lid.  She opened the lid slowly, as if the contents of the box would leap up and attack them both.  Inside, set in orderly rows spaced by wood brackets, were what looked like perfectly formed sticks.  They were a little shorter than Jameson’s forearm, and about as thick as his thumb.  He’d seen candles being made in Tarense, and these looked almost like that.  They were wrapped in what looked like paper.

“They look like candles, but I don’t think they’d have put a warning on a box of candles,” Marlena said.  Attached to the top of the box was a small steel trinket that neither of them recognized.  Marlena detached it, and turned it over, looking closely.  Jameson carefully picked one of the sticks out of its spacer, turning it over in his hands.  Just like a candle, it had what looked like a wick on the top, but was almost 6 inches long.  The letters DZST were written along one side of the paper wrapping.  It was a fairly solid stick, but Jameson didn’t try too hard to bend it, either.

“Look at this thing,” Marlena said.  She held the steel trinket in both hands.  It seemed like a long steel rod, bend around a circle to form a simple spring with two long legs.  At the other end was a small steel cup.  One leg of the rod was firmly attached to the cup, the other rested above it.  “There’s a small piece of flint in there.  It’s a flint-steel kit, but all in one piece.”

Jameson cocked his head.  “A sparker?”

She nodded, squeezing the two legs toward each other.  The flint scraped across a rough piece of steel, and produced a decent shower of sparks.  “This is ingenious,” she said, pocketing the device.  “You know how much of a pain it is to get a flame weapon re-lit when it blows out?”

“Yeah, especially when you’re about to get eaten.  Think the folks in Tarense can copy it?” Jameson asked.

“They sure will try.”  She looked at the stick in his hand.  “DZST.  Never heard of that, but I have heard of some other things the ancients used for explosions.  Some of them looked similar to this, too.”  He eyes caught an empty space on the shelf beside the box they’d opened.  “There was another of these here, and it was moved recently.”  The shelf had a perfect, rectangular clean spot on it- a place where it had been protected by another box.  “Someone else has been here.”

“What did they ever need to cause explosions for?”  In Jameson’s experience, explosions were accidents that involved carelessness with a flame weapon’s tank.

“Lots of reasons, but mostly for mining.”  The words came out off-handedly, but as soon as they left her lips, she looked up at Jameson.  Their eyes met, and he knew immediately that they had both had the same thought at the same time.  They both turned to look toward the far corner of the ancient building, then back at each other.

During their first visit, the team from Carter’s Hill had been hunting them in this very place, and the only spot they could find to hide was on a set of stairs going downward into the dark.  They hadn’t gone any further than they’d had to, because they didn’t have a source of light with them.  Now, however, they began searching the floor and shelves for the materials for a torch.  They broke off a few pieces of wood from one of the shattered crates, and some of the fabric from what used to be a chair.  Marlena detached the dead soldier’s flame tank, spilling some of the remaining alcohol fuel onto the ends of their torches.  With the striker she’d found, they lit easily.

Jameson found himself uncomfortable holding onto a source of flame, but forced himself to get over it.  The stairs were of cement- he knew what to call the perfectly-shaped stone now- and led downward more than 10 meters before ending on a small cement platform.  The pair stepped down onto the dirt floor of a tunnel that led downward, underneath the large hill they’d circled before.

The rough walls were not solid stone, but close to it.  Some clay and soil was interspersed, but only in small patches.  The rock was not all one mineral, either, Jameson could tell.  Hundreds of colors swirled and mixed, almost competing for his attention.  In some places the rock seemed to sparkle in the torchlight.  The two of them followed the tunnel for perhaps 25 meters before they reached its end.

“Look at this,” Marlena said, running her fingers along the stone beside her.  There were a few deposits of a white crystal, but mostly the walls were a shiny, dark, rough stone.  She drew her knife, holding the blade near one part of the wall, and the blade stuck to the wall until Marlena pulled it away.  “This is all iron ore.”

Jameson’s eyes went wide.  “I thought Tarense was the only place to find iron and steel.”

“Not anymore.”

Jameson whistled quietly.  “Well, you were right.  There was more treasure here waiting for us.”

*****

Gina paced around behind Donovan, and again he found himself slightly nervous. He knew she didn’t carry a weapon anymore, and he knew that her anger wasn’t directed at him, but still…  When she was in a mood like this, he couldn’t completely relax.

“And why is it that our captains hadn’t noticed this sooner?” she said, more loudly than necessary in the small room.

“Their orders were to keep watch on the people, ma’am, not to count them.  There was no reason to, at least not until they noticed people disappearing.  And they did take it upon themselves to start counting.”  Donovan took a deep breath.  He felt it necessary to stand up for the officers that reported to him, but that loyalty would only go so far before it became dangerous for him.  The reports had come from Bluefield, Riverbend, and Hammerhand, and almost at the same time.  The soldiers had counted 52 vanished families between the three villages, and that was only since they started counting.

“Mother, we should advance our plans to move to the new city,” Dana said.  “Trying to crack down on this trend won’t work.  Whatever they’re doing to leave, they’ll find another way if we stop them.”

Troy nodded.  “Work is proceeding ahead of my estimates.  Perhaps one or two of the work-teams out there could start building our new homes out there, and let the others finish work on the wall.  For us to move there, we’ll need 15 houses built before we arrive with the city’s leadership.”

Gina nodded.  “Do it.  In the meantime, send an order restricting travel in ALL of these villages.  No more merchants or gypsies moving through.  Don’t arrest them, don’t turn them out at night, but do NOT let them set up shop.  Let them stay one night, and then send them on their way.  The word will spread quickly enough.”  She sat down in her place, and sighed, looking again to where Joshua should have been sitting.  She pointed to the empty place, her eyes upon Donovan.  “This troubles me greatly.”  Again, the fact that she spoke quietly about it conveyed her displeasure far more efficiently than shouting ever could.

Donovan nodded.  “I understand.  I’ve sent people to look for him, but they haven’t reported back yet.  He’s not in any of the obvious places.  His workshop is silent.  Perhaps he is working in another part of the town- he occasionally likes to work at a different forge, with the other craftspeople of the city.”

Dana listened, her face impassive, but inwardly she was roaring with laughter.  Donovan hadn’t thought to have his people keep an eye on Joshua until recently, but she’d given that order long ago.  The reports had been mostly harmless, but every so often one of her people would return from shadowing him in the poorer section of the city.  They’d describe the same woman to her – white-blond hair, striking blue eyes, dark travelling clothes and a hood.  No evidence of a secret love, just… meetings.  Once she had discovered their substance, she’d share them with her mother, but not just yet.

*****

Joshua Carterson couldn’t be found within Carter’s Hill because he’d traveled to Bluefield in secret. He had been certain no one knew of his plan, had made the arrangements himself, and had left alone, certain no one was following him.  Now, he paced around the edge of the village, seeing for himself the miraculous cement block wall that now protected the villagers.

It made him smile, running his hand along the rough, overlarge blocks.  It was as if the ancients had reached out from history with a gift to help protect their descendants.  He could hear the dull thuds of rotting fists on the other side, but it was far less noisy than the metal fences he was used to hearing.  It occurred to him that it would hurt his hands fairly badly to beat them against the wall, and that it may wear down the Turned similarly.  He also cringed at the thought of the way the wall would look in the morning.  He’d tried hard not to look when he’d arrived.

His last meeting with Svetlana had been very strange.  Not that their relationship had ever been normal.  Most people had presumed he was just another wealthy man meeting in secret with his lover.  He’d always been glad that few people in his home city knew who he really was, or recognized him when he left the wealthy section of town.  It was an anonymity he had carefully nurtured and guarded most of his adult life.  He wasn’t meeting her tonight, but she’d been the one to arrange this meeting.  He guessed that it wouldn’t be any more or less strange than any of their other meetings before.

As he passed the guards at the gate for the second time, he was suddenly aware that he was being followed.  They approached from the inn, he guessed, out of sight of the guards at the gate, and watched him from farther inside the village.  As he passed the blacksmith’s shop, he paused, flexing his fingers to chase away some of the stiffness from his hands.  When that didn’t work, he rubbed hard on the forearm muscles that had grown strong from years of hammer-work.  He’d met the village smith earlier in the day, and the two had become fast friends.  Joshua knew no one would mind him using the shop for a meeting, and the forge would keep them hidden from the guards.  He watched them for a moment, making sure that they weren’t watching him, then ducked inside.

He only had to wait for a few moments.  From the other side of the shop, a dark figure entered.  Tools were hung on the walls, and over workbenches, some swaying and clinking softly in the evening breeze.  The coals in the forge were still dying down from the day’s work, and cast a dull red light through the shop.  It made the woman look slightly eerie, but Joshua was used to this sort of light.  She approached slowly, and stopped just beyond casual speaking distance.  She was a small woman, with long red hair and fair skin.  Very attractive to his eyes.  Her face would be beautiful in better light.

“Our mutual friend told me you’d be looking for me,” he said, just loud enough for her to hear.  She nodded in response.  “What is it you want of me?”

“She told me that you’ve given her information on the Cartersons in the past, and may be willing to help me and my friends.”  Her voice was stronger than he’d expected it to be, especially from such a petite woman.

“That depends on who you and your friends are, and what you’re trying to do.”  This game was getting tedious very quickly, he thought.

Her next statement ended that thought instantly.  “My friends and I are from Tarense.  We’re very threatened by the expansion of power from Carter’s Hill, and we’re looking for ways to stop it.  If it’s possible, we want to destroy the ruling family completely.”

His eyebrows arched.  “Completely?  Gina Carterson is my mother, and she would be very disturbed to hear that.”  He smiled at the obvious shock that statement caused.

*****

They spoke for over an hour. Over that time, they’d moved closer and closer to each other, speaking more and more quietly.  The guards had passed by twice, but not caught sight of them.  Joshua thought he saw a subtle signal in her eyes, but dismissed it as either his own imagination or a ploy on her part.  Both of them shocked the other with information at several points.  At the mention of a new city being built, Xeren’s instincts began to twitch.

“Yes, I feel the same way,” he said, catching the look in her eye.  “My mother would never allow something like this to happen without there being some great gain in it for her and the family, some way to strengthen her grip.  I’m not sure what it is, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of lives will need to be lost to the Turned in the process.”  He sighed.

“We’ve been getting people out as best we can.  I’m surprised that your family hasn’t ordered a halt to workers visiting these villages.”  She smiled slightly.

Joshua cocked his head.  “Smuggling people out?  How is that?”  She explained about the many merchants and gypsy clans travelling through villages within a half-days march of Riverbend and Hammerhand.  He smiled, and shook his head.  “That’s brave, considering they’d have to go through the forest far enough to get out of sight of the soldiers.  It doesn’t surprise me much, though, that people are willing to take that risk.  My mother thinks she’s so smart.  Dana, too, and she’s really dangerous.  I can’t imagine she’s going to let Troy run the city once my mother is gone.”  Another sigh.  “I’ve been hoping for years for something that would turn their plans against them.”

After a few moments, Xeren’s subconscious gave her the answer.  She shared her idea with Joshua, who nodded.

“Classic answer.  Spring the trap early,” he said.  “I can think of just the place to do it, too.  Close to the official offices is one of the barns they use for horses they don’t want kept in public stables.  It’s very close to the perimeter fence.  But will you be able to get that close without being spotted?”

“Easily.  I’ll do it at night.”  She caught herself just a moment too late.  He raised one eyebrow, but didn’t speak.  After a moment, she answered his silent question.

“I’m Immune,” she said, lowering her head and staring at the ground.  “I’ve been infected for twelve years or so.”  She raised her eyes, and paused to let him speak.  He looked as though he already knew this, and it didn’t bother him.  “The Turned won’t take any notice of me, so while they swarm the outside of the wall, I can get close to it.  The guards won’t even see me.”

He nodded, slowly.  “I see now why you’re so threatened by us.  I was never sure why Svetlana had any interest in our plans- the Believers never acted against us directly.  But in your case, it makes perfect sense.”

She smirked a little, and took on an air of playfulness.  “It doesn’t scare you, does it?” she asked, taking another step closer to him.  They were within arm’s reach.

He blinked slowly, then smiled.  “If you could infect me with a scratch, well, you’ve had plenty of time to do it.  You’ve known who I am for long enough to have found a chance.  But I would think I’m more valuable to you alive.”  Steeling himself, he called her bluff, and took another step towards her.  They were almost close enough to embrace.  He looked down at her, and even in the dim light of the dying forge-fire, he could see her eyes clearly.  They gave no outward sign that she was infected, but he didn’t doubt her word.  He slowly lifted his hand, and ran one finger down her cheek.  Inwardly, part of him was laughing, saying, It figures, the one woman I find…

She didn’t move for a moment, then dropped her eyes to the ground.  “We should meet again.  In Riverbend, two weeks from now.  There’s a blacksmith shop there, as well?”

He nodded.  “Two weeks.  There’s something else you should know before you leave, especially if any friends of yours are in Silverlake.”

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