"A tent that never moves is nothing more then a lousy house."
-- Old traveler saying, origin unknown.
Albert sat at his tent on a chair, softly humming to himself. As he heard people walk by, he would say little greetings like "Hello" & "Hi." Sometimes people would reply back, other times they wouldn't.
As the night bell chimed, Albert sighed to himself & stood up to stretch out momentarily. He hated the times when he was assigned as the night monitor but someone had to do it.
"Night Monitor" was the catch-all title that it implied; He was a guard, a moderator of disputes, a doctor & general overall representative of the campground personnel during the evening. Despite the anti-authoritative nature of the campground, evenings were generally quiet with few significant disturbances. Travelers were used to early bedtimes because of the aerobic tendencies of walking significant distances. You couldn't pick a fight with your fellow campsite neighbor if you were too tired to get out of your sleeping bag.
Albert, like so many other personnel at the campground, had fallen into a position of authority rather then seeking it out. A traveler at one time, his feet began to chronically hurt with any significant walking or running. Forced to abandon his traveling, he tried his hand at living in a settlement, weaving rope & performing odd jobs. The problem with settlement living, for Albert, was that the scenery never changed; Your neighbor today was your neighbor tomorrow. Routine & consistency were fantastic for others but Albert quickly grew bored of the same people doing the same chores at the same places during the same times every day. Settlement living was more about function & routine; Traveling was more about interaction & opportunity.
A series of events eventually landed Albert back at the campground where his longevity for staying around earned him respect & popularity amongst the travelers who routinely made pit stops at the campground. Traveling Matt took notice of this popularity & eventually offered Albert a job at the campground. Albert accepted without hesitation & the rest was history.
Albert fumbled for a simple flute he had bought from a traveling merchant not too long ago. The instructions were on slips of paper, each side having a series of grooves cut out of them to illustrate the fingerings of the notes. "V"-notches were holes that you didn't put your fingers over & "square" notches were. Four notes (fours sides) per piece of paper.
Only a few notes into practicing, Albert heard someone approach.
"Hi," Albert said, hearing the person walking up to him.
A sharp, sudden pain took Albert's breath away as he struggled to both speak & get up out of his chair. Albert could do neither, his legs & hands becoming numb, his voice becoming so soft that it was barely a whisper. The flute dropped from his hands, the papers scattering anonymously to the ground.
The Bat had struck.
Now, he needed to move quickly for the next phase of his plan.
Mary was tired. She had talked to Kayla for about an hour which was forty minutes longer then she had really wanted to. To Mary, Kayla seemed like a nice enough woman who had become just a little too comfortable being the bottom-feeder in a cult.
Excusing herself to go to the outhouse, Mary walked out of the small dwelling. Closing the door behind her, she reached for the rope line that would guide her to the outhouse.
"Miss?" She heard Salvare whisper out, "Miss?"
Mary froze, for a split-second thinking that it might have been Frank. The voice, though, sounded too different even if Frank was attempting to purposely disguise his voice.
"Who's there?" Mary cautiously asked, keeping her voice quiet so that Kayla wouldn't hear her.
"We've been following the ribbons," Salvare explained, "Just like the one you're wearing on your shirt right now."
Mary was speechless; How did he...? Instinctively, Mary reached to grab the ribbon that she had tied to one of her sleeves. The ribbon, to her relief was still there. Had he heard the ribbon flapping around? Had anyone touched the ribbon? How...?
"Miss," Salvare continued to whisper, "Are you at liberty to talk?"
"I..." Mary stammered quietly, "I..., uh..., um..."
"I'll take that as a 'Yes,'" Salvare replied, "Here - I'm reaching out to grab you. Just allow me to lead you to a quiet spot. Don't worry, I know where I'm going."
Mary felt a hand gently poke her in the stomach, then hit her arm before reaching down & grabbing her hand. Slowly, the two of them walked for a distance, making a few gentle turns before eventually stopping. Mary swore she heard another set of footprints while they walked but said nothing.
"OK," Salvare said, "We're in a safe area. No one is here."
"What..., uh," Mary continued to stammer, "What would you like to know?"
"Is this where the prisoner lives?" Salvare asked, "In this settlement?"
"No," Mary replied, "This place is weird. It's some sort of cult. We're just hiding out. He thinks we can scam the place. He thinks I'm some sort of con artist or something."
"Well," Salvare asked, "Have you learned anything about him? Anything at all?"
"He's definitely not dumb," Mary reported, "He was putting on a show for Matt back at the campground about being a simple rope stealer. He calls himself 'Frank' but I don't think that's his real name."
"OK," Salvare said, "Well, do you want to stay here or go back to the campground? Your choice. We're only here to follow you so that you could lead us to him, hopefully to where he lived."
"Personally," Mary stated, "I'd kill the creep & blow this joint. I don't know what he's up to but he's up to something. I don't think he'll cause the campground anymore trouble. It's almost as if... Well, a normal thief would be persistent but he hasn't mentioned the campground once after we escaped. It's almost as if the campground was... a job of some kind."
"Mary?" A voice called out in the distance, "Mary?"
Mary recognized the voice instantly - It was Kayla.
Two Rivers Town...
"Town Elder" Benjamin...
'How could I be so BLIND?!' Howard thought to himself, sitting beside the metal road. Sam, seated next to him, could do little else but pick up small rocks & lazily chuck them towards the forest.
"No one's going to believe us," Sam reminded Howard, "A Town Elder behind a bunch of thug killings? That's about as crazy as that tale about the zealous priest stealing that kid who could see. Didn't matter about that tale, though... People believed it just the same."
"We have to prove it somehow," Howard quietly stated, his voice trailing off, "There's more to this then just a town elder..."
"There ain't nothing to it," Sam concluded, Howard hearing him stand up, "My father taught me there were two kinds of evil in the world: The kind you could control & the kind that you couldn't. You confront the kind you can control & you avoid the kind that you couldn't. I don't think we can do much with this one except to steer clear of it."
"Just run away?" Howard asked.
"Howard," Sam said with a sigh, "There's honesty & then there's stupidity. It's a fine line & one I'm not willing to cross at my age. If you've got an axe to grind..."
"Then its been a pleasure meeting you," Howard stated, "We'll meet again, hopefully, some day."
The silence was deafening, shattered only by Sam's final words, "Good luck, Howard."
Howard heard Sam walk away, each passing step more distant then the last.
'What the heck am I going to do?' Howard asked himself.
Sound, as The Bat knew, was a false sense of security.
Sound could be manipulated, falsified & controlled. Like a musical instrument, sound was a tool & not an unalterable signature. Those who plied in The Bat's trade of deception knew that sound authenticated nothing.
The Bat quickly disrobed Albert who now nothing more then a corpse on the ground. Albert's instructions of his flute were now nothing more then anonymous & worthless pieces of paper that floated away with the opportunistic breeze.
The blood wouldn't matter much although The Bat was careful to wipe enough of it off so that the garments were not soaked. Questions could be raised if his clothing was touched by others & blood did, indeed, smell if left unchecked for long enough.
Experience had taught The Bat that people also relied on smell to recognize individuals. The Bat wiped the shirt on Albert's forehead & underneath his armpits. The smell did not have to be foolproof, just fool people enough for him to accomplish his task.
The shoes were larger then The Bat's own shoe size but that had been anticipated. Extra cloth that The Bat carried was wedged into the shoes for a more snug fit.
With his outfit complete, The Bat dragged Albert's body into a nearby field. The Bat knew that the body would be found as he had not the time to properly conceal the body better. However, time was of the essence & the discovery would likely only occur after he had accomplished what he had set out to do.
It had sounded, to the Bat, that Albert was left-foot dominant with a longer left-to-right foot stride then a right-to-left foot stride. As The Bat walked towards the building again, he worked on matching the sound of Albert's footsteps.
With sound & smell as his ally, The Bat became invisible once again, this time behind the facade that was once Albert. A facade that The Bat, hoped would be good enough for long enough to get beyond the building's doors & into the building itself.
As The Bat climbed the first stair on the staircase towards the building's entrance, he would find out in only a matter of moments if his disguise succeeded.
She had claimed to have heard "voices" & wanted to speak to them.
Even though Kayla could feel the wrinkles forming on her own face, her chest sag & her backside balloon, she wasn't going to be taken for a fool.
Mary, she had determined, had no real interest in staying with the group. She didn't hate Mary, of course; The discipline for following The Four Books simply wasn't for everyone &, in fact, it had turned out that it wasn't for most people who were curious enough to enter the settlement. Even Kayla had to admit that she had skimped on a few of the basic tenets but, as even the most astute followers would have to attest, not everyone could live in the cave.
Her friend (What was his name? Frank? Fred? Phil?), though, had showed at least a little bit of interest in sticking around. That's usually how it was; Women had virtually no interest in the settlement. Granted, more then a few men had fled after a week or two of "no this" & "no that" mentality that The Four Books often came of as to the undisciplined. Women, though, usually couldn't put up with the limitations. The religious hierarchy simply explained away the phenomenon that women were the original sinners & had a natural tendency to not adhere to God's commands. It wasn't for Kayla to correct them so she didn't but that wasn't the same as she couldn't.
Tonight, it was simply a case of "I heard voices, went over to check it out & got lost" syndrome. It wasn't a very original excuse & it wasn't even conveyed in the most authentic of voices.
Catching herself with such a high degree of cynicism, Kayla calmed herself for a moment.
Suppose, she reasoned, that Mary had honestly heard voices. It was possible for new students to be up past their designated bedtimes. It would be, of course, not the first time such a thing had happened. Was Mary "covering" for a bunch of students that she accidentally discovered breaking the rules?
'Check it out with the others,' Kayla thought to herself, wanting to go back to sleep, 'Cut Mary some slack.'
There was no need to report this to the self-important religious types. The turnover rate for new students was far too high. There wasn't even a need to bring this up with Mary any further.
In her last moments before falling asleep, Kayla thought of her own plans. Her youthful years had already faded into middle age. It was an ugly & poorly-kept open secret that her adherence to The Four Books was, at best, lackluster. How many more years, she asked herself, before you can't put up with the petty restrictions that are never loosened & always tightened?
How many more years before you start living again like a real human should?
Kayla fell asleep before she could answer her own question. It was just as well; She probably wouldn't have enjoyed hearing the answer.
Rope fences, so often, prevented so few of actually entering a town illegally. Howard knew all the tricks of the trade in getting past the rope fences without so much as making a sound. All of that knowledge, all of that illicit knowledge... How often had any of that knowledge ever been used for good? To help another human being instead of harm?
Howard climbed over the rope fence with nary a problem.
He didn't know the first thing about the town - Where was the bar? Where were the rope lines? The customs? Were visitors barred from certain areas?
Howard felt his way to a rope line & started to follow it.
'What are you going to do?' Howard's conscience asked, 'Confront Benjamin? Alexander? Kill for good instead of for profit?'
'No,' Howard replied to himself, 'I'm going to do things the right way. The good way.'
'And if that doesn't work?' His conscience asked.
Howard didn't reply. His conscience already knew what the answer would be.
Up ahead, Howard heard voices. Hopefully, he would be able to find out some information from there.
It was Henry's turn to be the "doorman." Henry would've rather listened to paint dry the entire time.
The doors to the building blocked out the words of a conversation outside, reducing it to a volume that rose & fell in pitch the same that a tide would come in & leave from an ocean.
All Henry had to do was sit just inside of the building, listen for the knock codes & let people in. He wasn't the designated "on call" decision maker for the evening - That illustrious duty was left to the shift guard down the hallway. Odds were that the shift guard was just as bored as he was.
Suddenly, there was three knocks followed by two fist pounds. Henry automatically reacted by standing up & reaching for the door's latch. The door was open within moments & Henry heard "Albert" walk in.
"Al," Henry asked, devoid of any enthusiasm, "What's the...?"
Henry suddenly felt a sharp pain in his ribs that spread quickly to the rest of his body. Henry let out a hissing sound as he tried to speak through his shock.
"Hha... hhaa...Ahlll..." Henry gasped out quietly as he felt two hands force him back down onto the chair he was sitting in. Henry fell off of the chair as The Bat closed the door behind him, locking it just as Henry would have had it been any other day.
Henry's legs & arms now numb, Henry bubbled up some blood from his mouth as The Bat grabbed him & propped him back up onto the chair. Taking out the knife, The Bat wiped it clean on Henry's clothes.
The Bat would now have to act quickly if his visit would have the desired effect. Silently, he strode down the hall towards his next victim.
"Camp" consisted of a tent, a few rocks in a circle that held the faintest of fires & some dried goods that Salvare knew had been in his backpack for far too long. Angela ate the goods without hesitation anyway.
Without Angela's help, the camp still might have been in the process of being set up. Angela, though, picked out the spot, picked out the rocks, gathered the sticks & even helped set up the tent. She accomplished all of the tasks with that enthusiastic, childish zeal that only small children could possibly possess.
"What did you do when you were a kid?" Angela asked Salvare, during that time of evening at every campfire when no one wanted to admit that it was past their bedtime.
"When I was a child," Salvare said, "Gathering rocks was a pastime. The town elder would lead us into a field & tell us to pick up all the rocks that we could find. So, there we are, digging through the entire field searching for rocks."
"Why did you look for rocks?" Angela asked.
"You can use rocks for many things," Salvare explained, "You can use them to make buildings, you can take them out of the ground to make vegetables grow better, you can use them to build a fence... A lot of uses for rocks."
"How many rocks did you find?" Angela asked.
"I found a lot of rocks," Salvare said with a laugh, remembering a few choice moments from that time.
"Is the woman going to be OK?" Angela asked.
"The woman is going to be fine," Salvare assured Angela, referring to Mary, "She just had to go to bed for the night, just like we have to."
"I don't want to go to bed," Angela replied.
"We need to go to bed so we can wake up bright & early tomorrow," Salvare reasoned, "The sooner we go to bed, the sooner we can wake up & go back to the campground so that you can play with all of the kids there."
"Oh," Angela said, "OK."
As both Salvare & Angela prepared for bed, Salvare knew that they would have to go back one more time for the woman. There was no mistaking that she had no further interest in being at that compound or whatever it was that it was called.
Salvare & Angela, as far as Salvare was concerned, had done what Traveling Matt had wanted them to do - Go find where the prisoner had gone. No one had said anything about capturing the prisoner or anything else like that. Now, Salvare had to think about Angela's future.
As soon as Salvare got back to the campground, he would re-supply & take Angela to the outer reaches of the metal road. He knew that there had to be lenient settlements out there that didn't adhere to what the priests dictated. He'd even raise Angela himself out in "Elsewhere" if he had to.
What Salvare didn't realize was that he would never return to the campground ever again because of what was going to happen...
The town hall served water to guests.
Howard took a sip of the water & was pleasantly surprised that the water didn't taste or smell horrible.
The conversations inside the town hall ranged from the mundane to the outright boring. Two farmers discussing their corn crop. A group of women chatting about knitting techniques & laughing about all of the mistakes they've made on earlier knitting projects. A group of men playing "Blind Man's Poker" to pass the time.
Howard eventually cut to the chase & asked someone where he could find a priest. Finishing off the water, Howard left the town hall.
Following the rope lines, Howard made his way to the priest's house.
"The priest is away on business, I'm afraid," a man by the name of Sullivan replied when Howard asked for the priest. Sullivan made a point that he himself was not a priest but only an assistant.
"When will he be back?" Howard asked.
"Within a day," Sullivan replied. The rest of the conversation was of little consequence.
One day. Howard felt as though he could not wait a single hour, let alone an entire day.
Begrudgingly, Howard admitted temporary defeat in his plans. As undesirable as it would be, he would wait for the priest to return before pursuing the matter of Benjamin & Alexander.
However... Howard did have another destination he could travel to...
All he needed was a shovel & a little time...
"Ignorance of Reality breeds Failure; Ignorance of Failure breeds Disaster."
-- Common quote, origin unknown.
In the unorthodox world of the metal road, the mail car was owned by no one, valued by everyone & driven by a small crew that was autonomous from all factions.
In fact, the term "mail car" was a misnomer that was as inaccurate as "dry martini."
The mail car did, indeed, deliver mail but it was so much more; It delivered supplies & even sometimes people. The drivers of the mail car sometimes delivered messages far too complex to be punched out on paper regardless of type of braille.
For such a valuable service, the mail car was left precariously unguarded when not in use. Despite common belief, the mail car was not continuously in service. Just as any other device would need to have periodic maintenance, so to did the mail car. When not in service, the mail car, incredibly, sat out in the open. Anyone could touch it or have the capability of taking off with it.
The only obstacle for the mail car not being destroyed or otherwise damaged was the same social & ethical unwritten contract that every human had agreed upon at birth. They were the same scruples that prevented any human from randomly killing any other human for any particular reason; The social penalty would just be too severe. Do unto others what you would want people to do unto yourself.
The lure of money & notoriety, in any society, is irresistible to certain individuals.
For some, the chance to be the person or persons who were responsible for destroying the mail car was irresistible.
Like all forms of intimidation, this "execution" had to be public & messy. Unlike 'Malcolm,' there could be little lingering doubt as to anyone's fate.
And there wasn't.
"I can tell when a man lies," The Bat plainly stated, not a hint of emotion in his voice.
Only moments earlier, The Bat had walked into the room where Traveling Matt was sleeping. The unmistakable sound of snoring was all that The Bat had needed to locate Matt inside the room.
In a fair fight, Matt's superior size & strength against The Bat would have made the confrontation into a struggle. However, The Bat never believed in a fair fight; Fairness was a concept reserved only for sport & he never considered his jobs to be sports.
There was no struggle; Just a sudden ambush of The Bat wrapping Matt's hands quickly with rope. Matt rolled off of the bed too late, screaming into the evening air for help that would never arrive. A solid hit on the back of Matt's head ended his brief but spirited attempt at calling out for help.
"I can tell when a man lies," The Bat stated to Matt, "Because you never have to think about the truth, only in how you present it. With a lie, you have to make up a story & think of how you'll present it. That extra effort causes hesitation & he who hesitates is lost."
Matt didn't say a word. The Bat continued.
"What happened to your prisoner?" The Bat asked.
"And this time," The Bat continued, taking out a switchblade & clicking it open right near Matt's ear so that he could hear the switchblade opening clearly, "I want the whole truth."
Matt told the truth.
A moment later, he was killed.
Blood first ruined the pillow that Matt's head & neck fell onto. Then, the sheets became soiled. By the time The Bat was nearing the exit, blood was beginning to drip over the side of the bed onto the floor.
The Bat didn't leave the building, though.
The plan had changed.
He was still there; At least, Howard could still smell him.
Technically, Howard wasn't supposed to know where he was. None of "The Three Blind Mice" was supposed to know. However, when your business involved partners who would betray you on a moment's notice, you made it your business to know. Sometimes, knowing was all you had in keeping you alive.
Howard began to fill the hole back in. He would need it to feel relatively untouched. After he had filled the hole back in, he sprinkled some leaves & dried twigs over the hole.
Lost in thought, Howard wondered if what he was going to do would end the violence... The conflict... The plague that infested the metal road & all the civilizations that it touched.
Ultimately, it didn't matter if the violence ended. The violence would always be there; Settlements had always hated other settlements, groups had always hated other groups. All violence & hatred needed were the flimsiest of excuses to ignite. One excuse was just as good as any other. Sometimes, the excuses were manufactured for the sole purpose of inciting violence.
'Like this one was,' Howard reminded himself, 'The one you helped create.'
'The one I'm going to end,' Howard corrected himself.
Howard began to construct a trap. If he was lucky, the trap would be sprung with all the witnesses he needed listening.
Little did Howard know that an event had occurred that would eclipse his plan.
The location of Malcolm's corpse was now the least of everyone's concern.
Frank reasoned that there were only two reasons anyone ever bothered to sign up for a religion: Either they were too stupid to realize that it was a ruse or they were smart enough to know that it was a ruse & wanted a piece of the action.
Already, Frank could tell that he was with a roomful of idiots who were more then willing to sacrifice their freedom for a little artificial peace of mind. The only use an idiot ever had was to do your bidding & Frank wasn't high enough on the food-chain for people to do his bidding just yet.
Kayla, Frank had discovered, was the only person that understood how corny the ruse at this "religion" truly was. Frank would have to determine whether or not to try & make Kayla his partner. Kayla seemed like a sharp knife in the silverware drawer but as someone once said, "A knife never has more then one handle." If Kayla was running a scam herself, then she would need to go as well. Frank hated competition, especially when it came to illegal activities.
What to do about "Mary," though, his "partner"? Frank knew he couldn't kill her outright on the cult's premises. He'd have to kill her, though, because she knew who he truly was & what he was up to.
Already, Frank had a good idea of how to get rid of Mary - Most women didn't last very long at the cult for one reason or another. He'd kill Mary, tell everyone that she talked to him & that she was returning to her previous lifestyle. It was a simple explanation that everyone would accept; She burned out. No one at the cult would follow up on the story because they'd all be too busy for scolding themselves over something petty like wishing their bean sprouts were tastier or some other sadomasochistic garbage.
As Frank listened to some garbage about purging his system of unhealthy foods that violated some obscure interpreted reference to one of The Four Books, he began to smile as he saw potential at his new home.
Little did he know that the "Mary" problem had solved itself already... And that it would ultimately lead to his downfall.
The world changed overnight.
The news spread more rapidly to some parts of the metal road then others.
First, there were the rumors. The mail car exploded. The mail car had derailed. The mail car was destroyed.
Then, the accusations began to swirl around. The priests did it. The travelers did it. Malcolm did it. The settlements did it.
Mary learned of the rumors from Angela & Salvare once they had gotten her off of the cult's property. Her extraction was easy; They waited by her door &, when she walked out, simply lead her off of the property with the help of Angela. There was no suspense; Kayla didn't run after her as Kayla was still asleep.
Salvare & Angela learned of the rumors from various travelers that had passed them by earlier in the morning.
"I have to get back to the campground," Mary said hastily, "At the least, to tell them where the prisoner wound up. Maybe Matt will want to do something."
"The metal road is dangerous already," Salvare tried to reason with her, "Let's all go together."
There was no talking Mary out of walking back to the campground. Angela told Salvare that she was practically running.
As Salvare & Angela stood there, Salvare wondered what he would do next. He had no obligations to anyone except to Angela. He took that as a cue.
"Angela," Salvare asked, "Would you like to go on a trip?"
Salvare had had enough of adventure for one lifetime.
The perfect storm of horrific news slammed into the campground like a tornado emerging from a clear, sunny day.
A guard at the campground had heard the rumors of the mail car disaster from passing travelers, all anxious & none of them concerned if they had sounded as anxious about the news as they really did.
The guard went to the main building with the information only to find two other guards having difficulty getting inside the building. Two travelers helped the guards gain entry into the building through a side window. Instantly, the odor of death could be smelled by even a novice.
By the time the front door had been opened, Andy had been awakened from elsewhere.
The news was grim - Three deaths, including Traveling Matt.
The news of Traveling Matt's death spread like wildfire throughout the campground, suffocating the mail car rumor completely & thoroughly.
The murderer (or murderers) had to be found. Search teams were set up; The campground was scoured for any newcomer who couldn't be vouched for by the guards or another traveler. Some travelers were detained briefly (one even mildly beaten) but all were released on later questioning & discovery of evidence pertaining to their innocence.
Andy felt the heavy burden of leadership fall upon him. As the saying went at the campground, "The leader is the one too slow to deny it & too stupid to pass it onto someone else."
As Andy made his first directives, he was unaware of an uninvited visitor inside the building.
He was also unaware that a third, equally vicious revelation was about to rock the metal road civilization...
Everyone was talking about it. The revelations. The horrific events that had occurred literally at the same time.
Howard had to piece together the story from several fractured & nearly incoherent rantings.
The mail car had been destroyed. The mail car had been taken. The mail car had been burned.
The traveler's campground had been attacked. 10 travelers were killed. 20 travelers were killed. The place was burned down. It wasn't burned down. Traveling Matt, the leader of the travelers, was killed. He wasn't killed. He was injured. He wasn't injured.
Malcolm did it. Malcolm didn't do it. The priests did it. The priests didn't do it.
Howard became so disgusted that he forcibly removed himself from the conversations. On a day when his own "revelation" should've been a bombshell, he quickly realized that his own story would be lost in the sea of idle chatter that had flooded the settlements like a sudden tsunami.
As Howard quietly walked away from the conversations, he heard a distinctive voice amongst the chatter. It was hard to make out complete sentences because of all the other conversations but he could hear snippets of the sentences just fine.
"Hey, I'm looking for..."
"Tall fella. Kinda nice sounding. Quiet."
"New guy. Just arrived. A day or so earlier then myself."
Howard fought his way through the crowd towards the voice. As he got closer, Howard instantly knew who it was.
"Sam?" Howard asked.
"Howard!" Sam replied, "I knew I'd find you here!"
"I, uh..." Howard sputtered, "What are you doing here?"
On a day that kept changing, Howard wasn't sure if finding Sam was a good or bad development. If Howard had been in dangerous situations before, what he was about to do would make the other times seem peaceful by comparison. Howard didn't want to risk Sam's life... Howard didn't even want to risk his own.
"Where are we going?" Angela asked as the two walked along the metal road.
"We're going to a quiet place," Salvare replied, "A place where you can live as you are & not as others want you to be."
"Oh, OK," Angela said.
"Why do they call this a metal road? There's not much metal here," Angela asked.
"They call it 'the metal road,'" Salvare replied, "Because of the two metal beams that run down the road."
Angela looked down at the two metal beams. Wooden planks, perpendicular to the beams, ran underneath the beams. Beneath even the planks was gravel & sand with the occasional weed sprouting forth.
"Oh, OK," Angela said.
"Are there other metal roads or is this the only one?" Angela asked.
"There are a lot of metal roads," Salvare replied, "This only being one of them. This metal road forms a big loop, like a circle."
"Oh, OK," Angela said.
"Do other people live at other metal roads or are we the only ones?" Angela asked.
"I don't know," Salvare replied, "Exploration is discouraged here by the priests. I doubt that we're the only ones, though."
"Oh, OK," Angela said.
"Why do grown-ups hide behind trees?" Angela asked.
Salvare stopped in his tracks, Angela stopping a step or two afterwards.
"Why do grown-ups hide behind trees?" Salvare repeated, partially in amusement & partially puzzled, "What do you mean?"
"There are grown-ups over there," Angela replied, forgetting that Salvare would never see that she was pointing ahead, "Hiding behind trees. I thought that grown-ups don't play games like hide-and-seek 'cause they're too old."
'They don't,' Salvare thought to himself, stopping in his tracks.
Frank had heard about the rumors. The events had even penetrated the isolated property of the cult.
Chaos was always a time of opportunity but these events didn't exactly compel Frank to leave the property.
First, Frank was still probably 'wanted' by the campground for escaping. For all he knew, the campground thought that he was the one who killed that 'Traveling Matt' character or whatever his name was.
Second, the hop line that Frank had helped set up as part of being in 'The Three Blind Mice' gang was to have extended to where the mail car was being kept. Odds were, his employer had simply hired another team to complete their job. Whether or not his employer would throw himself & his former gang to the wolves couldn't be relied upon. If he did, then he'd be hunted by just about everyone but the cult.
Frank resolved to lie low for a while & what better place to lie low then a cult that shunned any type of outside presence?
The only thing Frank had to worry about was "Mary," if that really was her name. He had heard that Mary had left the cult compound earlier & had not returned. In actuality, Mary's departure was more of a blessing then anything else; He could use the departure of his "girlfriend" to get in closer with Kayla. What better way to start a relationship then to gain the sympathy of having been "dumped"?
As Frank followed the rope line to Kayla's hut, he began to think of his upwardly-mobile prospects.
If he could set up a halfway decent scam at the cult, Frank would be sitting pretty & invisible while all of the ruckus on the outside world would be depreciating everyone else. Furthermore, he wouldn't have to cut anyone else in on his prospects, like two other former team members.
For the briefest of moments, Frank wondered if he would ever see his fellow teammates ever again. Probably not, he reasoned.
He would be correct.
Andy couldn't turn the campground into a prison... Even if he had wanted to. The campground had no real border & travelers could come & go as they pleased except for a few of the more common access routes.
The campground, though, was still abuzz in activity. Funerals were being planned for those who were killed. All hop lines near the campground were being taken down as a precaution. Guards were patrolling every square inch of the grounds, with some travelers volunteering for the patrols.
Andy had sent couriers to the priests & nearby settlements detailing what had occurred at the campground. He knew it would be important for them to have accurate, reliable information during a time of crisis. He didn't need inspired settlement patrols or self-righteous priests coming to the campground to impose their own version of what 'law & order' were supposed to represent. For all he knew, maybe Traveling Matt had been killed by the settlements or the priests.
It took Mary nearly four hours to finally talk with Andy face-to-face. Some guards knew who she was, others didn't. At one point, some guards thought that she might be a little too eager to get close to Andy & held her in a secluded room. Cooler heads prevailed, though & she was finally allowed to speak with Andy.
Of all the people to fill the shoes of Traveling Matt, Mary thought to herself as she contemplated a campground run by Andy. An eleven-year old boy was, on average, more responsible then Andy. Criminals often had more ethics then Andy although, admittedly, Andy was as far removed from the violent element that so often characterized criminals in general.
"Bottle Cap Andy" - The nickname was already beginning to circulate throughout the campground.
Mary & Andy's conversation was brief. She told him that the prisoner was hiding out at the cult but it wasn't his base of operations. Andy supplied Mary with the latest information on Traveling Matt's death & the destruction of the Mail Car. It was clear in Andy's voice that he was engrossed in other matters so the conversation ended there.
Mary came away from the conversation that Andy was taking the crisis seriously. Anyone, though, could grow a spine in desperate situations. The key was whether he would retain it when the decisions became more subjective & the costs of being seen as the campground's "leader" would be higher.
Neither Mary or Andy realized that a third party had overheard their brief conversation.
The Bat contemplated killing both Andy & Mary but he had other pressing concerns to deal with. Besides, he figured he would be able to return if he so desired it.
He would never know that it would be the last time he would step inside the campground again.
"A trap consists of only three things: Temptation, Opportunity & Predictability."
-- Quote, unknown origin.
The priest listened to Howard then spoke when he was done.
"Your allegations are elaborate," the priest began, "I presume that you have evidence to back up such allegations?"
"What if I told you that I know where Malcolm is buried... And I can draw the perpetrators towards his grave while spreading a falsehood throughout this settlement? Would you consider that as proof?" Howard asked.
"A falsehood?" the priest asked, puzzled.
"Only the perpetrators know where the true grave of Malcolm lies. Everyone else thinks that Malcolm could still be alive. With all of the recent activity, perhaps a rumor begins to spread that the grave of Malcolm has been discovered far away from here, with clear evidence indicating the perpetrators. Would the perpetrators not check the site of the actual grave, knowing where it is, to ensure that the falsehood is, indeed, nothing more then that?" Howard reasoned.
The priest thought for a moment.
"Guilt would not be determined by their action alone but it would rise to the level of suspicion," the priest reasoned.
"Regretfully," the priest admitted, "There is no fault in your argument that I can determine. It would truly be unfortunate if your theory proves to be correct but more unfortunate if the true perpetrators of strife remain unpunished."
"Would you like to visit the site in question?" Howard asked.
"We shall do so when the time is right," the priest replied, "I must have fellow witnesses with me when this incident occurs. I do not believe that my word may be sufficient should you prove to be correct."
The conversation ended soon thereafter, Howard leaving without incident.
The priest knew that there was a sincerity in the man's voice when he spoke, a sincerity not easily replicated by a trickster or instigator.
The priest knew, above all, that he would need guidance before he could proceed further. Quickly, he gathered his belongings. His trip would need to be fast if he were to take advantage of this opportunity.
Even the priest knew that a tripwire was of little use if the prey had already walked past it before it could be set up.
It had been a trap, a trap that Salvare would have walked right into had Angela not spotted it.
The ambushers had heard Angela's voice but, by the time the ambushers had run over to where Salvare & Angela had been standing, the two were already deep into the forest. Salvare could hear the angry & obscene-laden tirades of the ambushers off in the distance as they tried desperately to find their prey.
"We know your kind blew up the Mail Car!" Salvare could hear one of them shout, "We'll find you!"
Salvare & Angela walked deeper into the woods until they could no longer hear the ambushers.
"Why do they hate us?" Angela asked.
"There are people who judge other people based upon where they come from or what they do for a living," Salvare explained, "They don't understand that you're supposed to judge a person on who they are."
Salvare & Angela waited for a while in the woods. Angela described to Salvare the trees, the rocks & all of the other local surroundings. Salvare tried to imagine what Angela was looking at but he knew that he couldn't. Color was an abstract concept to him & always would be.
"Salvare, there's a man over there," Angela stated, again ignoring that Salvare would never be able to see the direction she was pointing in.
"On the metal road?" Salvare asked, concerned.
"In the forest, walking," Angela replied.
"Do you see a hop line?" Salvare asked, "Is he following a hop line?"
"I don't know," Angela said, "I'll go find out."
Before Salvare could even reply, he could hear footsteps running away from him.
"Angela!" Salvare replied, "Angela! Please wait!"
Angela rushed towards the man &, as she did so, could hear the faint hint of chimes off in the distance.
"I'm telling you," Sam stated, "It was Malcolm who did all this! I heard it from three travelers walking to this very settlement! They caught him & now he's being interrogated by the priests. Word has it that there are others behind all this as well."
Sam had injected himself into as many conversations as he could, reciting the same story with slight variations.
Elsewhere, Harold was spreading the same story.
Malcolm had been caught.
Malcolm had confessed to doing everything.
Malcolm swore that others were also in on the plot.
Most importantly of all, though - Malcolm had proof of co-conspirators. Malcolm had evidence.
Sam had caught up to some travelers just entering the settlement & had them agree to spread the story.
Between the two of them, they made certain that everyone in the settlement knew the rumor. The other travelers would soon spread it to other settlements. Soon, other travelers would spread the rumor even further.
Sam & Howard's plan wasn't for the rumor to become fact but that is what it soon became for reasons that far exceeded their comprehension.
The metal road civilization needed a villain, a personification for all of their recent grief & misery. They had found that personification in Malcolm. It didn't matter that Malcolm had long since died. It didn't matter that Malcolm's name was being used for the unfair convenience of other parties.
All that mattered was that two people in particular would take notice of the rumor... And they did.
The metal road was both deserted & crowded at the same time.
The metal road was deserted of travelers, seeking refuge at the campground, inside settlements or even making camps just off of the metal road using hop lines.
The metal road was crowded with bands of marauding patrols from settlements eager to lay blame of society's ills onto the travelers.
The Bat had little problem moving along the road, deftly defying no less then four such patrols as they scoured the metal road & the nearby forest bordering it.
"Road's no place for a traveler!" One patroller yelled out, adding, "You best just hide in the forest for now. If we can't find ya, we can't beat on ya!"
The Bat was half-tempted to take advantage of the patrols' amateur searches. It would have been easy to have killed a few of the patrollers as they wandered away from their packs, swiping at nearby vegetation with poles & sticks to see if they could intimidate scared travelers out of hiding.
The Bat, though, had a job to perform & he had a personal rule against "free" kills that did not advance completion of his jobs.
As he continued to walk towards the cult where one of The Three Blind Mice was hiding, he began to think of how he might attempt to find the third & final member of the gang.
The Bat also thought about how he could take advantage of the events that had unfolded recently. People enjoyed taking revenge upon others & The Bat envisioned that several offers to kill travelers & aggressive patrollers would begin to filter in. The Bat smiled as he realized that, in good times or bad, he was never without work.
Salvare could hear Angela running further away from him in the distance.
"Angela!" Salvare yelled out.
A dry, brittle & dead branch swatted Salvare right in the mouth as he attempted to close the distance between himself & Angela. Having no time to be reminded of what dead twigs tasted like, he pressed forward.
Unlike Angela, Salvare had to rely only on sound - The faster he ran, the louder the leaves crunched underneath his feet, the louder the twigs snapped as he bulldozed through them & the less he could hear of Angela running.
Salvare stopped for a moment, his ears ringing while listening to the sound of catching his own breath.
Nothing. No sound.
"Hey!" Angela said in the distance, "Stop!"
"Angela!" Salvare yelled, turning his head towards the direction of Angela's distant voice.
As Salvare ran towards the direction of Angela's voice, he wondered what would compel her to be so brash so suddenly. What had she seen to cause her to be so reckless?
"Hey!" Angela demanded, not knowing how whiny her youthful voice actually was, "Stop!"
"You're lost!" Angela tried to reason, the whine in her voice increasing, "We can help you find the metal road again! Stop!"
Suddenly, the man stopped & stood still. Slowly, he turned around towards Angela.
He looked directly into Angela's eyes & smiled.
"You're a special little girl," the man said calmly, "Your Daddy must be very proud."
Angela, stunned, said nothing in response.
"Read this to your Daddy," the man said, handing a large, folding piece of paper to Angela. Angela, numb, let the piece of paper fall from her hand. The man picked the piece of paper back up & stuffed it down the back of her shirt.
Angela never remembered the man leaving but did hear Salvare walk up behind her.
"You shouldn't be here," Alexander stressed, although his voice was as calm as though he were relaying the day's weather.
"It's all over the settlement... Probably beyond," Benjamin stated, "In a day or two, the entire..."
"The entire... metal road?" Alexander politely interrupted, "Will know what? Will know of a rumor with no evidence. Will know of several variants of a rumor... With no evidence."
"Men will also swing at sounds if they are frightened by them," Benjamin replied, "Regardless of whether they know if the sound is made with ill intent or not."
"The masses will celebrate more then anything else," Alexander bitterly admitted, "Their mail car destroyed, the heretics at the campground attacked... And still, they will celebrate all because of a rumor that supposedly answers their misery."
"We must address the rumor," Benjamin stressed, "At the least, we must be prepared in case this rumor... Develops unfortunately."
"How?" Alexander asked simply, "How do we draw attention to ourselves in order to make ourselves inaudible?"
"Should we not, at least, purge the last remains of actual evidence in the event, however rare, that this rumor persists?" Benjamin asked.
Alexander thought for a moment, then replied, "Absolutely. Under cover of gossip, no one shall notice if we are absent to perform other duties."
"Then let us begin," Benjamin said with a sigh of relief, "The sooner the burden is lifted, the better."
"Of course," Alexander agreed, "All burdens, eventually, should be disposed of
"I'm looking for Bent Road settlement," The Bat said, imitating an older man's voice, "A friend is waiting for me there."
"I'm sorry, sir," the chimesman replied softly, "But this is not that settlement."
"Oh," The Bat replied, remaining in character, "Would you tell me what this settlement is, then?"
"We are a religious establishment, sir," the chimesman replied, "We believe in following the pure intent of The Punishment of Man. Perhaps you have heard of The Four Books?"
"No," The Bat sheepishly answered, trying to sound both modest & interested at the same time, "I wasn't aware of them. They sound mighty intriguing, though. I suppose it wouldn't do any harm to hear more. You say you follow The Punishment of Man differently?"
Fanatics - The weakest form of Man that God had ever created. The Bat respected fanatics as much as he respected dead branches lying on the ground. If you had met one fanatic, you had met them all - Give them an ear & you'll hear a recording of their master's theology. They had willfully given up their free will to be led around by a charismatic leader who did all their thinking for them.
The Bat listened to the sales pitch for the cult's philosophy with an empty disinterest. All splinter religious groups thought that they could adhere to The Punishment of Man better then anyone else could. 'Follow us,' their sales pitch began, 'And we can save the world even better then the others. You don't want to be the last in line, do you? Don't you want to be the first that God saves... If God saves anyone at all, it will be us.'
It was easy to convince the chimesman that The Bat was serious in his intent to learn more. Fanatics, normal people otherwise, became fools when dealing with their beloved topic.
Without so much as a hint of suspicion, The Bat had set foot onto the cult's property. Being guided to the series of dwellings for new arrivals, all he needed to do was to find the one they called... Frank.
She claimed that the man could see her, that he had looked directly into her eyes. Salvare knew enough not to question it, although he wanted to politely call her bluff by making her read what the man had given to her.
"Y-yow," Angela read slowly, frustrated, "Yuh-yo-ow..."
"I can't," Angela whined.
"It's OK," Salvare said calmly, seated beside Angela, "Just read off each letter & I will tell you how the word should sound."
"OK," Angela replied, starting, "Y-O-U."
"You," Salvare replied.
"C-A-N," Angela stated.
"Can," Salvare replied.
"R-E-A-D," Angela continued.
"Read," Salvare replied.
They continued in this fashion, until Angela was finished reading all of the letters.
"If you can read this, travel to here," Salvare recited, partially to himseld but loud enough for Angela to hear it.
"Angela," Salvare asked, "Are there any more words on the paper?"
"No," Angela replied.
"Is there anything else on the paper at all?" Salvare asked.
"Just a picture," Angela replied.
"Would you please describe what the picture looks like?" Salvare asked.
"Some faces," Angela replied.
"Faces of... people? Real people?" Salvare asked.
"No," Angela replied, "Pretend faces."
"Pretend faces?" Salvare asked, "Are they made out of something? Drawn?"
"No," Angela replied, "The faces are in a mountain."
"In a mountain?" Salvare asked, "Are they boy faces? Girl faces? Faces of women...?"
"They're man faces," Angela replied, "They're not happy, either. They aren't smiling."
"How many faces are in the mountain, Angela?" Salvare asked.
"Four," Angela replied.
They waited in a lightly wooded area that smelled slightly like stale urine.
They waited under a sun that baked all what its rays hit & cooked what its rays couldn't.
The noise was kept to a minimum; Breaths were silenced, movements were stopped.
Six bodies, all laying in wait for a prey to arrive.
In the distant background, idle chatter from other people dotted the soundscape. Branches swayed, leaves fluttered.
Sam & Howard waited with the others, all silent.
What would happen? Would anything happen? What would happen if nothing happened at all? How long... How long before the others would become impatient? How long before Howard himself would become impatient?
Not a word, not a peep from any of the six as they continued to wait for the trap to be sprung. Four priests waiting with Sam & Howard, witnesses so that the allegations that Howard had made would be validated.
Suddenly... Footsteps approached.
The Bat was not belligerent; He allowed various members of the cult to talk to him about aspects of their belief.
The drivel that poured out of the orifices of the cult members was unimportant to The Bat. Every member simply regurgitated the same drivel over & over again. Man was doomed to extinction from God unless he followed The Punishment of Man. Only we could truly follow The Punishment of Man. We'll be saved & they won't. That Bat listened to no less then fifteen iterations of that argument.
Finally, there was a break in the brainwashing. The Bat was free to walk around the grounds to talk to other initiates about the experiences so far with the cult.
An older woman named Deidre said it was liberating to be away from all of the strife & violence that had besieged the rest of the metal road civilization.
Carl, practically a teenager, confessed that there wasn't "much action" here.
Simon aspired to become an occupant of the cave, where only the most observant of The Four Books' teachings resided.
On & on, each person was no more interesting then the last. Each was more brainwashed then the one before, each one so very convinced that they had finally found the culture of which to thrive in.
"Hi," a man said, shaking The Bat's hand, "I'm Frank."
"Frank," The Bat said pleasantly, "It's a pleasure to meet you... At last."
Four faces set into a mountain but no name. That was how Angela described the picture.
There were no mountains, obviously, anywhere near the metal road civilization. Salvare didn't even know where the nearest mountain could even be.
Salvare knew, deep in his heart, that Angela deserved to be with her own kind. She would need to be surrounded by people who wouldn't treat her as a freak or a threat to their culture.
A slight tremble formed in Salvare's hands as he contemplated, seriously for the first time, leaving the metal road civilization. It had been his home. His civilization.
For all he knew, the world beyond the comfort of the metal road would be ruthlessly unforgiving. Was there even a world at all? Perhaps the rest of the world had simply gone to rot? A shattered, cratered apocalypse of its former self?
"How are we going to find this?" Angela asked, a slight whine in her voice.
Salvare thought for a moment. He knew he would have to do it, to go into "Elsewhere." That bold realization caused the tremble in his hands to stop.
"I don't know," Salvare said confidently, "But I can tell you that we're going to find it. It's going to be like a camping trip, though. Have you ever been on a camping trip before, Angela?"
"No," Angela answered.
"Well," Salvare replied, "We're about to go on one. A real big one. Before we go on the camping trip, though, we're going to need to find out where those faces in the mountain actually are... And I think I know someone who can help us out with that."
"Who?" Angela asked.
"First," Salvare stated, "We need to find our way back to the metal road. Angela, could you help me find the way back to the metal road, please?"
"OK," Angela answered enthusiastically.
And in the distance, someone watched them walk away...
The voices were unmistakable; Howard fought hard to remain perfectly still as he heard the conversation emerge from the fog of silence.
"Two trees to the left," Alexander muttered to himself, following his own instructions, "Large branch... Large branch... Gap..."
Howard listened as Alexander, followed by Benjamin, drew closer to the site of the grave.
"Rock pile," Alexander said, his voice tinged with a sense of relief.
"Rock pile," Benjamin uttered as well.
Suddenly, the priests, Howard & Sam, all ambushers alike, heard the sound of metal hitting flesh. The sounds of a fierce & desperate struggle filled the air. As one, the ambushers sprang from their hiding places. Pandemonium arose as no one could distinguish friend from foe for the briefest of moments. The sounds of exasperated moans, shrieks of pain, clothes scraping against the ground, the trees... The flailing of arms & legs to hit anything flesh... And then...
The sounds of exhausted breaths.
Then, finally, the sounds of voices.
"Sam, are you OK?" Howard called out.
"Sam?" Howard repeated.
"Yeah," Sam replied, "I'm OK. Banged up my elbow."
The priests were relatively unharmed, save a few scratches on their faces. A few superficial bruises on their arms & legs were the result of unaimed flailings of limbs from both friend & foe alike.
Quickly, both Benjamin & Alexander were gagged & tied up. Howard actually felt himself feel the slightest pang of pity when he heard Alexander moan, "Let me go," just before the gag was slipped on.
One of the priests ushered over Sam & Howard as the sounds of the priests, with their captives, diminished back into the silence.
"I can assure you," the priest said nervously, "That you have performed an invaluable service today. Your services, though, are no longer required."
There was a pregnant, awkward pause, one so long that Howard almost spoke but was interrupted by the priest.
"I find myself tasked with a difficult message to convey but no eloquent way of conveying it. Forgive me," the priest said, adding, "The priests here today agreed that we should let you live for your service. I'm afraid that there are others above us who disagree."
"What are you saying?" Howard asked cautiously.
"What I am recommending strongly," the priest replied, his voice trembling, "Is that we broker a deal... One in which you voluntarily banish yourself from all traces of our civilization in exchange for us to say, when we get back that we have... killed you in compliance with our orders."
"You were supposed to kill us?" Sam asked, incredulously.
"I do not agree with that philosophy," the priest quickly defended, "But I have my orders. What is death, though, but the absence of existence & if you no longer exist where you are expected to be absent... Well, then... Is that not the same as death?"
"And if we don't banish ourselves?" Howard asked.
"I would really recommend that you reconsider," the priest replied, "For all of our sakes, if you wouldn't mind. All of us, after all, are in a way, disobeying a direct order from our superiors. If we are found to be disobedient..."
"You would die," Sam replied sadly.
"Yes," the priest agreed, "Most painfully."
"How much time do we have?" Howard asked, almost wistfully as the realization of banishment from the metal road civilization began to sink in.
"A few days, to be certain," the priest stated, "Of course, if you hid well enough..."
"Hide?" Sam asked, the indignity not even being veiled in his voice, "Hide in our own land? For helping you solve this whole thing?!"
"Ask yourselves," the priest replied, "What the consequences would be if people found out the truth? Ask yourselves if it is truly worth the additional hardship that would ensue?"
Howard asked himself that same question &, oddly, could not find the answer he desired the most. Neither, for that matter, could Sam.
"You seem to be a very perceptive man, Frank," The Bat had quietly told Frank off to the side moments earlier, "Is there a place where we can speak in private?"
The Bat had no desire to prolong the deception any further then it had to. The sooner that Frank was killed, the better.
The meeting place was behind a small storage shed, a rickety metal contraption prone more to its own faulty construction then to any force of nature to knock it down.
Frank never realized what had happened. The blade was sharp & fast. Frank tried to gurgle out a scream but all that emerged was a wet-sounding cough followed by an elongated wheeze that rose in pitch but not volume until, like a deflating balloon, there was only silence left.
The Bat dragged the corpse a few yards away from the building. The smell would give away its location but The Bat would be long gone by then. All that would be known was that an older man was the prime suspect, a charge that The Bat could easily avoid by simply disappearing back onto the metal road... Which he did.
As The Bat walked back onto the metal road, the world he had lived in... The world he had relied upon... The only world he had ever known... Was about to change irrevocably.
The insular nature of the metal road was about to be punctured...
The very beginnings of a civil war had taken root...
And the land simply known up until now as "Elsewhere," the land beyond the metal road, was about to get a formal name...
As The Bat walked down the metal road, he didn't realize that the golden age of the metal road had started its final descent. The halcyon days of priests keeping order, of settlements practicing virtual self-rule, of the campground housing those transients not content with living in one place was at an end.
What would emerge from the chaotic upheaval to come would be so starkly different from what was the cultural norms that it would be labeled by most to be "science fiction."
Others, though, would only consider it as "horror."
Gone was The New Darkness, replaced by The Edge of Twilight.
END OF PART I...
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