Authors: Tom D Wright
Tags: #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Adventure, #Post-Apocalyptic
We pass several other houses, then turn onto a path that cuts through the block around a small shed, and duck into some brush behind her home. Working our way forward carefully, we crouch down and examine a broken door about twenty feet away.
It slowly sways open and closed as the gentle, salty breeze pushes it one way and then the other. The concerned look on Danae’s face tells me that the entrance is not normally in this state of disrepair. I watch for a few minutes and see no movement, then gesture for Danae to stay where she is while I reconnoiter.
Keeping low, I dash across the back yard past a large vegetable and herb garden and stop at the door to listen. No sound comes from inside, so I glance around the corner of the house just in time to see the Disciples walk off. Holding the door ajar, I slip inside a small kitchen and stop.
Pots, pans, dishes and utensils lie strewn across the floor, and drawers have been thrown into one corner. Bags of flour, beans and grain have been slit open and spilled in one corner, and the shattered remains of numerous pottery containers of spices and herbs lie in a corner where they were hurled against the wall.
I carefully navigate through the obstacle course until I get to the entrance to the common room to ensure that there are no unwelcome guests. Then I return to the back door and gesture for Danae to join me.
When she steps into the kitchen, she gasps and stands in shock, taking in the scene. I urge her forward and she actually begins to cry when we enter what remains of the living room, dining room and Doc’s clinic. A tornado blowing through the house probably would have been neater.
Just like in the kitchen, every manner of container from the workbench has been opened, smashed or dumped out onto the floor. It even looks like some of the floorboards have been pried up in places.
Danae finally finds her voice as she whispers, “Why?”
“That’s a good question. Why don’t you tell me?” She stands there for several moments until my words register, and then she turns to me.
“What did you say?”
I step over to a leather chest that has been turned over and slashed to make sure there was not a false bottom. “If they wanted to exact revenge, they would’ve just torched the building. They were searching for something and from the looks of it, they wanted it pretty bad. So, aside from setting bones and removing fishhooks, what else was your father up to?”
Danae shakes her head slowly as she surveys the room. “I honestly don’t know. He said the device you were bringing was very important, even more important than his life. And if anything happened to him, I should get it to my uncle in Entiak. But he never told me why.”
“So that’s why you want to go to Entiak,” I state.
“No, I’m not holding anything back,” she hisses. “I figured now that Papa’s dead you were going to keep that reader thing. So taking it to my uncle never occurred to me.”
If there was anything of value hidden here, the Disciples would have already found it, so there is no point in our searching the home. Every minute we stay here makes me more nervous.
“Is there anything you absolutely can’t live without?” I ask Danae. “We need to leave, now, and we’re not coming back.” She hurries into a side room and a couple minutes later she emerges with a small bundle of clothing and a torn scarf.
“My mother made this for me, just before she died,” Danae explains as she ties the scarf around her neck. We make our way back out through the kitchen and into the brush.
When we get to the center of the stand of large, thick shrubs where it looks like some kids have built a small fort, I gesture for her to sit. I need time to think, and we are well-hidden within the vegetation behind rows of houses. No one will find us unless they stumble through here.
I knew the Disciples would come after Danae, but not this quickly. The only way they could have reacted so fast is if they know what happened up there in the hills, when it happened. They revile any communication technology more sophisticated than smoke signals, yet they must have descended on this town the moment their brother Disciple was killed.
I am seriously tempted to head straight out of town and return to the location of the cave to search for clues. This development represents an unprecedented threat to the Archives. But my planning for another countryside excursion is interrupted by the sound of shattering glass from the house.
Danae gasps as she scrambles to her knees. I follow her to the edge of the brush, then pull her back down just as the first flames start licking through one of the side windows.
Tugging her sleeve, I shake my head and gesture for her to follow me as I crawl away from the house. At the far end of the sheltering brush, I pause to give Danae a chance to compose herself before we head out of this town. She takes several deep breaths, wipes away her tears and nods at me. For someone who has just seen her whole life literally go up in flames, she shows remarkable fortitude. More than the average civilian.
We regain our feet behind the neighbor’s shed and stroll out onto the street. I glance back at a growing column of flames as we walk away, while a fire alarm bell begins to ring, a block over on the main street.
Ahead of us, standing at the end of the road leading out of town, two caped figures watch these events. When they see us, they begin to walk in our direction.
I slip my arm around Danae’s waist and pull her close so we look like a couple, and lean into her as I whisper in her ear, “You know this town. Where can we find a public place nearby, but not too public?”
“The seaman’s chapel,” she whispers back as we reach a street corner. Then she guides me to turn left toward the main street. “It’s always open during the day, but it’ll be empty except for a widow or two. I should know, I spent enough time there myself.”
Black smoke billows in a rising column above us, growing in size as we stroll arm-in-arm over to the main street. As we turn left, I steal a casual glance back, just in time to see the two Disciples reach the corner we recently vacated. They hesitate, and then the taller one gestures toward us and leads the short one our way.
Several dozen black-garbed figures roam in clusters along the main boulevard. Danae and I are among the few townsfolk out in the open. A few blocks ahead of us, several caped Disciples intercept a man running down the street.
Two of the Disciples hold his arms while the man cries out that he was responding to the fire bell. The third Disciple, apparently unsatisfied with that answer, uses the luckless fireman as a punching bag while several other volunteer firefighters stop and turn around to go home.
Danae quickly strides up to the door of a wooden building that must be at least a hundred years old. The structure is built on a small tract of land lined with dozens of weathered headstones. She pushes on the door, and we slip inside.
The interior of the building is a single large room, perhaps fifty feet long and twenty feet wide, filled with pews that face an altar at the far end. An elderly man in brown robes who is about my height but stouter in build looks up from the altar as we enter.
Danae dips her head and I follow suit. Then she leads us toward a small shrine on one side, where a bank of votive candles sits on a ledge facing a statue. The figure resembles the Virgin Mary, but standing in the midst of waves instead of clouds. Only a few candles are lit, but Danae kneels down and uses a wick to light a new one.
The priest turns back to tending the burned-down candles on the altar while Danae and I put our heads together. This town is crawling with Disciples, and I have no desire to take them on. I just need to avoid them long enough to get back to the travois and get the hell out of this area.
“We can’t stay here,” I whisper in a voice so low the words barely float out of my mouth.
“I know, Father Alendo closes the chapel after the evening bell,” Danae answers.
“No, I mean the town. We need to leave for Entiak.”
She hisses back, “Yes, but how are we going to get there?”
“I have an idea, but first we need to get past the Disciples,” I reply as the front door swings open and the two Disciples who were following us enter. I watch from the corner of my eye as they step inside the chapel and the door thuds closed behind them.
Whoever designed this chapel was an architectural genius, I think, because I notice that the wall surrounding the entrance has a fresco with a slight parabolic curve. We happen to be in the right spot to catch the acoustic echo of a low whisper from the taller and older of the men.
“These might be the two blasphemers that EV warned us about. We should test them.”
There is that reference to the initials ‘EV’ again. I tighten my grip on the knife I keep in a shoulder holster. It is not my favorite weapon, but it is the best I have handy at the moment. The Disciples have taken several steps in our direction when the priest at the altar calls them out.
“Greetings, brothers of a different cloth. What brings the brethren in black to my humble chapel? Have you come here to worship, in accord with the Coeur D’Alene Agreement?”
The two men stop, and the short, pudgy one grabs the arm of his companion and whispers something in his ear, which I cannot hear because they have moved out of the acoustic sweet spot. Then the tall man responds, “That agreement only applies with respect to ceremonies. It appears you are not in service, so we are not interrupting anything. We will be brief.”
“Do you have a plan?” Danae whispers urgently. This is one of those rare occasions when I have no clue what to do, and my deer-in-the-headlights look answers Danae’s question.
“I have an idea, but you need to trust me,” Danae whispers and stands, pulling me to my feet. Father Alendo glares at the pair of Disciples, then turns his gaze to us as we walk up to the altar.
“My child, it has been awhile since you’ve been here,” the priest says to Danae. “I trust you have completed your grieving rituals?”
“Indeed I have, so now I am free to take a new husband,” Danae loudly proclaims. “Father, we wish to be married right now. Erick goes to sea with the morning tide, and it will be many weeks before his fishing vessel returns. We just can’t bear to wait until then.”
Danae nudges me, and points to an offering plate on the altar. I am not sure this is such a good idea, but now that we have an audience I cannot get cold feet. Reaching into my pocket, I pull out a pouch and spill a handful of silver coins and a gold one into my hand.
The old man looks down at the small pile in astonishment and hesitates, apparently unsure how to respond. I tip a couple more gold pieces into my palm, and he is suddenly sure.
“I, um, understand your urgency. Let me put on my vestment, my child,” he says as he sweeps the coins into his hand. When he deposits the coinage in the offering plate and dons his garments, I notice a reflection in one of the polished metal panels on the altar. The image is distorted but I can see that the Disciples remain at the door, watching us.
Turning back to us, the clergyman chants an opening prayer and then places a hand on each of our heads while he loudly asks, “Do you both freely wish to join together, as faithful and lifelong partners?”
“Yes, I do so wish,” Danae responds while I wonder, what the hell is she thinking? Then I consider the pair of Disciples behind me, plus what must be at least three or four dozen of them on the street behind them. If I do not respond, my life will be a short span indeed.
“Yes, I do so wish,” I answer.
The priest then asks, “Do you both pledge to shelter each other from the rain, to warm each other in the cold, to nurse each other in sickness?”
“Yes, I do so pledge,” Danae responds and I follow her lead as I glance at the reflection.
“We were mistaken, these aren’t the ones we’re looking for,” one of the Disciples calls to Father Alendo. Then they turn toward the exit.
The priest ignores them and continues, “Do you both, in all conviction and with caring, give to each other all that which is yours to give, holding back nothing with regard to love and respect, obligation and service, for all your days on earth?”
“Yes, I do so give,” Danae and I both answer, as I watch the Disciples walk out the door.
The priest smiles as he joins our hands together. “Then in the eyes of God above the land and below the sea, I bind you both together for life: breath to breath, heartbeat to heartbeat. May your days together be long upon the earth. You may now kiss.”
Danae looks at me with a raised eyebrow, until I recognize her cue and turn to give her a quick peck. She rests her hand on my shoulder as she leans into the kiss, and I lose myself in the softness of her lips and the taste of her mouth, so that the moment extends far longer than I expect.
Just as I reach the point where I do not want it to end, it is over and I am wondering what the hell just happened. My God, that woman can kiss!
Get a grip, I remind myself, you are on a retrieval in the midst of a conflict. And we are supposed to be friends. So I shove my feelings in that warrior’s lockbox, which I probably will not open anyway when I get back to the Archives. There is just too much in there.
The priest leans over and whispers. “I hope you don’t mind that I cut straight to the vows, since you only have a few hours together. I didn’t think you’d want to waste your time on ceremony.” He winks at us, and folds his hands together.
My head is spinning as I thank him and grab Danae’s hand. We retrieve her bundle of clothing and then I haul her down the aisle as fast as we can move without running. I just want to get the hell out of this town, but I am certain the priest interprets my eagerness to leave his chapel of love for something else altogether. Which is fine with me, in case the Disciples return and question him about us.
Dusk is settling in when we exit, and the street appears to be clear of Disciples for the moment. Maybe they have their own service to attend.
We head toward the edge of town while I figure out the next step of our plan. I must get to Entiak within a week. Even if I were traveling alone, it would still take at least two weeks to travel over land, and that would be after procuring a couple of horses, which is not an option here and now. That means we have to find passage on the waterfront.