Rick crested the hill, and gazed down on the tiny hamlet of roughshod housing, tatters of metal held up little more than hope and luck. Even at this distance, he figured that there couldn’t be more than eighty people who lived there total. He looked to the north side of the village, and found something of an oddity; a stone building, recently rebuilt from discarded bricks and mortar. It was by far the largest building in sight, a tribute to the hard work of the people currently working on it. A symbol made of scattered stones littered the ground. It was in the shape of a ram’s head, the horns curving around.
“Nice digs.” Rick was trying to sound positive, but sympathy crept in. Cat turned around with a sad smile.
“It is something, though I am sure it is nowhere near as amazing as the overcity. It is not much, but it is home.” Cat then started making her way down the hill, carefully traversing the rubble strewn landscape on the hillside.
The woman stepped beside him, a far off look in her eye. “Are you seeing what I’m seeing? Cause I’m seeing some serious bullshit, Rick.” She pointed to the stone building. “I can’t believe the bastards forced the people here to build them a temple.”
“The sad part is I’m not sure it’s so forced. Do you see anybody holding a whip to them?”
“Doesn’t make it right. You know that as well as I do.” The woman’s odd voice once again masked what was barely repressed rage. Rick had begun to grow accustomed to how she emoted now: instead of using her voice, the woman used her face and stance to show what she felt. It made things a lot better, since he could understand her better now.
“Right and wrong aren’t for me to decide, Lady. I’m paid to solve problems, not find them.” He started making his way down the hill, and the woman followed closely.
“What kind of shit answer is that, Rick? You heard the stories that Cat told you. I only got a section of it, and it sounded like crap from start to finish.” A small tumble of rocks rolled down as she made a slight misstep and recovery.
“I’m not saying it’s fair. I agree with you, but our job here isn’t to deal with every piece of crap we see along the way. We just don’t have the time.” Rick dropped to one knee and did a careful slide down a stretch of hill. The woman slid down after him, and they walked side by side on the well trod path ahead of them. Rick looked in the distance, and saw several people stopping to look at the party that had come down the hill.
The woman grabbed Rick’s shoulder in an unexpectedly harsh metallic grip, and spun him around. Her crystal eyes blazed with an inner light. “You don’t get it, do you? There’s no one to help. Your overcity is trying so hard to look like Canada isn’t hurt, that it literally covered up its biggest bruise. Tough fucking luck though, ‘cause this shit gets worse.” She pointed to the temple; at this distance, it seemed much bigger, imposing even. “My mother broke trying to stop shit like this. These people are being used by huge assholes, and I won’t stand for it.”
“What do you want us to do about it? We’re two people, Lady. Two! There’s just not enough of us to do what you want right now.” He was close to losing his temper, his frustration steaming the edge of his mind. “What you’re asking to do is literally the shittiest thing you could do right now. We’ll probably die, these folks will probably still be stuck like this, and we won’t have helped with the monster problem. So which will it be, princess? ‘Cause you have to understand that you can’t just punch the fucking problem away. If we get rid of the monsters, we can get rid of the Lamb; but we can’t just march in there, guns blazing.”
Her shoulders heaved, her temper visibly beneath the surface. Her frizzy red hair fell over one of her eyes, and the other one glowed violently. Several deep breaths and long moments later, she stood back a little. “Point. Fine.” She made to leave, but snapped back at Rick after a couple paces. “But I’m not going to like playing this game, Rick. This is horse shit.” Dust filled her wake as she strode forward.
“Never said it was anything but lady,” he whispered under his breath, “I’m still with you on that one.”
The people living there came in all kinds: some were visibly worse for wear, with teeth missing and sores from one too many close calls with the violent chemicals down in the old city. Others looked like Cat: pristine. It made no sense to Rick, and his head kept spinning trying to come up with answers. He had to remind himself that the perfection of people down here wasn’t his primary concern: he was hired for a job. That was all he could hope to accomplish down here, and even doing that seemed like a much bigger job than he initially signed on for. He made a mental note to ask for a bonus.
The people started ushering them towards the temple when he asked to meet their leader. This, Rick felt, was a bad sign overall. It didn’t help that the closer they got to the temple, the more intimidated he felt by it. It was much more than just a lot of stone ruins brought together: it was a proper place of worship. A large stone archway led to a somber interior, a dark purple glow cast from within. The rocks used to build the temple were visibly the bones of other buildings before, scavenged together to create this cold recreation of a church. A large bell sat out front, cracked and rusting apart. This rang loudly as their guides brought them before the front step, and the crowd parted to reveal Rick, Cat, and the woman.
A man in a dark robe stepped out of the archway, his balding head still fighting for its hairline. His hooked nose poked out from underneath a heavy forehead. Rick was surprised the man could look down.
“Welcome, wanderers.” The man opened his arms in welcome, but his voice was a slime slicked stone. “I am Father Ora. We are not graced by newcomers, but He protects us. Who speaks for you?”
Cat stepped forward lightly. “I do, your grace.” Her voice was strong, confident. Rick was surprised that the girl from the crypts could sound so mature.
“Why do you bring them? What have they done to deserve our hospitality?” Ora’s voice darkened like a burned stick, rough and ashen.
“These two saved my life. I owe them much.” Cat bowed her head for a moment, and then continued. “They can help, so they say. They can drive the demons from our home.”
A chorus of murmurs came from the assembled audience. Whispers of incredulity, of surprise, and of lies muddled together into a low, thunderous rumble. “I speak the truth!” Cat implored them, her hands palm upwards. “I have seen them fight the demons before, and they won. They can save us!”
“Silence!” Ora slammed his hand on the bell, a cheap resonance echoing out. “Child, you speak of the good of these outsiders, and yet you keep from us important knowledge. Where are our brothers and sisters of the Lamb with whom you travelled? Why are they not here, touting their success and sacrifice?”
Still fresh images of the other cultists flooded Rick’s mind. Shaking off the bloody memories, he looked over at the woman to see how she was faring. Her outward appearance was stone, locked in place. Anyone else seeing her would see complete calm, but Rick knew she was concentrating intensely on maintaining her facade. Underneath ran currents of rage, bringing fresh wave after wave of dark thoughts.
“They succumbed to the demons.” A flat response, thought Rick, and a complete fabrication. Still, if anyone bothered to look at their corpses, no one would be the wiser. The remains are beyond recognition now.
“Is that so?” The man cooly looked at them, and smiled wickedly. “Because someone has told me otherwise, and your heathen ways are known to me. Come, Damien, tell them what you heard.”
Damien, the little boy from before, stepped forward from behind Ora. “They killed my father, the priest sent with the group, in cold blood. The woman is a demon and murdered them all, and they would have murdered Cat too if the monsters had not arrived.”
Rick couldn’t help himself. “You’re just a little shit, aren’t you?”
Panic flooded the woman’s mind as their tense but controlled situation completely dissolved. Suddenly, everyone was a potential threat, every pair of eyes a target. She grasped her handgun, but just as she was about to level it, a hand grabbed her wrist. Looking to her right, RIck held her fast.
“Rick, what are you doing.”
He shook his head curtly and whispered. “I’m stopping you from making a big mistake. Take a look around you.”
Scanning the crowd, she saw palpable fear. Ever pair of eyes was on her, hoping against hope that they were not the target of her ire. In every face, she saw the blood she had on her hands in the church. She let go of the gun’s handle, and raised her hands.
Ora’s slick voice carried through her mind. “A wise decision.” He moved down the steps and stopped in front of Cat. “I am so, so very disappointed in you.”
Cat began to cry lightly, her tears welling in the corners of her eyes. “I am more disappointed in you, father. You call me a liar when you preach horror. You are a monster, worse than any we’ve sacrificed for.”
The slimy bastard stood motionless. After several long, silent moments, his hand came in a fast arc and slapped Cat across the face with enough force to knock her down. “You will pay for your treachery girl. Death is far too simple for you.” He walked over her prone body, and made his way in front of the woman and Rick.
“Rick…” The woman hoped beyond hope that Rick had an answer to this problem. Her rage quickened her blood, and it was all she could do to stay still. Ora stopped in front of her, and the temptation to grab his head and end him was overpoweringly strong.
“You are of no real concern to me. You will die, and He will bless us for having murdered deceivers and tricksters. You have murdered our kin, and so shall we murder you.” He turned and started walking when a fiery bouquet of flares exploded from his back. The woman turned towards Rick, who has his repeater in hand.
“Sorry Lady. I don’t like being called a liar.” His voice was thick with anger, and suddenly, the woman felt more in common with Rick than she would have guessed.
A shocked silence fell over the crowd, and for what felt like an eternity, no one moved. Death had stilled the moment, and the pall had fallen on the crowd. Damien stared with his mouth agape. Cat had stopped crying, and stared at Rick with fearful eyes. The world had gone still.
Damien recovered first, and ran into the church screaming. “Kill them! Kill the demons!” He disappeared inside the church and the echoes of his cries burred together into a shrill shrieking.
The crowd then realized what was going on, and ran for their homes. Dust marked where the hamlet had been, and it was just Cat, Rick, and the woman standing in front of the church.
“Hey, Rick.” She turned to him as the sound of footsteps came from the church. Many, many footsteps.
“Yeah?” He clipped a new slug into his repeater, and unslung his rifle, aiming at the doorway. The footsteps thundered louder, and closer.
“In case we don’t make it out of this, my name is Skie.”
“Sounds great, Skie; but I don’t plan on dying.”
“You’re so fucking cliched it’s hilarious.”
End of Part 18