“If they zombify you, I’ll kill you myself, I promise,” said George. They hid their stolen food under a decomposing log a nice safe distance away from the compound, then George led Wynefrede around the compound, on the side furthest away from the volcano.
“The place is basically a circle,” he said. “There’s a big plaza in the middle, with a tree in it. At the top, towards where the volcano is, there’s the temple. You’ve already seen the main building where they live. There are a few smaller buildings around the circle, and an orchard on the far side. Up ahead there’s a path that leads down to all the fields. If you follow it, you get to a different stream. They do the laundry there. I guess that will take you down to sea as well, but you’d come out on some other part of the coast. I haven’t been down it all the way.”
“Why are we going there? Should I be at the temple, trying to figure out how the gate works?”
“I want to get you some new clothes first,” said George. “Your dress stands out a little too much.”
Wynefrede thought her dress, which was by now stained with mud and ripped in too many places to count from crawling around through thorns, was perfect camouflage. She looked down at herself. “I guess it would stand out if I was spotted going into the temple.”
“We’ll get you a robe like the cultists wear. There are usually a bunch hanging up to dry.”
He was right. There were plenty of robes hanging on clothes lines stretched behind a small utility shed near the water. George grabbed several and gave one to Wynefrede. She stepped back into the trees to change. When she came back, he’d rolled up the other robes and tied them up into a neat and slightly damp package that he slung over a shoulder. Then he led her back up to the main compound, this time coming up from the other side of the circle, behind the orchard, because he hadn’t been there yet and wanted to find out if there was anything interesting back there.
“And they haven’t spotted you?” Wynefrede asked.
“Not as far as I could tell,” said George. “Though when Elyon dies, he’s definitely going to tell them about me.”
Wynefrede thought of the cult member, lying broken on the rocks near the foot of the waterfall, and felt a cold chill run down her back. Was he still there, screaming in pain? His cries drowned by the thundering rush of the water? She didn’t want to go back and find out. But not knowing, thinking he was still there, was even worse.
George stopped ahead of her and held up a hand, then pointed to a dense area of undergrowth up ahead.
“That goes all the way to the back path,” he whispered. “The temple has a big entrance at the front, but you’d be too visible if you tried to go in that way. There’s a smaller door at the back.”
“That’s where we came out when you rescued us, right?” she asked.
George nodded and handed her the crowbar. “Take this. The door was locked last time and I had to pry it open. I don’t know if they’ve fixed the lock since. There were a couple of other rooms back there. I didn’t check them all. Once I found you guys, I was just thinking about getting you out.”
Wynefrede tucked her hair down under the collar of the robe and pulled the hood up over her head. Then she weighed the crowbar in her hand. She thought she could use it against someone if she had to.
They crept through the thicket until they were directly across the path from the back entrance to the temple. It was a short run across. To their left, the path led straight back from where they’d come, to the orchards. To their right, the path bent around towards the main buildings. “That’s where people are mostly likely to be walking from,” George whispered. “Give me a moment to hide right there, where it turns, so I can see if anyone is coming. I’ll whistle once if I see a cultist.”
She nodded, gripping the crowbar, then watched as he disappeared back into the trees. After a couple of minutes, she saw a slight motion from the bushes at the curve in the path. If she hadn’t been watching for it, she wouldn’t have known that anyone was there. She took a deep breath, looked in both directions, then crawled out from under the hedge, got to her feet, and dashed to the door. There was a latch on it, but no lock. In seconds, she was inside.
It was dark and quiet in the temple. She didn’t have a light, and wouldn’t have wanted to light one if she did, but the door had a small opening at eye level that allowed a sliver of light through. It took a minute for her eyes to adjust, then she began exploring.
She found the room where they’d been kept almost immediately. The lock had already been replaced, so she pried it open, moving slowly and carefully to make as little noise as possible. The room was now stacked with crates. She crept inside, easing the door shut behind her. The crates looked spooky in the bluish glow cast the gate in the wall to the right. She glanced at the portal’s surface. If she stuck her head through, would her memory instantly be wiped? Or did the memory wipe only happen on the other side of the gate — or only if someone issued a command? Obviously the cult leaders had a way to go in and out.
She decided to not risk it and went to look inside the crate. Ones closest to the door had lids that lifted easily, and were empty. The crate could be useful, she thought. If she and George could get it down to the coast, they could use it for storage, for seating, as a table. If they had enough of them, they could fill them with rocks and sand and build a wall for a shelter. But the crate was too large. It would take at least a couple of people to carry it and it would be awkward to get it through the forest. She hoped that they weren’t going to be on Lamacoln long enough to make it worthwhile.
The crates along the wall across from the gate, and those on the far side of the room, were still nailed shut. She pried one open. It was filled with wheels of cheese. She crossed to the far end of the room and pried open one of the crates there. It held guns. Old-fashioned guns. She picked one of them up. It was a long rifle, with a wooden butt and stock. Only the firing mechanism was metal with a long metal piece that hung down from it, and there was a long metal barrel set into the top. It looked hand-made. It must have come from the gate. There hadn’t been any time for crates to be shipped in by sea and carried up the mountain.
When she’d been freed from captivity during the battle behind Sangeries Castle — that felt a lifetime ago now — one of her rescuers had a gun like this. She held the gun up to the light of the gate and peered closer at it. It looked the same kind of gun, but she couldn’t be sure. She put the gun back and put the lid back in its place. The nails were loose now, but maybe none of the cultists would notice, or, if they did, would think that one of them did it.
She’d tell George and the rest about the guns. If any of them knew how to use shoot antique weapons, they could always come back for them later.
She looked around the room. All the lids were closed. Nobody would be able to tell she’d been there. She hoped. She went to the door, put her ear to it, and listened. She didn’t know if that worked or not, but she couldn’t hear anything, so she eased the door open and peered out. The hallway back the exit door was still empty, the door still closed. She looked the other way. Nobody was coming.
She pried open the latch on one locked door and found a small storage room with candle holders, fancy robes, and other ceremonial objects. The next one was unlocked and led to an office with a small window set high in the wall, its wooden shutters open slightly to let the air in. There were a couple of soft chairs on one side of the room and a writing desk with a wooden office chair behind it on the other. On the desk, there were old-fashioned paper ledgers, quill pens, and an ink bottle. The glanced through one of the ledgers, hoping for a clue about who wanted to kidnap her. There were lists of names she didn’t recognize at first glance, but she didn’t have time to look through it all.
She had to find out how the gate worked. Maybe on her way out, she’d come back and grab a couple of the books.
She tiptoed to the door and listened. She was about to push it open when she heard something and froze. It sounded like footsteps. And voices. They were coming her way. Panicked, she looked around. One of the chairs was pushed into a corner. If she pulled it out a little bit, she might be able to hide behind it. Instead, she stepped behind the desk, pushed away the office chair, crawled under the desk, and pulled the chair back in behind her as far as it would go with her being in the way.
The back panel was a couple of inches off the floor. She scooted around and put her face on the floor just in time to see the door swing open and a pair of sandals step into view.
“We’ll have some privacy in here,” a man’s voice said. “Omael, Ophanim, keep watch to make sure that nobody disturbs us. No, further away. All the way down at the end of the hall. Keep going!”
The voice’s owner stepped inside, muttering “I work with idiots” under his breath. He turned around then took a pace back towards the door. “Come in,” he said. She saw a second pair of feet, in boots, then the door closed behind them.
“Is there anyone outside the window?” the second voice asked.
It sounded vaguely familiar, but she couldn’t place it. Maybe George would have recognized it, she thought. But he wouldn’t have been able to fit under the desk.
“There’s nobody out there. But I’ll look and check.” The man in sandals walked to the window and Wynefrede saw their heels lift off the ground. “There’s nobody out there.” He walked back to the desk and turned. The desk moved and settled slightly. He must be leaning against it, she thought. The hem of the man’s robe now blocked most of her view, but she could just make out the second set of feet walking to one of the soft chairs.
“You said you have some bad news?” The other man sat down. Wynefrede could tell because he stretched his feet out. She could see his pants, almost all the way to his knees. She didn’t recognize them. In fact, from this distance, she could barely tell she was looking at pants.
How did people with her bad eyesight even survive back in the old days, she wondered.
“Both of the prisoners escaped,” said the sandals.
“What? Even Finnbogi?”
Wynefrede bit her lip to keep from gasping. Why were they talking about her old boss?
“We call him a different name now,” said sandals. “Ummm… Temeliel. But yes. He ran away yesterday. But he’s tried running away before, and we found him and got him back. There’s nowhere for him to go.”
“It’s a big island,” said boots.
“Not that big, And he’ll get hungry eventually.”
“If he dies, we’ve lost him for good.” The one in boots sighed. “Three years we managed to keep him locked up. You’ve had him for a week and you’ve lost him. Twice. And we’re so close, too. What about the other one?”
“Wynefrede Auberden? We had her tied up with a couple of others but they got loose and are out there somewhere. We haven’t found any signs of them yet. Maybe they’re both dead.”
“Not yet,” said boots. “At least, not as of five minutes ago. I’ve got someone in the real world waiting for them to show up. They haven’t left Krim. Did you at least manage to wipe their memories first?”
“We can’t let them get out. They know too much.”
“If you’d finished on time, both of them could have been on your world already,” said sandals.
“We had some delays configuring the gates. But we’re almost done. If you can find Finnbogi and Wynefrede, and just keep them safe for a couple more days, Champion will be ready.”
“Champion of Humanity. That’s what we decided to call it. It sounds better than Base 78.” The man shifted in his chair. “Things were easier in the old days. You killed someone and they were gone for good, and they took everything they knew with them.”
“I’ve already had to change my identity because of a screw-up. I don’t want to have to scuttle Champion, too. That would set us back years. We’re so close.” He stood up. “What do you need?”
“People. I can make up a reason to have my angels start searching the island. I’ll tell them its a game or something. But we need more bodies to help look. Like you said, it’s a big place.”
“I’ll round up some volunteers. What else?”
“We can use more money,” said sandals. “Krim is charging us an arm and a leg for the memory gate, and we’re getting some donations from our angels are starting to come in, but aren’t enough to cover it yet, plus all our other operating costs.”
“What about the gun sales?”
“That helps. The pirates love us. But if we scale it up too high, the grid will notice and shut us down.”
“They might have already noticed.”
“We’re out in the middle of nowhere. The Krim admins aren’t going to bother to come all the way out here.”
“If they do, make sure there’s no evidence for them to find. Meanwhile, I’ll lean on my people, make sure the grid continues to look the other way.”
Sandals grunted and moved away from the desk. Wynefrede held her breath until both of them were gone, and the door closed behind them. She wiped her sweaty hands on her robe and took a deep breath.
She waited a few minutes, long past the time when the sound of voices and footsteps had faded, then pushed away the chair and crawled out from under the desk. Crowbar in hand, she tiptoed to the door, leaned against it for a minute, then eased it open. The hallway was empty.
She trotted down the hallway to the exit. She didn’t have the nerve to stay in the temple any longer. Half way to the end, she heard a creak and the back door started to open. She froze for a second in panic, then looked around for a place to hide.
The door swung open further. “Is this latch supposed to be open?” she heard someone ask.
She turned around and ran for the nearest door, opened it and ducked inside. She was back in the room where they’d been held prisoner. The room with the gate and the crates. She considered going through the portal again, then turned to her left. One of the empty crates was on the floor with nothing on top of it. She lifted the lid, stepped inside, and folded herself up as small as she could, then pulled the lid back over her.
Right after she closed it, she heard the door to the room slam open.
“There’s nobody here,” an unfamiliar voice said.
“Open all the crates,” said the voice that belonged to the man in sandals.
“What if they went out through the gate?”
“They didn’t,” said sandals. “Vladimir says that both of our prisoners are still on Krim.” There was a pause. “They’re probably trying to steal some guns.”
Wynefrede heard footsteps, then the sound of a lid being lifted off a nearby crate.
“This one’s empty. They probably all are. Who could fit in there?”
“The woman can. Search them all.”