Ellison took off his assassin jacket, the one that made him look like a noob wearing a default system outfit. But it had so many useful pockets. He doubted that he was going to be able to get it replaced all the way out here in the middle of nowhere. Still, he rolled it up and poked it out from the boulder he’d been hiding behind. A volley of gunfire immediately followed and he jerked the jacket back and examined it. No bullet holes. He waited a couple of moments then poked the jacket out again.
This time, the volley was cut short. Did the shooter run out of bullets? Ellison pocked his head out.
At the top of the path, a robed cultist staggered out, clutching at his neck, an arrow piercing it all the way through. The monk took two more steps and collapsed.
Clinio stepped out and picked up the man’s dropped automatic rifle. “We’re clear,” he called down. “Follow me.”
Ellison ran up the path, struggling back into his jacket as he tried to keep Clinio in sight. As he got closer, he saw that what he’d taken for a random mass of jungle foliage was a large gate, heavily ornate, with vines growing up the sides. The black iron doors were open and the main path led through it, with a smaller branch forking off to the left. He glanced in that direction. It seemed to be going into jungle, but he could see a threat of smoke curling up into the sky above the tree tops. The trees must be blocking the view to the volcano, he thought, and made a mental note to the avoid the volcano path.
He went through the gate, glancing at the trees first on one side, than the other. Was there someone waiting to shoot him somewhere in there?
Clinio didn’t seem to be worried. The man was quickly moving along, towards a large stone building with a small door.
When Ellison caught up to him, Clinio was trying to open it.
“It is locked?” Ellison asked.
“There’s a latch here,” said Clinio. “Looks like it’s been pried open, then repaired.” He pushed at the door. “I think they’ve got it barred from the inside.”
“Can you shoot it open?”
Clinio looked up at Ellison. “You’ve been watching too much TheyTube.”
Ellison didn’t say anything because Clinio was right. During his five years in prison, he had a lot of free time on his hands and instead of using the opportunity to better himself, he’d binged shows.
Clinio turned away from the door, walked around to the edge of the building, then stopped and listened. Ellison joined him.
“The shooting’s dying down,” Clinio said.
It was, in fact, quiet. Then a shot rang out in the distance, followed by a scream of pain and silence again.
“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” Ellison tried peering around the corner, but Clinio stopped him.
“Someone’s coming,” the security chief whispered, stepped back from the corner and raised his commandeered gun.
Freer appeared on the path in front of them, saw the gun pointed at him and jerked to a stop. “It’s just me.”
Clinio lowered his gun. “Did we get them?”
“We got all the shooters,” said Freer. “All cultists. The commandos are all gone except for one guarding the front entrance of the temple.”
“Did you find the prisoners?” Clinio asked.
“No, they must be inside.”
“What about the gate?”
“It must be inside as well.”
“We should search all the other buildings, just in case,” said Clinio. “And once we get into the temple, we should send someone through the gate, find out if the prisoners escaped through it, or have already been killed.” He shook his head. “The worst case scenario is that they’re hidden somewhere else on the island and we’d have to spend weeks looking for them.”
“It could be worse,” said Freer.
“You’re right,” said Clinio. “They could have doubled back with the prisoners, back to shore, and had another ship ready to take them somewhere else.” He sighed. “I hate this place.”
Freer grinned. “It’s starting to grow on me. I haven’t been on a hunt like this for years.” He glanced at Ellison. “What about you? Enjoying yourself?”
Ellison didn’t say anything. The three of them walked around the side of the temple. At the far end, a group of of Clinio’s men, plus Matilda, were gathered and waiting for them.
Matilda was covered in blood and was looking particularly happy. She must have sliced a lot of throats.
Barret the Beast appeared from the woods on the other side of the path. “Look who I found!” He stepped away from the trees and three ragged-looking Singletons trudged out after him.
George Bedgbery, Margarett Pennebrygg, and Benedicta Berenewelt all looked much the worse for wear. Their fancy sixteenth century travel clothing had been replaced by cult robes and all three were scratched-up and unkempt.
“They were wondering out in the woods,” said Barret.
“We heard the shooting,” said George. “Wanted to see what was going on.”
“You could have been killed,” said Ellison.
“If we were lucky, yeah,” said George.
“If you guys managed to escape, why didn’t you kill yourselves?” Clinio asked.
George glanced away.
“None of us could work up the nerve,” said Margarett.
“We were hoping someone would come and save us,” said Benedicta. “And you did.”
Clinio shook his head, then looked back at the temple. “Do you know anything about the layout here?”
“There’s a hypergate inside,” said George. “But it’s supposed to lead to some kind of fiery hell.”
“I think it leads into the volcano,” said Margarett.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” said Clinio. “The volcano is close by. There’s a path. Why have a gate to it?”
“Maybe that’s where the real exit gate is,” said George.
“We saw the flames,” said Benedicta. “We were next to it when it was used.”
“In the temple, the hypergate is in the main room, set into the wall,” said George. “And there’s a smaller room on the other side of it where they were tied up.” He nodded at the two women. “That’s probably where they’ve taken Wynefrede and the other guy.”
“We saw them get captured last night,” said Margarett. “But we couldn’t do anything.”
“There were too many of them,” said George.
A single gunshot rang out, immediately followed by a scream.
They all glanced at the temple.
“The guy at the front entrance is good,” said Barret. “Excellent gun discipline. Good aim. Doesn’t waste bullets. Nice defensive position. He can hold us off for a long time. We couldn’t get any archers close enough without being exposed. But we all have guns now. Took them from the cult.” He shook his head. “None of them knew what they were doing. It’s like they never saw a gun before.”
“We can rush him from both sides.” Matilda raised a bloody knife, then frowned at it and cleaned it off against Ellison’s sleeve. He stepped away.
“Sure,” said Clinio. “Let’s surround him. Get a couple of people on both sides.” He looked at the open area in front of the temple. “Can we get someone positioned directly across from the entrance? Maybe in those trees?”
“The trees are too thin to hide behind,” said Barret. “There’s a smaller building on the other side, but it’s far away, and the trees are in the middle, blocking the view.”
“What about that building there?” Clinio pointed up ahead.
“That’s where the cult members live,” said George.
“That’s got a good angle,” said Clinio. “Let’s get someone there. If the shooter pokes his head out from the entrance, we can take him down. That should provide enough cover to come in from the sides.” Clinio looked at Ellison. “Take the Singletons behind the tree line,” he told him. “If we take the temple, you can all go out through the hypergate. If we don’t, head back down to the bay and signal for the ship to send a boat out for you. It will take longer, but it will get you back home eventually.” He glanced at George and the two women. “Or we could snap your necks now. It’ll be fast. Almost painless.”
Benedicta took a step back and Margarett flinched away.
“Um, that’s okay,” said George. “We can wait.”