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Jemin struggled to match Philip’s brisk pace, despite the cumbersome containment suit, the backpack hanging like a lead weight, boots heavy as cinder blocks. The historian lifestyle didn’t include many hours at the gym, and central hadn’t allocated time to train physically. If he died of a heart attack, it wouldn’t be his fault. Hopefully, his death would egregiously inconvenience Philip, the heathen reprobate.

Past a pile of lichen-covered boulders, the trail narrowed, allowing one foot at a time. Brush snagged Jemin’s elbow, the brown remains of bracken whipped his calves and snapped underfoot. The forest loomed dark overhead. Then, as if stepping into daybreak, they burst into another clearing.
Silence lay heavily over the ruins of the small settlement. The silence held no waiting; it wasn’t a pause after a long exhale. This silence felt absolute. Lord above, how he’d wanted to speak to his people. Well, not exactly his people; they waited for him in heaven. But still, a breakaway sect still following the one true God. Sure, the Fold might not matter anymore, being nearly extinct thanks to epidemics and attrition. But at least he could’ve sublimated his family’s anguish into knowledge, something pure, almost holy.

Brandt toed a basket’s rotted remains. “What do you suppose happened here?”

“Those buildings went up in a fire.” Philip pointed left.

Jemin followed his finger. Nothing much, chestnut colored sprays of dock seed, and—oh—there, the charred corner of a building and the stump of a chimney. Either Philip possessed superior eyesight or—if one believed those tales about perceivers—he could see into the past, smell the smoke, feel the fire’s heat, hear the screams. A chip technique as blasphemous as that bewitched grove.
They picked through the ruins, finding weeds and charred wood. A few years back, children probably scampered between these houses. His throat knotted. Standing witness to ruination was harder than he’d expected. So he turned to practicalities. How would he document this settlement? A midden heap excavation, that’s where he’d start. But he wouldn’t have the time.

“What about those huts?” asked Brandt.

What huts? He couldn’t see huts, but everybody had better eyesight than Jemin Yoder. Heaven thwarted him at every turn. He tagged behind Brandt and—ah—a line of pathetic hovels strung out toward the right. All unburnt, but most had collapsed.

“Like giant cookies.” Chief Krause, her mind in her stomach even in the darkest moments, waved the radiation meter’s wand over a former threshold: not a click.

He poked his head inside a reasonably intact example. Poles about the thickness of his wrist supported woven bark and twigs, and a plaster of mud. A smoke hole in the roof’s center allowed permitted a circle of light; human habitation at its most basic.

“Hey! Mister.” Brandt hunkered in front of a second intact hut, extending his hand. “I know we look kind of strange in these crazy suits, but we’re just people. Nobody’s going to hurt you.”

Jemin rushed to Brandt’s side as a gnarled figure crawling through the hut’s low door, a person so aged that gender was anyone’s guess. Be better if they were a man. Women kept to the kitchen and knew only chores and children.

The person sat at the entrance, and tilted their heavily lined face to the sun, an incomplete halo of fine white hair aglow in the light. Their face resembled a walnut shell, reminding Jemin of those cursed figurines. But something was off—the eyes. The irises were clouded or covered by a film. This person was blind.

Chief Krause squatted, then duck-walked her back a few paces, probably repelled by a strong odor of rancid urine emanating from the hut. “Hello. I’m Agnet Krause.”

“And I am what’s left of Canaan Oberdost.”

Canaan was undoubtedly Grandfather Cain. The boys had spoken the truth, and the Lord had preserved the ancient man. Praise be!

The Chief asked, “Can we help? Do you need anything? Food, water?”

A toothless smile spread across the wizened face. “You outlanders. My bretheren would’ve just serve the food.”

Jemin whipped his pack from his shoulders and pawed through to the snack he’d reserved for the return trip. He should have offered food! Life amongst these unbelievers had corrupted him. And how annoying the Elder’s easy command of English when he could’ve impressed the team with his fluent grasp of the Old Tongue, acquired, they’d’ve assumed, through years of careful study. After a quick thought about the mechanics of eating without teeth, he tore a page from his notebook, rolled it into a cone, then crumbled the muffin inside. He guided Meister Canaan’s hand and helped the bony fingers curl around the paper, and explained. “A sort of cake crumbled into a paper cone.”

Pinches of muffin passed from cone to wizened mouth. When he’d finished eating, Jemin poured water into a binocular lens cap and pressed it into the Elder’s hand, then sat back, trying to be patient while the others offered their food. This grandfather looked between eighty and ninety. Even if younger and gravely blighted by inbreeding or contamination, he’d lived long enough to have witnessed plenty.

After a final cap-full of water, he wiped his lips on his ragged sleeve. “I thank ye for the meal,” he said in a voice like a rusty gate.

Agnet gave Philip a nod, irritating but not unexpected her ceding the interview to Mr. Sensitive, debauched deviant though he may be. But it was just as well. His foreknowledge of this village and Grandfather Cain might’ve slipped out, if he’d been doing the talking.

“Why are you here alone?” asked Philip, taking the blunt approach.

Meister Canaan’s face grew sharp. “You’re sure I’m alone, then?”

“I know you’re alone.” Philip’s tone was matter of fact but kindly.

He shrugged a bony shoulder. “I see you have the sight upon you too, young man. Well. Suppose none of it matters anymore. So I’ll tell ye.” He shifted in his dirty rags, his hazy eyes fixed on his knees. “We were already few, thanks to sickness. Then the village burned to the ground. Fire came in the black of night. Did our best to save our kin: drenched bedding, hay, and blankets in the creek, but most of our folks had already died in their beds. Fire took more than our kindred. We also lost most of our livestock, the garden seed, and lots of know-how.”

“Condolences for your loss, but thanks for your hard work containing the fire. Would’ve been bad for everyone here-abouts, if it’d spread.”

“We were thinking of our own, truth be told. But I acknowledge your kindly thoughts.” He bobbed his head in Philip’s general direction and continued. “After, wasn’t many left: myself, a few women-folk, a handful of kinder. The women died, two of the wasting. One tumbled into the well. Not helpful, her contaminating our water on the way to her heavenly reward. Not long after, the kinder started babbling about goblins. I figured they’d lost all hope and were losing their minds to boot. Short time after, they abandoned our home. Tried to get me to come along, those boys, but I’d’ve slown them down. So here I sit. Now you tell me. What brings you city folk to my unlikely doorstep?”

“We’ve come on behalf of the farm down yonder. They’ve been having problems with strange creatures, your boys’ goblins maybe. Creatures slung together from bone and mud. You—” Philip hesitated, probably swallowing back the term “seen”—“ever encountered such a thing?”

The Elder’s face crinkled as if he’d bitten into a sour memory. “No. I didn’t know what to make of the boy’s unrighteous talk. Figured they’d strayed from the law with no guidance, the lot of them. They even set up a protection and asked me to bless their wardings.”

Jemin asked, “You mean the figures hanging from trees down the ridge? Like this one?”
He handed Meister Canaan the doll he’d collected. After fingering it and turning it round in his gnarled hand, his lip curled in disgust, and he tossed it into the long grass choking a path between huts.
“Ashamed to say.”

Jemin ignored Philip's narrow-eyed stare and continued. “So such wardings aren’t part of your faith?”
He shook his hands beside his head, as if fending off Philip’s question. “No! I accused those boys of sacrilege, but they claimed to know better than me. Was Hettie got them started; she dabbled in witchcraft, Brother Enod looking the other way because she was his sister. But I believe her dabbling brought the fire down on us, a cleansing; I do believe. Oh, I could feel Malakai’s shame. Could’ve shamed him worse, but I was at their mercy, needful as I was of assistance. So I spoke the prayers, the Ologand and the Berkish. Long prayers to the true God, full of power and purity. I’m not proud, but I did.” He bowed his head. “But those wardings didn’t stop them from leaving.”

“Perhaps they’ve protected you,” said Philip.

“Nah. I’m too dried up to catch a ghoul’s eye. Though lately, I hear the singing something fierce.”
Philip jolted to attention. “The singing?”

The old man stretched a gnarled finger toward Orl who stood a few paces away looking North. “From that-a-way. Can you hear it? It’s singing now.”

“I…I think so. Though I wouldn’t exactly call it singing. Maybe a signal? What’s making it?”
“No idea. But I can tell you it’s nothing of the forest, creeks, or caves. In fact, I assumed it was a fancy spying device you folk dropped on us from above.”

“From above?”

“Happened years ago when I was in my prime. The night blazed bright as noon-day, and a ball of fire streaked across the sky. And next day, the singing started. That’s right. That was when. Mmm.”

Philip and Jemin exchanged a look. Jemin asked, “Did any of your kin or friends hear the singing?”

“No. Only me. Though many witnessed the lights that night. Brother Theo thought the end times were upon us. And he was correct, after a fashion. But nothing terrible happened right away. We got on with our lives and forgot. If I mentioned the singing, people smiled; They knew I’d been touched by angels at birth and afflicted with the sight.”

Philip asked, “About this “sight” you mention. Is it related to your religion?”

The Elder’s chuckle sounded similar to a shaken bag of dried crickets. “No, sir. It’s inborn. You should know, you and your friend over yonder.” He waved a hand at Orl.

Orl nodded without turning from the so-called singing’s source. Philip licked his lips, presumably stunned that a chip-free feral could possess some of his skills.

Chief Krause asked, “Anybody else been out this way? Any other outlanders?” A real world/physical evidence type question, typical of her type.

He cocked a filmy eye in her direction. “Been mighty social lately. First, I heard voices on the trail, maybe ten folk. Didn’t recognize their voices and couldn’t understand much of what they said; too many special words from outside, speaking of things we don’t allow. Always in a rush, you outlanders. They didn’t stop to visit. Next, a man made crazy by hard times staggered by, weeping and ranting. I prayed for his soul. Then a kindly sort, who asked after my comfort, same as you folk. Offered to move me elsewhere. But I wasn’t ready to leave.”

“Are you ready now? We could make you comfortable.”

“A few days for one ancient grandfather isn’t worth no trouble, here, at the end of days. My family is already gone, and soon, yours will go too. Lightening or ground fire will spark a tree, and your people’s poison will rain from the sky. Just as before.”

Sad that the coming of the end times was the only justice his folk would know.

The Chief caught Philip’s eye and pointed to the sun where it dipped toward the horizon. They couldn’t possibly be willing to leave the old gent alone here? A nervous sweat prickled his armpits. What was at hand? “Okay, quick construction of a litter for Meister Canaan. Two long poles. Who has a sheet of fabric? Anybody pack a blanket or towels?”

But the Elder waved a heavily veined hand. “No. Best you be home before dark, or them goblins will find ye. I don’t want to go. So get. But do me one last favor?”

“What’s that?” asked the Chief.

“Before you leave, would one of you please kindly kill me?”

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About the author

stellajo

Bio: Writing about unusual people in unusual situations with works falling somewhere between science fiction and contemporary fantasy. Author of Harmony Lost and Discord and Harmony, available direct from website or multiple ebook retailers.

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