They were watched from two small towers, on either side of the gate, by a handful of guardsmen. Grade supposed they were guardsmen, but beneath their broad hoods and patchwork raiment of plastic sheeting, they could just as easily be guardswomen.
“Do you ever get used to it?” the boy asked. Grade understood the question, and raised his gaze to meet that of the nearest guard. The man’s hands were wrapped tight around a spear, his fingers tapping out a nervous rhythm. The guardsman held his gaze for a moment, before shifting his weight to spit over the edge of the watchtower.
“No, I don’t suppose you do. But you learn to embrace it. Those stares are the only real protection we have.”
“Well… those stares, and your gun.” The boy beamed as he said the word.
Loud curses and grunts sounded from the tower to their left, and with a shudder, the gate began to swing apart.
“Faster,” the boy called out, “you’ve made us wait long enough.”
When the gap had widened they saw a group of people waiting for them on the other side of the fence. The band was lead by a large, stout man, with a shaved head and a jet black beard, and forearms as thick as any he’d ever seen. He was unarmed, yet standing in the centre of the footway, the rain splashing off his head and pouring from the coarse tangles of his beard, he looked more fierce and dangerous than the rest of his party combined, armed as they were with spears and clubs and crude wooden shivs. The boy went to take a step forward, but Grade blocked his path with his staff.
“We wait.” he said.
After a moment, the man at the head of the party walked out to meet them. He stopped a full ten feet short of Grade and the boy, meeting the eyes of each in turn.
“I’ll suppose you’re here about the priest.” the man said. “You’d best come in.”
Once again, the boy went to walk towards the gate, but Grade left his staff planted firmly in the mud at the boy’s feet.
“You’re Benero.” Grade said. The man tensed at the sound of his name, but quickly mastered himself.
“Aye, Benero. I’ll suppose the priest told you that. And that there’s Pike, and Cerdyn and Clare. The littleun’s Green and the tallun’s Ashton. We’ve nought to hide from you here, much less our names. So if it please you, I’d like to get inside.”
As they walked through the settlement, the boy was bubbling over with enthusiasm.
“You scared him, I could see it in his eyes, a man as big as him, and he was scared! How did you do that? With just his name…” The boy hesitated for a second, before sidling closer to Grade and lowering his voice. “Did you use… your magic?”
Grade stopped dead in his tracks, turning to face the boy with a suddenness that made him yelp in surprise.
“If I ever hear you say that word again, I’ll build a pyre, right here, in the centre of the street. I’ll tie you to it with thick, heavy rope, and light the greenfire under your feet to make an offering of you.”
Colour drained from the boy’s face, and all he could muster in response was a slow, shuddering shake of the head. Grade continued down the footway, and the boy fell in close beside him. Grade took no pleasure in scaring him so, but it wouldn’t do for any of the passersby to overhear talk of magic.
They were made welcome in a shallow cavern that had been fronted with a huge lean-to of wooden planks and rusted metal sheeting. Grade made note of the presence of guards, the two men Benero had called Cerdyn and Pike, standing sentry even here, safe within the perimeter of the settlement. The cavern was well-lit within, and rows of benches had been arranged in front of a low platform. Already, a small crowd was seated and waiting their arrival. Benero walked up to Grade and the boy.
“After the priest disappeared, we knew it was only a matter o’time until one of you turned up to investigate. Only thing is, we didn’t know exactly when that might be. We put aside a few cuts o’meat and fish, even some ale, but it’ll take a few moments to get everythin’ ready for you.”
Grade had disliked the guards, and disliked the crowd of settlers, but the way in which Benero was conducting himself now escalated his concerns. Green priests were always met with suspicion and fear. Grade needed that distance to conduct his work, but in a single, well-meaning gesture, Benero had lowered the priest to the status of the townfolk. It may have been a simple oversight on Benero’s part – but Grade didn’t think so. The settlement looked nothing like the disorganised, fragmented community Rais had described in the reports he’d radio into the priests every seven days. Could Rais have underestimated them?
“Fitting fare for a gathering of settlers, no doubt, but I fear you’ve wasted your time. Priests of the Green need no sustenance but the rain. Your own priest should have made that clear to you. Show me to where he lived, and I’ll leave you to your meal.”
The boy’s disappointment was apparent, but Benero seemed unsurprised by Grade’s response, and didn’t even try to dissuade him from leaving.
“Oh Rais, made that clear, he did.” Now it was Grade’s turn to falter. Benero noticed his hesitation, and seized upon it.
“Oh, you’ll execuse me using his name, I hope. I know we commonfolk aren’t meant to know the priests’ names. Only Rais – there I go again – made himself a real part of this community.”
They exited the cavern in silence, and as they stepped out into the rain, the two guards that had been posted outside fell in behind them. Grade’s hand slipped, almost sub-consciously, down to the pistol holstered at his side.
Benero troubled Grade. The settlements were expressly forbidden from raising one of their own to any position of formal leadership, instead bound to rely on the guidance of the priests. But with Rais vanished, it had left a power vacuum that Benero had filled, albeit in a subtle, hard to define way. Even with the guards beside him, Grade wasn’t worried about the possibility of open conflict – he was the veteran of a dozen fights, and he’d won each with increasing surety – but Benero struck him as clever, too clever by half.
They walked past the centre of the settlement, with its run-down shacks and thick tarpaulins sheltering the entrances, and turned from the main footway. Here, fewer trees had been felled, and the tangle of branches and thickets helped reassure him. As they disappeared under the canopy, Grade readied himself to ask Benero about the disappearance – but again, Benero was a step ahead, venturing the answer before it had even been asked.
“Nothing suspicious to it, far as we can tell.” The rain drummed on the thick canopy above them. “He told us he was moving on. We didn’t think to ask him his business because, well, a priest’s business is his own. But I will say we miss his guidance.”
It wasn’t unheard of, Grade knew. Priests were regularly transferred between settlements, others brought back into the Green Camp. Grade didn’t have perfect knowledge of every settlement, and every priest, but he knew enough to know that Rais hadn’t been acting on orders. That left the possibility of defection – occasionally, priests would get the fanciful idea that they’d be better off without their brothers and sisters, and strike out on their own – or the possibility of death. Grade hadn’t know Rais very well, but the little he’d gleamed of the man through his reports was enough for him to wish that he’d been murdered. No matter how brutal his death, it would have been a blessing compared to the end he’d suffer at the hands of Priest Hunters.
“When did he leave?”
“Eighteen nights back. He packed up his things, said a quiet farewell to a few of us, and slipped out into the dark.”
Rais had missed two reports, and it had taken Grade and the boy four days to make the settlement. The timelines fitted, and it wouldn’t have been the first time a missing priest had simply wandered out into the wilderness. But there was something sinister to Benero. He’d been able to pre-empt their arrival, and even their line of questioning. Grade started to question where Rais’ loyalties had lain.
“Well, this here’s where Rais rested his head. I don’t suppose you’ll want us three gettin’ in the way o’ your investigations, so we’ll leave you to it.” Benero raised a broad smile.
“There’s rain enough for the both of you to eat and drink, but should you want some salted pike with wild garlic, come back on over to the cavern.”
When they were alone, the boy spoke.
“Couldn’t we have joined them,? At the meal, I mean. Just for a moment.”
“No, and you know exactly why.”
“You needn’t have eaten. But I could’ve. I’m not a Green Priest, not yet. They can see me eat.”
“It’s a slippery slope, and I’d wager they’ve already had Rais break bread with them. The damned fool, what was he thinking?”
“You could sit with Benero, keep an eye on him. I don’t trust him.” The boy’s gaze explored the room. “What do you think happened to Rais?”
“I hope he’s dead. If he isn’t… I have a feeling that Benero and his men know more about us than they have any right to. If Rais colluded with them…”
Grade let the boy’s words hang in the air, before squeezing his shoulder.
“No. If Rais told them about us, about our order… then they’re the ones that won’t see another morning.”
Grade’s thick jacket had all manner of pouches and compartments sewn into it, and from these he produced two small bars of dark, rich-smelling food. He threw one to the boy.
“It’s no pike, but it’s still food.” The boy pulled a face, but ate the bar all the same.
Rais’ house had been built by the priests, and it shared the same characteristic hiding places as every other priesthole. He set to searching for anything Rais had left behind, while he left the boy to prepare for the night ahead., unpacking their thin bedrolls from the pack the boy carried with him, setting a fire and drying their clothes. Grade checked every beam and board, but turned up nothing. Rais’ food, his powders and potions, even his radio. All were gone. Grade found himself feeling thankful that priests of Rais’ rank weren’t issued pistols.
“Nothing. Either Rais really did clear out of here, or else Benero and his boys have scoured this place from ceiling to floor.
The boy looked up from unrolling his bedroll. “What about outside?”
“Outside?” the constant rains and sodden earth made it near-impossible to store anything outside, but if Rais had considered himself in danger, he may have tried it. Grade reached into his jacket and pulled out a small metallic tube. He offered it to the boy.
“Do you know how to use this?”
The boy’s mouth broadened into a smile. “Yes! Or at least… I think I do. I mean, are you sure? I’m not supposed to…”
“I’m sure. Just tonight. I have a bad feeling about Benero and I don’t wish to linger here any longer than necessary. Take that and search outside.”
The boy fumbled with the tube, sliding his hands over it until it eventually clicked, and a beam of red light shone from one end. The boy let out a stunned laugh as it did, before running gleefully out into the wet night.
Grade went to resume the boy’s chores, lighting the fire in the narrow stone chimney with a handful of dark powder and his flint and steel. The fire instantly roared into life, great green flames licking up the sides of the chimney, invigorated by the splashes of rain that made it down the flue.
It was then he heard a muffled voice. Grade whirled to face the source of the sound, drawing his pistol as he did. The voice spoke again, this time seeming to come from behind him. As he turned to face the opposite wall, realisation dawned on him. He replaced the pistol in its holster, and reached into the depths of his jacket. It was his radio, crackling to life for the first time in eighteen days, for the first time since Rais had disappeared.
“Grade, come in. Grade, come in.” the radio repeated. The voice sounded familiar, like a strange distortion of the missing priest.
“Rais, is that you?” The radio crackled.
“Oh no, I told you, Rais just up-and-left. It’s just me, Benero.” The voice lost Rais’ familiar lilt as it carried on. “Turns out, we found a few’a Rais’ things, stashed away. This radio included. More fool me, it had slipped my mind entirely. You’re welcome to ’em, of course. Rightly yours, even if Rais’ left them with us. We’ve left them for you in the main hall. There’s even some pike left for the boy… and for you, if you’re feeling hungry.”
The radio clicked off, just as the boy burst through the door, the red light from his torch bouncing all over the room.
“I found this. There’s wild garlic, everywhere, but I found a patch of bare earth. The soil was loose, and there was this, just under the surface.”
The boy handed Grade a small plastic bag, no bigger than a leaf. Inside of it was a torn scrap of paper, the same paper the priests used for their writings. The note was short and scrawled, and said only two words: “They know.”
“I’m scared.” the boy said. Grade knelt in front of him, and put a hand on each shoulder.
“When a priest takes his vows, he denounces fear. He rises above it, and becomes more than lesser men. He arms himself with pistol and powder. He arms himself with magic. No man can touch him. Don’t feel fear. Feel sadness. These men needn’t have died, but they have chosen it for themselves.”
Grade rose to his feet. He reached into his jacket, and produced a dozen bundles of powder, handing them to the boy.
“Now remember your teaching.”
A fierce wind whipped the rain into a frenzy as they made their way back towards the hall, and the clouds were so thick that no hint of starlight was visible. Both Grade and the boy were cautious, assessing every shadow and flicker of movement with practised eyes, but they reached the main cavern unaccosted. From inside, they could hear sounds of laughter, raucous calls echoing across the stony walls. A single figure stood guard, someone they didn’t recognise.
“Benero is inside. Go ahead.”
The man’s voice wavered as he spoke, just slightly. As Grade and the boy drew level with him, Grade paused and looked him in the eyes. He held his stare for the briefest of moments, before casting his glance down towards his feet.
The main cavern was packed with people, and Grade was little surprised to see that almost all of them were armed. As they pressed further into the throng, a group of men moved into position behind them, closing their retreat. From the corner of his vision, Grade could see the boy’s hand shaking. Benero was on the dais at the back of the cavern, and as Grade drew closer, the crowd hushed to silence.
“At last, the priest has come to join in our revels. I told you he couldn’t resist the salt-crusted pike.” A ripple of laughter passed through the crowd. “Rais so loved our cooking. He was hesitant at first, but we were just so accommodating. He developed quite a taste for it, by the time he left. That, and our ale.”
As Benero talked, Grade could sense the surrounding press of men draw closer, inch by inch.
“He was a dear friend to our community, and sorely missed. He helped us channel the water away from this cavern, stopped it flooding it every few weeks. He helped us grow crops, even in the marshland on the outskirts of the town. And he told us wondrous stories of faith and fervour, of the power and piety of the Green Priests. ” Benero pulled out Rais’ radio transmitter and held it up for the crowd to see. “He taught us much and more of your order. But there’s one thing I couldn’t believe, no matter how many times I heard him say it. Your… gun, he called it.”
Grade indulged the man’s curiosity, pulling out the pistol and leveling it at his head. The crowd surged forward. but steadied themselves.
“Why, there it is. Rais would have us believe that that little trinket could take a man’s head, clean off… all you had to do was point it at him.” Benero lifted the radio transmitter, and with a single movement of his huge, powerful hands, crushed it into pieces.
“Well, it’s pointed at me now, and I don’t feel any different. If you’d be so kind, priest, I’d like to inspect that for my-”
A gunshot echoed through the cavern and Benero’s head exploded into a pulp of viscera. At the same instant, the boy threw handfuls of the paper parcels at the feet of the crowd, sending green flames roaring into the press of people.
Time seemed to slow for Grade. With each squeeze of the trigger another fell, the cavern growing quieter with each lost voice. When he ran out of ammunition, he pulled out his dagger, closing the distance between the panicked guardsmen before they could even raise their weapons to him. The boy was skirting through the panicked crowd, blinding the terrified onlookers with more bright flashes of green light.
Soon, the cavern had quieted to silence, and they found themselves alone.
Grade mounted the dais and pocketed the remnants of Rais’ radio, along with the small assortment of vials and powders he found on Benero’s person. When he turned, he saw the boy standing in the centre of the room, shaking violently.
“Do you still feel scared?” he asked the boy. He reluctantly met his gaze, and Grade could see the sweat dripping through his fine hair.
“Yes.” the boy answered.
“But why? They all died before they could so much as heft a spear at us.”
“It’s not them I’m scared of.”
Grade bent and took the remainder of his powder parcels from the boy’s pockets. Good, he thought to himself. We’ll make a priest out of you yet.
As they approached the entrance of the cavern, the sound of rain grew louder and louder, and they saw the lone guardsmen, still standing at the entrance, seemingly frozen in place. His eyes bulged wide as Grade and the boy approached, and seemed to grow wider still as they walked past him, into the sodden night.
“We can’t… are we just going to leave him? What if he… tells other people?”
“Let him tell the story. Did you see his eyes? ”
“I… suppose I did…”
Grade smiled at the boy.
“Remember what I said. That stare is the only real protection we have.”
About the Author
Ryan Law is the founder of Ash Tales. Startup co-founder and marketing dude by day, post apocalyptic author by night, Ryan created Ash Tales to offer the world’s best post apocalyptic fiction a final resting place.