Everyone got some sleep, and no one bothered them in the night, which made them all feel better over breakfast.
“I don’t know why the monkey god, and whoever is with him, would want to wipe out all the humans in their jurisdiction,” Alexis began the conversation.
“Chaotic god?” Decker suggested.
“More of a trickster,” Lincoln said, pulling out the database. “Sort of like Loki, I suppose.”
“It happened elsewhere,” Katie spoke up. “Domnu once wiped out all the earliest people in the British Isles. Sekhmet,” Katie said, paused and turned to Lockhart with a smile. “She almost wiped out everyone in Egypt, and would have if Amun Junior had not gotten her stinking drunk.”
“She still complains about the hangover,” Lockhart nodded.
“In the middle-east, the gods once complained the humans were making too much noise. It was Enki, or Enlil, I forget who saved the humans there,” Katie finished.
Lockhart nodded again. “God himself once wiped out everyone except Noah and his family.”
“I know that story,” Elder Stow said, and watched Sukki nod. “At that same time, the Gott-Druk, and other early human-like peoples were taken elsewhere. In the case of the Gott-Druk, we went into space, with Agdaline help, to make a new home on another world.”
“But why here and now?” Alexis did not feel satisfied. She still felt terrible about killing all those children. “What is the point? What are they gaining?”
“No way of knowing,” Katie answered.
Boston said what she had heard many times on their journey. “Who can fathom the way of the gods?”
Mister Crow fluttered down from the branch of the nearest tree where he spent the night. He offered a thought. “You people speak of the gods with such ease. Most people placate the gods with offerings and otherwise try to keep a safe distance. But, I figure, with your horses and guns and such, you may be closer to the gods than we are.”
No one chose to respond, so that pretty much ended the conversation. The group packed up breakfast and the camp. They moved slowly into the trees. They did not go very far, however, before Boston remembered.
“Don’t pick any apples unless you want to make the tree angry.” She laughed, but Lincoln said something she had not considered.
“No telling what that necromancer’s elixir of life might be capable of doing.”
“Oh yeah,” Boston squeaked. “I hadn’t thought of that. Thanks,” she gave it her sarcastic best.
Alexis turned to talk to Boston as she patted Lincoln on the arm. “My husband is good at thinking of things like that. It is his special talent.”
Lincoln wisely kept his mouth closed.
The group stopped when they came to a place where a couple of huts lined the road.
“I see carbon forms there,” Elder Stow said, staring at his scanner. “I can’t tell if any are living.”
It looked like a small hamlet, not even a village, and it looked deserted. Decker waited for them at the outskirts, and the group moved up slowly, eyes and ears looking for anything that might indicate life. They were not disappointed.
A man, holding a large stone axe, stepped into the roadway and stopped to stare at them, like he wondered if they might be infected. The group stopped. Decker reached for his rifle. The man looked covered in blood and sweat.
“Wait,” Captain Katherine Harper Lockhart yelled at her superior officer, and Major Decker kindly waited. She got down, and carried her canteen. Lockhart pulled his shotgun, just in case.
“Water?” Katie held it out to the man. The man stood like a statue for a few more seconds before he dropped to his knees and began to weep. Katie gave him the water, and Alexis and Lincoln stepped up. Alexis to see if the man might be injured. Lincoln, because he would not let Alexis get into a dangerous situation without him.
They all heard a human-like cry beside one of the huts. Alexis turned to go there, but Lincoln grabbed her as Boston yelled.
“Don’t leave the path.”
“They won’t stay dead,” The man muttered through his tears.
Decker and Lockhart opened up with the rifle and shotgun as three men, two women, and two children came staggering out from behind the house. The whole group, already missing arms and great chunks of their bodies, went down from multiple bullet wounds. Somehow, Decker and Lockhart did not doubt they would get back up again.
“Quickly. To your horses,” Lockhart commanded. “Katie, bring him.”
Katie already started bringing the man to her horse. Lockhart waited, while Decker led the others down the road. Katie practically lifted the confused man up behind Lockhart before she mounted. Lockhart barely took the time to say hang on, before he, Katie, Alexis and Lincoln started after the others.
The man only wailed once or twice, before he closed his eyes and decided not to watch.
Well down the road, they dismounted again to walk their horses. The man, still holding his axe in an iron-like grip, walked with them, his head pointed down, his eyes dragging on the dirt in front of him. He did not open up until they stopped around eleven for an early lunch. The forest started becoming jungle dark, and it began to close in on them. The travelers thought they should eat quickly to spare as much daylight as possible. No telling how long they would be in the gloom.
“I am Ota,” the man said. “I had the fever for seven days, and all of my village became infected. My fever broke three days ago, and I recovered, but some died, and some came near death when a man came into the village. I brought out to him the ones who still lived. He said he had a way to heal them, but he could not leave the path. I felt so grateful. I did not ask questions. He placed a few drops of some water on the tongue and said they would recover. Then he said he had to move on because others needed his help.
“I watched. I prayed. They all died. Then they all un-died, and they tried to kill me because I still lived. Yesterday, and last night, I killed them again and again, but they kept getting undead.” The man shivered, looked down, and appeared to run out of words.
Lockhart looked at Boston, and she spoke. “We are going to the City of Jade to see the wizardess of Oz. We have to go there to find our way home. Mister Crow wants to go to be made human again. I am sure there are other survivors there and Ozma will find a good place for you among the people. Go with us.” She looked at the others to evaluate her performance. Decker laughed. Katie and Alexis smiled. Lincoln shook his head, and Lockhart shrugged. Of course, Sukki and Elder Stow had no idea what she was talking about.
Ota nodded. “Maybe the Oz can find a way to make the dead rest again, as they should.”
Ota opted to ride behind Lincoln, not that he felt more comfortable behind the smaller man, but so he could converse with Mister Crow, someone from his own time and place, even if the words came out of the mouth of a bird.
With that settled, the travelers entered the dark under the jungle canopy, and Lockhart bit his tongue, but Boston said it.
“Lions, tigers, and bears, oh my!”
“Eagles, Hawks, and Falcons,” Mister Crow corrected. “And owls,” he added.
Early in the afternoon, when the sun in the cloudless sky should have made things appear bright and cheery, the road, which had been single file, at least opened up again to where they could ride two by two. They appeared to be in a swampy area where the sun all but disappeared. Rays of light, like rays from one of Lockhart’s alien heat rays, only showed here and there. It seemed enough to keep them from moving in darkness, but they moved in the shadows all the same.
They paused when something roared off to their right. Every eye tried to pierce the shadows and look through trees.
“Keep moving,” Lockhart insisted, and the horses walked on.
Another roar came moments later, and it sounded closer than before.
“Don’t stop,” Lockhart insisted.
“I don’t see anything on the scanner,” Elder Stow admitted
“I don’t sense a spiritual creature,” Boston spoke up.
Lockhart looked at Katie. She nodded, then shook her head, like she might be getting mixed signals.
“Keep moving,” Lockhart said.
The travelers kept moving, until they heard a third roar very close, and much louder than any animal they could think of.
One moment later, Decker came racing back from the point. He did not have to yell, “Dragon!” The ball of fire said it all.