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CONTINUED FROM: 'WAR HAS BEGUN...'

 

Vacily’s homecoming was bittersweet, heavy on the ‘bitter’. The Patriarch of the Vanguard was on the warpath and every soul that was able to steered clear of the raging storm that was Delaney G. Grant. But not Rezanov. He ploughed straight on ahead into the path of that tornado before she could land in on his superior and counterpart. The director of operations for the Twelfth Legion, rigid within the doorway of his office watched with bewilderment as his deputy intercepted Grant. There were few words that could adequately describe the emotions that flashed in her dark inky blue glare but she accepted the sacrificial lamb with an choleric huff. After all, what else could such a gesture be but a pitiful offering to appease her wrath?

Behind the closed doors of the deputy director’s office Grant unleashed her fury. News of his alliance with the chancellor of New York’s Order of Light had come to her attention, exacerbating her outrage over the whole Washington fiasco. Not only was she already ‘fired-up’ as Rami had wanted but Vacily was an accelerant. He took his lumps and burns but in the end managed to worm his way out from beneath the crushing brand of the scapegoat. There were more than enough to choose from in Washington and Vacily laid out a juicy web of partial truths that the Vanguard could sink their teeth into. He then played the ‘bereavement card’ to step out of the situation. Wasn’t much of an act. The death of a son he had just discovered was more truth than he could stomach and Delaney had granted the time off with her blessing.

Almost a full day later Vacily’s Vanguard-branded gun-metal grey jeep serpentined through the gentle rolling hills of Maryland’s portion of the Piedmont Plateau. A French term, which the native Russian had learned, literally meant ‘foothill’. The scenic drive was a pleasant distraction from the reality of the impending war descending upon Washington. Even as the remains of the day gently ebbed from the sky he knew that Grant was mobilizing the might of several Legions upon the alleged traitors of the former capital city. It was a conflict without gain, one designed to weaken their grip.

Passing the state border, Vacily was lost in thought. His disciplined mind, a slave to strategy was as unfamiliar as the Virginia road stretching out before him. Still, he was not without his wiles. Though it had been some time since he’d trekked the wilderness the old soldier was well prepared for whatever the wilds might throw at him.

The lengthening shadow of the jagged peaks enveloped the highway. The Blue Ridge Mountains, their distinctive smokey slate colour dark against the smouldering backdrop of fiery ambers and auburns. The small city of Winchester was beyond. Nestled in the Shenandoah Valley between the approaching pinnacles and the Alleghenies, a range part of the vast Appalachians.

Vacily nonchalantly swerved to avoid some debris on the darkening highway. The diminished population combined with infrequent travel left many of the interstates in disrepair. Gone were the days of carefree summer travel. A cold hard fact of the new world. A fact that some were yet reluctant to accept, such fools often the victims of monsters of one kind or another. The grizzled trooper in his marked vehicle had little fear of bandits although it would have been a welcome distraction from the persistent torment of vengeance. There were far more deadly things lurking in the woods these days, but patrols in the area hadn’t reported anything extraordinary in months. One could never be too careful though and so the shotgun mounted in the center of the vehicle remained unlocked and loaded. Not such an uncommon site these days on a dark, lonely road.

The city wasn’t too far off now. Vacily had read that it was part of the ‘First Military District’, enduring three of the former United State’s civil conflicts. A settlement with a rich history, steeped in American lore and part of the reason, he assumed, it continued to endure. That and it turned out it was one of the first settlements outside of a majorly populated area to house a Vanguard Bastion in the Eastern Alliance. Like many other lesser populated areas, the crashing economy and lack of security had forced part of it’s citizens to leave. Another portion had suffered from the effects of the ‘m-virus’ in the early years as well but with the support of the Vanguard the city maintained. Curiously the bastion didn’t fall under the jurisdiction of the closest Legion which was Washington, nor any other for that matter. Some high clearance research before he embarked on his trek revealed it to have been founded by none other than the cavaliers. Vacily had never considered the order to establish a precinct but the more he thought about it, the more sense it made. Legionnaires answering solely to the Cavaliers.

Night had fallen. Descending into the valley Vacily could observe the abandoned areas of the city by their lack of light. A bright perimeter fence encircled it and within that border it was sparsely illuminated outside of the core sector.

Reflective signs gleamed in the jeep’s high beams. There was a checkpoint ahead. Two watch towers flanked a tall gate, the wire fence reinforced with heavy steel bars and topped with razor wire. At it’s base, a vicious row of tire splitting spikes rose out of the road.

As Vacily slowed to a halt a spotlight from the tower on his right beamed down on the jeep. As he lowered his window an armed guard in a Vanguard uniform ordered him to exit the vehicle and approach the fence. He respectfully complied, dark military boots treading across the pavement.

Vacily was wearing his Vanguard issue gunmetal grey coloured leather jacket and a pair of jeans. No distinctions of rank. Black, military style boots treaded across the pavement to the small opening in the fence through which he passed is ID and orders.

“Lieutenant Sergei Leksikov, Twelfth Legion.” The young man had read aloud. It was upon hearing that he was from New York that the supervising officer emerged and carefully scrutinized the paper work.

She was barely older than the guard and went by the book, compensating for inexperience with thoroughness. The allowance of an armed man into any settlement was no trivial matter and lone trooper arriving in the middle of the night while not entirely uncommon was still unusual. It rose a few questions and she addressed them with authority beyond her years that made the old man proud. Of course, he was prepared for the scrutiny. Even a seasoned officer would have been hard pressed to spot the deception. Vacily’s career as a mole extended far beyond most and in the end, the lieutenant was admitted into the city.

The spiked barrier smoothly receded into the ground as the two overlapping sections of reinforced fence slowly pulled apart. The jeep pulled ahead into a designated area and a few troopers flashed lights into the interior of the vehicle. Standard security which all checked out.

“Welcome to Winchester, lieutenant.” One of the troopers greeted before directing him to the bastion barracks near the center of the city.

The false orders Vacily had concocted along with one his many false identities had him traveling into the Southern Coalition. He had noted that the senior officer at the gate had been a little perplexed by Winchester being designated as a stop-over point. The reaction had surprised him as well and left the incognito director a little paranoid as he pulled away and headed down the main street.

‘These were even stranger days.’

Winchester was in a word, charming. Beyond the perimeter battlements the architecture was centuries old. Pristine remodelled brick buildings aglow in the street light stood as a reminder of happier times. A few citizens strolled about, walking their dogs and just enjoying the autumn night. Everything was closed, most of the shops and businesses dark. Security lighting was kept at a bare minimum to conserve energy, the majority of the city was powered by a solar field at the south end of town.

Before the Resonance, Winchester was a prime vacation spot but now the hotels lying outside of the city’s primary defensive wall lied in ruin. It was difficult to obtain information documenting those dark years when the world first changed but from what Vacily learned, the city was hit hard by the viruses. The last documented cases of lycanthropic and vampiric assaults were five years ago and since then the Vanguard and local law enforcement had maintained law and order. Of course, that didn’t necessarily mean they weren’t around. People had a way of accepting the good with the bad.

The last communication Vacily had received from the Cavalier was some gibberish writing he eventually figured to be Hebrew. Cryptic to the end, it translated to a single word and two numbers, “Genesis 17:5”. It was all Vacily could do not to throw his hands up in defeat at the biblical reference which meant absolutely nothing to him.

Winchester wasn’t a small town. Before the Resonance it supported a population of over twenty thousand, now roughly reduced to ten. Vacily ended up driving around aimlessly for an hour and just when his frustration levels were at their upmost level he came upon a historic site on the south side of the city. It was an old stone house with sign before it saying ‘Abram’s Delight’. A closed museum. The biblical reference referred to ‘Abraham’ which originally was ‘Abram’.

‘Could this be it?’ Damn, the cavalier had a flare for the dramatic.

Vacily turned off Pleasant Valley Road, one of the main drags through the city, and followed a narrow paved lane ending in a loop beside the old building. To south were several dark structures, the Shenandoah University, abandoned and over grown.

Parking the jeep and turning off the engine, Vacily stepped out of the vehicle. Keen eyes peered into the darkness, the only light emanating from the main road to the west. Only enough to contrast the utter blackness, but fortunately it was a clear night and the moon was bright. The white walls of the stone structure glowed in the pale luminescence and a stone path, stark against the black of the overgrown lawn guided him to the door.

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He had taken off for Winchester even as Vacily had left for New York headquarters. The road back began deserted but soon became far too speckled with vehicles, forcing him to seek alternatives to the highways, his bike well equipped for off-roading in the hill country. It was an annoyance but expected. With the firestorm he had started it was inevitable that the Vanguard would be pressing down into the area of the most recent murders. The fact that they came up empty handed of bodies likely only brought a bigger swarm.

 

That had been an intentional decision, one made for no other reason than his respect for the Director. Bodies became evidence in Vanguard. It would not have mattered that one was the son of their own. The body would have gone to a lab for dissection and analysis where respect for the dead had no place.

 

It was still daylight when he grew near. He decided to shift northwest of Winchester, to the woods of Round Hill until nightfall. He had pull among the crowd down here but even then there would be far too many questions. A lone legionnaire doing a perimeter check in Round Hill had the unfortunate honor of meeting his fist, knocked clean out, his phone confiscated for a quick and cryptic message to Vacily before it was destroyed and the "kid" tied up in a shed where he was likely to be found later. It was a good bet the cemetery would have people in it well into dark so it was best to meet elsewhere and the message was cryptic enough that he suspected even the Director would have to work at figuring it out, but that also meant if anyone else saw it they wouldn’t understand. The Cavalier knew this area better than those now protecting it and selected an old museum that had long been believed haunted and which bore a faded mason's mark in the stones that held up its foundation.

 

With a rabbit filling his and Enoch's bellies, the bike hit the road once more at dusk. Dirt roads and wooded paths were taken with his lights off. He travelled all the way south before cutting back over east and then up once more to get to Abram's. The north was where the legionnaires were guarding the heaviest, because the south was unpopulated they didn’t expect an intruder from that direction.

 

He slid through the trees, bike weaving over crumbled retaining walls to the side of the museum where the small portico that protected the side door from the elements had long overgrown with vines, letting him tuck the bike on the small porch unseen before putting a shoulder to the old wood and popping the door open. The museum smelled of old fabrics and wood, the faint must of moisture permeating the upper floor.

 

Eyes quickly adjusted to the dark, moving to the front door to flick open the old fashioned metal latch and more modern deadbolt above it. There was no need for them to break more than one door open in the old building. A wet tongue smacked his hand drawing a faint grin as the massive animal flopped on the wooden floor at the base of the stairs staring at the front door. The Cavalier stepped over the mass of fur to climb to the first turning landing, sitting down, duffle sliding from his shoulder to drop on the landing next to him.

 

The two spent the next day at the museum, slipping out just to catch something for lunch the next day before hiding out in the building again. The musty air somehow suited the Cavalier, sleep finding both him and his companion easily until the next evening.

 

The old pump well on the property worked enough to rinse the dust and some of the caked blood from his skin. Enoch indulging in a long drink before the Cavalier dipped his own head under the stream to drink deep. The water tasted faintly old but it was ground water and likely not too harmful. Enoch made a perimeter check with him before they slipped back into the museum at dusk.

 

He waited for the Director, perched again on the first landing, bathed in the shadows of the unlit museum when distant headlights moved across one of the lower windows. The Director had figured out the reference. Hazel eyes watched the door as he remained sitting on the top step, Enoch sprawled like a dead bear rug at the foot of the stairwell. Head tilted when the front door creaked open.

 

[rami]…finally made it.[/rami]

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Vacily scowled at the comment. It was only by sheer dumb luck that he stumbled upon the museum and made the connection, otherwise he would have still been driving around. Then again, the cavalier didn’t leave much to chance. The prospect of which only served to piss the old spy off even more.

[vacily]You’ve got some stones on ya, I’ll give ya that much.[/vacily] The older man growled, ever alert eyes scanning the dimly illuminated interior.

As his vision adjusted to the low light Vacily surveyed his surroundings, casting a cool gaze to the pitch black of the south facing window. It was a desolate location. A forgotten museum at the edge of a derelict university and beyond that were the remnants of Winchester’s deserted southern sector. A third if not half of the city sacrificed and abandoned. The mall, the shopping centre, the station; ghosts being reclaimed by nature.

Eyes sweeping the length of the room, his attention was suddenly drawn to the opposite window facing the street lit city. The distant sound of an engine, red specks of taillights visible through the trees. It was heading west and away. A reminder that their location wasn’t too remote and still within the secure perimeter. Safe at least from the ‘reapers’, keeping the zombies at bay, but nothing of the size and strength of a lycanthrope. Such sightings were far and few between these days but one could never be too careful, hence the sensors running along the razor wired fence.

[vacily]Nice place. Planning on settling down here?[/vacily] Vacily jabbed. A dubious grin following as he could actually see the rugged ranger living in such a place.

The old hardwood floorboards creaked under the weight of Vacily’s heels as he meandered about the historically preserved room.

[vacily]Didn’t even know the damn place existed.[/vacily]

The comment was pertaining to Winchester and not the museum. Specifically the cavalier controlled bastion that was keeping the place alive. He didn’t know a lot of things about their sect. Like most people in his position these warrior-monks were seen as nothing but a historical convention, a functionless tradition. Rami, however, had proved to be otherwise.

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[vacily] You’ve got some stones on ya, I’ll give ya that much. [/vacily]

 

Brow quirked as he pushed off the landing step.

 

[rami]Well we could have met at the cemetery but we would likely have to shed blood to investigate there right now. I thought you might want to keep the killing to a minimum for now.[/rami]

 

It was said very matter-of-fact as the boots quietly made their way down, casually stepping over Enoch who lifted his head, snorted softly and flopped it back down uninterested in their conversation. Hazel eyes were long adjusted to the dark, noting the way a distant engine and taillights caught the Director's attention. Voice quietly broke the still of the museum.

 

[rami]They wont come out this way. It's seen as worthless real estate.[/rami]

 

Soft snort betrayed that he didn’t agree with them.

 

[vacily]Nice place. Planning on settling down here?[/vacily]

 

The sound was rare, soft and almost melodic, the chuckle rumbling in his chest. The man wasn’t far off.

 

[rami]I stay here from time to time, but it really isn't in my nature to settle down Director. [/rami][vacily]Didn’t even know the damn place existed.[/vacily]

 

Nod was knowing as he moved to the window where taillights had been seen before calloused fingers pushed the old lace from the distorted glass window.

 

[rami]….yea….they think they know something but clearly they don’t. If they did they would have set up headquarters here and not in that silly court house.[/rami]

 

Shrug was indifferent as the lace was left to fall once more over the wavy antique glass. The man clearly was unimpressed with the "Cavalier" presence down here. If they were true monks of the temple they would not be wasting so much time digging up the wetland preserve and instead would have honed in on places like the two hundred and fifty year old home that was built on the stones of masons.

 

[rami]They look to collect the artifacts of the Order but they don’t know its secrets and therefore only chase what is written in books. Treasure is never where the X is recorded. We need to wait another day before I can show you the cemetery. There is a planned excursion out to the old stone mill in Newport. They head out tomorrow. They will go down to a skeleton crew out here which stay to the perimeter. [/rami]

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Vacily just bobbled his head indifferently at Rami’s assumption concerning blood shed. He really wasn’t so sure he cared all that much about minimizing the body count anymore. Once he caught the scent of the killers he’d hunt them to the ends of the earth but he wasn’t there yet… ‘Patience.’

When the young man so adamantly stated his wayfaring nature the older man’s eyes trailed off, an introspective chuckle ensuing. [vacily]Would that anyone could know themselves so well.[/vacily] he muttered, as if quoting someone or something from the long road of his past. The cold grey eyes momentarily softening then all at once sealing up once more into their impenetrable steely stare.

He wasn’t at all surprised that the old museum was one of his dens. The cavalier and the old structure seemed to share the same bones, built from another time. Vacily had stayed in worse places, with far poorer company and though he’d never admit it, the old man felt at ease in the well preserved homestead, as if he took comfort in the history of the place.

The delay of a night was shrugged off. Though beset with vengeance, Vacily yet had the clarity of thought to know to avoid stumbling about in the dark. He acknowledged Rami’s plan with an approving nod, pondering his words and considering his need for sleep. Rest would not come easy, but weary from travel and the incessant analysis of Caleb’s murder, he knew it would eventually come.

Dead silence followed broken by Vacily’s announcement, [vacily]Going to grab my things.[/vacily] before ducking out the door and heading back to the jeep.

Pulling a duffle bag out of the back he tossed it over a shoulder and secured the vehicle before his return. [vacily]Yeah, far better location for the headquarters.[/vacily] Vacily finally agreed as he pulled out a bottle of booze before dropping the heavy bag near the bottom step of the stairway leading up to the second level.

The bottle of vodka landed with a hollow thud on the old the table in the corner of the room. Locating a couple of ‘truly’ old fashioned glasses on a shelf he placed them on the weathered surface and ceremoniously poured the Stolichnaya. He didn’t bother asking Rami whether or not he wanted a drink. It wasn’t a matter of want, it was a matter of ritual.

[vacily]Vasheztorovia![/vacily] Vacily toasted, briefly raising the glass above eye level before tossing the contents down his throat in one seasoned swallow. [vacily]To your health.[/vacily] he translated, not that most Westerners weren’t familiar with the popular, “Nostrovia!”, a mispronounced English translation of “Na zdorovie.” which basically meant, “You’re welcome”. It was now modern day slang for “Let’s get drunk.” but Vacily offered the proper, ‘Vashe zdorov’ye’ in salute to solidify their bond in the camaraderie of combat.

For if not tomorrow, in the days to come, there would be blood.

The silvery liquor flowed into Vacily’s glass once more and he eased into an old wooden chair creaking as his unnaturally aged bones should have.

[vacily]Artifacts of the Order?[/vacily] He questioned, pondering what Rami had said prior to him collecting his gear. [vacily]The Order of Light?[/vacily] he clarified.

This was all new to Vacily. His work with the Vanguard was very political these days and any covert missions he oversaw were often campaigns for territorial gains or to increase public popularity.

[vacily]What are they hoping to gain?[/vacily]

Even if he had been wrong with his interpretation of the reference to ‘Order’, the question still remained valid. What indeed did the Vanguard seek to gain by collecting old artifacts?

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[vacily]Would that anyone could know themselves so well.[/vacily]

 

[rami]…. “He who knows others is wise; he who knows himself is enlightened.”[/rami]

 

Grin slid his lips as he quoted Lao watching the dim light betray the older man's softening gaze before the steel returned. The Director was a complex man. He would have been disappointed if he had been anything less. He was also pleased to find the man receptive to waiting. Personal loss often made people irrational but the Russian seemed to understand this might be a long road they were starting to journey upon.

 

As the older man slipped out to get his own things, the Cavalier moved to the old windows and worked two open. The air out here was cool and fresh, two things the old building could use a little of. Since the fall of the world it spent far too much time sealed up growing musty, as did most places the warrior monk gravitated towards. Forgotten relics of a bygone world, like himself.

 

Head turned as the man brought in his duffle, brow quirking as it was nearly dropped on Enoch. The massive canine growled half heartedly, teeth grabbing a corner of the bag as head pulled back moving it further before rolling on his back and flopping his head and legs on top of the Director's belongings, yawn betraying he was not inclined to get up at the moment. The animal seemed to know the Cavalier was in for the night.

 

The small wooden chair was dropped into, boots lifting onto the sill of the open window as he watched the bottle come around the corner to thump lightly on the hand carved table beside him. The monk was not a drinker. The Cavalier treated his body as a worshipped temple, but he understood the ritual the Russian was performing and therefore to not add insult he lifted the second mason jar glass in a gesture of unity and sipped of the devil's brew.

 

[vacily]…to your health.[/vacily][rami] fil-imteHaan yokram il-mar' aw yohaan. qad tartafie [/rami]

 

His soft Arabic words were spoken with a reverence to the Director's loss. The glass lifted again as he translated.

 

[rami] At times of test, a person rises or falls. May you rise.[/rami]

 

Again he sipped from the liquid before letting the half full glass merely rest between his hands on his crossed thighs, dark gaze out the open window as the sounds of night began to play in the overgrown grounds.

 

[vacily]…Artifacts of the Order? The Order of Light?[/vacily]

 

Head shook having been misunderstood. It was a natural assumption these days as his Order was long forgotten by the world outside.

 

[rami]…. Order of Solomon's Temple[/rami]

 

The less common term for the Templar Knights was spoken quietly. Silence lingering as though he might not speak further but in truth he was making final decisions of how far to bring the Director into the dark world. Neck rolled before he glanced over at the older man, story unfolding from lips that knew more than most.

 

[rami]The old artifacts were thought centuries ago to hold power…magic. They were hidden and protected from the world for real reasons.[/rami]

 

Eyes glanced into the vessel in his lap, fogged glass rolled gently in his hands to watch the liquid swirl as he continued.

 

[rami]…the Order of Light has decided such artifacts after the Resonance must now be more heavily imbued with power. They also believe their origins give them rights over such artifacts, so they have set upon the world seeking them. Not to be outdone, the Vanguard who also believe they have a claim to the artifacts has begun to search in earnest.[/rami]

 

Head leaned back against the top rail of the weathered chair to look at the Russian.

 

[rami]…neither are correct in their claim and all will be done to keep the artifacts out of both of their grasps.[/rami]

 

Suddenly the Cavalier's of the Vanguard having taken control of this area made more sense. The false "knights" believed they were the evidence of why the Vanguard had rights to the artifacts so they had started to make claims on numerous areas around the world, searching. Meanwhile Rami and his few "brothers" ensured they never found what they were looking for.

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‘Enlightened?’ The old man nearly laughed. Almost a decade of yoga had only made him more cynical but he didn’t knock people for walking the path. Maybe the kid actually found something, he sure as hell wouldn’t know.

He paused when his Russian words were received by what he could only assume to be an Arabic tongue. Back in the 1980’s when the Soviet government under Brezhnev sent troops to support the pro-communist Taraki, Vacily was a CIA operative on the scene. He got used to the back-throat sounds of the Afghan Persian language known as Dari and learned enough to distinguish the Indo European branch from the Semitic. Other than that it was all gibberish until Rami translated for him.

He appreciated the sentiment but if there was a metaphorical message in the proverb it was lost on the Russian. Of course he’d rise.

Another shot splashed into the glass. A slight nod and twist of the old man’s lip acknowledging the cavalier’s clarification of the mixed-up terminology. He immediately made the connection with the Templar Knights, the more popular moniker. Caleb had been heavily interested in the mysticism surrounding the archaic Order and just like then, Vacily didn’t dispute the notion of their ancient artifacts holding power. It stood to reason that in this changed world such things may be empowered by magic. Only the multitudes that preferred to keep their heads buried in the sand, or up their asses, as Vacily preferred to say, remained ignorant to this obvious relationship.

[vacily]Aren’t you Vanguard?[/vacily] Vacily needlessly reminded him, an ambiguous tone to his words. [vacily]Our faction is founded on the same principles are they not? Why deny your fellow Legionnaires the power that is rightfully there’s?[/vacily]

Vacily had always respected power and by that he understood the illusion of it’s control. These relics, if indeed they were imbued with magical properties, might in fact be unwieldy by those lacking the proper knowledge. Rami’s sect then possessing that knowledge should be bound by duty to channel that power on their behalf but for some reason, as Vacily saw it, that didn’t seem to be the case.

[vacily]Better us than the Order of Light.[/vacily] He further suggested, pressing the Cavalier to convince him otherwise.

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He could feel skepticism from the older man but it didn’t faze the warrior monk. Pushing from the chair he moved to the window, the devil's brew hanging from his fingertips that surrounded the less than perfectly round top of the old glass. The sound of another glass sloshing full behind him drew a quirk to the corner of his lips.

 

The Director seemed to be dwelling carefully on his words regarding the Order before the older man broke the comfortable silence one more.

 

[vacily]Aren't you Vanguard? Our faction is founded on the same principles are they not? Why deny your fellow Legionnaires the power that is rightfully theirs ?[/vacily]

 

Hazel narrowed slightly inspecting the Russian

 

[rami]You are as misguided as they are if you truly believe it is their right to hold such power.[/rami]

 

Head tilted faintly, the expression as always infuriatingly calm.

 

[rami]…but somehow I don’t think you are in any way a misguided man.[/rami] [vacily]Better us than the Order of Light.[/vacily]

 

Shoulder rested against the worn frame of the window, hazel eyes fixed out into the darkness beyond the waved glass. He liked coming out here, wild life had reclaimed so much of the area, a fact punctuated by the first calls of the large barn owl that lived inside the cupola on the top of the home. Response was soft.

 

[rami]….better neither of you.[/rami]

 

Glance over his shoulder offered a ghost of a smile at the Director before pushing away and pulling out the chair across the table from the Russian, weight dropping lightly into it as the partially full glass set down in front of him.

 

[rami]They are secrets that have remained secrets for over nine centuries. Why should any possess their power now?[/rami]

 

The Director was highly intelligent. By now he understood that there were Orders within Orders. As they had for centuries, the Knights, the Masons, the Illuminatus had infiltrated and become a part of those societies they believed needed to be under careful watch. While the Vanguard pulled from the lore of the "enlightened", it did not truly belong to the sect that bound the warrior monk.

 

Thumb rubbed the side of the glass thoughtfully, a faint frown lingering before the hazel orbs slid upward to meet the older eyes in the dark. He had already spilled too many secrets, laying trust on the man before him. There was no point in stopping now.

 

[rami]…. the problem is, too few knights remain to guard all the secrets.[/rami]

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Eyes fell to the ‘glass half empty’. He admired a man who could savour his drink. All the assholes who’d ever judged a man by the amount they could hold had sooner or later died from it. He could down the entire bottle and dance a straight line while whistling ‘Kalinka-Malinka but he wouldn’t. Vacily didn’t drink to get drunk, he drank to enjoy, to remember. Sometimes to honour, and sometimes to mourn. Since the ‘Usilivat Soldat’ experimentation of 1946 his body metabolized poisons at an inhuman rate, he couldn’t get drunk, not normally anyway. Besides, Vacily had never found peace by dulling his wits and another time, another place the friendly debate might have sparked a storm… but not today. Perhaps it was the calm nature of the man, maybe it was this place, so far from the modern world.

It wasn’t often that Vacily ventured too far from the electrical cityscapes. He felt strange, almost euphoric. Free from the constant build up of the residual static his mind was clear, muscles relaxed. It was only force of habit that drew his hand to the plastic container within the inside pocket of his coat. Cracking the lid, shaking a shiny pill into the palm of his hand. The rattle of the chrome capsule sounded heavy and metallic. An element that might kill a normal man, but not Vacily. Habitually tossing the ‘dampener’ in his mouth he washed it down with a swig of vodka. Wincing from the strong metallic taste, as he did the cavalier’s unsavoury words.

‘Why should any possess their power now? Too few knights to guard all the secrets.’ Vacily believed the two had found their impasse. Fortunately his passions were no longer invested in the subject to the degree they once were. Growing up in the Soviet Union, joining the KGB, defecting to the CIA, his entire life had been and still very much was a classified collage of clandestine rendezvous. Exposing secrets had been his life’s work, his speciality, were he to choose one.

[vacily]Who is more dangerous? Those who seek to control the secrets or those who hide them?[/vacily] Vacily posed to the younger man, the twinge of a smile of his own to lighten the weight of his countering query. It was a question that had ever haunted his actions. [vacily]Most times, they’re pretty much dead even, don't you think?[/vacily]

He took another sip, leaning back in his chair, curious of the cavalier’s response.

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Thumb rubbed the lip of the mottled glass, thoughtfully watching the Russian. An emotionally compromised travelling companion could be a huge liability. The Director was definitely emotionally compromised, but he seemed to hold himself in check. A far cry from the man that had threatened him in the cemetery just a day ago.

 

The half full glass lifted, sipped before finding a home once more on the vintage table, the haunting hazel eyes watching the capture of the bottle. Brow made a faint quirk upward as the Russian downed the "pill" with his vodka. Sick? If he was, it was just another thing that would slow down the monk.

 

A liability.

 

There was far too much to uncover on this journey to be handicapped with a liability. He wouldn’t babysit, he wouldn’t come to his aid if he fell behind either. Something evil was growing and he needed answers if he was going to hunt it. Vacily would have to hold his own if he wanted the answers to his own questions. If he failed to do so, the monk would at least do him the courtesy of a proper burial beside his son.

 

The older man did not seem pleased with his answers. Surely by now he understood the monk answered to an order beyond the Vanguard. Despite the Russian's displeasure, the silence that lingered between them was comfortable, the monk taking a moment to sip from the vodka once more.

 

[vacily]Who is more dangerous? Those who seek to control the secrets or those who hide them?[/vacily]

 

Glass had paused midway to his lips, faint quirk upward playing at the corner of his lips.

 

[rami] Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.[/rami]

 

Grin continued to ghost as he quoted a Grand Master of the Masonic Lodge. Boot scraped softly on the floor as his toes pressed against the table leg and he tipped the chair back until its top rail rested on the wall behind him.

 

[vacily] Most times, they’re pretty much dead even, don't you think? [/vacily]

 

Head gently rapped against wood as locks that needed to be cut pushed against the wall, eyes drifting to the wood beams of the ceiling.

 

[rami]It depends on the secrets….. and who it is that hides them…. and why they hide them. But in general, historically…. you are correct.[/rami]

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Vacily remissly nodded. The man’s words were ever heedful and he tired of measuring the weight of their words with coffee spoons, or rather ‘shot glasses’. Bottom line, he should have been grateful of the monk’s help, even if his actions were self-serving. They at least, for the most part, shared a common enemy in those that killed his son.

He swallowed another ounce in a futile attempt to dull the pain. The mere thought of Caleb was salt in an open wound and like an angry lion Vacily sought to ease that pain through violent means.

[vacily]Well, I think it’s time to turn…[/vacily]

The dog growled, ears pricking up.

Lightly placing his glass on the table, Vacily paused and strained his ears. The snap of a branch, a strange rustle through the dried leaves of the nearby bushes.

With the lithe movements of a much younger man, the Director sprang up and deftly moved to a nearby window. Interior lighting made it difficult to see but one did not need to look long to distinguish the shambles and the sways of zombies in the moonlight.

[vacily]What the hell?[/vacily] He whispered.

There were hundreds of them! It had been years since he or anyone for that matter had seen such a mob! Moving quickly to a south facing window, Vacily stared in horror. The creatures spanned as far as the eye could see, a mindlessly purposeful mass meandering north toward the city.

[vacily]Bozhe moy![/vacily] He gasped. [vacily]We have to warn them.[/vacily] he stated, digging his handgun out the duffle bag as he ran to a north facing window to spy the accessibility of his jeep.

Completely over run.

They could hear them clearly now. The rumbling thuds of thousands of feet, bodies rubbing up against the outer walls of the building. It was only a matter of time before instinct kicked in. Before one or two of the creatures caught a scent and found the door.

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Hazel eyes watched the Russian's reaction. He didn’t like the answer. He didn’t flee from it either. The older man seemed to simply accept, for now, that the warrior monk was not going to hand over secrets to anyone; not even the Vanguard.

 

The "poison" was sipped once more, the Russian several ahead of him and continuing to pull away as he poured himself another ounce.

 

[vacily]Well, I think it's time to turn…[/vacily]

 

The Cavalier sat up slowly in his chair just a second before the Russian drew up short on his statement and Enoch began a low gutteral growl. Soft cluck at the back of his throat quickly silenced the animal as he stood slowly from his chair, the mottled glass set softly on the table at the same moment the Russian did the same.

 

Hazel watched the much older man deftly make his way to a window, the Cavalier already at one as well. Pupils dilated as he watched the telltale lumber of infected in the outskirts of the woods.

 

[vacily]What the hell?[/vacily]

 

Finger came to his lips to silently shush the Russian. This was not the Cavalier's first run in with the infected and he found they had remarkably good hearing. Fingers traced the edge of the old lace curtain, pushing it to the side as he assessed further to the front of the house and then the back.

 

[vacily]Bozhe moy! We have to warn them.[/vacily]

 

Hazel flicked to the Russian with a brow quirking upward, soft words barely audible.

 

[rami]…you know they would not do the same for you.[/rami]

 

Head tilted away from the windows, inviting the man to follow. Feet were silent as he trotted up the stairs to grab his duffle from the landing before coming back down and moving to what must have been the kitchen back in the day. Kitchen table was slid out of the way, the threadbare wool rug underneath flipped up to reveal an old cellar hatch.

 

Air hissed through his front teeth as he held the hatch up, the feral hound turning finally away from the front door, hackles still raised as the animal slid down into the dark hole. As the Russian hesitated the Cavalier offered a faint smirk.

 

[rami]…there is a reason I choose the shelters that I do. But you are welcome to stay here if dying was in your grand plan coming out here with me.[/rami]

 

He waited for the man to follow Enoch before he dropped into the space slower, hand on the rug and hatch at the same time, closing and covering their exit. The acrid dust of the rug would hide their scent once the house was broken into.

 

It was a shame, he liked this particular reclusion.

 

Padded feet were already ahead in the absolute dark. Rummaging in his duffle he pulled out a large M800 Tactical high beam flashlight that instantly flooded the hand dug escape tunnel. Light permeated more than 100 yards before stopping and then, only because the tunnel curved. Cobwebs lined thick the walls and draped from the low dirt ceiling. At only about five feet tall, the tunnel would have been adequate back in its day, now it forced the Cavalier to stoop as he quickly followed the canine.

 

[rami]… you may notice it goes down. We will be well over fifteen feet below the surface, the infected will not hear us moving in here.[/rami]

 

Pace was quick, turning with the tunnel in a manner that betrayed this wasn’t his first venture through the underground escape.

 

[rami]…encountered infected often in my investigations. But never this close to a big population….and never this volume. Highly doubt that it is an accident.[/rami]

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Vacily agreed with Rami. [vacily]It’s not.[/vacily] he grunted. A herd of this magnitude, at this exact time, was simply too coincidental. ‘But how in the hell did THEY find them?’ The old spy considered as he closely followed, duffle bag slung across his shoulder.

His electromagnetic inspection of his jeep had been thorough. Vacily had detected no tracking devices, metallic or silicone based. ’Satellite tracking?’ Not likely. ’Remote viewing, scrying, clairvoyance?’ Perhaps. One could never dismiss the supernatural these days.

He rubbed a hand along a cool earthen side of the tunnel, unable to tell it’s age. Could have been dug a century ago or last year for all he knew. ‘Where did it go? Was the more important question, but Vacily figured he’d find out soon enough. Vacily always knew where north was. He knew precisely the direction they were moving but not being familiar with the layout of Winchester it didn’t help him one bit.

Along the way he had swapped his firearm for a hatchet. An unorthodox choice, but such a weapon in Vacily’s hands was far more useful against the mindless creatures. The gun was placed in a holster and slung over his shoulder, just in case. There could be more than just zombies to contend with. Vacily wanted to be prepared.

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Duffle shifted on his shoulder, Enoch playing in and out of the light spread down the tunnel with a puppy-like carefree nature that seemed to show his complete lack of awareness of danger. Truth was, this was the feral animal hopped up on adrenalin awaiting the moment he had to come to strict attention. Enoch knew danger was there just a shovel of dirt away. The animal was craving confronting it.

 

The Cavalier was quiet a while, contemplating the Russian with him. The older man was still likely a liability to the warriormonk. But perhaps a bit more knowledge sharing was in order before the faced the potential battle on the other side of the tunnel.

 

[rami]…my report in Washington…. It was grossly incomplete.[/rami]

 

Ahead Enoch reached a T juncture and spun like a top in the center with dizzying effect on the shadows cast around the walls, faint squeak came from between the Eqyptian's teeth and instantly the canine shot to the left. It had been awaiting orders.

 

Following, the man was forced to hunch a bit more, the ceiling coming down before lifting once more as they entered a carved out "room". The space was only about twelve foot by eight and it lacked the cobwebs and grayed color of aged soil. Here the walls looked dark and wet, freshly carved. It was not part of the original tunnel, a fact made more apparent by the array of modern weaponry that was stacked in neat rows on wooden racks and on the small table in the center. Enoch curled up under the table as he dropped his duffle on the table lightly, high beamed light set on a corner to illuminate the entire earthen room as he began to check cartridges in weapons on the wall, snapping them closed and loading them. As skilled hands moved, he finally continued.

 

[rami]…the only important part of the story at the time was the clear connections in deaths I had come across in my investigations. The report held nothing of my actual investigation.[/rami]

 

Clip slammed back into the front grip of an M4 Carbine, the weapon set beside his duffle before moving to a rack of knives and machetes. The caliber of weaponry here was military grade and hardly the stuff that was standard issue by Vanguard. As if having an arsenal for small invasion of a country was normal, the monk quietly continued.

 

[rami]…I have been investigating makeshift laboratories that are scattered all over the North American region, including as far north as Fort McMurray. [/rami]

 

Vanguard were not really sanctioned to head that far into the former Canada territory, but as the Director had likely already concluded, Rami was not controlled by the Vanguard. Unsheathing several knives to check the blades before slipping them away again, he began to arm himself, a large bowie at the small of his back, knife in his boot. He nodded to the Russian and then the wall of weapons inviting him to do the same.

 

[rami]…I have come across dozens of them. Many destroyed before I got there, the caretakers of the facility killed. So I am not the only one aware of them and attempting to shut them down.[/rami]

 

Metal box was slid out of a carved "shelf" in the earth wall, set on the table and unlocked with a key that hung around the Cavalier's neck. Inside the metal safe were several shiny silver boxes, popping one open to inspect it clearly held a set of anti-virals. One case was slipped into his duffle and another was slid across the table towards the Director. He had not been joking when he told them in Washington they needed to arm their people with anti-virals at all times. The cases were cool, the earthen tomb acting as a natural refrigerator.

 

[rami]They are run by an array of altered and infected; and they are experimenting with the morteximius virus. [/rami]

 

Dangerous hazel orbs flicked to the Russian as if to make sure the point was not missed.

 

[rami]…they appear to be trying to make a controllable M-infected army and from what we saw, I would say they are closer than I thought.[/rami]

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Vacily was as unsurprised by Rami’s divulgence of his report as he had been unimpressed by the cash of weapons. He could ‘taste’ the mass of metal, feel it rippling through the air. Predicting it’s nature had been a simple deduction based on present company, an arsenal that hardly sang of preparedness, but rather reeked of paranoia. This was the stash of a wanted man and any sane one would be distancing themselves right now but he was the only lead Vacily had. The only one who could help him find to his son’s killers.

 

Rami spoke and he listened. The cavalier mentioned 'M-virus experimentation. He and Salvatore had found tracings of some kind of research program during their investigation. Avenging his son was all that mattered to him right now but it was becoming obvious that these ‘zombie researchers’ were inexplicably connected to this hidden enemy within the Order and Vanguard.

[vacily]Chancellor Avara had established a possible connection between some kind of research program and a few of the murders.[/vacily] The old man shared, leaning back on the edge of the table. [vacily]Tell you the truth kid, I don’t give two shits about ‘zombie experimentation’. I can tell you from experience that road doesn’t go anywhere. Our main concern is to establish a connection between these research facilities and those people responsible for the murders. One will lead us to the other. Was this what Caleb was investigating?[/vacily]

 

Considering the zombie horde above them Vacily wasn't sure whether or not he'd make it to the scene of Caleb's murder anymore. He was getting impatient and wanted answers. Anything to make sense of his son's death. To bring him that much closer to his vengeance.

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Chancellor Avara didn’t know half the story.

 

[vacily] Tell you the truth kid, I don’t give two shits about ‘zombie experimentation’. I can tell you from experience that road doesn’t go anywhere.[/vacily]

 

Weapons were being tucked into his duffle, down his boot, the back of his dusty jeans. Voice was quiet.

 

[rami]..the road has gotten further than you might think. In McMurray… they actually took orders.[/rami]

 

It was a disturbing thought. An army of zombies that might be controlled could tip the balance of power around the world in favor of those that commanded the pack.

 

[vacily] Our main concern is to establish a connection between these research facilities and those people responsible for the murders. One will lead us to the other. Was this what Caleb was investigating?[/vacily]

 

Head shook as he stuffed the last weapons the duffle could manage into its depths, pulling the heavy zipper closed. Chin gestured slightly to the remaining weapons, an open invitation for the Russian to arm himself as he pulled the M4 Carbine's strap over his shoulder before pulling the duffle over the other.

 

[rami]..no… he was chasing a bad lead on an artifact when he stumbled into this.[/rami]

 

It was cruelly honest. To tell a man his son had died for no other reason than because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time could be seen as heartless. To the warrior monk… it was simply the truth, nothing more or less.

 

The heavy light was picked off the table as the soft suck of air set the feral canine forward once more, trotting down the new maze branch to merge once more with the original tunnel. Words continued quietly.

 

[rami]The cemetery out here has a number of mason graves. So to one outside the "order" the lead seemed plausible. I warned him it was a spook lead but he was…. determined to prove himself.[/rami]

 

Whether the monk meant that Caleb was determined to prove himself to the Cavalier or his father was left unspoken. Rami had been in Canada at the time, told him to ignore it, but he had heard clearly in his voice that Caleb was going to chase the lead anway. By the time he got down to catch up with the kid…. It was too late.

 

[rami]…based on the scene, I suspect that the lead was planted in the hopes of catching another Cavalier.[/rami]

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The cavalier’s disclosure piqued the old man’s interest. He’d seen a lot since the night sky first split in two, but zombies taking orders? Vacily took it that the creatures were able to follow commands, which according to his research in the past was freaking impossible. Of course, back then, his scientists had followed the only path they knew. They never even touched magick, and as time went on it seemed that little ingredient was the key to… well… making magic. There was no other way else to put it. The obviousness of it all now simply made all past efforts seem fool hardy, but it hadn’t all been vain. At least that’s what he told himself.

So, ‘they’d’ found a way to reanimate higher brain functions. Vacily had always figured tha it was only a matter of time before zombies were successfully weaponized. He’d tried it himself, utilizing various forms of sound waves to manipulate their behaviour. To force them to congregate, disperse and target. The project had ended in disaster, like all the others. A controlled zombie horde was the ultimate army, but they could never get past basic instinct; curb their insatiable appetite. Time and time again, the zombies attacked their handlers. Entire herds were lost and with them, months and months of research.

As thoughts of grief yet attempted to make sense of his son’s death the theoretical parallel between between Caleb and the research was mercilessly shot down. The truth stung, but Vacily respected a blunt tongue.

[vacily]A false lead? A trap.[/vacily] Now he knew, but was still no closer to exacting vengeance on his son’s killer. Or was he? Rami wouldn’t have bothered to come all this way if he wasn’t trying to make a connection. He knew more than he was saying.

If the horde above them was being directed then Rami had to be close to discovering something. Something so valuable that it they were willing to destroy an entire settlement, along with them.

[vacily]So what’s the plan?[/vacily]

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The Russian did not dismiss his words. The man clearly knew enough about the Cavalier to know his observation was founded in truth. He also understood the significance of an army of infected that could be controlled. Perhaps the Director would prove less of a liability than he had originally thought.

 

But as they moved out of the arsenal vault, the conversation again turned to his son. Vacilly was emotional, whether he admitted it or not. He was anguished and angry. Neither of which made him a good companion in the fight to come.

 

The Cavalier's blunt explanation of the kid's death was unlikely to assuage either emotion.

 

[vacily]A false lead? A trap.[/vacily]

 

Nod was faint. Hazel watching the bright light fight to turn corners of dirt, chasing Enoch's tail. A trap meant for a Knight….. not a Cavalier. A trap potentially meant for himself but set by seemingly amateurs. No Knight would fall for such a misguided lead. The area, even the cemetery, was not old enough to shield the secrets of the old Order. But, amateurs or not, someone was fishing for old world secrets, seeking to find the lost powers of a bygone era.

 

[vacily]So what's the plan?[/vacily]

 

Steps paused as he glanced to the Russian, pupils dilating in the center of rich hazel as the older man was studied before the Cavalier resumed his forward motion.

 

Liability or not, the Director need information if he was to be even the slightest bit helpful once they breached the surface. Quiet words began to explain.

 

[rami]This is an old smuggler's tunnel. It comes out inside a crypt in the center of the cemetery. [/rami]

 

Head tilted left and then right, neck cracking an echo down the corridor as he rolled his shoulders. The man was clearly loosening up. They were getting close.

 

[rami]…based on the direction they were coming from and going, they should not be directly heading to the cemetery. I suspect they are actually heading to the old stone church. From what I have seen the ignorants seem to think all artifacts are hidden in the halls of old churches.[/rami]

 

Head shook as hazel rolled. It was one of the first real expressions from the distant Cavalier. He returned to the matter at hand quickly.

 

[rami]Caleb had been led to a crypt beside where we will emerge.[/rami]

 

Pace had picked up, the slope of the tunnel had shifted, they were moving closer to the surface.

 

[rami]…. and in a tomb beside that crypt, I have stored several items from the crime scene that I couldn’t let get into the hands of those in Washington.[/rami]

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‘Proof?’ Vacily wondered, anxious anticipation rising with the noticeable incline of the tunnel.

How Remy actually came by this information was a source of concern but such questions were best reserved for a more opportune time. Presently he was more concerned with the town. He had to warn them, but as he fished his mobile device out of his pocket his heart sank; the phone registered ‘no service’. Such were the realities of the ‘new world’. Phone service these days was sketchy at best, Winchester’s cell tower was probably as old as the hills. That and being underground was limiting the signal.

[vacily]Shit. Soon as we’re topside we gotta warn ‘em. We at least owe the townsfolk that much.[/vacily] Vacily promised, ready to get out into the open air.

He was anxious to get this fight started, rolling the steel hatchet in his hand to dry the sweat on his palm. Best case scenario, he’d get a cell signal near the mouth of the tunnel but if not, he’d have to get closer to town. This meant cutting through the horde.

[vacily]Been a while since I’ve dealt with the dead.[/vacily] Vacily admitted, hinting his curiosity of the young man’s plan.

He was all about stealth. Gunshots would only draw the zombies closer in mass. They were strongest in swarms, so the best tactic was to keep them scattered.

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Hazel glanced to the side as the older man reached for his phone. Likely tracked, even if the Director didn’t think so. There was a reason the Cavalier didn’t carry one and only "borrowed" those of random strangers to make his contact with the Vanguard.

 

[rami]..unless it is a satellite phone you won't get a signal in Winchester. They seemed intent on keeping it hidden. Someone seems to think there are deep secrets here.[/rami]

 

The cell towers in the area had been purposely destroyed long after the Nevus event. Secrets. The world was returning to the darkness of secrets. It was a world his kind knew well.

 

[vacily]Shit. Soon as we're topside we gotta warn 'em. We at least owe the townsfolk that much.[/vacily]

 

[rami]…are you so sure you do?.....owe them?[/rami]

 

It was a dark and ominous statement. The Cavalier had a strong intuition that those that "lived" here were among those that had set up the director's son….or rather… had set a trap for himself. Though more he thought of it, it was possible the trap really was for Caleb. He was a liability to the sector within the Vanguard that was operating in shadows. He was young, eager and connected. All were traits the shadows would not want close in their ranks.

 

[vacily]Been a while since I've dealt with the dead.[/vacily]

 

The Cavalier had paused behind Enoch who was sniffing at the stone that blocked their exit. Light was snuffed out, the cracks around the stone betraying the glisten of moonlight beyond as he tucked it into the large duffle, pulling instead out a bowie knife for the left hand and a short sword in the right.

 

[rami]…take the head….[/rami]

 

Words were very matter of fact.

 

[rami]…especially these. They pack hunt, not as random as normal Mort infected. Do not waste your energy with anything but a death blow.[/rami]

 

Enoch sat at his right calf, tail thumping gently on the dirt floor.

 

[rami]…..for now the area is clear of them. When we exit follow me close behind. We go directly to the crypt to pick up what I left behind and then we need to find a vehicle to put distance between us and them.[/rami]

 

Shoulder was placed against the stone and boot dug into the earth, the scratch of earth and rock soft despite its weight as the "door" began to swing open. Ducking under the low exit, his steps were light trotting into the dark cold cemetery. As they moved his soft words held little emotion.

 

[rami]…the large tree with the charred trunk on your left.. that is where he died. If that sort of thing is important to you.[/rami]

 

It seemed a cold and callous thing to say… yet it was not meant as such. The Director needed closure. They would not be there long so best to simply point it out to the man as they made their way to a fairly unimpressive crypt.

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