They climbed the slope up, out of the trees. The two new crawlers were getting underway, so Rael headed for the Junkyard. The old crawler had been wrecked, fixed by magical manipulation of the metal, re wrecked, fixed, customized, baked in a solar flare . . . the Vehicles and Maintenance division finally refused to take it back, so Ajha had permanently assigned it to Team Fifty. The customization had gotten a bit out of hand after that.
A nice open space, and instead of the usual bunks stowed against the wall, the bars of bubbles. I’ll bet they’ve got whole rooms in there, and it looks like they’ve enlarged the bathroom as well.
She took a look. A shower big enough for two. Two stalls with toilets. Broad counter, two sinks. “Decadent. Has Ajha seen how you guys are roughing it these days?”
Ra’d laughed. “He says we’ve ruined two centuries of hard earned reputation for the Directorate having tough and indestructible X Teams.”
Ebsa hopped into the driver’s seat. “Let’s get back to the village before the Priests and the Renshe do anything we can’t fix.”
The village, seen after even a few day’s absence, managed to look quaint and primitive, rather than dirty and small.
The two tree houses were easy to miss, if one didn’t know they were there. They formed a short south side of the, umm, village square, with the trail to the waterfall leading off between them. The line of the three log cabins was the west side of the village. With the center open and partly paved with the fire pit and seats around it, the smoker, some sturdy work tables.
We’d have been in trouble, come winter. Or not, at the rate Xen had us hauling firewood and stacking it up all around the houses. But if there was much rain or snow, we’d have been stuck inside and pretty damn bored.
Rael contemplated being snowed in with Xen for months . . . in an open room also shared with Joil and Karl. “Bedrooms,” she muttered. “Bedrooms would have happened. And running water.”
Ra’d glanced around, eyebrows raised.
“Just think about how the improvements would have come quickly, with Xen’s recovery. Won’t happen now, unless people want to stay here.”
Rael opened the hatch and locked it into the open position as Ebsa parked.
All the Renshe were standing clumped, even Cali peeking between Mike and Connor.
Staring at the priests. Who were staring back.
All shielded and wary.
Ajha was hovering, anxiously. Everyone else was standing well off to the side.
Rael leaped out. “Ytry! Calm everyone down! Sam . . . They’re powerful and nosy. They want to study you, not control you.”
She glowered at the priests. “Right? Can we find some manners?”
Ytry snickered. “Not, likely, but maybe we’ll try.” He gave the men on either side elbow jabs. They blinked and switched their glares to him.
Jeb shook himself, and the other four relaxed.
Hummer turned and glowered at Rael. “We need to know about them.”
“Then ask.” Rael failed to keep the exasperation out of her voice. “Did any of you ever have any basic lessons in good manners? Like, introduce yourselves before you try to invade someone’s mind?”
Ytry shrugged. “I’m not sure any of them have been out of Makkah for centuries.”
“And it shows.” Tones of disgust from thin air . . . that wavered as a young woman appeared. Dark honey skin and a long black braid down her back.
Rael grinned. “Nighthawk? I didn’t know you were here.”
A flash of teeth. “Lon thought that perhaps someone who can open and close corridors and gates ought to be on hand. I volunteered.”
Karl—back in Disco grays—nodded. “The guards have all behaved, so far. Even the Judge.”
Mike hunched his shoulders. “The Judge is . . . unreliable. One day he wants you dead, the next he just sits and cries all day.”
“But more crying than killing, especially the last couple of days.” Sam sidled up and eyed the priests. “That lot’s almost scarier than Xen.”
“They’re going to try to undo the Judge’s mental modeling, as soon as the semofazing is out of their systems.”
Mike snorted. “I think there’s permanent damage. But if he just won’t keep looping between so few speech options it will be a relief.”
The rest of them nodded.
“What little they could do, seems to have helped that a bit.” Rael sauntered over to check the smoker. “Did you get a deer?”
Karl grinned. “Hunter got it, we finished it off . . . What?”
Hummer stepped closer and stared at him. “You’re an Earther! What a horrible feel you have.”
Real rolled her eyes. “Hummer, this is Karl Mantigo. Captain Mantigo is a Disco agent. Please treat him like an actual person.”
“humph.” Hummer turned and eyed Jiol, and then Nighthawk. “Now you are impressive.”
Nighthawk’s brows lowered. Jiol’s rose.
Rael choked back a giggle. Oh, less impressive than a young Witch! The Insult! The Very Idea!
Jiol’s glare switched her direction. :: I heard that, Young Lady! ::
“So . . . that’s a Comet Fall Witch? How interesting.”
Rael eyed her. “You do realize, don’t you, that that is the young woman you tried to murder fourteen years ago?”
“Murder?” Hummer frowned. “I’m quite certain I’ve never felt that mind before.”
“Well, those things happen when you fail to clear the methalformaline out of the mind of someone appealing to the highest moral authority for justice.” Rael knew she was failing to keep both voice and glow under control. “Politics, control, revenge . . . have no business in a religion.”
“Well . . . I’m sure you realize that the One has been about politics and control from the start. We didn’t take over Islam because of our morals.”
A snort from Ra’d as he walked past. “Pack of child molesters.”
Hummer turned and glared.
“Humph. Such an angry young man.”
“Yes.” Rael eyed the priest. “I am glad that you have stopped. There are plenty of people who desire power and control, and will join you willingly, so long as you don’t castrate them and crush their minds.”
“Heretics! The lot of you!”
“Oh, now you’re going to hide behind religion?”
A snicker from Ytry as he walked up and eyed them. “Hummer? Don’t take your ire out on other people. Especially people who can kill you if they decide you need killing. Most bullies have enough sense to pick on the weakest.”
Hummer looked indignant. “I was not bullying, I was arguing. With people who can hold their own and not be cowed by the One.”
“Here, you aren’t the One. You’re a powerful magician among a lot of other magicians. Behave.” Ytry looked past her. “Bad Girl, introduce me to these new friends of yours.”