"Night of the Living Dead or 28 Days Later?" Galahad asked. He kept his voice low, barely above a murmur. A nearby bird chirped, and it was loud enough to drown out the rest of what he said.
The Pendragon cottage -- now referred to, jokingly, as Camelot, because it had somehow grown into some sort of miniature town overlooked by a stately castle over the last few days as their close friends and families settled in -- was in the middle of a vast expanse of privately-owned property. And that privately-owned property was sprawling. The closest neighbour was a good hike away, and all the villages located in a reasonable distance were just that, villages, large and sprawling, but populating only a quarter of its usual capacity in the off-season.
It was the off-season now, but the expected remaining quarter of the population in one village in particular was nowhere to be seen.
A light haze floated through the street, illuminated by moonlight. Gwaine half-expected to hear a wolf howl in the distance, except there weren't any wolves in England.
At least, he was pretty sure there weren't. Last he looked, there weren't any mysterious big cats, either, and there definitely hadn't been any dragons, either.
Hadn't been being the effective key words.
The streetlights were off. Storefronts and neon signs were dark. None of the residences were lit up by either electricity or candlelight. A few cars were parked nicely at the kerb; a few others blocked the road entirely, as if their owners had decided, screw it, and had run off.
"Zombieland?" Geraint suggested. Like Galahad, he kept his volume to a bare whisper.
"No amusement parks," Galahad said.
"More's the pity," Perceval murmured. He looked thoughtful. "I am Legend, maybe?"
No one said anything as they took in their surroundings again. Gwaine released a held breath. "Huh. That's not a bad one. I'm partial to Shaun of the Dead, myself."
"Gee, I wonder why," Perceval groused. He'd been in a bad mood for the better part of the week. Gwaine knew it had something to do with how Gaius had shut the door on him and firmly refused to share the details of his conversation with Merlin and Arthur, so he didn't take it personally when Perceval continued with a snarky, "A last stand in the tavern. Sounds like something you would do."
Gwaine shrugged, because, yes, it was something he would do. "Any sane man --"
"Shut it," Leon snapped, somehow managing to make his whisper sound like a whip-crack. Despite the twilight, there was no missing his steely glare. "First, it's more like Resident Evil, if you consider it. Second, we're on a timeline. You know your jobs. Fan out."
Leon didn't wait for anyone to respond. He gestured at Bohrs and headed down the road. Bohrs followed without a word.
Gwaine sucked his front tooth and made a rude sound. "Resident Evil. I could buy that."
Perceval turned to Geraint. "I'll trade you for partners."
"Nothing doing," Galahad said, shaking his head. He grabbed Geraint's nylon vest and pulled Geraint after him. "You're stuck with Gwaine."
A heavy frown pinched Perceval's brow, obviously evaluating his life choices. Gwaine didn't know if he should feel insulted or amused and opted for the later. He clapped Perceval on the shoulder and jerked his head in invitation. "You know the rule. You break it, you bought it."
"I didn't break it enough," Perceval muttered, and Gwaine grinned at him.
If nothing else, Arthur had planned this entire thing out very well. Their Captain might not have known how it was all going to go down, but it had gone down. The team had expected worse -- no power, no electricity, no communications, and except for some very sporadic occasions, they had all three. In some ways it was a blessing, because no one wanted to deal with the cold and wet weather that was only growing colder and wetter by the day. In others, it was a curse, because the mass media continued to report news with a faint, alarmist tone, and the more the talking heads were on the air, the longer the panic was going to last.
When threatened, most people ran. Those who didn't run fought. Except even though there wasn't anywhere left to run to -- the planes were grounded, the rails weren't running, and no one would set foot in a boat if their lives depended on it -- there were a lot of headless chickens to contend with. When there wasn't anything to fight, people turned their aggression to other, more solid things.
A disembodied child's voice on the radio waves singing that creepy song didn't make for much of a target.
There were a lot of frightened people mobbing the streets of every city, regardless of size, worldwide. There were a lot of angry people lashing out at those frightened people. There were riots in protest against everything under the sun with no one really understanding what was going on, and after several bloody clashes between groups that had no reason to hate the other, the worst of it settled down. In true herd mentality, fear and anger became one and the same, and pretty soon, running away and fighting the invisible became looting everything in sight in a mad bid for survival.
The troops were out -- the police in full riot gear, National Guardsmen and women in full uniform, even a couple of military units riding around in armoured trucks -- but they weren't doing much to stop the fighting, preferring to let it blow out on its own instead.
Bohrs cast a sidelong glance in Leon's direction. The moonlight wasn't enough to see by -- just the faintest sliver as the bright face of the new moon turned toward the sun again -- but he didn't need nightvision to see the muscle popping in Leon's jaw. The sound of grinding teeth was enough.
"I'm almost afraid to ask," he said. After a moment, Bohrs caved in. "All right, I'll ask. What is it now?"
Leon shook his head, obviously uninterested in talking. His voice was sharp when he said, "Focus."
"Fine," Bohrs groused.
"Fine," Leon snapped.
Neither of them spoke for a while. They moved through their quadrant of the village carefully, silently, watchful for anything out of the ordinary. The stillness was eerie --
A rubbish bin toppled over in a loud, reverberating crash. Bohrs and Leon reacted by moving away and turning around at the same time, alert and ready for anything. Bohrs didn't see anything until a flash of fur flared in the corner of his nightvision goggles -- a stripped tail.
Glowing green eyes stared out at him from a mask, and an irritated raccoon continued to dig through the now-uncapped rubbish bin.
Bohrs swore under his breath. Leon didn't make a sound. They both surveilled the area, but the village remained quiet.
They kept moving.
Unlike most of the towns in London, this little village appeared to have avoided any obvious sign of riots and loot-and-pillage. There weren't as many abandoned automobiles as Bohrs expected. None of the storefront windows were broken, but a couple had been spray-painted with an obsequious symbol that Bohrs recognized from some of the Directory briefings. The black, garish paint was a fuzzy smear against what was otherwise a quaint little town, but beyond the graffiti on the outer edge of the town, there was no sign of the NWO.
"Less Resident Evil and more Twilight Zone," Leon muttered under his breath.
Bohrs grunted in agreement.
Shop doors were locked; the CLOSED signs had been flipped over. Bohrs looked through the window of a small mom-and-pop diner.
Except for the lack of dust anywhere and the way the tables were set up for new guests, he'd think that the diner had closed down a long time ago. The counters were clean; there were a couple of muffins on a tray under glass. Sugar shakers and salt and pepper dispensers were neatly tucked in the middle of a table next to a plastic flower. There were no dirty dishes, no upturned chairs…
"I don't get it," Bohrs said quietly. There was a ghostly itch at the back of his neck that he was afraid to touch in case there really was a ghost behind him, breathing ectoplasmic air. "The other village wasn't like this."
When the worst of the riots passed and there was no sign of intruders approaching the property to endanger the people under their protection, Leon had given the order to check out the two villages that were closest to the cottage. Half of it was to ensure that the situation had stabilized in those areas, and the other half was to see if the local constables needed any assistance in calming the panic.
They'd gone West, first. Almost a thousand people lived there, but it wasn't a resort town, and the permanent residents were the laid-back sort who knew everyone by name. Any pretense at friendship or camaraderie had gone out the window in the last twenty-four hours, and the local jail had been overflowing with young men who had looted the electronics store and gone away with several hundred thousands of dollars in large, thin-screen tellys.
Personally, Bohrs would have tipped over the grocery. Food was a priority.
Still, this village was the polar opposite to the first. They'd left the other while the fire department finished dousing the last of the buildings that had been set on fire fully expecting to find the same sort of thing here.
"Twilight Zone," Leon repeated, this time with an insistent note to his voice. "Weren't you listening?"
Bohrs gave Leon a judging, sidelong look. "Are you telling me that aliens dropped by to say hi and left with five hundred people without anyone noticing?"
Leon shrugged a shoulder, and Bohrs winced at Leon's sincere tone when he said, "It's better than the alternative."
Bohrs thought about it for a while before nodding. "Fair point. I'm sincerely hoping it's aliens, then."
If the quiet calm of this village in the face of a worldwide crisis couldn't be blamed on aliens, that meant that this village was most likely one of the hiding places for the NWO. Bohrs did not look forward to staying in this place any longer than he had to. He didn't care how strong Kathy's pendants were, or how much they could protect the wearer. If he saw a sorcerer, he was shooting first and asking questions later.
Of course, if the sorcerers in question were Merlin or Kathy, he'd tell them to move out of his line of sight. Unless they were enemy sorcerers in disguise, in which case Bohrs had no idea how he'd be able to tell, and it might be prudent to start shooting anyway. Merlin would be able to block it, wouldn't he? He didn't know about Kathy, but --
"Get out of your head," Leon said grimly. "I can hear the gears grinding, and it's attracting attention."
"Charming," Bohrs muttered, grateful for the jab. There were other things to worry about.
He followed Leon down a side street, watching their six. He bumped into Leon when Leon abruptly stopped. Bohrs whirled around, looking for danger, but there wasn't anything.
Then he noticed what Leon was looking at.
They stood in front of a bridal store. The large front window was full of all sorts of white, fluffy things -- two mannequins wearing two completely different styles of gowns. One was a Disney princess dress, with a skirt that defied gravity and a train long enough to double as a tablecloth. The other was a long-sleeved lace-and-bead curve-hugging dress with a demure scoop neck and a daring slit from mid-thigh to ankle.
"I always said I'd ask when it was the right time," Leon murmured. He pushed his nightvision goggles up and rubbed his eyes, as if pained. "Now, it's more hoping that the world holds together long enough for us to get married."
Bohrs glanced between the storefront window and Leon, shrugging. "You're practically an old married couple as it is. Frankly, I'm surprised Morgana hasn't mobilized everyone at the cottage for a wedding already."
"Me too," Leon admitted. He blinked several times before carefully adjusting the nightvision goggles on his face again. "Half thought she would've insisted we elope last summer, actually."
"We were called back early, weren't we? Wasn't much of an R&R back then," Bohrs said.
"Wasn't much, no," Leon said with a sigh. He turned away from the store and kept going down the avenue, but there was a faint, defeated hitch in his stride, now.
Bohrs hemmed and hawed, weighing the pros and cons inside his head, before coming to a decision. "You know, might be an idea to get married now."
"You think I haven't thought about it?" Leon snapped. Then, softer, he said, "She's always wanted a big wedding. We can't do that now, can we?"
"Does it have to be big? And besides, look at it this way. Everyone's up at the cottage. We've got tents. We've got food. I bet Gaius can officiate -- Merlin said something about that, once, didn't he? Said he'd gotten ordained, or some sort. Could always head over to that other village, get all the paperwork done up right quick. You'd think Arthur planned it so that you'd make a honest woman of his sister, or something."
"More like she'd make a honest man out of me." Leon chuckled dryly. He paused. Bohrs could practically hear his frown. "Do you think that's why he did it? Evacuated everyone to the cottage? Did Morgana say something about getting married there? Did she say --"
Leon trailed off. He raised a hand to halt, and made a gesture to check the surroundings. That was when Bohrs felt it -- his pendant was suddenly heavier, and it was hotter against his skin.
"Do you feel it?" Bohrs asked.
Leon nodded, but didn't speak. He crooked a finger and pointed.
At the end of the street, the flame of a single candle flickered in the window.
"I were really hoping for Invasion of the Body Snatchers," Bohrs muttered.
They geared up, making sure the safety was off, and adjusted their nightvision, making sure to adjust for the light coming from ambient sources. No sooner had they walked ten paces that they crossed some sort of a threshold and were blinded by bright lights.
"Hands up, boys," someone said, his voice rough and gruff and not the least bit friendly at all. "No sudden moves."
"Scissors beats paper," Geraint said, slapping Galahad's flat hand. Grinning, he swept his hand out in wide invitation. "You have point."
Galahad said something indiscernible under his breath. The odds were high that it was something rude and unflattering.
Galahad hated taking point. He would do it with a minimum of grumbling, but if it was left up to him, he would rather be taking up the rear, making sure everything was in order. Some days, Geraint called him the team's herding dog.
Other days, Geraint called Galahad Cujo, and there was absolutely no need to explain why, not to anyone on the team. He also never muttered that nickname out loud, in case it would awaken the sleeping monster.
Geraint kept a good fifteen metres between him and Galahad, sweeping the area as he moved. Personally, he preferred taking the lead. He didn't like not knowing what was behind him. He always found himself looking over his shoulders more than usual, rubbing the back of his neck at every imagined frisson. And now, there were plenty of chills, because they were in some sort of slasher movie where he'd turn around to find a serial killer staring at him from around the corner of a decrepit building, or from around the lakeside cabin, or from the forest.
Thinking about horror movies now wasn't helping him any. In fact, it was almost prophetic. The village was one of those quaint little places -- nice to visit, even nicer to leave, because one could go mad with boredom -- and with the thick mist drifting through the streets…
Well, if there was ever a better backdrop for a horror movie, Geraint didn't know what it was.
They moved through the village in silence, but the sound of their own boots scraping along cobblestones or gravel was magnified, somehow. Geraint felt as if they were a pair of elephants, clambering along. He kept expecting to see movement, to see light, to see something, but he was foiled at every turn.
The Candy Shoppe? The Closed sign was flipped out, and more's the pity. The little market store? Closed. The string of brick houses nestled between the grocery and the Chemist's? The curtains didn't flicker, and all the windows were dark.
Galahad paused in front of the Chemist's and gestured questioningly. Lance had given them a list of medical items to look out for. They weren't in pressing need for them, but after everyone had congregated on the cottage, he'd taken it upon himself to ask what medications were needed. Personal supplies were enough for a month, maybe more, but if they were going to stay at the cottage for a while, they would need more.
Geraint nodded silent agreement. The door was locked, of course, but it was a small measure of effort to pick the lock and disable the alarm -- no need to attract attention to their location. He stayed at the door for a while, looking out, but if no one had been out before to notice them walking in the middle of the road, there wasn't anyone to see them break into the Chemist's, either.
He joined Galahad in sweeping the aisles to make certain that no one was there. The building was empty -- but that wasn't all. Most of the shelves were empty, too, as if the entire village had come in and stocked up on necessities, clearing everything out in orderly fashion. Nothing was turned upside down, no displays had been overturned, no appliances had been broken.
It was eerie.
Foodstuff had been taken away, though there were a few containers of biscuits that Galahad promptly tucked into his pack. First aid supplies were missing, right down to the last roll of tension packaging. Over-the-counter medication for colds had mostly been left alone, but all the paracetamol and the muscle relaxants and the body rubs for aches and pains were gone, which made sense, given that the population of the village was mostly made up of older people. The Family Planning section was untouched, except for what looked to be a few missing packs of condoms and lube.
Geraint helped himself to a healthy measure of those, ignoring Galahad's raised eyebrow and judging look. He was certain that no one would object to having extras of these, and he was thinking of Perceval, Gwaine, Arthur and Merlin in particular. Although, thinking about it…
He threw in a couple more boxes of condoms and lube. He had no idea what was going on with Lamorak and Gareth -- hadn't even known they swung that way -- but it was better to be safe than sorry.
"You have the list?" Geraint asked, coming up behind Galahad. They were at the back of the Chemist's, where the walls were covered in pristine white cabinets, though a couple had a ding or two at about knee level. None of the doors were locked, and it was easy to see why -- the Chemist had been cleaned out of nearly everything. There were no narcotics, no barbiturates, no extra-strength anything. Geraint was about to suggest that they leave when they both turned around at the sound of a creak.
They were immediately blinded by a torch washing out their nightvision. Geraint dropped and rolled -- he heard Galahad move back and away -- and wrenched the goggles off his head.
"I'm armed! I'll shoot!" The man's voice was young, shaky, but the torch's light was steady, and that wasn't a good sign, not for Geraint and Galahad. A steady light meant a steadier hand on the gun, though that didn't always translate to someone with the stomach to fire at another human being.
Geraint saw Galahad crawl out from behind the middle island and peer around the corner. "You tripped the alarm."
"No, I didn't."
"Then how'd he know we were here?"
"You tripped the wards," the chemist said. There was a creak -- a loose step -- that helped situate the man.
"Wards," Geraint repeated. He reached for his chest, trying to find his necklace. The pendant would have warned them if they were walking through a warded area. At least, that had proven true, before. After a few seconds of fumbling, Geraint scowled. "Are you wearing yours?"
Galahad must have been of the same mind, because he shook his head without checking.
"Well, we're a pair of numpties, aren't we?" Geraint muttered. He rubbed the bridge of his nose and tried not to think too hard. That was usually a bad idea even on the best of days. He raised his voice and asked, "Out of curiosity, what kind of wards?"
"What?" the chemist seemed uncertain, but he continued with, "Shoplifters. They're to flag shoplifters!"
Galahad raised a judging brow.
Geraint scowled. "What. You'll be thanking me. It's statistically proven that during a crisis, more babies are conceived than at any other time. Nine months from now, how many people are going to be best pleased that they're not cranking out a squawling --"
Galahad rolled his eyes.
"Erm," the chemist said. The light from the torch dipped down. "You don't sound like looters."
"We're not," Geraint said. Galahad snorted. Geraint qualified, "Not exactly. Actually -- can I come out?"
The chemist hesitated before answering. "Yeah. All right. If it's all the same by you, move slow."
"Snail-snow," Geraint assured. He gestured for Galahad to stay where he was, and let his weapon hang from the lanyard around his neck and shoulder before standing up, his hands raised. Without the nightvision goggles, he couldn't quite make out the man huddled in the narrow staircase of a door so narrow and recessed, they'd mistaken it for another medicine cabinet. But the man was crouched down, mostly out of sight. "We're soldiers. We're checking out the area for looters."
"Right," the chemist said, sarcastic. "Because you can buy looters with a prescription."
Geraint heard Galahad snicker. He forced a smile on his face and shook his head, trying to look contrite. "Actually, our medic gave us a list of medications some evacuees can't do without. The last village we stopped at didn't want to trade, so we thought we'd try here, except no one's around."
"Wrong about that, weren't you?" the chemist said wryly. He stepped out into the gloom, keeping his torch pointed to the floor; the reflected illumination was enough to see by. The chemist was in his late twenties, his hair stuck up on one end. He wore slippers and plaid pajama pants and an oversized jumper that looked torn in a few places. He was also armed with an ancient rifle that didn't look like it would shoot, not without blowing up in the hands of the person holding it.
"Appears so," Geraint said graciously. He lowered his arms slowly. When the chemist didn't raise his weapon again, Geraint relaxed a little.
"Can I see that list?"
"Yeah, of course -- Galahad, you have it?"
A piece of paper flitted over Geraint's shoulder and smacked him in the face. Geraint took it with a scowl, handing it over.
The chemist balanced the gun in the crook of his elbow and used the torch to read by, and if Geraint hadn't been looking for it, he would've missed how the tension seeped out of the chemist's shoulders. A look of relief passed over his features, and he nodded.
"All right, yeah, I can do some of these. That's all you need? Blood pressure medication? Migraines -- you'd do better with a tincture than this, but the dose is low enough that there won't be kidney damage, I suppose. B-12? That's it? I mean, you don't want… anything. Erm. Stronger?"
Geraint glanced over his shoulder at Galahad. "Like what?"
"You know," the chemist said, his tone suggestive. When neither Geraint nor Galahad answered, the chemist said, "They're restricted?"
Geraint frowned. Galahad touched his elbow and leaned in. "I think he's talking about the hard drugs."
Geraint made a face. "Why would we want those?"
Galahad shrugged his shoulders. "Black market?"
"Do we look like we're -- oh, for God's sake," Geraint said, turning to the chemist. He waved at the list. "No, that's all our medic put on the list. Didn't you get that part?"
The chemist gave them both odd looks. "You really are soldiers."
"Thank you," Geraint said, feeling more vexed than he should be. He huffed. "I mean, I know we're not in uniform, but the world's gone to shite right now, and we're just trying to make sure people are safe. We should be getting back, though. Can you trade for those?"
The chemist stared at them. "And you're not. You know. The NWO?"
Behind Geraint, Galahad choked. Geraint barely recovered from his own surprise with an insulted "No!"
It was Galahad who saved them, albeit belatedly, with a half-hearted attempt at subterfuge. "Who are they?"
The chemist raised a brow, but he leaned his rifle on the inside of the staircase and scanned the contents of the list again. "Here's what I'm going to do. I'll get these, yeah? But I don't know what we need to trade for. I'll have to ask the town council. I'll take you there after I'm done. You can talk to them then."
"There's more people around here?" Geraint asked, watching as the chemist moved through his cabinets, pulling bottles and putting them in a plastic bag.
"Everyone's here," the chemist said.
Every time Gwaine thought that the wind would pick up and clear away the fog, the breeze became dead air. It was strange, unusual, and unearthly. The wind came in short, localized bursts. Sometimes, tree branches would clack together. Other times, the wrought-iron fence would creak. And worst of all, a newspaper would flutter across the road.
The British Army made a point of weeding out soldiers with itchy trigger fingers -- no one needed the misery that would come with a soldier who shot at everything that moved. Friendly fire was never pleasant.
In theory, Gwaine didn't have an itchy trigger finger, but the deeper they walked into this twisted version of Stephen King's The Mist, the more Gwaine wished he had an itchy trigger finger. He kept expecting some sort of tentacle arm to reach out and grab him for a snack, and he didn't want to waste even a fraction of a second evaluating whether the movement came from a friendly source before he started firing.
Those few moments might be the thin line between life and death.
Perceval whistled low. Gwaine turned to look in his direction only with reluctance. He didn't trust the fog. He didn't trust any fog. He especially didn't trust British fog, but any fog would do, really. The poor visibility did things to his temper, and he was decidedly short-tempered now.
Gwaine followed Perceval down a short alley and cut into what was the market square. They were finished checking out their quadrant and were crossing over into Leon and Bohrs' assigned section of the village, but there was no sign that they had made it this far. If they had, there would at least be a chalk mark on the wall to signal which way they had gone.
Or they would've radioed.
Gwaine listened with half an ear as Perceval did just that, calling in.
There was no response.
Gwaine and Perceval exchanged long looks. Gwaine started a countdown in his head. Moments before his fingers reached for the channel to try again, Leon's voice came through the radio, short and terse. "Carry on with the assignments."
Gwaine raised a brow. Perceval side-eyed their surroundings. While it wasn't unheard of for Leon to be curt, even rude, when on mission, it was also very much unlike him to fail to answer the call-in without the proper response.
Also, Galahad and Geraint hadn't chimed in, either.
Gwaine's hackles rose. He looked at Perceval and spread his hands in the air, silently asking, All right, what do we do?
On paper, Gwaine and Perceval were of the same rank, but there wasn't any doubt which of them Arthur or Leon would trust with any measure of command. Gwaine didn't take any offence -- he fancied that it was because Arthur and Leon knew he worked best on his own, unencumbered with lackeys dodging his heels.
Also, as much as he liked telling other people what to do, he never expected them to do it. That was probably the most obvious sign that he wasn't suited for leadership, and he was fine with that. He was sure other people preferred it that way, anyway.
"We carry on," Perceval said finally, breaking the silence with a mute whisper.
Gwaine's mouth dropped open. What.
"We carry on," Perceval said, this time with more certainty in his tone. "We have our orders, and Leon didn't use the warning code."
"That's Bollocks," Gwaine said. His own words resounded to him in an echo from the mist, and he barely suppressed a shudder. "Capital B. We're really going to leave them to… whatever it is?"
"Whatever it is, it's not Swamp Thing, or whatever you're thinking," Perceval said, covering up his worry with a liberal helping of irritation aimed right at Gwaine. Gwaine scowled, because he hadn't done anything to deserve it.
"I weren't thinking Swamp Thing," Gwaine muttered under his breath. "But now that you mention it --"
"Gwaine," Perceval said, his tone long-suffering and pleading.
Gwaine stared at Perceval with mixed feelings. On the one hand, getting ordered about? It was hot. On the other, he didn't feel right leaving the others on their own, warning code or not. Galahad and Geraint were capable on their own, particularly when "on their own" was "the two of them together", and whatever they might encounter, they'll be the ones to get themselves out of it, that was certain.
That neither of them had heard gunshots since the teams split up was only somewhat reassuring. The fog might echo and magnify sounds, but it could also mute them completely.
"Fine," Gwaine said, nodding grudgingly. "But the minute something's wrong --"
"The second, you mean," Perceval said grimly. He turned and looked down the road. "You see that? Beside the flower shop. That's our target."
Gwaine adjusted the nightvision goggles. With them, he could at least see the village almost as well as if it were daylight, but the fog was making it difficult. He wanted to shove them up on his head and take his chances with his own eyes, but there was nothing doing, not when Perceval grabbed his wrist to stop him from doing just that.
"Come on," Perceval said. He led the way, taking a circuitous route there that hugged the buildings and left them in the open as little as was possible. The flower shop's crooked Closed sign had a smiley face inside of a daisy on it, and the front window was crammed full with an assortment of native and exotic plants that looked too much Little Shop of Horrors for Gwaine's liking.
Located right beside the shop was a village-sized Tesco. The glass doors stayed shut when Perceval walked across the motion sensor to peer into the windows along the wall. Perceval signaled to indicate that it was empty, and Gwaine rolled his eyes. Of course it was. Everything was empty. It was a ghost town.
It didn't take much to rig the doors open, and even less to disarm the security system -- not that they expected the local security companies or the constabulary to come running. The police station had been one of the first places they'd checked, and it had been as deserted as the rest of the village. Even the holding cells were clear.
They swept through the aisles to check for -- zombies, Gwaine's brain helpfully supplied, and he had to hold back a snicker. Perceval gave him an odd look, but Gwaine forced a serious expression onto his face and shook his head, shrugging a silent I don't know what you're on about, why are you judging me.
At any other time, Perceval would have huffed in annoyance, but he was the consummate professional as he walked down the rows ahead of Gwaine. Gwaine pulled himself together. The combination of stress, adrenaline highs, and not knowing what was going to happen next was making him jittery, and neither of them could afford to be less than steady.
The bakery was cleaned out. The produce bins were forlornly empty. There were a few packages of vegetarian hot dogs and cold cuts in the refrigerated section -- probably left behind because they weren't particularly palatable. All the perishables looked to have been removed.
The rest of the store was just as gutted. There were a few cans here and there, but nothing worth salvaging. Whoever had hit the Tesco had done it with the systematic precision of a jewellery theft. Gwaine was willing to bet that the looters hadn't only taken everything in the front, but they'd gone through the storage bins in the back with a fine tooth comb, too.
He followed Perceval to check, anyway.
Perceval froze as soon as he crossed the STAFF ONLY doors. Gwaine nearly ran into him.
"Don't move," Perceval said, his voice low.
Telling Gwaine not to do something tended to be the exact opposite of what Gwaine actually did, particularly on mission when he couldn't operate without having all the variables. He didn't move forward, but he did push the door open a little wider so that he could see past Perceval.
He'd been half-expecting a couple of Walking Dead extras, or at least some guy in a cheap hockey mask.
He was sorely disappointed when the area ahead of them was empty.
"Pendant went off," Perceval muttered. "The area's warded."
"Warded?" Gwaine opened the door for a better look. Perceval grabbed his arm, and Gwaine might have been forced to muffle a shriek of surprise. Fucking horror movies. He should've known better than to pop The Blob into the DVD the night before.
"Don't," Perceval said. "I'm stuck."
Gwaine glanced down, half expecting to see quicksand. As far as he could tell, Perceval's boots were on solid concrete. "Really?"
"Yes, really," Perceval said, and it was in exactly the same tone that he used when he wanted to snog Gwaine silly or smack him upside the head -- it was a fine distinction.
"All right. You're stuck. I'm not going to ask who set the ward because neither of us know, and I'm not going to jump to the obvious conclusion, worrisome as it is," Gwaine said. He didn't want to think of the NWO so close to the cottage and all the people who were sheltered there. That was asking for trouble. He wondered if Arthur had a plan to move them to a secondary location, because there was no way the team was going to stay at the cottage if the NWO was a stone's throw away.
"Thank you," Perceval said dryly.
"Instead, I'm going to say that anyone who sets a ward on the storage area and not the front of the store probably has something to hide, or at least something to protect, which tells me they've got plenty of food back there, out of harm's way, and the only reason they'd set a sticky trap is because they want to catch whoever's about to loot the place," Gwaine said.
"Fair," Perceval said in agreement.
Gwaine took a step back and took a long, slow look around. The shadows didn't shift and he couldn't see anyone creeping toward them -- wait what was that
It sounded like the fait wobbling warble of a glass door carefully slid shut.
Gwaine had an idle moment to remember a particular scene in Shaun of the Dead involving supermarkets and zombies before he slapped a comforting hand on Perceval's shoulder.
"Stay here," Gwaine said.
Perceval spread his hands and made a strangled sound of frustration that Gwaine didn't pay any mind to. He crouched and crept down one of the aisles until he was nearly at the front of the store.
Two young women were huddled near one of the checkouts, their torches pointed to the ground. In the brilliant wash-out half-blinding the night-vision, Gwaine wasn't able to make out the details. One was taller than the other. The second looked fit. One was wearing a dress with big boots. Another was wearing sneakers.
"I think we should wait for Hill," one of them said.
Girl Number Two snorted. "And what's Hill going to do? It's probably just a rat."
Gwaine imagined Perceval with big ears and a long tail and smirked.
Girl Number One edged closer to the aisles and peered through. "I can't see anyone."
Girl Number Two called out, "Hullo, is anyone there?"
Girl Number One dropped a torch and clapped a hand on the other woman's mouth. "Oh my God," she hissed. "What is wrong with you?"
Girl Number Two pulled the hand away from her mouth. "I'm showing you that there's nothing to be worried about. If someone was here, they'd have answered."
"What if they're bad people? Bad people never answer," Girl Number One said.
"Hullo, I'm here. I'm in a bit of a bind," Perceval answered.
Gwaine's eyes widened and his jaw dropped. He nearly smacked himself in the forehead. Oh my God, Perce. What is wrong with you?
Both women shrieked. "Someone's here!"
"Nobody's supposed to be here!"
"Everyone's at the rec centre!"
"What do we do?"
"We should wait for Hill."
"Hill takes forever --"
"I could use some help here," Perceval said, his tone calm, even friendly.
Gwaine pushed up the nightvision goggles and pinched the bridge of his nose, unsure if he should be laughing or crying at the level of ridiculous. Probably both. Normally, he was the one pulling stupid shite like this.
Gwaine dropped his hand and reasoned that this situation had to be worth something. The next time Perceval told him to stop being an idiot, he could remind Perceval of this particular moment and bask in the resulting glowering silence when Perceval couldn't come up with a retort.
Before Gwaine knew it, the two women had talked themselves into coming closer. Gwaine shadowed them to the other end of the store. Girl Number Two had picked up a broom and was holding it out like a club; Girl Number One was clutching to the other woman's skirts as if they were about o burst into a limbo line. They relaxed a little when they saw Perceval standing in the open Employees Only entrance, his back to them. Gwaine thought that was a good thing; they wouldn't be able to see his weapons.
"Hullo? Who's there?" Perceval asked, because he could hear them, even if he couldn't see them.
"You first," Girl Number Two said. Gwaine was certain her tone was meant to be menacing, but it came out with a nervous little warble.
"My name's Perceval. What's yours? " he asked. Gwaine slumped down beside an empty display case, shaking his head. It figured that his boyfriend would try to flirt his way out of a situation. He stayed where he was, because someone named Hill was on their way, and surely, Perceval could handle two women.
Too late, he remembered how Perceval ran like the wind when Gwen and Morgana took over the organizing at the cottage and decided that he was giving Perceval too much credit.
"Jeannie," Girl Number One said.
"Don't tell him your real name!" Girl Number Two said.
"I'm not giving away a state secret, geez. It's my name, Di," Jeannie said.
The two of them glared at each other. Perceval broke the silence with a friendly, "I don't suppose either one of you could get me out of here? I seem to be stuck."
"You're supposed to be stuck," Di said. "I warrant that's a fate better than you deserve, you looter."
"Believe me, if I'd known that the village hadn't been abandoned, I would've knocked on the door and asked if you were interested in setting up some trading," Perceval said.
"Trading?" Di glanced uncertainly at Jeannie. "What do you mean, trading?"
"Fresh food in exchange for assistance, for example," Perceval said. "The way things are now, it's unlikely that the next supply truck will come when it's supposed to, and it's best not to waste produce while you have it fresh."
"What kind of assistance?" Di asked, her tone dubious. "I mean, you're plenty trapped right now. Don't look like you'd amount to much use."
"I'm sure it looks that way to you," Perceval said, his tone dry. If Gwaine wasn't mistaken, Perceval was moving, ever so slightly. He was backing out of the entrance instead of pushing in, and either that meant the ward was letting him go, or Kathy's pendant was doing its job.
Jeannie elbowed Di and whispered, "He looks plenty big to me, if you know what I mean." It wasn't much of a whisper when it echoed through the store, and Jeannie covered her face with her hands. "Oh, God. I'll just shut up now."
In the distance, the sliding doors opened and shut, but there wasn't any attempt made to shush the sound. Gwaine perked up, rising from his seat and into a crouch, ready for anything. There was a single set of footsteps, walking at a steady, unhurried pace, and a man's voice called out. "Jeannie? Diana? Are you here?"
"Danny? Is that you? Where's Hill?" Jeannie asked, flashing her torch down an aisle.
"Stop pointing that damn thing in my face," Danny groused, finally coming into view. He was an older man -- a few years older than Gwaine, at least. His shoulders were stooped as if he'd spent a lifetime hunched over to hide how tall he really was, and there was a deceptive frailness to his frame. He was dressed even more casually than the two women in pajama pants, a shirt, a torn blue hoodie, and sneakers that squeaked as he walked. His hair stood up in every direction except where it had been smushed flat, and his black-frame glasses hid his eyes. "Hill called me. Said that you were here, told me that I was closer, and said to help you bring him to the council, because they've got the others."
"The others? There's others?" Jeannie asked, her voice increasing in pitch.
"Shush," Di said, glancing meaningfully at Perceval. Perceval looked as if he were almost all the way out of the trap, but Gwaine hadn't gotten close enough to tell exactly where the boundaries were.
"Those would be my team," Perceval offered helpfully. Gwaine glanced heavenward and wondered if there'd been an accidental body-swap at some point, because volunteering information -- even information that wouldn't help the other side -- was the sort of thing that Gwaine would do. Perceval, on the other hand, would endure the vilest forms of torture possible rather than to give up anything.
And yet, here he was, as free with information as he was with his hands when he'd had too much to drink. Gwaine really wished he could take advantage of the situation, but he'd man up and save his mocking for later.
Jeannie, Di and Danny didn't say anything for a long time, but they exchanged glances. Finally, Danny broke the silence. "I guess they would be. If I let you out of there, will you come? I mean, you won't hurt us, right? If you do, I have to warn you. Di's got one heck of a right hook, and Jeannie's not half bad with hexes."
"What about you?" Perceval asked, and Gwaine thanked his lucky stars, because it didn't sound as if Perceval was completely loollally, because he was digging around to find out what they were facing off against.
"Me? I'm the wards guy," Danny said, grinning.
"Huh," Perceval said. He looked as if he were thinking about it, but finally, he nodded. "Yeah, I'll come with you. I won't hurt you. To be honest, I want to find out what's going on. How come the village's dark? Why is everything gutted? Where's everyone? Has anyone been hurt? Do you need any help?"
Obviously not, Gwaine thought. It certainly looked as if the villagers could handle themselves, and he sincerely hoped that it wasn't because they were NWO.
Danny moved forward and put a hand on the wall. A symbol glowed under his hand, and suddenly, Perceval stumbled backward, catching himself before he fell on his arse. "The council will tell you. Come on, they're not far."
Di was the one who led the way, while Danny and Jeannie fell in step beside and behind Perceval. Gwaine was at least reassured that none of them tried to take away Perceval's weapons, and that they didn't know he was there. He waited a short while, letting them get a bit of a lead, and sorted his way through the reactivated alarm so that he could get out of the mini-Tesco without setting off large, glowing neon signs pointing arrows on his position.
Gwaine thought he was going to have to hurry to be able to follow them in the fog, but then the weirdest thing happened.
The fog parted for them.
Leon hid his disgust at how easily they'd been "captured" by a bunch of kids. His only consolation was that the village council was made up of several canny men and women, some of whom must have served in one war or another, and that they hadn't found Gwaine. Gwaine had to be in the area somewhere, if not right behind the door to the recreation centre, listening in.
He gave Perceval a curt nod. It was returned with a faint smile. Leon knew, then, that Perceval had given himself up voluntarily and had been friendly, and that was going to be a point in their favour if Leon needed to convince the council that they were all on the same side.
As far as he could tell, the villagers weren't NWO, but he was cautious when he spoke to one of the councillors, "It appears that you have everything well in hand. Whoever was responsible for the segregation of important supplies and ensuring that everyone followed the curfew deserves recognition. We saw no evidence of looting or criminal activity anywhere in the village."
The councillor, an older woman in her fifties and wearing a deep purple jumpsuit with runners so white, they were probably fresh out of the box, smiled and pointed out a two people in the crowd. "That would be Matthew Lane, our police chief, and Brian McGraw -- he was the mayor last year, before he retired. They're both quite forward in their thinking and believe in being prepared for everything."
"Obviously," Leon said, watching the two men lean into each other's space to whisper furiously. He couldn't read lips -- what he wouldn't give to have Bedivere here -- but if he could tell what kind of mood the Pendragons were in at any given moment, he could figure out what Lane and McGraw were thinking. It came down, quite simply, to the surprise arrival of Leon and his men. Neither the Chief nor the former mayor were happy by their arrival.
Leon inclined his head politely and moved his way across the recreation centre. It had been quickly converted into an emergency shelter with enough wards to make Leon's pendant burn painfully on his chest. None of the wards were malicious -- it appeared that they were intended to protect the occupants from an attack. There had been a faint tugging when Leon and Bohrs entered the building proper, but they hadn't had trouble walking through, and weren't asked to relinquish their weapons.
The entire village wasn't present, though there were several groups of people either sleeping on the cots, working over maps, or hastily clearing away tables where it looked as if they were working on… charms? The recreation centre wasn't that large. Most of it was being used as an emergency meeting centre, and there was no wonder why; it was located in the middle of the village and most people had easy access to it. Leon guessed there were other similar locations scattered throughout the area, and that there were emergency evacuation plans guiding people to their assigned shelter.
It was very… Leon reached for the word. Thorough.
He made eye contact with Geraint and subtly signaled for him to keep an eye out. They might have to evacuate in a hurry, and Leon didn't fancy hurting anyone in the process.
Lane and McGraw stopped talking after they nudged each other roughly. They looked at Leon expectantly -- Lane's expression was pinched in a frown, while McGraw put on a false smile and hid his tension away behind a public face.
"Lieutenant Cross, wasn't it?" McGraw said. He clasped his hands together and pasted on a smile that had gone white. At Leon's nod, he continued, "I have to say that it's a relief to know that the government is actively looking out for the smaller communities. I am afraid that past experience has shown that we are usually left to fend for ourselves in times of crisis."
Leon bowed his head in what he hoped was acceptable as thanks without admitting to anything. They weren't here because they received orders from their superiors in the British Army -- or elsewhere. They were here because Arthur asked them to make certain that the areas around the cottage were secure, and also to check on the nearby communities and offer assistance if necessary, for no other reason than it was the right thing to do. Leon wasn't going to admit to any of that. At least, not unless he had a reason to.
Instead, he poked at the angry beast simmering in the background, making certain to give Lane a long, uncomfortable look before answering. "It seems that we weren't needed. You have everything well in hand."
"We do. We do," McGraw said, rubbing his hands together earnestly. Leon watched his fingers curl and twist and curl some more, and finally decided that McGraw was trying to stop himself from making shooing motions with his hands.
Bluntly, very bluntly, Leon asked, "How come?"
McGraw froze. Lane glanced, worried, at the ex-mayor.
Leon made a placating gesture with his hand and gave his best disarming smile. "I mean, every other place we've been --" -- which amounted to exactly one other town -- " -- not nearly half as prepared as you seem to have been. The government encourages townships and cities to have contingency plans, but most either don't bother, or don't prepare to this degree. Who expects terrorists attacking the entire planet, anyway? It's unreal. Like an evil genius plan to take over the world. It's straight out of a cartoon."
Slowly, McGraw's panic eased, and his smile relaxed. Lane's alarm became a curious scowl, and he eyed Leon up and down.
"Well, yes. It pays to be prepared," McGraw was saying, oblivious to the staring match between the police chief and Leon. "You see, it's a common misconception that we need to be prepared for everything. We really only need to be ready for certain types of circumstances. We constructed our emergency plans in a flowchart model and made certain that every stopgap measure was available --"
"Can it, Brian," Lane growled. McGraw glanced at the police chief, startled, and Lane said, "He's not buying any of it."
McGraw looked at Leon. Leon raised both brows, trying to look confused, but he probably only managed to look constipated, or at the very least, embarrassed that he'd caught them.
"Oh," McGraw said, his shoulders slumping.
Out of the corner of his eye, Leon could see his team fanning out around the room, staggering their positions to ensure that they weren't in each other's line of fire. They didn't make any overt movements, but they did disengage the safeties on their weapons.
Instead of becoming more aggressive, as expected, Lane rocked back on his heels, his thumbs stuck through the loops of his trouser belt. His mouth twisted in a self-assured, crooked grin. "Do you really think you boys were going to get off easy?"
McGraw looked horrified.
"You think you can just waltz into a peaceful town like ours and expect that you won't have any trouble looting our stores and leaving nothing behind? You're wrong, boy. So, so wrong."
"Matthew," McGraw said, but the police chief kept talking.
"We were going to let you go. Pat you on the head, play along with the party line, make sure you don't come back. Did you really think you could fool anyone? Army? Hah. I've been in the army. My boy's in the army. I know what they issue their men, and that's not it," Lane said, gesturing rudely at Leon, the wave of his hand encompassing him from head to toe.
"No, Matthew. We talked about this," McGraw pleaded. He turned to Leon. "He doesn't mean it. Of course we'll let you go. We'll even give you a fair trade for supplies, like you asked. Please, don't hurt anyone. We don't want any trouble."
Leon raised a brow.
"Don't be bloody yellow, Brian," Lane hissed. "I told you that if anyone came here, we were going to have to protect what's ours, and your so-called wards aren't of much use, are they? They just waltzed in as if they weren't there --"
Leon cleared his throat.
"And I told you why we don't want violence here," McGraw said, his spine suddenly growing. His hackles were raised, now, and he went toe-to-toe with the police chief as if it was something that they did routinely. "All we had to do was play along. They didn't know about the wards --"
"We kind of clued in," Leon said helpfully.
Neither man glanced in his direction. "When they left, we could've… we could've gone to stage two --"
"And turn us invisible?" Lane snorted. "Yes, because casting a spell that large would attract them here. Do you want that? Do you want to put us at further risk? We have no defence against them --"
Leon might not be as quick at making connections as Arthur, but he wasn't a bad hand at drawing a line between numbered dots. He leaned in, interrupting the two men, and asked, "So you're not NWO?"
McGraw turned to Leon, his expression thunderous, nearly scandalized. "What? No, of course not. Why would you even think that? Look around you. Do we look like a band of fanatics Hell-bent on taking over the world?"
Leon glanced around. McGraw and Lane's latest argument hadn't attracted attention, probably because everyone was accustomed to them, but the former mayor's latest outburst had definitely turned heads. The villagers straightened, their expressions weighed with concern, and, if anything, they looked frightened, not menacing.
Gently, as if he were defusing one of Owain's tricky practice bombs, Leon said, "That's a relief. I'm glad to hear that."
Placated, McGraw relaxed. It lasted all of ten seconds before his brows furrowed and he asked, "Wait. You know about them?"
Leon nodded grimly. "We've had a few run-ins."
Lane and McGraw exchanged glances. Lane broke the silence with a squinty-eyed question, "So, who are you exactly? You're not army --"
"We are, actually," Bohrs said, giving Lane a side-eyed look of annoyance. "Don't let the clothes fool you."
At Lane's confused look, Leon said, speaking slowly as he picked and chose the right words, "You're right. Smaller townships aren't high on the government's radar. However, my team and I have a vested interest in ensuring the security of the region for reasons that I am not at a liberty to disclose. Our original orders are to quell any unrest, and assist the local police forces, and establish a relationship of cooperation and mutual benefit. We don't know what's going to happen next, but it's best to be prepared. That's what we're doing. We're making sure everyone in reach is safe, and if not, to help them get there."
McGraw glanced at Lane. Lane nodded -- it was faint and stiff, but it was there. McGraw relaxed.
"Now, given that you have everything under control, maybe we can help each other in other ways," Leon said, lowering his voice. "It would help us a great deal if you told us about your encounters with the NWO."
This time, Lane was the one who looked askance at McGraw, who stood a little straighter and exhaled a slow breath. He nodded. "I can do that."
It was nearly sunrise when they headed out of the village, the haze as thick now as it had been before they had walked in, the rosy glow on the horizon barely piercing through. Perceval caught up to Leon and the two walked side by side in silence, mulling over what they'd learned.
Before Perceval could ask the question he wanted to ask, Gwaine swaggered out of the woods and joined them as if he'd merely meandered out for a stroll, and said, "So. Druids."
"Druids," Geraint agreed, shrugging as if it was no big deal. And maybe, it wasn't.
"What sort of Druids do you suppose they are?" Galahad asked. "Are they like Mordred or like Balinor?"
"Aren't they all the same?" Geraint asked.
"Who knows?" Gwaine said, and it was his turn to shrug.
Perceval glanced at Leon and saw that Leon's mouth was in a tight, thin line. He knew that it wasn't because there were Druids living in a village that was less than a full day's walk away from the Pendragon property if one knew the back trails, but because of what they'd learned.
Arthur wasn't going to like it when he heard.
McGraw's story confirmed -- if only peripherally -- what Leon and the others had learned about Mordred. Mordred's Druids were real. They were fighting against the NWO in their own way, possibly also pushing their own particular agenda.
As disheartening as it was to know that more people would get involved and more people would get hurt, it meant that they might have allies in the war that was coming just over the horizon.
Leon blew out his breath slowly and rubbed his forehead.
They had new information. They had the names of people they could contact for more information, if they needed it. They had documents to confirm everything that McGraw had said and ammunition that they could use. They would be put in touch with the Druids who were actively working against the NWO.
But more importantly?
They had a lead.
A woman had tried to recruit McGraw into the NWO.
They had her name.