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They rode for about a mile, then suddenly stopped. They found themselves atop a hill, in front of them a steep descent, followed by roughly a thousand feet long level ground completely illuminated by some strange artificial lights, and at the end of the plain – a wrought iron fence, at least twenty feet high, with several guards seated in watchtowers no further than 300 feet apart.
“What the…” Tom muttered to his chin, taken aback by the sight of it. It was the first time any of them had seen such bright artificial light.
“This must be it. This must be the dome.”
“Looks like we missed the free entrance days, though.” Tom couldn’t help himself but make a joke and laugh.
James, however, was already thinking about their next move and didn’t want to waste any time with humor. He made his horse backdraft a couple of steps to make sure he was hidden from the watchtowers. “Alright, look, we’re on hostile grounds, sleeping here is very risky, so I propose we get our asses inside tonight and work it from there.”
“Okay, so, what’s the plan?”
“Let’s have a closer look first.”
The two both got off their horses and stooped their way just far enough to regain vision of the dome’s perimeter then laid down into a prone. At first they were only focused on the watchtowers – ranging from short to tall as far as the eyes could see – and counting the guards, but then James noticed what should’ve been obvious to both from the start.
“Tom… notice how the fence is bent inward?” Tom nodded, but still didn’t quite realize it himself. “It’s not built to keep people outside, but to keep them inside.”
Silence ensued. The minds of the two gunslingers were both racing with Ducköden’s words; “He’s even worse a tyrant than any of us.”
“They might let us enter freely, but never let us leave.” James continued.
“We can try acting stupid and see where it gets us. What do you say?”
“I’m up for it. If it doesn’t work out, we can still pop the guards and climb over. Let’s try and find a door somewhere.”
The two climbed back into their saddles and rode at the edge of the hill – far enough not to get noticed, but close enough to notice the door when they find it.
They rode for about 15 minutes when they noticed two identical watchtowers with a door inbetween them. They stopped perpendicular to the door and looked at each other, making sure one last time they really were doing it.
“It’s all or nothing now, kid, let’s hope this doesn’t get ugly.” James called the shot and the two rode down the hill and onto the illuminated plain, instantly catching the attention of several guards. They rode slowly and needed a couple minutes to get about 150 feet from the gates.
“Stop!” A guard shouted from the watchtower right of the door. “That’s far enough. Why are you here?”
“We were out hunting and noticed the light in the sky, so we decided to come check it out. What is going on here?” James used the hunting excuse and played dumb once again.
The guards all laughed. “Hell.” The guard who spoke before spoke again. “Trust me, you’re lucky you’re on the outside.”
“About that… Is there any chance you let us in?” James continued.
“You two want to go inside,” he paused, “willingly? Are you out of your goddamn minds?!” Where there was once laughter, all guards were now in shock with James’ words.
“I think I’ll say yes to both.” James and Tom both smiled slyly. “So, can you get us in?”
“I can, but-… You sure?” It was clear that the guard wanted to talk them out of it.
“Absolutely.” James and Tom both nodded.
“Very well. Escort them in!” The guard shouted and 4 guards - 2 from the left and 2 from the right watchtower - immediately began climbing down the ladder toward the gunslingers.
The guards formed a square around the horses – two at the front and two at the back – and soon after the giant gates began to open slowly. Through the growing crack between the door, Tom and James first made out two additional guards at the other side, then four, then eight, and finally seventeen, eight to each side of the gate and one sitting next to a fireplace – supposedly their superior, judging by his posture and the silver accessories on his uniform as opposed to the others who wore all black.
Nobody moved until the gates were completely open and came to a halt, then the guard who priorly spoke gave the signal to move, and the four guards surrounding them started marching forward with Magnum and Jaguar following suit.
They were escorted about 50 feet away from the gates, then stopped and waited for the gate to close in full. The guard in the odd uniform approached them and signalled the four guards to go back to their positions. Tom and James – always observant of their surroundings – knew they needed to pay special attention to their abnormal salute. They each formed a fist with their right hand and slammed it against their chest – as opposed to raising their open right hand – and left.
Without saying a word the guard leader hinted toward the fireplace and began walking there. James and Tom looked at each other briefly, then followed suit. As they approached the tent next to the fireplace, they noticed an iron rod, dipped deep into the blazing hot embers.
“Alright fellows, take off your shirts,” he smiled at them slyly, already enjoying what was to come.
When the two did as commanded, the guard pulled the glowing red iron rod from the pit and pressed it onto James’ left shoulder. After a second-long contact with the iron, it was Tom’s turn to get branded. The guard didn’t even bother to reheat the iron, he just held it on Tom’s shoulder for an extra second to make sure the symbol scars properly.
Here is what the branding they received looked like:
“Now, you’ll also need serial numbers, but you’ll get those tattooed in Ätherock.”
Then, out of the blue, one of the other guards struck Tom with the butt of his rifle, knocking him unconscious. James instinctively reached for his revolver, but seeing as he was greatly outnumbered, he didn’t draw it.
“So you’re the daddy, huh? I’m Jax, pleased to meet you.” The guard with the silver buttons smiled slyly again. “Now let’s see if we can punch some sense into you, shall we?” Jax delivered a swift blow to James’ abdomen, forcing him to cough and grasp for air. “Why are you here? And don’t give me any bullshit.”
James needed to come up with a believable story – he wasn’t going to tell Jax the truth – and faking being out of breath due to the punch bought him the much needed time. “Fine, fine. There is nothing left for me – I mean us – out there. My wife left me a year ago, I lost my job, I killed a man and found myself on the bounty board. Thanks to that, my son is now also paying for my sins. Our lives out there are ruined. I figured we-…” Before James could finish his sentence Jax delivered yet another punch straight into his stomach, forcing James to his knees and hands.
“We can play like this all night long. I got time.” Jax walked round to James’ side and kicked his face with as much force as he could muster, knocking James over. “Or you can tell me the truth. Your call.”
James turned over and got on all four again. “I told you, there is nothing out there for us.”
“See, there’s a simple reason I don’t believe you. Your horses… Not quite the horses of common folk. So let’s start with something easier. How did you two get these horses?”
“That man I killed. He was rich. I stole his horses.” James’ sentences were short – he was desperately trying to catch his breath.
“Yeah? And who was this man you speak of?”
“My former boss. Lance Woodright. Some English prick with a horse fetish. I stole his horses out of spite.”
“I’ve heard of him. What exactly was your job?” Jax pretended to believe James – he wanted to know whether or not anything coming out of James’ mouth was the truth or not. James, on the other hand, had made it all up and knew Jax was just pretending. Jax couldn’t have known a man who never existed.
“I was a carpenter. A damn good one. But then I started showing up drunk to work, and he fired me.” James slowly got back up onto his feet and wiped the blood that was oozing from his nose.
Jax was somewhat amused by his made up story, but didn’t feel like losing any more time. “All you say is lies. Lies, lies, lies.” Jax crouched down next to Tom who was lying flat on the ground, unconscious. “Tell me, would you be more willing to talk if I hurt him instead?” He glid his hand slowly over Tom’s hair.
“I told you the truth.” James still didn’t break.
“Say I believe you. What do you expect from the life in here?” Jax slowly rose up and faced James again.
“Just to live without someone wanting to kill me. That’s all.” James lied again.
“And what do you know about life in here?”
“Nothing, really. Nor do I care, just as long as I’m not… out there.” James then realized he could try and get some information out of Jax, so he continued. “All I heard is that some alien thing is the king here. That’s all.”
“Alien thing?” Jax couldn’t help himself but laugh out loud and so did the rest of the guards. “You mean Fishnick? A giant fish? Yeah, well, He’s dead. Not much changed with Kirk taking his place, though. Same old regime.” James couldn’t hide being surprised by Fishnick being dead. “How did you even learn about Fishnick not being a human?” Jax grew suspicious again.
“I asked around when my son and I decided to try and move here. Some farmer about twenty miles from here told us about him… And warned us not to come.” James smiled slightly.
Jax realized that whatever Tom and James were up to couldn’t be a big threat to anyone under the dome as their information was outdated. They believed Fishnick was still alive and in charge. With that in mind Jax concluded they were harmless and let them go even without knowing their true intentions. “Alright, I had my fun, and you’re obviously not telling me anything, no matter how hard I try. For your sake I hope you aren’t some outside scouts, because you’re damn sure not getting out of here to tell the tale. Anyway, I’ll pass you on to my brother Crax in Ätherock. He’ll know what to do with the two of you. Hey!” Jax waved to the group of four guards surrounding the gunslinger’s horses. “Shoot the horses and take these two to Crax in Ätherock.”
Moments after Jax gave the order two shots were fired simultaneously – straight into the horses’ heads, killing them instantly. James’ face turned into a frown and he looked at the floor with grief in his eyes.
The four guards then lined up behind James’ back and awaited for Jax to give the final word.
“Oh, and, I’ll be taking that.” Jax reached for James’ revolver and pulled it out of its holster – then crouched down to Tom and took his gun also. “Alright, load that guy into the carriage and make this one walk," Jax smiled.
The four guards all saluted to Jax, and one of them then grabbed James by his hands and tied them together with a rope. Another one grabbed Tom by his hands and dragged him about 100 feet to the chariot – to where the others escorted James. Two of the guards then lifted Tom into the chariot and seated him down – one of them stayed with him and the other climbed to the front to manage the horses. The other two guards climbed in the back, facing backwards, to overlook James and make sure he doesn't try and do anything stupid.
“Think, James, think,” James kept telling himself, but with two guards eyeing him constantly and his son inside the chariot with yet another guard, he couldn’t think of any way to break them both free.
They travelled like this, slowly and in complete silence, for about half an hour when Tom started regaining consciousness.
“What… Where…” His vision was still an absolute blur, but when he was able to somewhat focus, he was immediately greeted by a revolver pointed straight at him. “Okay, okay, no need to be upset,” Tom raised his hands up in more of a joking fashion than actually being serious. “I mean, Jesus! I just woke up.” He joked again and when he lowered his hands he subtly touched his gun holster with his right hand and realized he was robbed of his beloved revolver.
“Where’s my father?” Tom asked, and the guard sitting opposed him hinted toward outside. “James!” Tom shouted, which upset the guard, but other than frown, he did nothing.
“Tom, my son! Are you okay?” James shouted back.
Tom and the guard locked eyes – like a tiger does with its prey, but at last, the guard caved in and made it clear that Tom could yell back to his father. “My head hurts, but, yeah! You?”
“I’m fine, they just made me walk!”
It wasn’t half a minute later that Tom went flying headfirst out of the chariot. “You walk too!” The guard yelled after him as he tumbled on the ground.
When he finally got up, the two guards sitting at the back of the carriage quickly signaled him to join James and walk alongside him.
“What happened? How long was I out?”
“About two hours, I’d say. Not longer. They wanted to know why we came here, and I told them everything. That my wife left me, that I lost my job, killed that bastard Lance Woodright and that you were then prosecuted for my sins.” James made sure to make a quick recap of everything he told Jax so Tom would know in case they would then question him – their stories needed be the same. “They killed our horses, though. I mean, I know they weren’t rightfully ours, but Woodright’s, but it hurts still.” No detail went untold.
“They killed Magnum? Fuckers. I loved that horse.” Tom didn’t even try to conceal his words, he was looking straight at the two guards facing him. “They beat you up good?” He asked James.
“I’m fine, don’t worry.” James didn’t want the guards to hear he’s had worse beatings in his life and that he never caved in. He wanted them to believe they struck and frightened him enough to tell them nothing but the truth. “So, we’re just going to be quiet the entire way, huh?” He faced the two guards, but they didn’t even nod back. “How much further?” James tried again, but still no response. “Well, can I at least get some water then?” But again, no response.
Both bored to tears with nothing to do – they weren’t even allowed to smoke – they started looking at the stars and making up several shapes which they presumably formed. They weren’t astronomers, not by a long shot, but they knew how to find the Orion, some zodiac constellations, and the Polaris, hence how they knew they were travelling northeast.
They must’ve travelled for at least another hour in silence when James spotted something in the distance. “Finally. We must be getting close.” The sky was glowing a dim yellow right in front of them.
Note: The link will become active once Chapter 5 is written in full.
Disclaimer: This text is part of a work in progress. All content tentative to change.
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