In the pre-dawn hours, the sounds of crackling fire, screams and gunshots bring the Watch to one of its burning hangars. Eight members of the Loved (cult of the Ascendant) have set fire to an unLoved barracks, and two of them – TumTum and Prim – are using their rifles to shoot at the legs of anyone inside who tries to get out. Good clean fun for the savage bastards, and Joseph is right in among them, shouting them along.
Jonker enters the scene and approaches TumTum and Gnarly, a little person with a shaved head and a torch in his hand. First he tries to order them away, but gets nothing more than a couple derisive laughs. Then he makes as though he’s going to push his way through them, and Gnarly turns ugly, taking a swing with the torch. Jonker clubs him with the Magnum, the gunsight raking a gash in Gnarly’s scalp, painting it dark red in the firelight. At that, Clarion pulls Gnarly away, still swinging and cursing – TumTum takes off running, and Joseph tries to tackle her but gets a bullet in the bicep for his trouble, failing to stop her escape.
Jonker gets into the burning building and herds the five unLoved out – as she exits, Newton, a black-haired and dark-skinned woman in her late twenties, wraps her arms around him with a fierce kiss by way of thanks. Corbett and Pepper, two of the other escapees, lead the other two into a different hangar. Jonker puts her aside and goes to find the Ascendant, who has been watching with some concern.
Meanwhile, Joseph’s taken advantage of the chaos to bring his violation glove around on Fleece, one of the Loved who was part of the burning. He sees in Fleece’s mind an image of Fleece throttling the Ascendant, tears streaming down his face and apologizing for his lack of belief, how badly he wants to believe, but he can’t, just can’t any more. Joseph hauls him up by the collar and escorts him into the swamps …
The Ascendant gathers the Loved and asks Jonker to bring the victims forward. Jonker refuses, but says he’ll bear witness. Absinthe, too, is watching from the sidelines; quietly. The Ascendant orders those involved to step forward – Clarion, Gnarly, TumTum, Prim, Mill and Dog’s Head all come up, two remaining behind. The Ascendant tells them to point out the other two, and Pierre and Pellet, a 15-year old kid, come forward. Pellet volunteers , “The whole thing was Hugo’s idea.”
“Where is Hugo?”
Patch, another Loved, snorts, “Told me he was out. Just before the fires started.”
Absinthe, realizing that Pepper lived in the hangar and was an enemy of Mice (Hugo’s son), shakes hir head and peels off to go find Mice and Hugo. Meanwhile, the Ascendant asks Clarion how he felt in the burning.
“Good. Real good. But not like before,” he says. “I wasn’t angry. I mean, before, earlier in the night? Threw a couple punches but there was still these hot worms in my gut, in my heart. When I thought about the fire, though … it felt right. I mean, maybe somone was in the hanar and maybe not, you know? It wasn’t up to me. I didn’t know who they would be or when they’d be there or if they were there at all. It wasn’t up to me. It was just up to me to release that fire somehow, and up to something higher to decide what gets put in the way.”
The Ascendant smiles. “You’ve come the farthest of all, Clarion. You shall become my Most Beloved – but there is a lesson here. The emotional purge is followed by the physical.”
He pulls aside his robes to reveal that his chest and upper arms are covered in burn scars, then places a stick into a small fire left from the hangar, handing it to Clarion. “Purge yourself.”
Clarion calls to TumTum, who comes forward and tears away his shirt. He’s a hairy guy, covered in a thick mat of it, and the smell of burning hair and flesh as he brands himself is fierce. When he removes the brand, it looks like he’s about to toss it away, but instead presses it back again for a moment before thrusting the cool end toward the Ascendant.
The Ascendant takes it and presses it to his own flesh, but Clarion’s taken most of the real punishment and the Loved seem to know it. Clarion does, too. The Ascendant sets them loose and asks Jonker to come with him.
In the swamps, Joseph takes Fleece to the place where Rum died earlier, making as though he can commune with the dead. Fleece is babbling now, asking about the Ascendant, about the Loved, about Rum, and tells Jospeh he can drop the crazy act now that it’s just the two of them. They should talk about how they might be able to work together.
“Act?” Joseph brings out his knife, and terrifies Fleece into running further into the swamps before moving to slit his throat – then, either bored or experiencing a change of heart, he says, “Maybe you’re right,” and wanders back into the swamp. He’s lost, though, and only after an encounter with a copperhead snake does he find his way back to the Watch at the end of the day.
In the south hangar, Absinthe sends Mice outside while s/he talks to Hugo, sitting on the cot next to him – explaining how much Mice looks up to him, and explaining what he needs to do – “Go to Chola City. Get out of the Watch and take Mice with you. The Ascendant, he’s not going to be too happy, si?”
Hugo responds that he’ll go to Chola for a few days to let things cool down, but he’s coming back – and he’s not taking Mice with him. Can Dylan look after the boy? He’s got the booby trapped workshop where Mice could be safe, and Absinthe agrees – s/he’ll take him to Dylan.
Mice flinches from the doorway – “The Ascendant’s coming!” Hugo ducks out the back, Mice runs to the back, and the Ascendant appears.
Absinthe shrugs. “He just left.”
“Where did he go?”
“Here or there. He says one thing, he maybe means another.”
“Is Mice here?”
“Sure, in back.”
“Bring him to me.”
With another slight shrug, Absinthe goes out to Mice. “You coming in?”
“Not while he’s here. You promised to be my friend!”
“No, sweetheart. I didn’t promise anything.” S/he lunges like a cat and seizes Mice by the throat, the small boy struggling and scratching to no effect, and delivers him inside between the Ascendant and Jonker.
After some discussion, it’s agreed that the Ascendant will pay Jonker well to escort Mice to Chola City, find Hugo, and instruct them never to return. Absinthe agrees to keep an eye on the Watch for Jonker in his absence, and Jonker and Mice are left alone.
On the road, Jonker does what he can to show Mice a bit of self-defense – it’s only an hour’s walk, but every little bit helps. Approaching the Burn Zone of Chola, they get the traditional warning shot at their feet and a call. “Who you coming for?”
“Monk and Hugo. I’m bringing their boy.”
“Hugo’s the little one come by an hour ago.”
“He forgot this.”
A woman saunters forward in camo pants and goggles around her neck, a pistol drawn but not threatening. “You from the Watch, too?”
“How are the freaks and the oranges?”
“Freaky and in season.” Jonker takes an orange from his satchel and flips it to her, getting a grin in return.
“All right, you go on in. Word of warning – if you see anyone in a surgical mask? Just shoot ‘em straight, they’re working to surround you.”
“Thanks.” Jonker lets Mice take the lead, into the residential zone of Chola. The doors are painted in various bright hues, usually three or four similar in a row; and Mice leads him to a bright yellow door. Monk’s a burly, bearded guy with two brothers his own size and Hugo on the floor between them, runt of the litter. They give Jonker some fresh water, he gives them some oranges, and leaves Mice and Hugo with the advice to get out of Chola before the Loved come looking.
Monk shakes his head, unafraid.
Back in the Watch, Absinthe is making hir rounds when s/he sees someone sneaking around the burned hangar. He tries to hide from hir, but when s/he whistles him out he stands, tucking something into his pocket.
“You’re not from around here.”
“Nope. My name’s Putrid.”
“No, you’re Absinthe. I’ve got a little offer for you.”
A red sniper’s dot appears on hir chest. “Jackabacka would like to talk to you again, one on one.”
S/he rolls her eyes with a sigh. “Ay. Look, you tell him I said no, and you go on your way, huh?” Purtid pulls his own pistol, and the red dot traces up to hir left cheekbone, just below those flashing, slightly slanting eyes. Putrid follows the dot and gets caught, frozen by hir stare.
“That’s right,” s/he says, and slides to put him between hirself and the sniper as s/he draws hir own handgun. “Nice and easy. You’ll see your Jackabacka soon enough, I think.”
With that s/he blows a hole through his crotch, catching a sniper bullet in the chest as he falls. Hir armor helps some and she spins around into a run straight across the field, gun still drawn. The second bullet catches hir hard in the belly, checks hir momentum; but s/he manages to spring onto the hood of the truck – too close for a rifle any more. The sniper, wearing a blue surgical mask, turns the barrel and tires to club hir with it but it’s way too late, and he sprawls back into the truck with his face a ruined mess.
Holding hir stomach, Absinthe checks the body and finds nothing of importance, but the keys are in the truck and s/he’s able to start it up, then drives to the orange groves, looking for the Ascendant.
He’s with Clarion, giving him his next “test” – to take TumTum and Mill, the two who seemed most skeptical after the branding incident, and go to the Good Water Holds to look for converts. “Come back with ten new Loved, and you will have truly become the Most Beloved.” Clarion agrees, and the three cultists leave the orange groves to pack as Absinthe limps the truck along.
There’s no Angel in the Watch – any medical help comes out of Chola City or the Good Water Holds, and The Ascendant thinks Jonker might come in handy and should be heading back from Chola already. He helps Absinthe into the passenger seat, tells Pellet to get three of the heaviest hitters in the Loved, and takes the truck halfway up the A Highway to wait for the gunlugger …