This far away from the Walls of an Elite community it couldn't even really be called a town. No, it was too small for that. Even village would have been flattering. All the same, it was a small group of humanity that had managed to survive, isolated from most of society, long enough for their walls to become sturdy. It would have to do. Sir approached the village openly, doing nothing to try and conceal his six foot frame and the massive military pack that rode on his hips. His shoulders were back and relaxed, his hands swung openly by his side. Everything about him spoke of a simple traveler, someone aiming to do no harm. At the same time, there was little he could do to appear harmless. No one who traveled alone through these lands was to be ignored. Even those who traveled within the relative security of a group were to be watched warily, for without some means of defending themselves any traveler would be easy picking for the roaming hordes of infected. Despite his relaxed appearance, Sir was hardly calm. He focused on everything around him with the kind of attention that could only be born from having to fight every day for your own survival. Mostly, he studied the guards who stood watch on the perimeter fence. Even from this distance he could see the barrels in their hand. Should they choose to open fire he would have only a split second to react. Most likely they would not lead with such aggressive action. Ammunition of any sort was precious, not to be wasted on someone who could be chased away by other means. But there was no telling who these people were, not when they where this far from the last bastions of what could even remotely be called polite society. No one was foolish enough to try and ply an illegal trade right under the noses of the Elite. They might trade around an Elite city, but anything else was far too reckless. That meant that the only places they could do their work was in the wilderness. Even most thieves and drug lords wouldn’t waste the ammo, but you never knew when someone was going to get an itchy finger. If, for whatever reason, they thought that Sir was here on a mission from an Elite city, they wouldn’t hesitate to try and dispose of him. After all, he was only a stranger. When he got a little closer, however, Sir realized that this community was hardly the base of any malignant operation. For one thing, the guards up on the wall had only just noticed him. The young man who had apparently overlooked him three times suddenly let out a shout and pulled his weapon, pointing it at Sir. There was a sudden buzz of activity, the sound of loitering people racing away for safety. That alone would have been enough to tell him that this was just a group of people, desperately trying to survive after having fled from the abuse around the outskirts of an Elite community. But, two steps later, any trace of doubt was erased from his mind. In his hand, the young guard clutched at the grip of an illegal Elite grade gun. If Sir were to head to the nearest Elite City, he could report the presence of those guns, and almost certainly earn a handsome reward. A group of soldiers would be sent out to recollect the guns, and remind everyone what it meant to break the rules. Any organized group might have the weapons, but they would never be foolish or trusting enough to reveal it to someone who was still free enough to turn tail and flee. But the Elite guns did two things for Sir. First, they explained how such a small group had been able to survive alone for so long. Second, they made it far more certain that Sir would be able to get what he needed, and perhaps more, from the place. Normally, Sir would have been just as happy to pass over a place like this. Most of them were either too small to have anything worth trading, or too hostile for it to be worth it to draw close. But Sir had been roaming for just over two months now, supplementing his food supply whenever possible, but never staying in one place for any longer than the time it would take him to rest. If he didn’t resupply soon he would have to make a more permanent camp. And that would mean competing with any local infected for whatever limited food supply was in the area. It was far better to initiate trade with anyone who had the supplies. His fingers brushed lightly against one of his hidden pockets, where rested a carefully packaged lump. The little electric “gems” that resided within the infected brains was one of the most valued pieces of currency since the last of the petroleum products were used up only a few years after the infected began to rule the world. And the reason Sir roamed the world, unguarded and unprotected, was to collect those little gems. Most communities were more than willing to trade with him, considering that almost all of the luxury items, lights, stoves, heaters, and the like were powered by the infected gems. But the other thing that was powered by the gems was the Elite guns; the guns that this community relied on to stay alive. They would need gems. How long they had been out here, how many infected had dared to challenge their walls, and how skilled their people were at extracting the gems intact, would determine exactly how badly they needed them. By the time he made it up to the gate a small group of young soldiers had swarmed, speaking rather loudly, debating what to do. On the one hand, he was a stranger, and they didn’t know what he wanted. He was traveling alone, and was brave enough to walk up even though he had certainly seen the armed guards. On the other hand, he was clearly an old man. His cropped hair and wild beard was heavily stained with salt and pepper, and his face was worn, wrinkled, and scarred from hardship. And to these young fools, that meant he was less dangerous than their youthful vitality, not more dangerous due to his clear ability to survive anything that life flung at him. Even though they knew he was there, Sir was still willing to bet that he could render them all dead or unconscious before they managed to hit him. But that wasn’t why he was here. Better to point out their stupidity now, before someone actually took advantage of it. Sir interrupted their arguing, his voice firm and mild, and though no one would have said he was shouting, all of the men could hear him clearly. “If I had friends with me,” Sir began, and all of the young men turned to look at him, “they would be climbing over the back wall right now, while I drew your attention. By the time all of you decided what to do with me, they would have raided your supply shed and retreated back over the wall. “At the same time, any sniper that was back in those woods could probably take out at least three of you before you had the chance to drop below the wall and out of range.” He certainly had their attention now. Two of them immediately turned to look towards the back wall after Sir’s first sentence, and one nearly jumped out of his skin at the word ‘sniper.’ Without you guarding them, even a Common infected could get over these walls, and I doubt you would notice until the screams began. Even a single Flyer could drop from on high and take out all of you, and then proceed to take out at least two other guards on watch before an alarm would be raised.” Drawn by the squabbling of his juniors and the sound of Sir’s voice, someone semi-competent was finally drawn over to the wall. He heard the tail end of Sir’s reprimand, and quickly concluded it with one of his own. “The stranger is quite right. Why did you all leave your posts? Surely one of you with a gun...” the fierce scowl that suddenly crossed the man’s face, and the looks of shame on the rest of the guard made it clear that they had forgotten their instructions by drawing their weapons. One of the guards even tried to put the weapon away, as though that could undo the damage. But that only brought the full wrath of their superior down on him, who turned and bellowed “Get back to your posts!” When the rest did not move fast enough, he barked out a final “All of you!” and the young men scampered off, ashamed. “Who are you, stranger?” There was a touch of respect in this man’s eyes. The young guards had looked at Sir and seen an old man. This man looked at him and saw a survivor. “Sir.” “What should we call you?” But he was still bloated by his pride, apparently. Nothing about this man marked him as Sir’s superior. There was nothing he could do to earn a title of respect. “You may call me Sir.” “What do you want, old man?” Apparently that comment didn’t sit well with the man. His hand dropped unconsciously to the weapon strapped to his waist, and the mild respect vanished. Such a shame he was in no real position to object. "I was going to trade for supplies, but perhaps I should travel to the Elites instead? Maybe trade for something a little extra as well?” It was almost amusing to watch the cockiness drain from his face as he remembered the information the young men had unwittingly revealed to this stranger. He gaped briefly like a fish out of water, before his teeth snapped together with an audible click. “My apologies... Sir.” The title slid off of his tongue like a mouthful of slime, but it was a start. “What were you hoping to trade for?” Sir’s hand reached lightly into one of those hidden pockets, pulling out a small bundle. He unwrapped it carefully, before holding it up to the light. On the wall, the man let out a gasp of surprise and greed. “Is that what I think it is?” Sir nodded, rolling the small, sky blue gem between his fingers lightly. “That must have come from a ten year old flyer. How did you get it?” Now he had them. “The same way you get all of these. I ripped it from its fragile skull.” “What did you want to trade for, Sir?” And this time, the title of respect fell easily and smoothly from his lips. “I’ll trade you this, along with two common gems. In exchange, I want supplies. And I want two of your guns.” Desire and possessiveness warred across his face. Apparently they really needed those gems. “Those guns ensure our survival. What would we do if the horde attacked?” “I’ll give you three common gems.” Sir replied, before throwing off in an apparently offhand manner “And I’ll kill the local horde. That should give you a couple of months before a new one moves in. More than enough time to prepare.” The man gaped at Sir as though he was insane, completely thrown off by Sir’s serious, casual tone. “But... how do I know you’d do it?” “I’ll do it first. What proof would you like?” The guard was silent for a moment. “The gem. The gem from the Climber that leads the group.” “Very well,” Sir replied. Of course, he had three climber gems in his possession right now. It wouldn’t take much to fool the man. But Sir didn’t back out on an agreement. And this would be a good chance to gather more gems before heading to the nearest Elite city. If the group was led by a climber then it was almost certain that the horde was small. A climber, even an old climber, could only hold so many infected together. It had been a long time since he had held the barrel of an Elite gun in his fingers. The funny thing about infected was, except for the Flyers, they were all too human in one respect. They never remembered to look up. They never thought that something would dare come at them from above. The Climber was indeed the ringleader of the group, the one holding the rest of them together. The infected did not naturally form groups. It took a strong one to hold the lesser ones together, to keep them from scrounging off on their own, and make sure that they brought back enough food to care for the young that the horde would be raising. The young. They were still too weak in form to fight anything off on their own. Easiest way he had found to gather together a handful of gems for trading. Before he could find the nest, though, he had to take care of the Climber. But the last thing he had expected to see when he found the horde was to have them be on the hunt. A grin spread slowly over his face. That was another weakness. The infected were oblivious to everything around them when they had the scent of some juicy prey in their nose. All he had to do was wait for them to gather together around their prey. The trees were dense enough that it was easiest for him to flit along above them, only a few trees behind the path of the Climber himself. There was no doubt that they were on the hunt, and whatever it was they smelled, it had to be good. Sir was falling behind, the Climber swinging from branch to branch with an agility foreign to anything that could still call itself human. But Sir kept pace behind, watching the the Climber stare down at its running prey. And then he saw it too, and swore silently to himself. The prey was a human. No wonder they had been so excited. But nothing had changed, really. Sir positioned himself carefully above the Climber, which had leaped suddenly to the ground. He had to get the Climber out of the way first. His hand reached up blindly, locking on to one of the many ropes that hung from his pack. His thumb ran across it, briefly feeling the texture of the weave, before switching to the next rope. It took one more try before he found the right one. He tugged on this one, and it uncoiled neatly into his hands. He took careful aim, grabbing the rope at a point that would be just long enough to reach down to the Climber. One fluid throw later and the Climber was lassoed, and Sir was jumping backwards out of the tree, using the Climber’s own weight to slow his fall. It was left hanging from the tree, writhing wildly, but Sir used the stake that he had previously attached to his boot to lock the rope into the ground. The thing wouldn’t move until he was ready to deal with it. Maybe it would break its own neck for him, if the thing continued to writhe like that. The other infected didn’t know what had happened. They weren’t smart enough for that. Their leader was god, and could jump backwards to the top of a tall tree if it so felt like it. But the sudden crack of the Climber’s neck snapping was enough to give them pause. Then the homemade smoke bomb was in Sir’s hand, and he threw it towards the group around the young boy. The flash was blinding, but Sir’s back was already turned. Normally he wouldn’t have used the limited explosive powder in such a circumstance, but he did not have the time to hesitate right now. It may be the only thing that would save the boy’s life. The rest of the infected had turned to look at the sudden explosion, completely bewildered about where the noise had come from. One of them howled, an ugly, guttural noise, and lunged away from the smoke bomb. It singled itself out to be the first to die, with one of Sir’s knives embedded in its neck and severing the still-pumping carotid artery. The thing didn’t have a chance to scream. The remaining infected were huddling, trying to fall back on the routines beat into them by the now deceased Climber. Strength together. Sir let out a dark chuckle. He had already used one explosive, and it was too much of a temptation to resist. The nail bomb flew into their midst, embedding itself in one of the infected’s chest, before exploding and sending a shower of shrapnel in a five foot radius. The few who survived were easy pickings. He only let one go, one heavily bleeding infected who would run back to the nest where a stockpile of food waited, longing only to heal and survive. Leading him right to the nested young. But the thing would take time to find its way back, flailing through the woods as it was. For now, he had to salvage as many of the supplies that he had used as possible, and root all the gems out of the corpses’ craniums.