The wagon was a ramshackle affair, and it moved through the wilds so slow that it would have been far faster to walk. But the wagon belonged to a tidy group of people, and they had been surprisingly willing to let a stranger climb aboard with them at the last town. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that he looked like a pure-blood. It was rare to find an unmutated individual away from some purist community, but, if they left, they left with a purpose. People looked at him, and they saw what he wanted them to see. Enzo had a sweet face with smooth skin, unmarred by the scarring of a wild life, and soft dark hair that was kept neatly trimmed around his head. His clothes were kept in careful repair, and while there was no such thing as the fine fabrics that the nobility before the apocalypse had known, his were as close as they came. People looked at him and saw the runaway prince of some pure-blood family. Being kind and polite to him would have no bad consequences, and if a few people decided to try and grab him to see if he was worth something, well, so much the better. His disguise served him well all the way around. Despite his appearance, Enzo was not a pure-blood. That implied some level of heritage, tracing through the countless number of generations separating the present moment from the apocalypse. Heritage he was notably lacking. Even Enzo couldn’t say exactly how many years that was, it had to be somewhere in the range of 500, but no one bothered to keep track anymore. Least of all him. He could say with near certainty, though, that he was the only person on earth who had known the world before the electric wave had come from space and destroyed all electricity and the world as it was known. Big shocker, that one. He had actually known the world for a great deal of time before the wave, as a matter of fact. Sometimes he missed the simplicity of life, from back then. Living was never, ever easy, but it could certainly be simple. Simplicity was always knowing where to go to get as much as it was possible to eat, and knowing that the cold would not come and bite off the tips of unprotected toes in the night. Even after five hundred or so years, nothing about this world was simple. It had been plunged back into the dark ages, and it seemed that it was going to stay there for the foreseeable future. The wagon wheel hit a rut in the road, jarring him rather violently from his quiet musing as he was tossed a couple inches into the air. His legs swung wildly, and one hand gripped at a wooden board, before the wagon began to roll steadily again. Enzo rubbed his wounded tailbone, before glaring back at the offending rut, slowly falling away behind him. He might be better off walking, but he couldn’t muster the willpower to jump off onto the dirt road. In the end, it really just wasn’t that important. Calling it a road might have been a bit of an exaggeration. It was really nothing more than a glorified dirt trail. Even trail might have been flattering, because trail implied it was used consistently enough to keep it free of various shrubbery and other things offensive to the bottom of a foot. This route was lucky if it saw ten groups in a month. Only the fact that people knew this path wouldn’t result in a dead end or some bank that the wagon could not descend made it any better than trying to make their own path through the wilderness. But the advantages of the road were matched point by point for disadvantages, and somehow the disadvantages always seemed a lot more severe than the advantages were useful. Perhaps it was because the advantages were passive, while the disadvantages were quick and, most often, quite painful. Of course, perhaps that didn’t make it such a disadvantage at all, at least to him. When things began to go wrong, as was their wont, they went wrong quickly, in a rapid succession that was liable to give an idle observer whiplash. The first, and presumably most accidental, of the events was heralded by the sound of splintering wood. With a harsh crack, the wagon finally folded, unable to make it over the next rut in a seemingly neverending line. The caravan was brought to a shuddering halt, and the leader bent over, checking the wagon for the damage. Thomas was a bit of an alarming creature, at first glance. Then again, by the standards of some of the people who now lived in the world, he was almost attractive. His face was distended, unnaturally long, and a second, over-large set of eyes rested where most people would normally have cheekbones. His right shoulder was heavy and awkward, causing him to walk in an almost permanent hunch, and led to a club-like arm that was nearly long enough to drag on the ground. He quickly confirmed that the axle had snapped under the strain of the rough journey, although he was quick to confirm that Ezio’s weight had little effect in the matter, and the six other people who made up the rest of the caravan were quick to gather around. Enzo hopped down from his perch on the back of the wagon, slipping passively out of the way of the other people, all in various states of unpleasant mutation, and almost all of them notably taller than him. They were content to let him go. Other than a quiet willingness to help with simple chores and a surprisingly sweet countertenor singing voice, Enzo had proved himself to be mostly useless on the road. Most notable of the moments had been when Enzo succeeded in crushing both him and the smallest of the caravan members, which wasn’t him, thank god, under an avalanche of fifty pound bags of rice. That wasn’t to say he really was useless, it was simply what he had proved himself to be. The axle was cleanly split in two and beyond even their tenacious rigging ability, and the group quickly went about replacing it. But midway through, things went quickly from unfortunate but manageable to getting dangerously close to dangerous. One of the women standing scout while the four strongest members of the group went to work on wrassling the wagon into cooperation let out a faint whistle. Activity didn’t stop, but it slowed to a crawl, and one of the men under the wagon wriggled out from underneath, looking as though he was still working. The signal was foreign to Enzo, but it clearly meant something along the lines of “Someone is watching us and may wish us harm. Best not to let them know we know they are there.” Quite an impressive message for a single noise. It took a moment for Enzo to spot what the woman had spotted, but watching the vibrations of her antennae was enough to guide his eyes to the right spot. Hiding in the undergrowth was a man, wearing heavy leather and wood armor and with the glint of old metal on his shoulders. Despite the attempts of the rest of the caravan, it was impossible to act as though they hadn’t spotted him forever. As the four workers one by one gave up on their task and came to stand between the man and the wagon, only an idiot wouldn’t have realized their new and sudden increase in knowledge of a certain thing they weren’t supposed to know. As soon as it was clear he had been spotted the man tried to bolt, tail swinging wildly for balance as he careened over a fallen log, but Thomas moved faster. A stone hatchet appeared in his massive hand, and he threw it with all the force of a trebuchet. It spun through the air, before embedding itself in the fleeing man’s back with a sharp crack. His scream was loud and piercing, before quickly being cut short as the other man whose eyes were more useful than his muscle density clasped his hand over the man’s mouth, and wrenched his head sharply to the side. The unknown man offered no more complaints after that, as was natural for most people with a broken neck. But the man, a scout as it happened, had not come alone, and his scream did not go unanswered. Within a couple of seconds there was the sound of heavily booted feet crashing against the ground, drawing closer from multiple directions. The members of the small caravan drew closer together, pulling whatever makeshift weapons they had from whatever hiding spaces they had previously been occupying. Faces intense, they prepared to fight. Enzo felt his heart beating in his chest, slow and steady. He waited expectantly for it to pick up speed, to send a rush of adrenalin through his system and remind every cell in his body that it was in a situation that would be deemed potentially life threatening by anyone that wasn’t him. But, against his wishes, it remained calm. This just wasn’t enough to bring a rush of emotions into his body. He crouched behind the wagon, waiting to see what would happen. It became clear in an instant that the caravan was hopelessly outmatched. For every one of them there was easily three of the raider band, and that was assuming that there weren’t more waiting in the trees. Any chance that they were going to let the caravan were quickly squashed when one of them found the body of their dead friend. The raider raced back to a man, who was watching the events from a seat made from another man’s shoulders. Every part of him was reminiscent of Thomas’ shoulder. Which was to say, ugly, lumpy, and as though it didn’t belong with the rest of him. There was something vaguely catlike about his face, in the upturned nose, big eyes, and heavy jowls, but only if you squinted, and Enzo was quick to readjust his first assessment to “a slug on an elephant’s backside”. His head was lumpy, as though a giant hand had squeezed it and it had deformed like a lump of clay. His body looked like it had once been fat and then been forced to lose a lot of weight quickly, for folds of skin hung loosely on his thin, twisted frame. Long, almost ropy warts grew all over his body, but especially on his head, where they made it look like he had worms for hair. At the report from his colleague the raider leader snarled, mouth opening abnormally wide. He grunted like an angry animal, before letting out an earthshaking bellow. He lifted an arm high, and his human “mount” was quick to follow suit. The rest of the raiders raced down the hillside, screaming like a group of high monkeys, and in possession of little more grace. Still Enzo’s heart remained steady. He cursed it silently, even as his soft grey eyes locked with the monster raider’s own tawny ones. No matter what happened, it wouldn’t remain calm long. He was certain that everything was about to go to shit.