The monotonous drone of the truck engine all of a sudden took on a new, hollow quality. Simultaneously, the rough crunch of dirt and gravel was replaced with the smooth feel of slick concrete.
No sooner were the adventurers thinking that this was their journey's end, the high-pitched shriek of brakes made it a fact.
Weight shifted and the air brakes let out a whoosh, just as the engine was cut and sputtered to a stop.
The canvas was thrown aside and an unknown voice barked orders in an unknown language. Apparently this was their stop, as the team were hauled out and down like so much cargo.
A quick glance around the space revealed nothing but a huge parking garage, uninteresting in anything but size. Throughout the vast space, nearly every stall was filled with a troop transport identical to the one they'd come in.
"Now, everybody remember where we parked." advised Wendell.
Rather, he got the butt of a rifle in the kidneys for his trouble. The group was pushed and prodded along to the nearest elevator station.
Once inside, one of their captors hit a number high enough to give them time to think.
"Where do you suppose we even are?" whispered Misty.
Everybody knew it was intended for Jack, who, as world travel had shaped up, seemed to have the best sense of navigation. Even he wasn't entirely sure.
He hazarded a guess. "From the direction and the amount of time we've been traveling, I guess somewhere around Southeastern Serbia or Northwestern Bulgaria. Hard to say for sure since, judging by the road quality, we're in the middle of nowhere."
"No foolin'." said Wendell, "My butt's still asleep."
Misty frowned. "T.M.I., Wendell. (Too Much Information)" She turned to Jack, "If we're really that far out in the sticks, how does that explain this building?"
Jack didn't answer. He couldn't. That thought was bothering him as well. He didn't know what it meant, but something about it made him uneasy.
The doors opened to reveal an enormous space every bit as large as the parking garage, but magnified by the fact that it was three or more stories high and lined on all sides with glass windows.
The three were shoved unceremoniously inside, the guards close behind.
The height above the surrounding terrain and unobstructed view in all directions gave a stomach-churning, almost euphoric feel. One was left with the sensation of floating on a slow cloud over the uninhabited landscape.
They were far from alone on their ethereal journey, however, as the room was packed. Most of those gathered were soldiers, staring with a common, glazed-over expression at a raised dais and black curtain at one end of the grand hall. All wore the same plain camouflage uniform and all, men and women alike, had shaven heads.
Yet these were not the only people in the room. Others, like them, seemed to be imported civilians, looking around nervously at one another and not knowing what to expect.
"Howell!" shouted Wendell as he saw a familiar face in the crowd. "Howell! Over here!"
Jack followed his gaze and waved as well.
In the end he concluded, "It's no good. He can't hear us."
There was no time to try anything else. A lone figure appeared on the stage. Whoever it was, had the full approved of the frantic crowd. Simultaneously, a giant electronic screen was lowered on cables to give even those in the back a view of the event.
Now that they had a better picture, they could see that the man wore a conical black mask and robe reminiscent of Klu-Klux attire. It was emblazoned with a large emblem of the sun made of Gold satin so that it shimmered and glittered in the light. Lest anybody get the wrong idea, however, the center of this particular sun was a grinning black skull.
"Just a hunch, but... I don't think we like that guy." decided Misty.
The boys nodded, but dared not take their eyes off his foreboding image.
The man began some sort of strange ritual, waving his hands in complicated gestures and reciting an ongoing series of gibberish words. It took ridiculously long, but the end of it was declared by a pair of his assistants ringing massive gongs.
"In the name of En the powerful..." he cried.
"ALL HAIL EN" shouted the soldiers so suddenly that Misty and the rest jumped.
"... En provides food for people!"
Another strike of the gong.
They didn't notice where they had come from, but gold-colored, sun-shaped trays suddenly materialized in the audience. These were loaded high with halved doughnuts, which each person present took and ate as they passed.
They arrived at Wendell first, who took one. It was halfway to his mouth when Misty slapped it out of his hand.
"Don't be dumb." she scolded.
"Yeah, yeah", agreed Jack, "let's see where this goes first."
All of a sudden Misty's voice took on a nervous squeak to match her size, "Jack, look!"
Jack follower her pointing finger and muttered, "oh no", just as Howell took a bite of one of the doughnuts.
Likewise, a fair number of the other guests were eating as well, though many were just as hesitant as Jack and Misty.
Another gong was sounded.
"In the name of En the powerful..." he cried.
"ALL HAIL EN" shouted the soldiers once more. Now they were also joined by a number of the new recruits, including Howell!
"Oh no." muttered Wendell.
"... people provide food for En!"
The black curtains slid aside to reveal a pagan stone idol some twenty feet in height. The top of it held a very familiar face. It was even more familiar to Jack who had last seen it coming for him through the windshield of a Jeep.
The priest raised his hand in front of the statue several times for show, and then turned and pointed at a random spot in the audience. There was quite a commotion, a strange fight of sorts, but by the time the camera of the giant screen adjusted, at the center of focus stood Howell, unmoving, impassive.
"En has chosen!" declared the priest.
The camera tracked as Howell made his way up to the stage, and then to the very base of the statue.
The curtain closed.
The priest waved his hand once more and a horrible, crooked knife appeared in his hand - like a parlor magician, with an unsettling twist. The room cheered, but at the sight of the blade Misty, Jack, and Wendell were too busy storming the stage to bother to listen.
Strong hands grabbed at them from all directions as they plowed, ever more sluggishly through the crowd.
It all happened in some surreal slow motion. Like in some nightmare Misty tried to advance with all her might, but could not. She tried to cry Howell's name, but even that was unheard over the roar of the crowd.
The priest stepped in behind the curtain. There was a long pause, and then a puddle of red liquid began to flow out from beneath.
Misty's body went limp as all her remaining energy went into generating tears.
Jack and Wendell stood there, pale as sheets.
Yet there was to be no respite.
The crowd flowed out in all directions, being filtered at various check points. Trained soldiers knew the way to their barracks and took it. New recruits, those who had eaten En's insidious pastry, were shuffled another direction, presumably to be given a shave and fitted for camo.
The rest were driven another direction entirely. At first the team feared that they were goners for refusing to eat whatever horrible stuff that was controlling the others. They were surprised, however, when they were directed to barracks of their own. Instead of "obey En or die", it was to be "obey En or be in jail forever". A preferable situation, made even more so to three teens who had just finished two full semesters of the finest escape training Michael Moast could afford.
The only downside was that Misty was split off at the last minute and sent to the girls' barracks whereas Wendell and Jack were sent their separate way.
Before they parted, Jack crouched down so he could look directly into her tear-stained eyes.
"Listen", he said, "I know how bad that thing with Howell looked, but I wouldn't write him off just yet. He was a tough guy. He wouldn't have gone down that easy. No way. Something about this place..."
"Show." said Wendell.
When both looked up at him, he elaborated. "Everything here is about show. That's the only reason they wouldn't kill us."
Misty liked the general concept of that, but didn't know whether it was because it was reasonable or because it was comforting. The boys had a point though. All this happened behind that silly curtain, so... what did that mean?
Her best answer was that there was no way of knowing. They knew just about as much about Howell's well-being as they did before they had spotted him.
That was all that could be said, however, as a soldier broke up the company drove them apart into opposite directions.
NEXT CHAPTER ... COMING SOON!