With a grunt, Desmond pushes his loaded up bike to the cover of some bushes before leaning back, rubbing at his lower back. It had been an uphill battle for a bit now – literal up-the-hill, pushing his bike up the side of an actual mountain, after what felt like several other mountains. "Really start to feel that after a while."
The path he'd been following had withered down to near nothing halfway through, too. The only reason he even knows there's a path there at all is because he still can just about see it with Eagle Vision, and even then it's barely a glimmer. It must've split somewhere into separate paths, into less used ones, which had worn down the barely visible traces down to nothing.
Even Ezio doesn't seem to be spotting anything, sitting on a patch of dried up grass slightly ahead of him, waiting.
"Nothing, huh?" Desmond asks, reaching for his water bottle and taking a sip. There's a breeze going, which is already cooling the sweat on his brow, making it colder. No way he can stay the night up here. "Alright, let's see if we can find a viewpoint, yeah?"
Ezio moves to follow him to a nearby climbable looking spot of rocks. There's some traces there too, even fainter ones – someone else has used the outcropping of more or less flat rocks to look around, it seems. Makes sense, a good sniper spot up there. A bit of a climb though - and after hours of uphill pushing, Desmond spends most of it listening to his back and joints crack.
"Ugh, you'd think after all this I'd be in better shape, huh?" Desmond asks Ezio, who's swiftly going ahead, showing off his much better agility. "If you fall, I'm not coming after you, you hear? You go down a ravine, you're on your own." He gets barely a huff in answer. "Yeah, laugh it up."
It's one hell of a view, once they find the highest spot, Ezio laying down a patch of grass while Desmond stretches, his shoulders feeling a little better. Up the side of the mountain he can see where the roads used to be – down ground level he lost the track a while ago, someone had gone through some trouble to break the road up and cover it with new growth, but up here you can't hide the snakey shape of where trees are younger. There are even sections further up ahead where there's some actual road left.
"See there?" Desmond points. "Someone bombed out the pass there – a decade ago, maybe? Looks like there was a bridge over there that's long gone, and – oh hoh hoh, that does look like a house. I think we're getting close to civilization. Or what used to be civilization."
Ezio huffs a breath at him, tail wagging lazily against the grass.
"Yeah, maybe we'll find a house to sleep in for the night. Might even be able to get some scavenging in. Find some water, get a fire going, cook some gruel, maybe even clean up a little… live like people for a bit," Desmond murmurs, crouching down beside his companion. "Yeah. Could be a good night."
They sit there for a moment, Desmond catching his breath and rolling his shoulders to loosen some off the stiffness, while Ezio sniffs at the air beside him. Desmond can tell the moment he picks up something – the dog's ears come up and he goes quietly on alert, standing up. Eying Ezio's body language, Desmond looks around and then concentrates.
Nothing he can see – not yet.
"Okay," Desmond says, and quickly checks his knives. "Let's go, boy. Let's go check it out."
Together they head down, Ezio leading the way with easy grace, and Desmond following as quickly as he can. The dog isn't on full alert yet, so Desmond dares to go back to his bike, and begins pushing it forth, following his companion's lead as Ezio points him into the forest, towards whatever he's smelling.
When the dog starts sticking closer to him, that's when Desmond knows they're getting closer. "Okay," he murmurs, propping his bike quietly against a tree and crouching down to give Ezio a good scratch. "Low, boy, low and quiet. Easy does it."
There's a little valley – a ditch, really. Hard to say if it's natural formation, or if someone bombed the place here, creating the hole – either way, there are some infected that have congregated down there. It's not an impossible climb for them, just a sort of niche in the side, surrounded by rocks and trees, so they could've gotten out if they had incentive, but… judging by the way they're just milling down there, they haven't. Probably stragglers from a passing horde, who'd tripped into the hole and then… hung around. No ground growths though – that's something.
Desmond presses his hand on Ezio's upstanding ruff, pressing him quietly to the ground until the dog settles down on his belly, a silent command to stay. Once he's sure the dog would actually stay and not get in the harm's way, Desmond takes his bow. Five infected, two of them clickers – better make his shots quick and quiet.
Setting his arrows on the ground so they're easy to pick up, Desmond nocks the first one, breathes in, then out, and then takes aim.
He has the runners down before the clickers notice the noise – the thuds and croaks of the falling runners have them alert and jerkily moving around. Desmond blows out a slow breath, aiming carefully – the arrow he lets fly misses, but the noise of it hitting the rocks distracts the clickers enough that he can put another arrow through one of their heads, right through the growth plates – the last clicker then turns to face him, creaking at him like a broken door.
"Yeah, come on," Desmond murmurs, and picks up another arrow. "I'm right here…"
The clicker begins jerkily making its way towards him, and as it starts struggling with the side of the ditch they'd gotten trapped in, Desmond puts the last arrow through what was once the thing's heart.
It takes a moment, during which the infected spasms and croaks on the ground viscerally, but finally… it's quiet.
Desmond takes a moment to make sure and then glances at Ezio. "Ezio, perimeter, go."
Ezio perks up and then immediately sets forth, swift and quiet in the undergrowth, going around the ditch with the infected and sniffing at the ground and the air, looking for more spores. While the dog scents around, Desmond slides down to the ditch to collect his arrows and check the bodies, picking their pockets for anything. One of them has a wallet, the other a set of keys, the rest got nothing – and even the wallet is too rotten for any sort of ID.
"Aw, man," Desmond mutters and gives the bodies a sad look before taking out his notebook, to jot down the encounter. "Five anons it is. Requiescat in pace, my nameless friends."
Ezio returns to the edge of the ditch and gives a little woof – no other tracks near, then. That's good. Desmond releases a breath and then considers the bodies. "What do you think – does it get cold enough to kill the mycelium here? Should we burn 'em?"
Ezio doesn't answer, just watches him with all the patience of a dog used to him chattering on, and with a sigh Desmond begins pulling the bodies out of the ditch. It takes him some half an hour to get them out and into the open, onto a patch of old street where they're far enough away from any trees or dry growth so that he can safely burn them. It cuts into the time he could be spending finding shelter for the night, but…
Better than leaving the bodies out to infect the area with spores. Even if it's probably already infected anyway.
"I mean, it might not be. We're pretty high up," Desmond muses, while piling some dry branches on the bodies and dousing the whole mess with accelerant. "What was it that Rebecca said – about a kilometre above sea level, something about the air pressure? Plus it gotta be pretty cold around here during winter. Might be safe."
Ezio scratches at his collar with a hind leg and shakes himself.
"Yeah," Desmond agrees, making a little trail of the accelerant and then crouching down with his flint and tinder. "Better safe than sorry."
The accelerant catches on the second strike, and Desmond watches for a moment, to make sure the fire wouldn't spread beyond the pile he made – he's not into starting any forest fires here. Once he's sure, he nods to Ezio and puts his fire-making tools away. "Right-o. With our luck someone might see that, so. Let's get going. Bike, then house, then probably more zombies, what do you say?"
Ezio barks at him quietly, and then takes point, half disappearing into the tall grass. Shaking his head amusedly, Desmond jogs after him to fetch his bike.
It's about fifteen minutes, and maybe a hundred meters through the forest, that he feels the other people in the forest. The forest's temperament changes – already disturbed after his little bonfire, it goes on alert, and there's that feeling of you're not alone anymore tickling in the back of Desmond's neck.
"Yep, definitely lived in, this area," Desmond murmurs to Ezio, easing his bike into some bushes and then crouching low, patting the ground at his feet. "Ezio, down low."
The dog comes near him, crawling on his belly into cover, and together they listen to the forest. It takes a moment, but – there. Huh. Horse hooves? Interesting.
Hand on Ezio's head to keep the dog down and quiet, Desmond looks into the forest, trying to see. It's pretty full grown, thick with bushes and young trees, but – there, he just about spots someone. A horse and a rider make a pretty big shape even in this much of cover, and the horse's hooves make a very distinctive noise on the broken asphalt – the horse's got shoes.
A horse is already a big deal – you need to keep horses, feed them, and for the horses to be rideable, they would need to be broken in and trained. That's already a lot. But horseshoes, that's something else though. That's metalwork, that's a smithy, that's a farrier. That's good three, four people potentially concentrated on tasks other than scavenging or collecting food, or farming – people who would still need to be fed.
There's definitely a town here, then.
Question is, where on the fucked-up-o-meter is this town? Good honest folk, bandits, tyrannical assholes, cannibals, what?
"You see anything?" a male voice calls in the forest, a little too close for comfort, and Desmond bows his head a little, to make himself smaller.
"I think it was further up ahead," another voice answers. "I can see the smoke from here. I think there's a path through here."
"Right," the man nearby says, and there's the noise of horse hooves again. "I'll go around the other side, holler if you spot anything."
"Be careful – the ground here's uneven!"
The guy nearby heads off, horse hooves thundering on the ground, sound growing more distant. Desmond listens for a moment longer, until he's sure the riders have gone, and then scratches Ezio's ruff soothingly, considering his options.
"Too early to tell," he decides, looking at his companion. "Even cannibals can have horses, yeah? What say you we spy a little?"
Ezio huffs at his face and then licks a wet swipe over his scarred lips.
"Bleh. Yeah," Desmond agrees and pats his flank. "Come boy, low, low," he says quickly, when the dog almost bounces up. "Shh, boy, low. Were sneaking, okay? Sneaky, Ezio, sneaky. Yeah, that's it."
Together they crawl after the riders, keeping to the bushes and the tallest patches of grass, backtracking their way to the scene of their impromptu zombie extermination. Quietly patting himself on the back for choosing his bonfire spot well, Desmond settles down into the shadows to watch – the area he left the burning corpses on is so nicely open and brightly lit by the evening sun, that it leaves the riders inspecting the place completely out in the open.
Two men, both in their late forties, early fifties maybe, one blond, the other salt and pepper. They're dressed in old clothes, jeans and flannels and jackets, with rifles and revolvers. Just a Stetson short of cowboys, really. The horses both look in good shape – young mare and slightly older steed, they are both trained well enough that the fire or the infected doesn't spook them, and when the riders jump down, the horses stick close without needing to be tied – they even follow their riders a bit. Definitely they got a dedicated horse trainer, wherever they are from.
The horses have been branded too, with the letter J inside a horseshoe. These guys, they don't just have horses – they might actually sell them. You don't brand your horses unless your brand means something. Damn.
"I bet they come when you whistle, too," Desmond whispers to Ezio. "All the best horses come when you whistle."
Ezio huffs at him, poking him on the cheek with his cold snout in quiet agitation, so Desmond shuts up to listen.
The blond man is poking at the pile. "Looks like there's about five – two of 'em clickers," he says. "Can't tell how they were taken down, but it doesn't look like bullet wounds, or blunt force – their heads look more or less intact."
"Arrows maybe?" Salt-and-pepper asks, peering around the area, eyes narrowed and revolver in hand. "You can take a clicker with an arrow, if you got a powerful enough bow."
"Could be," the first man says and crouches down at the edge of the fire. "Burning them, though, hm. That's…"
"Do you think it might be a friendly? Someone from Idaho Falls maybe?"
"They wouldn't have taken this pass."
Desmond scratches at his beard idly, listening to the two pondering on who it might be. They have friends somewhere near then, and enough stability wherever they come from to have friendlies … which implies there are probably unfriendlies, too. Yeah, definitely a well established settlement.
"Should we look for 'em?" Salt-and-pepper asks, glancing at the blond man. "This was recent, they couldn't have gotten far."
"Well," the other man answers. "It's getting late, and they did us a favour of burning the bodies, so… I'm inclined not to. If they're on their way to Jackson, I reckon we'll run into them later. If not… then we'll probably run into them later anyway. No way through here, except past Jackson."
Salt-and-pepper doesn't look convinced, but after another close sweeping look around the area, he puts his gun away. "You're the boss," he says.
"We'll log it down at the lookout, and get Maria on the horn to give heads up to the other lookouts," blond says, turning to his horse. "If they're looking for trouble, we'll be ready for 'em."
"Alright," Salt-and-pepper agrees and also mounts his horse. Without another word between them, they turn their horses around and head back more or less the way they came from, the blond man leading Salt-and-pepper on.
Desmond cranes his head enough to see that they're going nowhere near his bike and then blows out a breath. "Okay," he says. "That's a yep on the civilisation, then," he muses and pats Ezio's side before standing up. "Question now is, how, if at all, shall we engage the said civilisation. Hm? What do you think?"
Ezio doesn't care at all, and trots back to the bodies, tail wagging as he sniffs around the tracks left behind by the men and their horses. Desmond snorts after him. "I guess we can deal with it tomorrow," he muses and waits until the dog's gotten his fill of the scents before heading back towards his bike. It's sitting undisturbed where he left it, all its packs where they should be. Somehow it looks even heavier, after the break he'd taken from pushing it.
"I don't suppose you'd be interested in pitching in?" Desmond asks, looking down at Ezio. "How about it – I bet you'd make an excellent sledge dog."
Ezio snorts at him, and heads on, taking point again, tail wagging as he half disappears into the undergrowth.
"Oh well," Desmond sighs and puts his hands on the handlebars, to push the thing off the bushes. "Onward, noble steed."
He's lucky – after another five hundred meters of wild forest and broken asphalt almost completely covered in bushes and young trees, they finally come to an actual road, open and almost entirely whole – twenty year old potholes aside. While Ezio trots ahead, Desmond peers around just in case he can spot any of the lookouts the blond mentioned, but… there's not much to see. Just trees and more trees on each side, with a hint of a brook down beside the road. No sign of riders or patrols.
It's risky, but… well, they didn't seem like cannibals, and Desmond's really getting sick of pushing his bike through the forest.
"Okay, here goes nothing," Desmond says, mounting his bike with a relieved sigh, and with Ezio running beside him, they begin making a slightly faster pace down the road.
It's not smooth sailing, exactly. The river has broken through the road in several places, there are signs of intentional demolition here and there – and there are makeshift roadblocks every so often. They're mostly just old cars, dragged onto the road to hinder anyone's passage, and he can easily get around them on his bike, but it's still a bit annoying and slows him down enough that soon, the sky above begins growing dark. These people clearly don't want visitors.
No sign of the horses, though – either they headed back at speed, or their lookout spot was probably somewhere along the way and he didn't see it. Which is slightly worrisome, but oh well.
"Nice, not nice, nice, not nice," Desmond's murmurs while standing up on the pedals to see ahead. "Which one is it? A-ha, I spy with my little eye a house."
Some kind of lodge, or maybe a former business with a lodge-like aesthetic. Diner pitstop place. Hmm. "I would kill some zombies for some waffles, huh, Ezio? With some jam and ice-cream and…"
The lodge turns out to indeed be a former diner - and as such is not the most secure building ever, with big windows and glass doors. Still, it's a roof over their heads and a place to hide in, and the parking lot is concrete, so they're not leaving tracks on their way there. Desmond could look for something better, but… gift horses and mouths. With his luck he'd just end up looking all night and in the end this one turned out to be the best place anyway.
"Ezio, perimeter," Desmond orders, and the dog puts his nose to work once more, sniffing around the entrance and then around the whole building before coming back to him, tail wagging. "All good? Excellent."
It's the usual scene, inside. Broken windows, looted shelves, general mess. Desmond does a quick looting round, checks the exits, making sure he has at least two quick ways out, before pushing his bike inside and starting to settle down for the night, behind the shop counter, setting up his mirrors in corners and bringing out his little hobo stove. While it's heating up, Ezio gets his dinner of leftovers from the last spot of hunting they'd done, and Desmond gets out his maps and compass, checking where they are.
"Made better time than I thought," Desmond comments, following an old road in the map and checking the coordinates. "I think we're - here. Which means the window will be in roughly, uh… six hours and forty five minutes. Whether we can get a signal in this ravine is another thing. Might have to hike up a mountain. What do you think, Ezio, you up for, ugh, 4 a.m. mountain hike?"
Gnawing on some rabbit bones, Ezio doesn't seem to care all that much, barely flicking an ear to his direction. Desmond gives him a look and hums. "Yeah, we'll leave the bike here, do a spot of hunting and gathering, see if we can track down those lookouts, find out if these people are murderous assholes, see whether or not we should kill them all in their sleep. Yeah. It'll be great."