Wings in the sand.
An unmovable sword.
He has been walking for days
across the barren wasteland.
He imagines himself a pawn.
A pawn placed in the path of a mighty queen.
Strawberries woke up. The wind blew harshly against her face. She carefully opened her eyes. The endless desert still moving fast beneath them.
From the sidecar she watched as Shelby dutifully rode the recon bike. The goggles and a black scarf covered his face, but it was easy to make out his grumpy expression.
It had been two days since she had pulled him out of the oil barrel. The shabby idiot was pale and disoriented, and she had thrown quite the fit over him demanding to take the wheel. They had spent most of yesterday just getting the damn thing running. It was only meant for short trips. Now it took on the more important role as their only ticket home.
It was a rusty, motorized pile of garbage. Shelby could barely stand, let alone fix a motorcycle. She cursed herself for how much time they had wasted. Stubborn old fool, she thought. She would have gotten them here earlier.
The rest of the men were gone. The only trace they had left was blood. Dragged away into the darkness by greedy hands and ferocious appetites. She shuddered. Just the thought of the creatures sent shivers down her spine. Beasts that feel no emotions. They had struck like a tumbling rock. Without anger, nor mercy. All the friendly faces she had worked with, and now they were all dead.
“We’re almost back.” Shelby pointed across the desert.
There, a small raggedy town lay in the distance: their home.
“And it’s starting to rain, just our luck.”
She felt the warm water kiss her lips. The raindrops tapped on the metal tank on the motorcycle, darkening the landscape.
“You think them boys are okay?” She asked.
“Sure.” He replied. “Let’s just find Jonny and get to the Baron, and I’m sure we can figure this out.”
The point at which the wasteland ended, and the outskirts began was not much of a border. It was more of a slow fade into civilization; A waterhole here, a shed there, wild dogs trying to survive. People were smart enough to live closer together.
The rain now poured from the dark skies above. A cacophony of drum-hits against the windshield. Strawberries yanked her hoodie further down her face and pretended she would live inside it forever. It rarely rained out here. When it did, it was an occasion to celebrate.
Now, however, it felt more like a funeral.
She looked at Shelby; His face hardened as he removed his goggles and pulled down his scarf. At the slow speed they rolled into town at, it would be a miracle if they remained unnoticed.
As if on cue, a man in a coat and a large leather hat walked out in front of them. He was carrying a shotgun, aiming it to the side to show them he was serious. Shelby turned off the ignition. Then, away from keen eyes, switched off the safety on his gun.
“The representative of the House of the Pact wants to see yah two.” Declared the rough face under the leather hat. “Throw down yah guns, step off yah bike, and follow me.”
“The kid helped me into town.” Shelby lied. “I never seen her before.”
“Oh, shut yah trap, Shelby!” He replied, “We know yah both! Now get to the going!”
Shelby discreetly flicked the safety back on before throwing his weapons on the ground.
They both slowly placed their hands on their heads and began following the leather-hat man towards the Baron’s house. Strawberries noticed the curtains on every window closing as they walked past.
First a shotgun in her face, and now they were herded like cattle? Enemies of the Baron? After everything they had been through, this was their welcome home gift?
They rounded the corner, and her blood turned to ice.
There, hanging at the end of a rope. The rainwater streamed from its shoes. It gently swayed in the breeze. Its face was dark purple, and it bore a beard.
“Oh, no…” She froze in her tracks.
It was Jonny. Jonny, her magnificent friend Jonny. He, who had taught her to play cards, to arm wrestle. Who had laid with her under the starry sky and taught her the constellations.
And now, how had she repaid him? She spun around, facing Shelby. His stoic face offered no comfort under the figure that used to be their friend. Her eyes teared up. How could he be this cold-hearted?
“They’ve killed Jonny, Shelby! This is crazy!”
The horrible parody of what was once a great man just hung there in silence.
“He never crossed no one!” She turned around again, only to see the man in his leather hat pointing his shotgun at her.
“Best keep moving, yah hear?”
“Just shoot me now! You gonn’ hang people who ain’t done nothing wrong!”
A sigh beneath the leather-hat as he prepared for the recoil of his weapon.
“Hey.” Shelby calmly raised his hands and stepped in between them, his eyes fixed on Strawberries. “I got this, girl.”
This infuriated the man to which he kicked him in the back.
The scruffy, middle-aged Shelby fell over into the mud. Her eyes widened. She dropped to her knees and wrapped her arms around him.
“Are you okay?”
He let out a quiet whine, forced a smile, and whispered in her ears.
“They might have Gavin and Oliver. We have to go with them. I’ll fix this.”
“Ok, that’s enough!” The man shouted.
She braced Shelby’s arm over her shoulder and they both rose to their feet. Their lost friend still swaying in the wind.
The House of the Pact seemed more menacing than ever. It wore an aura that made it stand out from the rest of town. As if the sun only shone on it, or perhaps the other way around. As if shrouded in perpetual darkness. As if housing a terrible secret.
The leather-hat man met up with another mercenary; He looked stern and was dressed in all black. His name was Alan Barrett: The Baron’s personal muscle. Strawberries had seen him around a few times, always frightening the townsfolk. She detested the way the Baron’s goons would use their own reputation to have their way. ‘On the house’, people would reply. ‘The Baron’s own don’t have to pay’, they would laugh in fear. A bunch of rotten hoodlums his men were, no better than any other gang of outlaws.
Alan Barrett nodded to the leather-hat man and relieved him of his duties. He smiled viciously and said he would be taking care of them tonight.
“The Top-hat man has plans for you guys.”
Shelby gave no response. Not to explain that an infernal general might be planning an attack on the Ghedes, not even to tell him where the train was. He just nodded politely.
After a slow walk up the stairs, they finally stood at the Baron’s office. Her stomach tightened, her head felt dizzy.
“After you,” Barrett said.
Shelby opened the door.
The smell of dirt and cigar smoke hung heavy in the air. A sickening hint of iron behind it.
“Ah, welcome, friends. Long time, no see, yes?” The bass voice rumbled throughout the dark room. “Come in, sit.”
Shelby entered, then quickly blocked Strawberries’ line of sight.
“Get her out of here.” He said to Barrett. “She’s just an errand boy.”
Barrett laughed in response. “You must have me confused with one of your little helpers.” Then he pointed to the corner of the room, and that’s when she saw him too.
Oliver Cavanaugh lay on the floor in a pool of his own dried blood. A hole in his forehead. His cold lifeless eyes staring at her in judgement.
“Why murder the poor kid?” Shelby asked, his voice breaking.
Behind the desk, the warlord himself sat. The governor of the south corridor. A skull painted upon his face.
“Did you see your other friend as well?” He smiled. “I made sure Alan hang him up, for all to see.”
Jonny was dead, and all the men on the train were dead, and the monsters had eaten them. And now another monster stood before them. And.. And... She collapsed into the chair, closed her eyes, and tried not to throw up. The Baron said something, but she did not hear it.
She thought of wonderful Oliver. His sweet laughter. The way he would always ask questions when they lay in bed. His gentle touch on her lips, his handsome face. She pictured the hole forming, sucking the life out of his eyes, the back of his head collapsing. Then she threw up.
“Oh, tis again.” The Baron said. “Deat frightens you so.”
Barrett and some woman picked up the thing-that-used-to-be-Oliver and dragged him out of the room.
Strawberries was going into shock now.
“See what I mean?”
The Baron placed his hands on her head. She felt the coarse and wrinkled fingers against her skin. He smelled of tobacco and dirt, and of old, ancient history. She stared into his eyes; Two small black pinhole pupils pierced deep into her soul. Suddenly the fog in her mind cleared. They were in his office; he had killed two of the gang to make a point, then left the last one alive. She quickly turned towards Gavin who sat tied to a chair in the corner.
“Are you okay?” She asked.
Shelby had already taken a seat next to him. The Baron answered on his behalf.
“Oh, Mr. Morrison has proven to be a hard man to kill, Miss Strawberries.”
Barrett and the woman re-entered the room. He strutted back to his desk where he sat upon it with his legs crossed.
“Now, where, be, my, bloodclaat train?”
Shelby told him the most of it. That the creatures had murdered everyone, that the Banner was searching for something, or someone, that the outskirts might be next. To all of it, The Baron simply scoffed.
“Hell be no army. It be a fire, burning recklessly. We of te Gedes. Te Loa, te beak and te pan. Te blood and te rum. We be more clever. More able than te Banner.” He drew the smoke from his cigar into his lung, his chest slowly expanding until it stopped, then he continued his speech.
“Tem don’t make... Plans. Tem don’t make much of anyting.” The smoke bellowed from his lips.
“Then why don’t we go get the train then, mate?” Gavin finally spoke, much to the amusement of the Baron.
“I be a deity of deat.” The glow of his cigar lit up his eyes, the rest darkened beneath his hat. The reflection of the ember gleaming in his pupils. “You might be out of te Infernal kingdom, Mr. Morrison. But, Kriminel was made for ashes. I be but a shadow of te Vulture, but where him cast it, notting follows.”
The cigar turned to black and crumbled into the air.
“Your little magic trick be not te same as mine. But, perhaps enough for tem dangers of te desert? Yes?”
“Well, I’m honored.” Gavin replied sharply.
Shelby knew what Gavin really was, and what Shelby knew, she knew. Long ago, Gavin Morrison was a flatliner. However, unlike most flatliners, he had found a way out. To escape the shackles of servitude. To evade the wrath of the King. He had crossed the wasteland and eventually settled in the 5th, hoping to keep to himself. Shelby had discovered his poorly hidden secret behind his glasses, then hired the wandering soul on the spot. He told her Gavin was of use. A someone who doesn’t need to eat, nor sleep. A someone who can’t be killed by simple soft caps. She reckoned the real reason was because he came from the world before. Shelby liked the old times. He liked Gavin.
Strawberries, on the other hand, found him to be irresponsible.
The Baron peeked over at Barrett and the woman.
“You, and Alan and Miss Ritter will get my train back, yes?” He mimicked orchestrating a symphony. “You take te repair train, get tere, and ten you bring my love back.” He then casually waved them off, paying little attention as they left the room.
Outside, the night crept in over the quiet town. The rain had stopped—if only for a short intermission—and the stars were out in all their splendor. A much needed fresh breeze touched her face. Perhaps it was just the immense joy of still being alive, but a smile formed on her face and a tear rolled down her cheek.
“You best not be yankin’ his chain, mate,” Gavin whispered. “Or we’re all proper fucked.”
“Yeah, well, we’re toast anyway,” Shelby replied. “The Baron will have his buddies shoot us the moment we return.” He said, loud enough for anyone to hear.
Barrett spat on the ground in response, keeping a close watch.
Strawberries reckoned both sides kept score. They now entered into a game of chess. Of hostages and bartering. Get the prize, and when they aren’t watching, you run.
“Alright,” Gavin said. “we’ll live a considerable amount longer bringin’ back his train, yeah? In any case, what the fuckin’ ‘ell ‘appened out there?”
“What the fuck happened upstairs?” Shelby replied. “You’re a goddamn immortal, and you didn’t lift a finger.”
“An immortal?” Gavin replied. “I’m not a bloody immortal, Shelby, I’m not Odin ’ere. I’m a walking Ouija board. All it takes, is one of those devil wankers out there, let alone the soddin’ Voodoo god o’ fuck-me, and it’s bugger off Gavin.”
“Tell that to Jonny, and Oliver. I’m sure they were happy to take your place.”
“Alright, well if you ‘adn’t lost the train, mate. And YOUR men. None of this would ‘ave ‘appened.”
“Stop it!” Strawberries yelled. “We’re not the enemy!” She grabbed ahold of Gavin’s hand. It was cold and pale.
“Honey, get a good night sleep. We’ll see you in the morning, and we’ll bring that train home, together.”
He raised his eyebrow, and she caught a glimpse of his frosted white eyes in the moonlight.
“Alright.” He replied. Then he straightened his collar, shot Shelby one last worried look, before he strolled into the night.
Barrett watched on, chewing on a dry piece of meat.
Whereas Gavin stayed in the motel and bar district, Strawberries and Shelby lived further east in the suburban area. They had in fact moved right next to each other. The homes there were small shacks built on ruins. They lay side by side, constructed with scrap metal, bricks, and a rudimentary sense of architecture.
The two of them spent a fair amount of time on maintenance, and as a result was one of the homes that remained dry when it rained. Shelby had once called the neighborhood a real slum. She didn’t understand what the word meant, but it sounded bad. She quite enjoyed the area. They had moved so much that when they finally settled here, she was happy just to have a place to rest.
“Look, I’m sorry.” Shelby broke the silence.
They both stopped in front of her door. His stone mask had vanished. All she saw was the sad face of an insecure man, and she was no stranger to those.
“This turned out to be a real disaster,” He said. “I’m supposed to take care of you. Not get you hurt.”
Before he could sigh she threw herself in his arms.
“Look, Shelb.” She spoke softly into his ear, “I’m glad you came and found me.” She forced a smile, sensing somewhere out there Barrett was watching them.
“My knight in shinin’ armor.”
He responded by kissing her forehead. “You wouldn’t know a knight if you ever saw one. Let alone one clean enough to be shiny.”
She smiled. He was right, but she still saved his knightly ass back on the train.
“Keep out of trouble.” He said. “Get some rest. I’ll wake you at dawn. You’ll see, girl, we’ll survive this too.”
She knew that last part was a lie, but nodded anyway.
He briefly went with her inside to light her candles. Then he left, leaving her alone to ponder on the events of the last couple of days.
Her little home was just a single room; an elevated area with a few jugs of water and a bed next to them. On the lower side, separated by drapes and thin metal: a makeshift toilet. In the other corner: the kitchen. It was essentially just a small fireplace with some pots and rocks lying about.
She liked fireplaces. Camping outside under the open skies, watching the stars, the smell of burning wood. Strawberries had tried to make this house her own. She had decorated it with plenty of candlelight, red cloth, and pictures that she had painted.
Her bed was from the old-world, with steel frames and a big board. Shelby had insisted that she slept in a ‘normal’ bed. This too she had dressed up with long red lines of silk—Not real silk, of course. No one could get a hold of that.
In the middle of the room stood a table. It was made out of a couple bricks. Next to it, a raggedy beanbag. Whenever she ate or read books she would lean back in it and place her legs on the table. Oliver had once caught her reciting a poem and told her he liked the way she tensed her eyebrows.
She buried her head in the pillow on the bed and cried.
Strawberries did not speculate on a master plan that could get them out of this situation, nor did she really believe that they would. Instead, she cried for all the things Oliver would never say, all the things Oliver would never hear her say, and all the things Oliver would never be.
Then she cried for Jonny. Mostly out of guilt that her heart could only bear to mourn one death at a time.
Suddenly, there came a tapping. The tin door rattled. She dried her tears, trying, but ultimately failing to hide her swollen, red eyes. With black make-up running down her checks, she opened it
There, Shelby stood, looking faint as a flatliner.
“You look like crap,” they both echoed in unison.
“I need you to.... Umh” Shelby glanced over his shoulder, noticing Barrett; half-asleep on the porch across the road. “Just come with me.”
Were they making a run for it? What would happen to Gavin? Had the Baron changed his plans? Her mind was racing. As they reached Shelby’s door his face seemed to turn an even paler shade of white. He promptly turned to her and mumbled something.
“Look.. look, you can’t freak out over this, right?”
She nodded quickly.
“I mean, don’t scream.”
His hand was on the door. She never screamed. Now she was worried.
He opened it, pushed her inside, and took one last look at the dozing Barrett before he closed it.
Shelby’s room was nothing like Strawberries. The layout was the same, but this home was more fitting of a man, or a feral dog.
He drew a small flame. She spotted something moving in the corner of the room. A naked body, covered in blood. It turned towards her and spoke with all the empty grandeur in the world.
“I am Cassiel of Araboth, High messenger of the Heavenly Host, defender of the Empyrean.”
Strawberries mind was barren. She could only muster up a pitiful response.