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 boxcar she could see Shelby dutifully riding the motorcycle. The goggles and a black scarf covered his face, but it was easy to make out his grumpy expression.
It had been two long days since she had pulled him out of that oil barrel. The shabby idiot had been pale and disoriented, and she had thrown quite the fit over him wanting to take the wheel. Hell, they had spent most of yesterday just getting the damn thing running—The one they had brought along as a recon vehicle. Now it had taken on a more important role as their ticket home. Unfortunately, it was no more than a rusty, dented pile of motorized garbage. Shelby could barely stand, let alone get it working. She cursed herself for how much time they had wasted getting this far. Stubborn old grump, she thought. She could have gotten them here earlier.
The rest of the men were all gone. The only trace they had left was blood. Dragged away into the darkness by greedy hands and ferocious appetites. She shuddered. Just the mere thought of the creatures sent shivers down her spine. Beasts that feel no emotions. They had struck like a plague, like a tumbling rock. Without anger, nor mercy. All the friendly faces she had worked with, and now they were all gone.
“We have arrived, my lady.” 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.” He said surly.
He was right. She looked up and felt the warm water kiss her lips. The raindrops tapped on the metal tank on the motorcycle, darkening the landscape.
“You think the boys are okay?” She asked.
“Nope.” He replied. “Let’s just find Jonny and get to the Baron, and I’m sure we can figure it out.”
The point in which the wasteland ended, and the 5th outskirt 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 knew better than to settle down further out.
The rain now poured from the dark skies above. A cacophony of drums against the windshield. Strawberries yanked her hoodie further down over her face and pretended she would live inside it forever. It rarely rained out here. Whenever it did it was an occasion to celebrate.
Now, however, it seemed dead quiet.
She looked up at Shelby; His face hardened as he removed his goggles and pulled down his scarf. At the slow speed they were rolling 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 slightly 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 9mm.
“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.”
“This girl helped me into town. I don’t know who she is.” Shelby lied.
“Oh, shut yah trap!” 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.
Did The Baron now see them as turncoats? Traitors to the Pact?
They both slowly placed their hands on their heads and began following the leather-hat man towards the House of the Pact. 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 gone through, this was their welcome home gift?
As they rounded the corner her blood turned to ice.
There hung a limp body, strung up by its neck. The rainwater streamed from its shoes. It gently swayed in the breeze. Its face was dark purple, and it had a beard.
“Oh, no…” She froze in her tracks.
It was Jonny. Jonny, her magnificent friend. The always dependable and trustworthy Jonny. He had taught her to play cards, to arm wrestle. She had repaid him by leaving him to die alone. 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 absurd!”
The horrible parody of what was once a great man just hung there.
“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!” She replied.
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. “We’ll be fine, B.“
This infuriated the man to which he kicked Shelby in the back.
Her scruffy, middle-aged companion fell over into the mud. Her eyes widened. She dropped down on 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 above them.
The House of the Pact seemed more menacing than when they had left. It had 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 an invincible 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: black boots, black army pants, black shirt, and a bulletproof vest on top of it. His name was 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 men would use their own reputation to have their way. ‘On the house’, they would say. ‘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.
Barrett nodded to the leather-hat man and relieved him of his duties. He had a vicious grin on his face and told them he would be taking care of them tonight.
“The Top-hat man has plans for you guys.”
Shelby gave him no reply, 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, hello, my friends. Long time, no see, yes?” The low bass voice rumbled throughout the dark room. “Come in, sit down.”
Shelby entered, then quickly blocked Strawberries’ line of sight.
“Get her out of here.” He said to Barrett. “She’s just an errand boy.”
He laughed in response. “You must have me confused with one of your crew members.” 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 hung him up, for all de town 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 couldn’t 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, diss again.” The Baron said. “Death frightens you people.”
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 his coarse and wrinkled fingers against her skin. He smelled of tobacco and dirt, and of old, old 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.”
As 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, fucking train?”
Shelby told him the most of it. That the creatures had murdered everyone, that the Banner was searching for something, that the outskirts could be next. To all of it The Baron just scoffed.
“Hell be no army. It be a fire, burning recklessly. We of de Gedes. De Loa, de beak and de pan. De blood and de rum. We be more clever. More able than de Banner.” He drew the smoke from his cigar into his lung, his chest slowly expanding until it stopped, then he continued his speech.
“Dem don’t make... Plans. Dem 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.
“You know I be a deity of death?” 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 de Infernal kingdom, Mr. Morrison. But, Kriminel was made for ashes. I be but a shadow of de Vulture, but where him cast it, notting follows.”
The cigar turned to black and crumbled into the air.
“Your little magic trick be not de same as mine. But, perhaps good enough for dem dangers of the desert? Yes?”
“Well, I’m honored.” Gavin replied sharply.
Shelby knew what he really was, and what he knew, she knew. Long ago, Gavin Morrison had died, and when he did found himself sentenced to eternal torment and punishment in Hell. However, unlike the Flatliners, he had found a way out. To escape the shackles of servitude. To evade the wrath of the King. He had wandered across the wasteland and eventually settled in the 5th, hoping to keep to himself. Shelby had discovered Gavin’s secret hidden poorly behind his glasses and hired the wandering soul on the spot. He told her the gang could use someone like Gavin; a someone who doesn’t need to eat, nor sleep. A someone who can’t be killed by simple Soft bullets. 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 as crazy as crazy comes.
The Baron peeked over at Barrett and the woman.
“Mr. Barrett and Miss Ritter will follow you to get my train back, yes?” He mimicked orchestrating a symphony. “You will take de repair train, get dere, and den you bring my love back.” He then casually waved them off, paying little attention as they left the room.
Outside, the night had 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 popped up on her face and a tear rolled down her cheek.
“You best not be yankin’ his chain, mate,” Gavin whispered. “Or we’re proper fucked.”
“Yeah, well, we’re all toast anyway,” Shelby replied. “The Baron will have his friends shoot us the moment we’re back.” He made sure to say it loud enough for their escort to hear it.
Barrett spat on the ground from a close watch.
Strawberries reckoned Barrett knew the score as well as they did. That they now had entered into a game of chess, of hostages and bartering. Get the prize, and when they aren’t watching, you run.
“Alright, we’ll live a considerable amount longer bringin’ back the train, yeah? In any case, what in the bloody ‘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 said. “I’m not a bloody immortal, Shelby, I’m not Odin ’ere. I’m just a shite ghost. All it takes, is one of those devil wankers out there, let alone the sodding 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.” Shelby replied icily.
“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 and we’ll see you in the morning, we’ll work together, and we’ll bring that train home. I promise.”
He raised his eyebrow, and she glimpsed his white eyes glitter in the moonlight.
“Alright.” He replied. Then he straightened his collar, shot Shelby one last worried look, before he strolled down the road 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 had spent a fair amount of time on maintenance, and as a result would be one of the few homes that remained dry when it rained. Shelby had once called the neighborhood a real slum. She didn’t understand what that 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 could see was the sad face of an insecure man, and she was no stranger to those.
“This turned out to be a real disaster. 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, knowing somewhere out there Barrett was watching them.
“My knight in shining 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 sorry ass back on the train.
“Keep out of trouble. Get some rest. I’ll wake you at dawn. You’ll see, B, we’ll survive this too.”
She knew that last part was a lie, but nodded anyway.
He briefly went with her inside to light one of 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 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, as no one could get a hold of that.
In the middle of the room stood a table. Shelby had made it 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 upon 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 mind? 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 sleeping Barrett before he closed it.
Shelby’s room was nothing like Strawberries. The layout was the same, but the home was more fitting of a man, or a feral dog.
He drew a small flame. She could see 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.