A streak of lightning rippled through the sky. Thunder roared and the muddy terrain trembled. For a second, a lighthouse flashed in silhouette to the electric storm behind. Then it disappeared. Back into the gloomy darkness.
It often poured down here on the coast. Rain that should grace the wasteland instead descended upon the shore, separating the treacherous sea from the dust-bowl. The torrent was powerful, yet no match against the deafening sound of the waves crashing onto the bedrock.
The lighthouse itself was not much of a spectacle. It stood as it had done for the last 100 years; The white mortar and red roof tiles contrasting the somber world in which it inhabited. And although it had faded somewhat, it showed no signs of damage. It was as if the Apocalypse had somehow left it to its own devise.
The tower was part of a larger complex—one far greater than at first glance. It sat next to two matching cottages; both painted red. Of these three buildings, only one showed signs of life. A small candle light flickered humbly in the window: A warm welcome to whoever dared brave the storm.
Inside, shelves upon shelves with worn-out books filled the wall-space, with well-kept furniture crowning the center. Like most cabins, a small fireplace was built in the corner, with a healthy fire enkindled. Above it hung a cauldron containing a sizzling stew of rabbit-meat and cooked potatoes.
The old man finished his meal, contemplating on why he always made too much. Perhaps when he was young he craved more to sustain a vigorous body. Perhaps now his mind played tricks, convincing him to be full whenever there was a certain amount of food left. He chuckled to himself and decided to let the pot simmer ’til morning. Then he would have it for breakfast, thus resolving this little conundrum.
Like most men in their later years, he had gone bald. To compensate, he took great pride in a long gray beard that rested on top of his round belly. After all, he thought. Life is for the living.
On the table next to him sat an ordinary chessboard. He opened the box and carefully inspected each of the pieces before placing them on their designated square. He noticed one of the knights was missing part of the head. He gently ran his thumb down the sharp edge of the broken marble, careful not to cut himself.
All things break, he thought and adjusted his glasses. They were of the larger kind, but still failed in hiding a distinct scar that ran down the left side of his face. As if a terrible monster had once lashed out at him.
Then, there in the refuge of his cabin, he heard a gentle tap.
Not hard, nor urgent. Just barely audible enough to catch the old man’s attention. He placed the last piece on the board, slapped his hands together, and strolled over to the door.
His hands trembled as he reached for the handle. To feel the comfort of coming home, to feel the joy of meeting an old friend again.
She entered, soaking wet from head to toe. Her long black hair flat against her face, the water dripping from her nose. He gently nodded and removed her coat. She in return smiled at him. Her slender body barely veiled behind a white summer dress, held up only by the thin straps gracefully resting on her defined collarbones. Her face radiated warmth, and describing it would only fall short, as words often do. She was love: A mother’s love, a lover’s love. The wrinkles around her eyes put her at about 50 years of age. The old man knew she was not.
“Back for another game?” He squinted and smiled. His crooked teeth made their brief appearance.
“I hope the storm didn’t bother you on your way here.” He asked.
She seemed careless of the fact that she was still wet. Her soft presence reminded him that he had not seen a woman in quite some time.
“I finished setting up the board a moment ago.” He continued.
They sat down by the fireplace, and the game started slow and uneventful. Pawns were sacrificed for the greater good. One side moved in to take the advantage, the other to defend it.
“This can only end badly.” The old man sent his black bishop to the far right of the board, cutting off her white queen. “Heaven won’t let this pass.”
“And you would welcome that, Ben Adamm.”
She placed a pawn in front of the bishop.
He quickly struck and removed her pawn.
“I would not.” He replied. “This serves no purpose. They will only suffer, and then they will die. The only question is how many, if not all of them?”
She gracefully moved her white knight hidden from his narrow view into play. It overtook the square and picked off his bishop with ease.
“They will suffer, they will die, and then we will leave them alone for it.” She held the chess piece in her hand. Her thin fingers rubbing lightly against the broken marble.
“He will not be happy with this.” He dashed his black queen diagonally across the board, settling into a threatening position opposite her king. "He might even choose to fight you. Check.”
“He won’t.” She replied. “One side of the coin cannot destroy the other.”
In a sacrificial move, she blocked her king with her queen.
“No, but He can destroy the coin.”
As the old man made his move, setting off the chain of events that would eliminate both queens, the answer struck him. He gasped in shock. She, in return, smiled softly.
“All shall be revealed. Soon, your punishment will have been served.”
“Now we are both without our queens...”
“It matters not, Ben-Adamm. At the end of the game, both the king and the pawn go back into the same box.”
“They’ll hang us as well.” Shelby paced nervously back and forth in his humble abode. “Unless the monsters eat us first.”
The angel lay exhausted on the floor. Strawberries had wrapped it in a blanket and gone into the kitchen to make soup.
He couldn’t help staring at it: the golden hair, the glacier blue eyes. Its gentle facial features that made it hard to determine if it was male or female. Shelby knew better: it was neither. It was a cold-hearted killing machine, bent on merciless destruction. He had seen them on that day. Sword by their side, the fire in their eyes.
"Where’s your sword?" It took a second to realise he had said it out loud.
"In the desert, where I landed." It answered, weak and compliant. "I cannot carry it anymore. It was made by my brother. Only to be raised by the angels of the Host. Alas, I am no longer of the Host." It let out a quiet sigh as it struggled to sit up.
"You’re still majestic." Strawberries replied with awe in her voice. She poured some soup into a tin cup and kindly handed it to the angel. "What happened?"
“A long fall from grace, my child." It replied. "I must see Oliver Cavanaugh. Can you show me to him?”
“He’s... He’s dead...”
“I do not understand... I was sent to find him...”
Before Strawberries could finish her sentence Shelby kicked the soup out of the angel’s hands, splattering it against the wall with a metal clank.
“You son of a bitch!” He grabbed the angel by the throat and pulled out his revolver. “You’re the reason they attacked the train.” He pressed the muzzle hard against its chin. “You did this to us. First you burned this planet to a crisp, and now you’re back to finish the job.”
The angel never wavered. An expression of curiosity on his face.
Shelby cocked the hammer. “This one’s for Jonny.”
“I am Cassiel of Araboth,” it repeated. “High messenger of the Heavenly Host, defender of the Empyrean. Holder of secrets. I bring news of the Unveiling, the final seal. If it is true as you say, that Oliver Cavanaugh has passed away, then time is nigh. I must be brought before the old man. The souls of your’ love and her child hang in the balance of the decision you are to make.”
Shelby bared his teeth. “Oh, he’s an angel, all right.”
“Why Oliver?” Strawberries asked. “What he got to do with this?”
“The Primum Mobile forbids me to reveal the message.” Cassiel replied. “But it concerns an end to the war.”
“I knew it.” Shelby replied. “He’s come to slaughter us all.”
Strawberries rolled her eyes.
“The old man?” She said. “Are you talking about our old man? On the coast? We left only a couple days ago.”
Shelby nodded. “Weird old bastard. He should charge more.”
“I must see him.” Cassiel said. “I must deliver the message that was meant for Oliver Cavanaugh.”
“We heard you the first time.” Shelby replied. “This message. It’s from God, isn’t it? The big psycho in the sky. The one that stole all the children. The one that created life, just to snuff it out.”
“He did not make life, Mark Edward Shelby. He IS life. If you feel that He is unjust and cruel, why do you still cling to Him?”
“We ain’t got time for this.” Strawberries interrupted. “Shelb, she might be our way out.”
“What?” Shelby asked. “The angel? It’ll be the death of us.”
“No, she won’t.” Strawberries replied. “She need to get to the coast, and we gotta escape the Baron. It’s the perfect match.”
“To light us on fire.” Shelby muttered.
“I will help you escape to the west.” Cassiel declared. “Before the reckoning.”
“Look around, angel boy.” Shelby replied. “It already happened.”
Black crooked legs crawled across the surface. The creature calculating every step, scanning its surrounding for potential threats. If its 8 eyes had the ability to see further, it would have spotted the much larger Katherine Ritter studying it as it moved along her arm. The sun had been out for an hour, and she patiently waited for the crew to show up.
Last night she wasted babysitting the Englishman, to ensure he didn’t make a run for it. At first light she had knocked on his door and dragged him down to the train station. There, they had gone straight to work on the railroad crane, and now she was trying not to blow his head off. The flatliner would randomly attempt to either flirt, or make her angry. There was no in-between. She wondered if this was a deliberate smokescreen, or if he truly was as brain-dead as she feared.
Working for Baron Kriminel was a damn chore. One she had done for too many years; ever since Papa Ghede had sent her down to protect his son. Had they learned nothing from FarHaven? How fragile these towns were? By disabling the supply train, everyone would starve. The deal with the Tunnelers would fall through, rendering the public hopelessly dependent on them. The towns had hitched their eggs in one basket, and someone must have taken advantage of it. A calculated decision. A strategic move. It’s what she would have done. She would have a crew at the train wreck, ready to pick off anyone foolish enough to come back. Then she would slowly starve the 4 outskirts into submission. Hell, it wouldn’t take long. Why wasn’t the Baron joining them? He was treating this as a local problem. It wasn’t. They should have warned Le Choix days ago.
She turned her head.
“I can ‘ear ‘em gears turnin’ in your noggin’” Gavin smiled. “‘ow ‘ard you must be thinkin’.”
“Your job is to work on the crane.” She replied and flicked the harmless spider off her arm. “not on me.”
The morning was hot and dry. The rain from last night had all but evaporated. Only an hour into the day and she was already cursing the gods. The wind whistled across the road they were sitting on, but brought with it only more heat, and more dust. She checked her equipment once more to make sure everything was in working order.
“There they come.” Gavin pointed into the distance, but Katherine had already spotted them.
Four subjects walking down the road;
Alan Barrett; his robust figure was easy to spot.
Mark Shelby; he was a decent worker in town, kept his mouth shut and did the job. At least, until the screw up.
Strawberries; another recognizable target with her scarlet bright hair.
But there was someone else.
A person marching in front that she did not recognize. A chill hit her bones. Here, in the blistering heat.
“I see you kept the Englishman busy.” Barrett shouted. “You get to look after a useless monkey. Meanwhile, I was stuck with a small crowd.”
“Who’s the stranger?” She asked. Her eyes hidden behind her shades.
“Ah, some creepy kid.” Barrett spat on the ground. “Shelby says he has a way with gears. Figured he would be of some help.”
She examined the boy; he was dressed in an oversized coat, with a hood resting on the back of his head. Clean, shiny hands and muddy boots. He resembled a girl, and there was something awfully familiar about him. Something off-putting. She shook her head.
“Hell no, he’s not getting on the crane. We have enough prisoners.”
Strawberries was about to speak when Shelby shot her a dirty look. This only strengthened Katherine’s suspicions.
“Deal with it.” Barrett replied callously. “The boy looks like a pansy, but we could use more hands.”
He turned to the others. “Okay, maggots. Let’s get this freak show on the road.”
She hated this. People think being a good soldier is the ability to fight, or shoot your way out of a situation. But it’s not. It’s never finding yourself in the situation to begin with. Never entering without an exit. Never starting something without back-up. She was stuck with an ally she feared, a prisoner she respected, an idiot flatliner, and now a wild card. Strawberries was the only one she didn’t worry about. That naive teenager was nothing but a tag-along.
Katherine watched the crew climb onboard the maintenance train that would pull the railroad crane. It was small, but well capable of reaching their destination. She checked the hydraulics. Hopefully, there would be no issues along the way. This time there would be no safety net to fall back on. It was on them to reopen the supply line.
In the corner of her eye she saw the boy in the hood taking an interest in her.
“I have long found the art of metal mechanics compelling,” he said. “Your kind is fascinating.”
“Ow, hey!” Shelby jumped in. “Don’t mind Cas here. His mama dropped him when he was a baby.”
As he pulled Cas away, she heard him angrily mumbling to him.
“All aboard!” Barrett shifted the gear into action, and the vehicle began rolling.
She grabbed the ladder and jumped on board.
The trip would take many hours and meant spending the night in the desert. Barrett, as always, sat relaxed with his feet on the windowsill. He casually sharpened his knife on a whetstone. His back against the prisoners. This annoyed Katherine more than anything. Barret didn’t have a care in the world. As if everything was under control. It couldn’t be further from the truth.
She didn’t dare to say it out loud; but the man scared her. Ever since he had bludgeoned a thief to death, smiling through his torture. She had taken a life before; in fact, several. All for Kriminel and his family. Some unarmed, and their faces would keep her up at night. She found no joy in her job. When someone had to go, she would make sure it was quick and painless. But Barrett, he enjoyed the killing. The cruelty of it. And when she finally exhausts her usefulness, he would be the person to snuff her out.
How had he managed to start a family? The cold-hearted psychopath fathered 2 young girls with a beautiful wife he seemed to love. Sure, Katherine involved herself in the occasional fling. But always with her walls raised high.
“You got enough firepower to ward off the monsters should they come?” Strawberries asked.
The girl had found a place in the corner. The maintenance train was not built to transport more than a few men. Only two small chairs that were for the drivers and a makeshift bunk in the back. The railroad crane was roomier: There they had thrown down mattresses for anyone who wished to sleep under an open sky. In the overhead cabinets they had stored food, equipment, and ammunition.
“Let us worry about that.” Barrett replied and continued sharpening his knife. “You just pray that train is still there.”
Shelby grunted in protest and went out to the crane, Cas following him.
As Ritter closed the doors behind her, the open air filled her lungs. She leaned against the railings and studied the landscape. The wind in her hair, and the sun high above. They were making good time. They would arrive before nightfall.
She turned to see Cas lost in his thoughts, meandering around the crane, studying the buttons, examining all the gauges. Shelby had noticed it too.
“Look weirdo,” He said. “just sit down somewhere,”
Cas, in response, crouched in the exact place he had been standing.
“Who is this guy?” She asked.
“I am Cassiel of Araboth, high def...”
Cas’ introduction was cut short as Shelby threw a monkey wrench at him.
“Are you out of your mind?” She shouted.
“He’s a tough cookie.”
Cas raised his eyebrows, but remained silent.
Was this another escapee from Hell’s banner? She shuddered.
“I don’t want any more psycho’s on this train.”
“Well then, you shouldn’t have brought your knifey husband.”
“He’s not my husband.” She bit her teeth.
“Don’t worry. Cas over here is not a flatliner.” Shelby looked at him. “I wish he was, though.”
By the time the maintenance train finally reached the destination, most of the day had gone by. Katherine had spent it with her hand on her rifle, guarding her captives.
“Ok, maggots! Let’s get to work!” Barrett’s voice rang out from the front as they began slowing down.
She leaned over the side and squinted. There, about 300 yards out, stood the mighty supply train, or what was left of it. The figure cast a long shadow, and she approximated they would have a few hours left of sunlight. Then they would have to hunker down. Something she very much did not want to. Thankfully, the area was flat and barren. Easily defendable from a fortified position. Which made her anxious of any attack coming from the train itself.
“You guys believe us now, huh?” Strawberries said.
“Fuckin’ ’ell” Gavin exclaimed. “Looks like someone chewed up the car and chundered ’ere.”
Katherine silently took in the scenery.
“Creatures for sure,” Barrett declared.
“They are searching this area.” Cas spoke. “We are better off leaving soon.”
Katherine leaped over the side and crouched behind a boulder. Rifle in hand. The maintenance train stopped right in front of the wreck. She scanned the horizon. Then the wreckage. The wheels were shattered; the exterior bent beyond recognition.
Iron chains hit the dirt next to her.
Shelby’s head poked over the railings.
“Are you planning on helping?” He asked. “Or just hiding behind a rock?”
“The train’s destroyed.” She replied.
“Just one car,” Strawberries noted. “We’ll grab what we can from it.”
Shelby began hauling the chains towards the wreck.
“We’ll use the crane to remove it from the line.” Strawberries continued. “Then smack the first car together with the third, and then we’re up and runnin’.”
Katherine smiled. The teenager had a point. The rest of the train was still on the tracks, and they could push it by using the maintenance train. Everything important was still there. By a stroke of luck, the car housing the men was the only one crushed. And men were easily replaceable.
It took them some time to clean out the material from the broken car and chain it to the crane. Katherine operated the levers as Cas guided her the best he could. The day was now gone. A dim orange ray stretched across the land, forming an ominous dusk that held threats of the night.
“Lift!" Cas shouted to her from down on the ground. “Towards the right!”
She pulled a lever back, and hydraulics hissed as the metal groaned.
“God damn it,” she muttered.
She longed for a cabin in the north. Somewhere the snow still fall. Where she’d play her harmonica by the frozen lake. Where folks weren’t lambs to be slaughtered.
“Look out!” Cas shouted.
She noticed the chains scraping against the side and immediately pushed both levers. The crane jolted in response and yanked the car up and clear of the gap.
She breathed a sigh of relief.
“You did good, Katherine Ritter.” Cas exclaimed.
She climbed down the ladder and cleaned her dirty hands with a rag.
“How do you know my name?” She asked. “Who are you?”
“I am Cassiel of Araboth, high messenger of...”
She cut him short.
They were alone.
“Hey, where is everyone?”
Cas looked confused. “I...”
She turned to see Shelby slowly walking towards her. His hands raised.
“Captain Shelby, what’s going on here.” She pulled out her gun, resting it on her hip.
Cas stepped to the side.
“Throw down your pistol.” Shelby replied.
“Fine, have it your way.”
“Sorry,” Strawberries whispered.
Katherine turned around, and that was the last thing she remembered before a rifle-butt met her forehead.