A streak of lightning rippled through the sky illuminating the muddled terrain beneath. Thunder roared, and the ground trembled. For a second a lighthouse flashed in silhouette to the electric storm behind. Then it disappeared, back into the gloomy darkness.
It often rained out here on the coast. As if all the water that could grace the wasteland had instead descended upon the coastline, separating the treacherous sea from the dust-bowl. The skies poured down, yet, was no match against the deafening sound of the waves rolling in and 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 resided. And although it had perhaps faded somewhat, it had none of the tell-tale signs of the Apocalypse. It was as if the End had somehow left it to its own devise.
The tower was part of a larger complex—one far greater than apparent at first glance—and sat next to two matching cottages. Both painted red. Of these three buildings, only one showed signs of life. A small candle light flickering 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 pristine kept furniture crowning the center. Like most cabins a small fireplace was built in the corner. 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, telling 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.
Most men in their later years go bald, and he was no exception. 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.
Near the fireplace, on the table, sat an ordinary chessboard. He had gotten the box out and carefully inspected each of the pieces before placing them on their designated square. A knight had part of its head missing. He gently ran his thumb down the sharp edges 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 shelter 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 chessboard, slapped his hands together, and strolled over to the door.
His hand 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 as he always did when smiling, and his crooked teeth made their brief appearance.
"I hope the rain didn’t bother you too much on your way here."
She smiled in response, seemingly 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.”
“Wonderful.” She replied, and they sat down by the fireplace.
The game started slow and uneventful. Pawns were sacrificed for the greater good. One side moved in to take the advantage, the other defended it.
"You know this can only end horribly?" 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 know it."
"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 can serve 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." 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 a blanket around it 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 fell." It answered, weak and compliant. "I cannot carry it anymore. It was made by brother Raphael. 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 magnificent." Strawberries replied with awe in her voice. She poured some soup into a tin cup and kindly handed it to the angel. "What happened to you?"
"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 running out. I must be brought before the old man. The souls of your’ woman 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 Oli?” Strawberries asked. “What does he have 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 said. "He’s come to slaughter us all."
Strawberries rolled her eyes.
“The old man?” She replied. “Is he talking about our old man? On the coast? We left there only a few 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 so He could 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 don’t have time for this.” Strawberries said. “Shelb, she might be our way out.”
“What? The angel?” Shelby asked. “It’ll be the death of us.”
“No, she won’t. She wants to get to the coast, and we want to 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 could 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 was patiently waiting for the crew to show up.
Last night been wasted babysitting the Englishman, to ensure that he didn’t make a run for it. At first light of day she had knocked on his door and dragged him down to the train station, where 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 pick her up, 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, and 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 end up starving. The deal with the Tunnelers would fall through, rendering the public hopelessly dependent on the them. The towns had hitched their eggs in one basket, and someone had 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, ready to pick off anyone foolish enough to come back, and 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 if it was 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 and her pockets to satisfy that she hadn’t forgotten anything.
“There they come.” Gavin pointed into the distance, but Katherine had already spotted them.
4 objects walking down the road;
Alan Barrett; his robust and unique figure was easy to spot.
Mark Shelby; he had been a decent worker in town, kept his mouth shut and did the job. At least, until he screwed it all 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 deserter. Meanwhile, I was stuck with a small crowd.”
“Who’s the stranger?” She hid behind her shades.
“Ah, just some creepy kid.” Barrett spat on the ground. “Shelby says he knows plenty about engineering. 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.” Barret replied, relishing in the chaos. “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, a damn flatliner, and now a wild card. Strawberries was the only one she wasn’t worrying about. The young hussy was nothing but a tag-along.
Katherine watched as the crew climbed 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 open the supply line again.
In the corner of her eye she could see 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 could hear him angrily mumbling to him.
“All aboard!” Barrett shifted the gear into action, and the vehicle began rolling.
She grabbed the ladder and climbed on board. The trip would take many hours, and she knew they would have to spend the night in the desert. Barrett, as always, sat relaxed with his feet on the windowsill. He casually sharpened his knife against a whetstone with his back against the prisoners. This annoyed Katherine more than anything. Barrett hadn’t a care in the world. As if he had everything 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 on the day she exhausts her usefulness, he will be the person to snuff her out.
She wondered how he could have a family. The cold-hearted psychopath had fathered 2 young girls with a beautiful wife he seemed to love very much. Sure, she only involved herself in the occasional fling, but always with her walls up. And never in a manner like Strawberries. God knows what deceases she carried with that ridiculous name.
“You have enough firepower to ward off the monsters should they come?” Strawberries asked, as if magically reading her mind.
The young girl had found a place in the corner. The maintenance train was not made to transport more than a couple of men. It had two small chairs for the drivers and a makeshift bunk in the back. The railroad crane was roomier. There they had thrown two mattresses down if anyone cared 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 response 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, aimlessly wandering around the crane looking at all the buttons, examining all the gauges. Shelby had noticed it too.
“Look weirdo, just sit down somewhere,” he said.
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 picked up a monkey wrench and threw it at him.
"Are you out of your mind?" She shouted.
“He’s a tough cookie.” Shelby smiled.
Cas raised his eyebrows but remained silent.
Was this another damned one escaped 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. Its figure cast a long shadow, and she approximated they would only have a few hours more 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 asked.
"Fuckin’ ’ell" Gavin exclaimed. "Looks like someone chewed up the car and chundered."
Katherine stood there silently taking in the scenery.
"Creatures for sure," Barrett declared.
“They are searching this area.” Cas spoke. “We are better off if we leave 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.
“Only the second car,” Strawberries said. “We’ll grab what we can from it.”
Shelby began hauling the chains towards the wreck.
“We use the crane to remove it from the line.” She continued. “Then smack the first car together with the third, and then we’re up and running.”
Katherine smiled. The young girl 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 demolished. And men could easily be replaced.
It took them some time to clean out the useful 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 gone now. 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 the metal groaned as the hydraulics hissed.
"God damn it," she muttered to herself.
She longed for a cabin in the north. Somewhere the snow still fall. Where she could 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 down 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 said, as she climbed down the ladder. Cleaning her dirty face with a rag.
“How do you know my name? 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 up.
"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.