Chapter 1

"They’re comin’ on fast, Reverend," Mike Buckley shouted as he slammed the shutters against the raging storm.  He’d only wanted to peek but the winds tore the shutter from his hands and in the mere seconds it took to pull it back and lock it in place he saw the crowd coming from Jensen’s Saloon, led by Jensen himself.  He was soaked to the core in that brief moment.  He imagined the coming crowd was worse as they bent against the crushing wind and pounding waves of rain.

"Is everything locked," Reverend Deckard boomed from the podium at the back of the church.

"As good as we can," Buckley replied.  He quickly walked towards Deckard and the rest of the followers huddled in the church.  "It should hold long enough."

"That’s all we can ask."

Reverend Deckard stretched to his full height, towering over his flock.  Pushing closer to seven feet than six and a half it didn’t take much effort to tower, but when he straightened and stretched his arms out it seemed he filled the church all by himself.  He looked each of the men and women  crowded in the first few pews in the eye.  He had given up trying to comfort them.  He’d given up gentle persuasion.  He had given up trying to convince them of the righteousness of his message and the path he asked them to follow.

With most of the town turning on him and his band of loyal followers shrinking by the day he had simply terrorized those who remained into taking the final step, even if it was early.

Just as they were gathered now, Deckard had called them a week ago and looked them each in the eye as he was right now.  He remembered their nervous reactions as he made his announcement.

"But Reverend," Nel Windershot whined.  "How can this be the time?  My children aren’t old enough to--"

"They’ll have a place in the new life, sister," Deckard growled.  Smiling didn’t take the edge off his tone, and she shuddered.  Good, he’d thought.  If the rest of them can wilt the way this bitch does I should be able to wrap this up early.

"You’ll each need to prepare for the journey.  You’ve all been collecting the items you’ll need for your kit I hope."

The quick glances between some of them told them they hadn’t.

"How can the way be open if you haven’t prepared to step onto the path?  This is no matter to be taken lightly."

"I don’t think any of us are taking this lightly, Reverend," Buckley had said.  "Just the other way ’round.  This is a big step fer most of us.  You’ll have to pardon us but this is a little scary."

Deckard took two long strides forward and leaned over them.  Inside he warmed at the fact that they were all trying to hide their fear of him despite their reflexive leans into the pews until the hard wooden back kept them from leaning farther.  He swept his head across the small group.

"You think this is scary?  Taking the final steps from this life into the open arms of the angels waiting to share their immortality with you is not scary.  That’s the salvation.  That’s the way you’ve all come to love and look forward to.  What’s scary is all these other slugs in this sinful, dust clod of a town who have turned their  backs on the word I’ve delivered."

Deckard paced in front of them, waving his arms as he spoke.

"We all came here from cities and towns back east because we were weary with the sinful ways of those who would have us be their servants.  We all came here to be servants to a higher power."

He stopped his pacing and threw his hands in the air and looked to the ceiling.  He stretched his arms and flexed his fingers.  Then he swept his arms across the gathering, focused on the huddled members of his dwindling flock.

"You are all that is left and the others have given up hope or turned back to the evil ways of those who would crush us under the soles of their wicked boots.  Some of them out there would seize this new town as an opportunity to become the very oppressors we sought to escape.  If they have their way they’ll put you under their heel and you’ll be no better off than if you’d not come with me."

He paused and put his massive fists on his hips and surveyed the effects of his words.  As always the more fervent his voice, the more dramatic his actions and gestures the more the people who remained faithful to him and his cause grew resolved.  It was time to set the hook.

"I’ve provided for you all.  I’ve shown you the way and you are all who remain true.  Now is not the time to reflect on what brought us here or worry about the future.  Now is the time to create the future.  In six days time we will gather here again and open the doors to our future, the future which will make us the masters of this sinful world.  A future which will have no end.  And a future which will make those who did not stay with us mourn their foolish choice."

The small group was galvanized now.  Most were nodding their heads and some were proclaiming "amens" but all were fully under his control.

"Go home.  Do not speak of our passage to anyone.  We do not want sinners interfering with the start of our journey.  Gather all that you need for your kits.  We will gather next Saturday night and begin our transformation so that we may live a different life and rule what has been given to us by the Creators."

Those six days had passed but each one seemed to creep by for Reverend Deckard.  He did his part to ensure that the town suspected no change in him or his last followers.  He greeted all as he always had, with a smile and kindly word.  There were some who had turned against him and his message of immortality so severely that the best course was avoidance.  

There were some who he tried to bring back around.  They hadn’t turned against him so much as they’d "lost the faith" as he explained.  He was a man of little patience and he did not like being defied, so it was a massive effort to keep from pushing too hard.  Some of these who had lost the faith were married to some of his faithful and he did not want to give them cause to break the fragile hold he had over those who remained true to him.  He felt that if he could bring them back, however, that his hold would be stronger.  He wanted as many people as possible to join him and become his Angels so anybody he could bring back around he’d take.

As he encountered Faithful they’d quietly provide an update on their progress and many were ready with their kits and it was just a matter of waiting.  On the morning of this, the sixth, day things took a sudden turn.

He was preparing the church for his final sermon when Richard Jensen, Samuel and Sarah Buckley and Billy Tarpley charged in shouting as they came.  They were furious, clearly, but when the massive Reverend Deckard turned to face them they stopped their approach if not their verbal assault.

Speaking over each other as they were he only caught snippets of their grievances: how could he continue to spread lies, they’d told him to stay away from their boy Mike, where was his wife...  This last came from Jensen who’s wife Olga had remained desperately faithful despite her husband’s cajoling, pushing and eventually pleading to leave Deckard’s congregation.  He was never much of a believer in the first place but the more Olga clung to the Reverend the greater the wedge in their marriage grew.

Deckard put his long, wide hands up and the angry quartet silenced.  They may not be part of my flock but I still hold sway over them.  He looked them over one at a time, using his tested and well practiced device.

"Your anger is misplaced.  I’ve not forced anybody to do anything as your decisions to turn your backs on my holy message proves, to my great displare--"

"Keep that pile of horse nuggets to yourself, Deckard," Jensen blurted.

Deckard turned to the man, smaller than the giant preacher but a tall and thick man in his own right.

"Jensen," Reverend Deckard purred.  "I’ve not spoken to Olga in three days and when I did it was only to share a greeting and give a blessing.  One that I asked be passed to you as well."  In this Deckard was truthful.  He hadn’t seen her in three days and Jensen’s concern for her whereabouts became his own.  She was one of his strongest followers and to lose her would be a blow he could not take.

"We don’t know what you’re up to," Samuel Buckley yelled, "but you’re up to something."

"Our Mike has been acting very odd since your late night "sermon" last week," Sarah added.  "And when he left for the fields this morning he said goodbye."

"Seems a respectful thing to say to a mother," Deckard said.

"GOODBYE!  Not ’I’ll see you tonight,’ damn you!  He said ’GOODBYE!’"  She broke into tears then and Samuel wrapped his arm around her.

"I can assure you that all is well and I want nothing but the best for you and all your families.  But I’ve got to prepare for my sermon so if you’ll excuse me..."  He turned away but Billy Tarpley jumped forward, grabbing the preacher’s shoulder and spinning him around.  The moment he did he regretted it.

Deckard’s face flushed a red so dark Tarpley swore later he could feel the heat.

"Back away, sinner.  All of you out!"

His bellow didn’t send them scurrying but they left soon enough.

And now they were all here.  The last twenty one members of his congregation which at one point had been one hundred forty three, the entire town.  How could things have gone so wrong?  More infuriating was how quickly they had gone wrong.  Within a matter of months the hold he’d cultivated so carefully over his flock, over many months and through a perilous journey from the eastern coast to the central plains had unraveled.  It happened so quickly he couldn’t even place his finger on what turned the course.

That didn’t matter now.  He was going to take his Faithful and lead them to a new life.

His confrontation with Jensen and the others had festered until finally when they saw the congregation gathering, all carrying sacks or small wooden crates into the church as the sun set the saloon owner rushed the church and attacked the preacher.  So sudden and unexpected was the violence Deckard had to be pulled to safety by his followers while Jensen was in turn attacked until he had to retreat.

They all barricaded themselves inside the little church and kept watch.  Mike Buckley huddled in the bell tower, shouting updates down to those below preparing for the night’s ritual.  As the townsfolk began to gather at Jensen’s Saloon it became clear the little group of soon to be Angels would come under attack.  As if the heavens knew and decided to help set the stage for what was to come clouds gathered on the horizon.

Mike knew they weren’t coming for him and the other Faithful but for the Reverend.  But that didn’t matter.  An attack on the holy man was an attack on his followers.  They would do what they must to ensure the promised journey began.

Mike stayed in the tower as long as he could but when the howling winds set the bell to ringing so fiercely that it finally ripped from the tower and blew across town he knew he had to trust to the gods and Angels they would join soon and go down to help prepare.

Reverend Deckard scanned his faithful one last time, finally stopping on the adoring face of Olga Jensen.

"It is time."

That single command released all the tension from the past six days and the group exploded in a flurry of action.  They all opened their kits and poured a mixture of herbs into a boiling pot the Reverend had prepared as soon as they locked themselves in the church.  He directed Mike Buckley to stir the pot while Nel Windershot brought a large goblet and ladle.  Olga led the rest to in preparing a circle of candles and painting symbols on the floor.

Suddenly the angry mob arrived announcing themselves with angry fists on the outside of the doors and shuttered windows.  The pounding and shouting outside only momentarily paused the group in its efforts.  One clap from Reverend Deckard set his sheep back to work.

Nel finally handed the goblet to Deckard and he indicated for her to join the others.  He stood before them and they lined up.  He gave each a sip of the mysterious brew, still hot and steaming.  He gave each of them one of his special blessing telling them he would be waiting for them as their new life began.  As each drank they grimaced at the flavor but took the large swallow as directed then went to a pew.

After the last of them drank and sat on the pew he strode to the center of the circle of candles and began.

"Oh lord of Angels we ask that you embrace us tonight as we take the first step on our journey toward ever lasting life."

The shouts and pounds from the men outside grew louder but as he continued Reverend Deckard could also hear the swell in the storm.

"Protect us from the sinners without so that we may complete our sacrifice to you, a sacrifice of our bodies."

He took a quick glance at the people sitting in the pews.  Good.  He saw that their faces had begun to drain of blood and their eyes grew weary.

"We ask that you take us from this evil world we were cursed to be born into and make us one of your Angels so that we may return to spread your word and the words of those gods who sit beside you."

As he stretched for the ceiling and twisted his fingers like a crawling spider he heard the first signs of the brew working its way through his followers systems.  Moans rose from the pews and some soft sniffling.  That stupid, weak Nel Windershot won’t stop her whining even now.  It mattered not.  Soon enough it would all be over.

The pounding grew more fierce as the mob must have found something to ram against the doors.  Deckard knew he was running short of time so he sped his speach.

"We deliver our souls to you, oh god of Angels and ask that you accept our humble offerings."

He reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of a dark powder.

One by one his followers began to vomit violently, completely emptying their stomachs.  When the odd brew was depleted they began vomiting blood.  The Faithful began stumbling around the church, crying in pain, looking to the Reverend for guidance.

"Fear not, my flock of Faithful.  You will soon be crossing through the door to join me!"

They fell where they stood or sat, thudding dully as they hit the floor or wooden pews.  Olga Jensen was the last standing.  She wiped the blood from her mouth and chin and through her wretching pain smiled as best she could at Deckard.  In her eyes he could see the love and devotion she had for him.

"We will be together soon, my love."

At that moment the doors smashed open and the men poured into the church, Jensen at the front.  He yelled in terror as his wife finally fell to the floor, dead.  He rushed to her and grabbed her body.  He bellowed at the ceiling when he saw the bloody mess she’d retched.  He stood and faced the preacher.

The other men fanned out and began crying and yelling as they each found family, lying dead where they’d dropped.

Jensen rushed at Deckard but just before he reach the huge man Deckard threw the powder in the air.  It snowed down around him and when it hit the candles the whole cloud exploded, knocking Jensen off his feet.

The storm outside burst as well.  The whole town grew as bright as if the sun had crashed upon them.  Lighting crackled and flared and thunder rocked the world.

Suddenly the world lay silent.  The storm still blew but it was much more tame.  The men of the posse slowly picked themselves off the ground, wondering at what just happened.  They all turned and saw Reverend Deckard still standing, smoke rising off him though the explosion had not burned him.

Jensen raised his shot gun and blasted the preacher.  The shot sent the massive man tumbling backwards.

Deckard stood back up, smiling at Jensen.

"What have you done, you monster?"

Deckard laughed.

Somebody at the front of the church screamed and Jensen turned to see all twenty two of the evil congregation standing, though they weren’t as they were before.  They were attacking the posse, biting and ripping at them.  Those that could rushed from the church.  Those that couldn’t fell and died, shredded by their loved ones.

Jensen barely made it out the doors and into the storm.

Next Chapter: Chapter II