David watched from behind the crowd, as two men led a young woman up a small set of steps to the hangman’s noose. A razor-sharp wire replaced the traditional rope, ensuring a clean decapitation and a bigger spectacle of blood and death. The crowd’s palpable sense of anticipation surprised him less than the calm demeanor of the accused. She faced the gallows with such serenity stepping to the noose as if receiving Holy Communion.
The Order’s crest pinned to David’s putrefying animal hide cloak parted the crowd as effectively as its foul odor. He approached the makeshift structure, sizing up the two men standing on either side of the woman. The tall man in the bowler hat appeared to be in charge, but David focused his steely gaze on the short one with the set jaw. The little man’s face erupted with anger at the interruption.
“What can I do you for, Cardinal?” the tall man said, after looking down at the crest pinned to David’s rotting coat.
“Bring me the accused.”
“What?” the short man exclaimed, stepping forward.
“You heard me, boy.”
“She killed my father. I have a right to–”
“Unless you’d like the archbishops cutting off trade to this little haven, you will mind your place.” David stroked his unkempt beard, setting his jaw. “Do it. Now.”
The man in the bowler hurried the accused forward. On closer inspection, she was more girl than woman. Her tangled black hair and vibrant blue eyes dwarfed her petite nose and mouth. She stood with both hands tied behind her back. Deep bruises marred both sides of her face.
“Are you Jenna, the miller’s daughter?”
The girl bowed her head. “Yes, Cardinal.”
David produced a handwritten document from a pouch inside his cloak. “You petitioned the archbishops for asylum?”
David handed the document to the short man. “The archbishops have granted Jenna an audience. If her claims are found wanting, she will be returned to you and you can continue,” David motioned around, “this exhibition.”
“Asylum?” The short man rifled through the document as though he wasn’t illiterate like the rest of the peasants. “I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
“It is an unusual request,” David admitted, “but one the archbishops have agreed to hear.”
“Then I will go with you and speak for my dead father.”
“If your testimony is needed, the church will call for you. Until then, there will be no vengeance upon this girl or her family. Understood?”
“Whatever you say, Cardinal,” the tall man in the bowler replied, stepping between David and the dead man’s son to deliver the girl. “Please give our regards to the archbishops.”
David yanked the girl toward him and turned to face the deflated crowd. People looked away, averting their gaze as he brushed past them with his prisoner. Like most havens, this one relied on the church for tools and guns. No one would question the archbishops’ judgment.
David’s mule grazed on a patch of grass near the front gate, obscured by a cloud of flies. The girl shuddered as she approached the rotting animal skins that covered the beast.
“Will I have to wear a cloak?” she asked, clearly blanching.
“Only if you want to live,” David said. “The Fallen may have little interest in this high altitude settlement, but in the lowlands they’ll pick your body clean if they think you’re alive. Get used to wearing it.”
David untied her hands and pulled a long coat of rotting flesh from the mule’s saddlebags. The girl vomited twice before she settled into the foul garment. Even then, she retched and gagged uncontrollably. David retied her hands, this time in front of her, and leashed her to the mule with enough slack to allow her to walk.
With a nod to the gatekeeper, the tall wooden doors that protected the enclave parted. David chose to walk at first, leading the mule and his prisoner down a series of treacherous mountain switchbacks.
Here, above the dark clouds, he almost felt safe. As long as the Fallen could sustain themselves in the lowlands, they had no urge to feed in the mountains. For one stray moment he closed his eyes and felt the burn of the sun on his face. One day this will all be gone, he thought. Enjoy it while it lasts.
They reached a small lake halfway down the mountain. David stopped to water the mule and sat down to eat some dried jerky. After a few bites he felt guilty and untied the girl, giving her a small piece of meat.
“Thank you,” she said.
David nodded, staring out across the sparkling lake. In his mind, this place could easily double for the Garden of Eden-a place of perfection in a world of death. He rarely entertained religious thoughts, but the lake possessed an untouched quality at odds with the devastation below. It reminded him that there were a few things still unspoiled in this world.
After a long silence, the girl finally spoke. “Aren’t you going to ask me what happened?”
“No.” David’s back popped in three places when he stood. He had the distinct feeling the girl already knew that he did not care. “I’d like to hear more about this city of refuge idea you dreamed up. The archbishops seemed particularly interested in that.”
The girl gave him a knowing smile and stood with her arms out, ready to be leashed to the mule. Something about her request had the archbishops up in arms, but they didn’t share their thoughts on the matter with him. He buckled the saddlebags and tied her to the beast.
The steep switchback trail opened up, becoming broad and smooth as it descended below the dark clouds. Light rain obscured the twisted remains of a tourist village, nestled in a distant fork of the mountain. From this vantage point it looked deserted, but he knew better.
Giving the old resort town a wide berth, they left the muddy path for a thick canopy of trees. David expected the girl to complain about the never-ending thicket of thorny brambles that scraped, poked, and tore at even the smallest bit of exposed flesh, but she kept her mouth shut. Even the mule seemed mindful of the danger posed by their proximity to the settlement and stayed quiet.
They finally stopped at a dilapidated home in the middle of nowhere. The road leading to the hillside dwelling had lost its battle with the wilderness, and only a small portion of the house refused to yield to the encroaching vegetation. The Fallen had stripped the inside down to its studs, leaving just enough support to keep the house standing.
Almost like they knew exactly what they were doing.
David didn’t trouble himself with questions about the Fallen’s fascination with the remnants of humanity or the strange cities they built with the material they foraged. Only one thing mattered to him: they seldom returned to gutted buildings. He went from room to room, shotgun ready. With the exception of a few doors and a large, rusting washing machine stored in the back of the basement, the house stood empty. The old Maytag probably weighed too much for the Fallen to have bothered lugging upstairs.
He picked a small room in the damp basement to setup camp. Black mold crept up the back wall, and there was a half-window to contend with, but the room had a solid door he could block with the washing machine. He covered the window with one of his animal skins, lit a small lantern, and went outside to confirm that no light escaped. Satisfied with his handiwork, he fed the mule and stowed it in a windowless bathroom, then he carried the saddlebags downstairs.
The metal appliance mesmerized the girl. She examined every inch of the machine as if it contained some mythical gift from the gods. Whatever the archbishops hoped to get out of her, David sensed she’d disappoint them.
“Do you know what this is?” she asked, running her fingers along the control panel’s buttons.
“It’s a washing machine. People used them to clean their clothes. We’re going to use this one to barricade the door.”
She helped him push the old Maytag across the room.
“How old were you at the breaking of the world?” she asked.
“Old enough to wish I hadn’t seen it.” He shoved the washer one last time before he retired to the concrete floor. “Eleven or twelve.”
“That’s not very old. How did you survive?”
“My parents were nuts. That’s how.” He wedged his saddlebags against a corner of the basement and laid his head on the makeshift pillow. Closing his eyes, he hoped the question would die.
“I don’t understand.”
“Things were different then,” David said without opening his eyes. “Not everyone believed in the Catholic Church. You could worship however or whatever you wanted. My parents were part of a group, a cult. They were brainwashed into believing the founder was Christ reborn. They gave up their worldly possessions to help him build a compound and stock it with a ridiculous amount of guns and food. Dad even named me after the son of a bitch.”
The saddlebags weren’t as comfortable as David hoped. He shifted his weight and opened his eyes. “When the virus started spreading, it was pretty clear our Christ didn’t know any more than anyone else. Our group held out longer than most, thanks to our well-armed religious paranoia, but it didn’t take long for our fearless leader to decide we all needed to ‘walk into God’s arms’ before the Fallen could take us.”
“What did you do?”
“Me? I didn’t do anything. I was a scared kid. After my dad watched another family forced into heaven, he tried to get us out of there. Our beloved Christ-on-Earth put a bullet in his back and two in my mom’s chest. I’m the only one that got away. I ran…survived.”
The girl leaned closer, clutching her dead animal cloak around her. She had adapted to the smell faster than most. “You don’t believe in God any more, do you? You’re a cardinal. How can you not believe?”
“It doesn’t matter what I believe. It only matters that the human race survives. The Catholic Church has managed to keep New Hebron, and a couple other havens, from falling. They saved my life. Who cares if the rest is bullshit? I’m old enough to actually remember the Bible, and I can tell you for a fact it never said anything about the Fallen.”
The girl leaned back against the wall. He could see her thinking through his story.
“And this shall be the plague where with the Lord shall strike all nations… the flesh of every one shall consume away while they stand upon their feet, and their eyes shall consume away in their holes, and their tongues shall consume away in their mouth.”
“What are you talking about?” he asked.
“Zachariah, chapter fourteen, verse twelve.”
“Is that supposed to impress me, some handed-down passage that sounds vaguely biblical? What version of the Bible is that supposed to be from?”
“And he shall snatch on the right hand, and be hungry; and he shall eat on the left hand, and they shall not be satisfied: they shall eat every man the flesh of his own arm.” She looked deep into his eyes. “If Isaiah isn’t talking about the Fallen, I don’t know what he’s talking about.”
She waited for him to concede the point. When he didn’t, she continued, “For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.”
David scrambled to his feet. He knew this quote from Corinthians. “I searched your house and the mill before going to that town square. I didn’t find a Bible or any hint of religious material. Who the hell are you?”
Something about the way she said it shook David to his core. Not because he believed her, but because he had seen the damage brainwashed people could do. He stood over her. “Where did you hide the Bible? Only an archbishop is pure enough to read one.”
“There is no Bible.” She stood and faced him, unafraid. “My father had something called Asperger’s. Said it gave him a photographic memory. He used to have these visions, made me memorize them. He said one day the world would depend on the truth.”
David looked for any hint of deception in her face. If it existed, he didn’t spot it.
“Your father’s supposed to be some kind of prophet then? And what about you? Here to save us all?”
“It’s not like that.”
“You know what?” David raised his hands in disgust. “I don’t care. We’ve got a long day ahead of us, and I need some sleep. The archbishops can get it out of you.” David returned to his saddlebag bed, closed his eyes, and ignored the girl’s questions.
That night, he dreamed of the cult leader who shared his name. The false prophet submerged him in a baptismal filled with the blood of his parents. Their dead bodies floated and bumped against the edge of the tank. He pushed and kicked but strong hands held him in their rotting juices. His parents’ bodies made a strange sound against the wall of the tank, screeching like metal on concrete. It took him a few seconds to realize the sound didn’t belong to his nightmare.
He opened his eyes. The girl had pushed the washing machine away from the old wooden door. He could hear the sound of the Fallen on the other side.
“What are you doing?” he screamed, pulling out his handgun.
“You need proof, and I’m going to give it to you.”
“Don’t!” He cocked the gun, still not sure he was awake. “Let go of that door, or I’ll shoot you dead.”
For an instant, David could see fear play across the girl’s face. She pulled her hand away from the door but then reached back. He shot her a second too late. The door opened, and in the harsh lantern light, a group of the Fallen stared back at him. With his free hand he reached for the shotgun next to his pack, pumping it on the way back up.
“Don’t shoot,” the girl yelled, as she clutched her wounded side. “They’re not going to hurt you. They’re here because I called out to them.”
David stood his ground but didn’t fire. The Fallen who stood in the doorway looked a little like his grandmother. Dried blood matted her hair, and her face held the slack-jawed appearance of a stroke victim. Something about the old woman lent a sliver of humanity to the maggot-ridden flesh standing behind her.
“Why are they just standing there?”
“Be quiet,” she said with some effort while leaning against the doorframe. “I need to concentrate.”
A lifetime of silence followed. The Fallen grunted simultaneously, turned their back on the open door, and shuffled their way up the basement steps. David had never seen anything like it. The Fallen didn’t let people live.
David closed the door and moved the washing machine back, unable to let go of the ritual. The girl looked to be in bad shape. A dark pool of blood framed her midsection.
“What the hell was that about?” he asked, pulling a shirt out of his saddleback to press against the wound.
“I tried to tell you at the lake…”
Her lips formed the words that would explain, but her voice failed. Somehow, she reached out to him with her mind, giving him a vision of two men stumbling into her and a group of the Fallen by the mountain lake. The older man didn’t hold his fire, and she couldn’t stop the creatures. Things ended badly for him, but his son managed to escape. The vision faltered as she passed out.
* * *
“Welcome back,” David said when she opened her eyes again. “I wasn’t sure you were going to make it.”
He watched her adjust to the new surroundings. It was clear the bunker’s electric lights and technology scared her, but she did an admirable job of processing it all.
“The Greenbrier Bunker is the heart of New Hebron. Before the breaking of the world, this place served as a nuclear fallout shelter for Congress.” His eyes traced the musty concrete walls. “The infirmary is protected by two feet of solid steel. You are more than safe here.”
Her attention shifted back to him. Safely tucked away from the Fallen, he had traded his rotting animal cloak for the deep red vestments of his office as cardinal. Outside of his ceremonial pistol, David looked a far cry from the mountain man who had saved her from the gallows.
“You didn’t have to shoot me, you know.”
“In my place, would you have done any different?” He reached out to her hand but stopped short of holding it. “As for your injury, I’ve told the archbishops that we had an accident.”
“You didn’t tell them the truth?”
“I fear they would take it as a sign you are some kind of devil woman. I may not understand what happened in that basement, but there’s no reason to sacrifice you on the altar of misplaced faith. You’ll have enough to deal with as it is.”
Jenna thought about this for a moment and seemed to come to a decision. She looked around the small infirmary to reconfirm they were alone.
“The things I told you about my father, about his memory of the Bible and his prophecies. He never told me any of it.”
“I don’t understand.”
“My father’s visions gave him nightmares. He hid them from me. I looked into his mind to find the truth.”
“Is that how you kept them from attacking us?” David asked. “Can you actually talk to them?”
“It’s not easy to explain. Their minds are jumbled and cross. There are fragments of desire, glimmers of recognition, but it’s all part of a puzzle that doesn’t quite fit together. They can communicate with each other but not us. They don’t really understand what’s happened to them. You’ve seen the strange cities they’re building. They’re trying to adapt.”
“Why are you telling me this? You know I have a responsibility to take the information to the archbishops.” David lowered his voice. “If they find out you’re a seer–”
“You will help me because you don’t believe.” She reached for his sleeve and pulled him closer. “I have written a gospel based on my father’s prophesies.”
“So you do have a Bible.”
“It must not fall into the archbishops’ hands, no matter what. You have to promise me you’ll keep it safe.”
He started to speak, but an image cut his words short. His mind witnessed a tree near a small lake, the same lake they’d stopped at on the first day. Red daises surrounded the exposed roots. The Bible was buried there. The future was buried there. He suddenly felt like he had made a huge mistake bringing Jenna to New Hebron. “I don’t understand–”
“Don’t understand what?” Archbishop Fletcher asked, as he entered the room.
“How such an innocent girl could be guilty of murder.”
“Indeed. That is the question at hand.” The archbishop walked to her bedside. “So this is Jenna, the miller’s daughter? She doesn’t look like a murderer to me. How are you feeling, dear?”
Jenna relaxed when the archbishop reached for her hand. His Holiness had a way about him that put people at ease. Far from the traditional aged priest, he was a vibrant man with thick black hair and compelling green eyes. When he smiled, his dark vestments emphasized the effect. In another world, he could have been a movie star.
“The archbishops see occasional requests for leniency, but I must admit we’ve never received one that quoted actual scripture, much less multiple versions of the Bible.” He pulled her request from a vest pocket and cleared his throat. “Whoso killeth his neighbor ignorantly, whom he hated not in time past… he shall flee unto one of those cities and live.”
“A city of refuge,” she said.
“So I gather.” The archbishop leaned closer. “You understand the responsibility that passage places on me?”
“If any man hate his neighbor,” she warned, “and rise up against him and smite him mortally… then the elders of the city shall deliver him into the hand of the avenger of blood, that he may die.”
“You can quote scripture from memory.” The archbishop’s eyes widened. “That is truly remarkable. How is it that you have hidden such a miraculous talent?”
“My father had a photographic memory, but he was sick and fearful and hid his gift. He was afraid of what would happen if the church knew the truth.”
“And you do not share his fear?”
“I want to live more than I want to keep his secrets.”
“Good,” the archbishop said. “That shows an evolved understanding of the world. It is true our teachings here sometime diverge from scripture, but we have responsibilities that extend far beyond the old world church. If God’s children are to survive, certain deviations from canon are necessary. Don’t you agree, Cardinal?”
“I do.” David stumbled over the words, his mind catching up with the conversation. He couldn’t decide what to make of Jenna’s abilities. He felt compelled to tell the archbishop about the Bible, but something held him back.
“Tell me, child,” the archbishop continued, “did your father write down any of his memories?”
“He refused to write them down, but he told me stories every night. Made me memorize them.”
“Then we only have you to guide us. With so many denominations lost to the Fallen, a mind like yours is a gift from God. Assuming you are willing to join our fellowship, I feel comfortable speaking for the others. We will grant your request for asylum. Your knowledge is far too important to waste on a question of guilt or innocence.”
“You don’t need to hear my case?”
“Rest now.” The archbishop patted her hand. “Tomorrow we celebrate the Easter Vigil. Before the service, I invite you to join the archbishops for a communion ceremony to cleanse you of the past and prepare you to serve in the Lord’s army.”
With a smile, the archbishop turned for the door. David couldn’t hide his shock. If they were going to offer her communion, she presented a bigger threat than even he imagined. Or did Archbishop Fletcher see it as an opportunity? David wanted more time with Jenna, but Fletcher cleared his throat, reminding him there were preparations to be made.
“Have faith,” she whispered. “There are more of us than you know.”
* * *
Archbishops Thomas and Reynolds stood beside Jenna. The church had provided a white dress for her communion. David waited with the three of them at the roughly hewn entrance to the underground chapel. The level had been added after the archbishops founded New Hebron. He wondered if she had noticed their green eyes. He wondered if she really knew what she was getting herself into.
David had seen what Jenna could do. He wanted to believe in her, but he had seen faith and delusion destroy so many. He went to her in the middle of the night, but she refused to leave. She was determined to see her father’s vision through to the end. She talked about a world where humanity could live alongside the Fallen. She talked about her father’s certainty there were others with gifts like hers.
A single bell rang out three times, and Archbishop Thomas handed her the Paschal candle. With a deep breath, David moved to the chapel door and opened it. The cavernous space was devoid of any light. Jenna stood with the archbishops on the precipice of the abyss with only a candle to guide her through the rite of Lucernarium.
David watched her walk inside the chapel with the same sense of grace he’d seen when she’d approached the gallows. Her faith was strong enough to bolster some small corner of his own, and for the first time in more years than he could count, he wanted to believe in something greater than himself.
The archbishops accompanied her across the subterranean darkness. They stopped three times on their way to the nave. At each interval, the two men proclaimed, “Christ is the light.”
“Deo Gratias,” the assembly responded.
David’s role was that of gatekeeper. He barricaded the doors and stood guard over the ceremony. If Jenna panicked or tried to run, it was his responsibility to stop her.
As the candlelight approached the sanctuary, David closed his eyes and said a small prayer. When he opened them, he could see her lowering the Paschal candle to the baptismal.
The surface oil ignited, spreading through a series of interconnected channels to illuminate the interior of the chapel. He waited for her to gasp, but she stood her ground, silent. Three full-sized crosses towered over her. One of the Fallen had been nailed to each cross.
Shunts removed infected fluids from the crucified creatures, delivering them to a hidden room behind the nave. How these fluids were processed, David couldn’t say. The archbishops did not allow him into that room. The end result, whatever it was, returned to an ornate wooden altar in the form of iridescent green liquid.
Archbishop Fletcher waited for Jenna there, silver chalice in hand. On each side of the altar, a half dozen of his brethren stood, their eyes an identical green. The contaminated liquid had wiped the ravages of age and time away from their perfect bodies, but some profound aspect of humanity had also disappeared with it. They exuded warmth and caring, but David had caught more than a few glimpses of the sociopathic animal lurking just below the surface.
“Life is in the blood,” Archbishop Fletcher began, “Jesus gave his mortal life for us, and our drinking of this cup symbolizes our continuous sharing of his restoration.”
He filled the cup and brought it around the altar to Jenna. David couldn’t see her face, but her body betrayed no fear. As a nonbeliever, he’d nearly wet himself the first time he’d seen the ritual performed. Was it possible she knew what she was doing? Could her lack of surprise denote a plan?
“And Jesus took the cup,” the archbishops chanted in unison, “and when he had given thanks, he said, ‘Drink of it, all of you: for this is my blood of the covenant which is poured out that you might live forever.’”
She raised the chalice to the three crosses and took a deep drink. David couldn’t help himself. He moved closer. He had to know. When she turned to face him, he realized how much he needed to believe in her, in some divine act that could pull humanity out of this twisted abyss.
Jenna’s once blue eyes turned a vacant green. He could see that intangible spark disappear as the archbishop’s communion coursed through her veins. He suddenly realized her knowledge of the Bible and the Fallen would be used to destroy everything she’d hoped to create. It would be used to hunt down others like her. It would be used to expose him as a co-conspirator and non-believer.
The archbishops converged on Jenna now. They were welcoming her to the world they had carved out between humanity and death. Her father’s visions would have told her this was going to happen. Why would she submit herself to the destruction of everything she believed? Why had she trusted him with her vision? She told him she was a messenger. If the message wasn’t for the archbishops, then who was it for?
Watching her now, he realized the truth. The message was meant for him.
Before he could question this solemn belief or lose the resolve that came with it, he raised his ceremonial pistol, aimed for her head, and pulled the trigger. Her secrets had to be protected. He turned the gun on the archbishops, not waiting for her to fall to the ground from the fatal head wound. The assembly scattered for the door that he had locked to protect their secret ceremony.
He could feel his future unfold with each pull of the trigger. He would retrieve her gospel. He would travel with it from haven to haven. He would restore the Word of God. He would find others like Jenna and make peace with the Fallen. As the last of the archbishops dropped, he felt certain this had been Jenna’s plan all along. She had only been the messenger. It was his responsibility to make her sacrifice mean something.
Moving past the archbishops’ bodies, he opened the doors of the underground chapel and took his first steps toward saving the world.