Also by Bernard Wilkerson
The Worlds of the Dead series
Beaches of Brazil
The Creation series
In the Beginning
It Is Finished
The Hrwang Incursion Trilogy
New Israel (to be released)
It Is Finished
Copyright © 2017 by Bernard Wilkerson
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This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locales or organizations is entirely coincidental.
Cover by Meggan Hayes.
It Is Finished
I walked home.
Normally I walk quickly, excited to return to see my wife and children. No matter how good a day at work or at the Temple I have had, no matter what things of merit or value that I have accomplished, I am always excited to return home, to be together with my family once more.
But now I walked slowly.
I had no desire to share the news with Amaya, my wife, that I had to share with her. I still did not understand it. Nothing, to my knowledge, had ever happened like this at the Temple before, although as soon as it had happened, everyone knew of someone in some other temple who had claimed to have had a similar experience. Rumors grow unfounded on such useless speculation.
However, I still had to share this news with her. Something so important, so vital, had to be shared with the person closest to me in the world. I hoped it would not cause her too much distress.
Birds sang and chirped in the trees, a cool breeze provided relief from the sun, although it was almost too cold when I walked in the shade, and the grass still felt soft under my shoes. I and my family had worn a path over the few short years we had lived in our new house and I followed that path mindlessly, lost in thought with my worrying.
Most people still lived in the City. It was their choice. They enjoyed the convenience of not having to grow or carry everything they must eat. They enjoyed close neighbors and close associations, and Amaya and I enjoyed those things also. Only, we enjoyed walking a little farther to be able to participate in such activities and we didn’t mind carrying our groceries. Our garden plot did well also and we harvested from it year round.
Life in the Country was good.
We had many neighbors, not everyone wanted to live in the City, but our houses were far enough apart and so situated that we could return to them from the City where we worked and attended the Temple without seeing any other houses along the way. Trees, hedges, natural formations, all shielded us from each other and provided the illusion of privacy and a solitary existence.
Some did not like that and after a few years returned to live in the City.
When I walked briskly, my walk home took just over an hour, but as dejected as I felt, it must have taken an hour and a half, or longer, before I rounded the final copse of trees and could see my house.
I had not yet grown accustomed to its beauty despite the years I had lived there, and its sight provided me a small measure of comfort. I sighed.
I had not built it myself. I was not a Builder. I was a Reader and a Teacher, although I occasionally built things that I read about. For example, I had built an item called a crossbow. I’m not sure what attracted me to the item, but I was fascinated with it. It was quite easy to make.
Following instructions I read in several books, I took scrap wood and shaped it into a stock. I cut it with a hand saw leftover from the construction of my house. I did not sand the first stock I fashioned and received several splinters in my hand to teach me.
Next, I drilled a rectangular hole toward the front of the stock so that I could insert three flat strips of wood, one long, one medium, and one short, to serve as the prod, the bow part of the crossbow. I anchored it with a large screw inserted into the front of the stock and drilled small holes on the ends of the longest piece to attach a rope that would serve as the bow string. The wood was thin enough that it bent when I drew the rope back, thus providing the spring necessary to fire the bolt.
The channel on top was crude. On my first crossbow, I drilled it and attached it with screws, but they interfered with the flight of the bolt. I used glue on the remaining four I constructed and that worked better than I could have hoped. None have fallen off.
The trigger mechanism was also crude, but effective. A hole drilled through the stock behind the channel with a metal bolt inserted and held loosely in place by nuts and washers.
To fire it, I insert the crossbow bolt, essentially a short, thick arrow, pull the rope to the back of the channel and fix it in place, and then push the metal bolt up, which pushes the rope up. That propels the crossbow bolt forward, guided by the channel.
The first time I tested my crossbow, I was surprised by the weapon’s effectiveness. At twenty meters, it drilled a metal bolt four centimeters into a wooden target. It was not a child’s toy.
All of the five that I had built were of poor workmanship, in direct proportion to my lack of skill as a Builder, but I believed that if necessary, I could teach skilled workmen how to build them and they would create finer crossbows.
My neighbors were concerned, particularly Bishop Haskell. It was not as if the possession of anything was forbidden, but no one owned any weapons and after witnessing the effectiveness of my crossbows, it was clear that they were deadly. He encouraged me to seek permission, which I did, and the Master readily granted it.
Bishop Haskell was disappointed.
I taught my son, Joseph, how to fire the crossbows, although always under my strict supervision. I kept them locked up at all times, which was also unusual as no one ever locked anything. Not even the Temple was locked. But I knew I had to keep children away from my crossbows, so I learned how to fashion a lock from the books I read, and I secured the weapons.
As I neared my home, I felt some sadness that Joseph did not now run out to join me as he often did. It was not unusual for him not to greet me. Sometimes he had studies, sometimes he was still at school or on a field trip, and sometimes he was simply busy and did not look out a window and notice my approach. But most days he ran out to greet me and I joyed in our reunion.
Heavy in spirit, I ascended the wooden steps to the lower balcony of my house.
I had selected the design from a book, so it was unlike any other house in the Country. Most other houses were finer and larger, but Amaya and I liked this unique design. It was unclear from my reading whether the design was personally made by the famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, or only inspired by his designs.
The lower balcony was an arch-shaped cantilever that extended out thirty meters from the base of the house, giving the entire structure the illusion of floating, particularly when rains and mists obscured the base of the structure. I loved that illusion.
The second balcony stood four meters higher and was considerably shorter. That was a private balcony for Amaya and me, where we could enjoy sunsets and sunrises together in complete seclusion. We could also look over the side and observe our children when they were playing on the lower balcony.
Large windows covered the face of the house and I approached the sliding glass door closest to the top of the steps.
Amaya stood behind it, her face wearing a mask of panic.
She rushed out and threw herself into my arms, knocking me off balance. She sobbed and I stroked her hair, confused. Had she already heard the news from the Temple that I had to share with her? Had it upset her this much already?
“Shhh,” I whispered. “It will be okay.”
My words felt like a lie. I wasn’t even sure of what had upset her. What was I telling her would be okay?
“It’s okay,” I said again, despite my misgivings.
“It’s not,” Amaya finally managed to say. “It’s not, Kieran. It’s not.” She swallowed and sniffled and looked up at me with reddened eyes. She had been crying for a long time. I realized that there was no way she could have already learned what had occurred at the Temple. That meant that the despair she was in was caused by something different. That meant that two upsetting things had happened in one day.
Most people lived for years without upsetting things happening.
“What’s the matter?” I asked. The Temple incident would have to wait for another time. Clearly, Amaya’s problem required attention first.
“Joseph bit his little sister,” she finally cried, bursting into great sobs once again. I held her and sighed, relieved. This was not serious. Although not common, I had not heard of it happening often, I had read in books written during the Before that children often bit each other. It was discouraged and some small punishment was always meted out, but biting was not the end of the world. I would punish Joseph, then I would forgive him and it would never occur again.
“Is Mary okay?” I asked.
Amaya composed herself. “I took her to Bishop Haskell’s and he and his new counselor healed her. There is no mark.”
I liked Bishop Haskell’s new counselor, Brother Mutunga, and was grateful he participated in the blessing of my daughter.
“Was it that serious?” I asked.
“It was like an animal bite, Kieran. He tore the flesh away and shattered her bone.”
Horrified, I did not believe my wife and pushed her away.
“What?” I cried.
“He bit her like an animal. I don’t know how else to describe it.”
I fell. I didn’t know if I sat on a chair or on the deck. I didn’t know if the fall hurt me. I simply fell. I could not comprehend her words. How could my son bite my daughter like that? How could my fun-loving, happy son suddenly do such a thing? How could any human bite another in this manner?
“It wasn’t him,” I argued. “She was bitten by a wolf. This has happened before to others. She will be fine.”
My wife bent over to me, but I pushed her out of the way, the second time I had done so in as many minutes. I had never pushed her before. I scrambled to my feet to run to my daughter’s room.
I found her there, my wife immediately behind me, and Mary was coloring at her desk.
“Are you okay?” I cried as I ran into her room.
My daughter glared at me, then quickly returned to her coloring. She was seven, almost eight.
I rushed to her side.
“I am so sorry. Are you okay? Let me see your arm.”
Tears welled up in my eyes, unbidden. My arm was around her to protect her, but I hadn’t protected her. The world had hurt my little girl and I felt the need to cry like I had never wanted to cry before.
“I hate him,” she breathed and I could feel her contempt. I looked at what she was coloring and it was an image of a little boy, not much older than her, with a huge black mouth surrounding him. The teeth in the mouth were jagged and sharp and dripped with red. The boy screamed.
“Honey, don’t be that way. We have to forgive others when they hurt us.”
“I’ll never forgive him.”
“It’s okay. You will. We all must. Let me see your arm, please.”
She held it up defiantly, like a trophy or a prize, but did not say anything. There were no marks. The healing had been complete.
“It was right there,” my wife said, pointing to the outside of Mary’s forearm.
“Did it hurt badly?” I asked in as sympathetic a voice as I could muster.
“I hate him,” Mary hissed.
Amaya pulled me up. Her face was ashen. The worry on it was deeper than I had noticed when she had first told me about the bite. Hearing about this upset me beyond all measure. I had almost even forgotten about the incident at the Temple. It’s importance paled in comparison to what my son had done.
“She’s been like this since I brought her home,” Amaya said. Mary could hear her words, but she did not look up, as if we were no longer in the room with her. The crayons raced across the paper and I looked down. Her drawing was being scribbled out in red.
“Where is Joseph now?” I asked. I did not like the anger I heard in my voice. Anger was not the Master’s way, but I could not help myself. My son had seriously injured his little sister and he would be punished.
“In his room.”
I strode out.
Our house was open and airy, the interior all finished in wood, and it was bright, with large open windows and a massive skylight over the main living area. Plants adorned almost every surface. Some of my books lined one wall on three recessed shelves. A spherical water fountain burbled in the far corner, a steady stream of water pumped to the top and falling down the sides of the sphere, sometimes coating one side, sometimes the other. Watching its eternal movement calmed the soul. I felt like I should sit in front of it for a few minutes, or take a walk around my house and through my garden before I confronted my son.
I did none of those things.
I raced down the hallway to stay ahead of my wife. I did not want to allow her any opportunity to prevent me from venting the rage that was growing inside. I would not strike my son; I had never hit anyone. But he would know and understand that what he had done was wrong and he would be too terrified of me after I had finished with him for him to repeat such a horrific act. Sometimes fear motivates us to do what is correct, and I was prepared to instill such fear in my son.
I tore open the door to his room, but the room was empty.
“Where are you?” I bellowed. “Come out now!”
I tossed the mattress to his bed aside. I slammed open his closet door. The anger diminished, replaced by a new fear.
“Where are you?” I demanded.
I looked behind his dresser and in his toy box. He was not in his room.
At the back of Joseph’s bedroom was, for want of a better description, a large porthole. About a half a meter in diameter, it led to his personal, enclosed porch. I stepped through the porthole that we had used many times to play pirate and astronaut and submariner and many other games we had invented between ourselves, half expecting as I stepped through that he would jump out at me.
One of the windows of the enclosed porch had been left cocked open. It was less than a three meter drop to the ground, and by crawling out and hanging off an edge, Joseph had made that drop, much to his mother’s chagrin, many times.
He must have done so earlier that day.
My son was gone.
My wife and I berated each other for several minutes, then ran around the house fruitlessly for several more until I grabbed her arms and made us both stop.
“He’s run away from home.”
“Why would he do that? No child has ever run away from home before!”
I don’t know why what I had experienced at the Temple earlier seemed relevant at that moment, but it did.
“I think everything is changing,” I said.
“What?” Amaya cried. She still looked around, struggling feebly against my grasp. “What are you talking about?”
I let go of her.
“You have to listen to me.”
“Our son is gone. How can he be gone?”
“Why did he bite his sister?” I asked.
“I don’t know.” She shook her head as she spoke, her eyes darting from the entrance of the house to the windows, and then back up to the stairs that led to the bedrooms, as if her vigilance would insure the safe return of her son.
“Amaya, sit down, please,” I asked gently.
“We have to find him.”
“We will. I promise. I’ll go get help and we’ll find him. He won’t go far. Maybe to relatives in the City. I’ll go to Bishop Haskell’s and we’ll create a search party.”
“What’s a search party?”
“A group of people who gather to search for one who is lost. They used them often in the Before.”
“Will it work?”
“It has to.”
She nodded and sat in the overstuffed arm chair that had its back to the balcony. I never liked sitting in that chair because it didn’t have a view of the trees out our windows. Amaya preferred it because it let her look back into her house that she had so lovingly decorated, and it let her keep track of her children’s comings and goings as they played, running up and down the stairs to their bedrooms.
I knelt in front of her and took her hands, staring into her lovely yet frantic-looking eyes. She finally looked back at me.
“At the Temple today, I waited in line for four hours,” I said. “Then inside, I prayed for over two, but no one came.”
She looked puzzled now.
“Has that ever happened before?” Her voice was tinged with panic.
I shook my head.
“Some said that they had heard of it in other temples, but no one had experienced it firsthand. A few had come earlier in the day to others, but there were about a hundred of us when I was there and no one came. We had to leave. Those who were still in line were being sent home.”
“What does that have to do with Joseph biting Mary and running away?”
“I don’t know.”
“Last week the woman who came to me,” she said, her voice calmer than it had been since my return, “said that she had met Adam once. Personally. But that she had only been baptized and needed the remainder of her temple work performed. Do you think…?”
Her voice trailed off.
“I don’t know. I’m going to go to Bishop Haskell’s now and get help. You stay here.”
Amaya shook her head, but I stood, my hands on hers not letting her stand.
“I have to come with you,” she said.
“You stay here. In case Joseph comes to his senses and returns. And to protect Mary. Just in case.”
Her eyes welled up in tears. She clung to me and I knelt again before her. We held each other and cried. Her body shook and my heart broke for her. I kissed her forehead, then the top of her head. Her hair smelled like strawberries.
“I love you,” I said.
“I love you, too.”
We kissed again, deeply, forcefully, two souls adrift in a storm with no compass and no rudder, no direction or guidance, as if we feared that all was lost. I sighed, she shuddered, and we embraced once more.
I never should have left her. I never saw her alive again.
I ran to Bishop Haskell’s. It was not far; five kilometers at most. I wondered how long it had taken Amaya to carry the injured and bleeding Mary to his house. Had he been there? Or had he been out in his fields, tending his crops? He was a good Farmer and taught many of us the things we needed to know so that we, too, could farm and raise food for our families. He still provided a substantial portion of what we ate, however. I always wondered how many people were fed by official Farmers.
The path between our houses was not well worn, as it was between other houses and on the way to the City. Perhaps I should have visited him and his wife more often, but their two boys were older than our children, and dare I say it, a bad influence. I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t recall any specific wrongdoing that I could point to, but they seldom attended Sunday meetings, they often cheated when they played games with my children, and they simply weren’t nice.
I tried once to show them how to shoot my crossbows, thinking that that would be a way to reach them, to pique their interest in something, but they immediately pointed the weapons at each other and I had had to take them away. One of them had cursed at me. I had never heard a curse word before, had only seen them in the ancient literature I often read, and the sound pained my ears. How could someone actually allow such words to proceed from their lips?
But Bishop Haskell never complained. He and his wife did the best they could, prayed for their children, tried to teach them, loved them, and hoped for the best. What more could one do?
There were two ways to get to his house. One was a direct route, but the other, while a little longer, took me through his fields. If he were out in them, at work farming, I would see him sooner than if I went directly to his house, then back out to his fields.
There was no trodden path in the direction of those fields. Perhaps I should have helped with the Harvest more often, but I was generally busy with Reading and Teaching and my own family and garden. If he had needed help, he would have asked for it, I supposed.
As I ran, I pondered Amaya’s last words to me. She had actually been visited by the spirit of someone who had lived in the time of Adam. It was almost unbelievable. Most of the spirits who had visited me, requesting that I perform temple work on their behalf, were from the Middle Ages. Perhaps because I had met so many people from that era, I had grown fascinated with their history and their lives. Thus I had read about crossbows and swords and castles and battering rams. Much of the literature from the Middle Ages was filled with warfare and intrigue. It must have been a terrible time to live, although it couldn’t have been as bad as described in the books I had read. It fascinated me. Technology without skill, knowledge without history, awareness without understanding. The people who lived in those days seemed to have muddled their way through their lives without ever knowing anything about the world around them.
It’s a wonder Mankind survived.
I reached Bishop Haskell’s fields, but he was nowhere around. I called his name, but no one answered.
I raced to his house.
I was not an athletic person, but I tried to remain physically fit. The Master taught us that life was not just spiritual, but also physical and that we must learn to take care of both sides of our responsibility. Walking everywhere helped. I almost couldn’t believe it when I read in an ancient book that most individuals from the Before had used mechanical conveyances to get from place to place. Horses I could understand. But automobiles? And airplanes? How did anyone stay in shape?
Still, I was winded when I reached his house.
“Bishop Haskell!” I cried weakly, but there was no response. “Bishop Haskell!” The wooden swing on his front porch invited and I sat for a moment to catch my breath.
“Bishop Haskell!” I cried again, this time louder. Still no reply.
I breathed deeply, tried to slow the inhalations and exhalations, and stood.
I opened the front door.
During the Before, everyone locked their doors. Some lived behind walls and gates and armed guards. No one believes me when I tell them of such things. Most do not even comprehend what the word ‘lock’ means.
But despite no locks, I would not intrude into another’s house.
I reluctantly poked my head inside.
Perhaps it was because that was the day that everything had changed. Perhaps it was because panic had risen inside of me that Amaya and I might never see our son again. Perhaps it was because I had grown older and certain habits and customs were just for the weak and the young.
I stepped inside his house.
I saw them immediately. Bishop and Sister Haskell. Grief overwhelmed me that I had never even learned her first name. I was a terrible neighbor, so caught up in my own affairs that I had never bothered to really get to know them. I simply ate of the food they provided to the community who lived in the Country, served whenever asked by my bishop to serve, but I did not make the effort to learn who they really were. I sensed that the Master would be disappointed.
More astonishing than finding Bishop Gregory Haskell and his wife, Sister Haskell, sitting on their couch dead, blood soaking their clothes and covering the carpet around them, was that both had been killed not only by slicing their necks open, but by a single crossbow bolt each, the bolts sticking out of their necks.
I ran home terrified. I couldn’t make the image of their mutilated, bloody corpses go away. I couldn’t make the fact that they had been killed with one of my crossbows go away. I felt terrible. I had never felt this way before.
I did not feel the exhaustion I should have felt as I ran. I did not feel the tiredness I had felt when I had first arrived at the Bishop’s house, when I had still been innocent. Now I only felt panic. Fear. Terror. My world was ending. There was no other explanation. I did not know how it would end or why it would end, but it was ending, at least for me. I did not know what I would say to anyone or how they would accept my confession. I had created a weapon that had been used to kill two people.
I cried as I ran.
Long before I saw my house, I smelled the smoke.
As I rounded the final bend, I saw not just the smoke, but the blaze itself. Greater than a thousand campfires, it engulfed my entire house. My life went up in those flames.
One impulse wished me to run into the house and save my wife and my daughter. But I knew already that if they had not yet fled the house, there was no one left to save. Another impulse wished me to run away, to get help, to put the fire out and sift through the ashes to see what I could rebuild. A final impulse wished me to throw myself on the flames and share the fate of my family.
I sat on the ground instead and cried. My world had really ended now.
I’m not sure how long I cried. The flames never diminished, but parts of the structure collapsed when support beams and structural members were burned too thin to hold the weight it was their duty to carry. The fire always seemed to burn brighter, the flames hotter, and the smoke thicker when part of the house caved in.
I realized later that I should have scoured the woods around my house for my wife and my daughter. Perhaps my son, sensing the disaster that had befallen our family, had returned. But I did none of those things. I sat on the grass and mourned. I was overcome with grief.
I think I slept. Lost consciousness is probably a better description. There was no rest, no peace in any slumber I experienced. I was simply sitting on the grass one moment, and then I was lying on it later with no notion of how I had moved.
Mary woke me.
A flash of rejoicing crossed my mind until I saw her.
“I killed Mommy. I killed Mommy,” she sang, dancing in front of me. “I killed Mommy.”
She held a butcher knife in her hand. The blood on it had dried, but she licked it, her tongue sticking all the way out of her mouth.
“I killed Mommy.”
Her hair was tangled, her clothes torn and covered in smoke and ash, her skin was scratched and she bled in places, but an evil dwelled in her eyes that I had never seen before. Not in her nor in anyone else. Maliciousness glared at me, and she spoke instead of singing.
“I killed Mommy. Now I’m going to kill you.”
She rushed me.
A seven year old girl, even with a butcher’s knife, is no match for a grown man, and I ducked her swing, kicked at her, and knocked her down. I felt horrible. I felt like an abusive father. But what else could I do? I pounced on her, pinning the arm down that held the knife, and tried to straddle her. She kicked and screamed and clawed my arms. Her face looked like an animal’s. Disgusted beyond feeling or emotion, I leaned across her and with my right hand took the knife away, throwing it as far as I could under the circumstances, enduring her childish abuse, then jumped off of her. She immediately scrambled for the knife, but I beat her to it, picking it up and throwing it as far as I could toward the house. It did not reach the flames, but it landed close enough that it would be too hot for someone to retrieve it.
She screamed a terrible cry, that of a frustrated, angry beast, and rushed me again.
Before she reached me however, she fell with a shriek. A crossbow bolt stuck out of her tiny back.
A flash of hope filled my mind. I thought that this might be Joseph, saving me from the monster who had once been his sister and my daughter. Perhaps he had bitten her in self-defense, had fled our house for his own safety, had broken into my crossbow shed and taken a crossbow out so that he could protect himself and save my life.
But another bolt flew by, just missing my head, and I knew that the first had caught Mary by accident. That her mad rush had moved her into the path of the shot aimed for me. I looked and I saw that it was not my Joseph in the tree line, but the Haskell boys aiming crossbows at me. Fresh from killing their own parents, now they were trying to kill me.
With practice it only takes me a second or two to load a bolt into one of my crossbows. When I am out of practice, it sometimes take three or four seconds. Most beginners take from five to ten.
A man can run a long distance in ten seconds.
Two bolts fell short.
I ducked into trees, zigzagging between trunks. Anything that prevented a straight shot would save me. As I ran, I wondered if Mary were truly dead or only severely wounded by the irresponsible toy I had learned to make. Bishop Haskell had been right. I should not have delved into such mysteries of the past. Did that mean the Master had been wrong in granting me permission? Or had he known the terrible consequences of my actions, but had allowed me to proceed on my wicked path regardless, allowing me the agency to make choices whether they were right or wrong?
I found myself running in the direction of Bishop Haskell’s farm. I recognized my error immediately. Going there would do me no good. His children had already killed him. Perhaps my Joseph had helped. Perhaps his children would circle back and wait for me there. Perhaps Joseph already lay in ambush there, waiting for me to explore the house. He may have been there when I had been there earlier, waiting for me.
Betrayed by my own!
I heard no sound other than my rapid breathing and the pounding of my heart in my ears. I did not hear the birds. I wondered if they had already fled the impending storm. I heard no breeze in the woods.
No crack of twigs. No snap of branches. I felt completely alone.
I moved a little, slowly, walking around several trunks, stopping often and listening, watching. There was no movement. No one followed me. No one knew where I was.
I climbed a tree.
Joseph and I had climbed many trees around our house when he was younger. He loved scaling the dizzying heights of a maple or an ash. We had no oaks, but we made plans to go to a forest that did, and somehow learn how to scale one of their massive trunks. Joseph had even fallen once, from a maple, but he was right over me and I caught his tiny frame with one hand. He thanked me for saving his life that day. I told him that that was what fathers did.
In the branches of the tree I had climbed, I decided to wait for nightfall. I believed I could find my way back to the City and the Temple in the dark. It would be impossible for the Haskell boys, or my son, to find me in the night. They were young and would grow bored, going somewhere else.
Should I try to warn my neighbors?
I didn’t know what to do.
I was thirsty. I had not had anything to drink since I had left the Temple. The madness had started too quickly. My family had turned to ash in my mouth, dust in my hands, without my being able to do anything to prevent it. And now I was dry, spent, and exhausted.
I prayed for rain.
The rain fell from my eyes instead of the sky as I mourned my lost wife and children. I had some hope that Amaya, with her pale skin and green eyes and light brown hair, had somehow escaped the fire, but the certainty of Mary’s chant persuaded me otherwise. Amaya’s laugh, her innocent views of the things I told her about that I read in ancient books, her earnestness in caring for our children, her unconditional love for me, all of these things I would miss.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. We were close in age.
I knew of death. I had read about it. Thoughts of it, knowledge of it, governed the lives and writings of those authors who had written during the Before. Those who appeared to us in the Temple had died those sorts of deaths, their mortal existences ending at some random point in time, no knowledge ahead of time of when or where or how. Not knowing how long one might be separated from their most treasured companion.
By marrying someone close in age, we were assured of only a brief separation. I had been present when my grandfather had changed in the twinkling of an eye, as scheduled, on his seventy-second birthday. My grandmother had been present also. She would have to wait three weeks. Those weeks had been an eternity to her, but then she also turned seventy-two and was changed.
Witnessing their transitions had been the most spiritual moment of my life until I met Amaya.
Amaya and I were born only days apart, she four days older than I. She should have lived until she was seventy-two and changed on her birthday, the twenty-second of Nisan. Four days of celebration and mourning later, I, too, would change from mortal being to resurrected soul in the presence of my children, other family, and friends. I did not know what the reunion of resurrected couples was like, but I imagined it to be a glorious occasion.
I would no longer have that experience. My Amaya had been murdered. I wondered how long her spirit would have to wait before it could be united with her resurrected body. I hoped not long. We were taught that the spirits who waited for the resurrection looked upon their time as immaterial beings as a sort of prison.
I mourned that my Amaya would have such an experience. I was tempted to return to the fire of my house and throw myself into the flames and join her, but self-murder was almost as evil as murder, and if I had to suffer without her for the rest of my mortal existence so that we could be together eternally, I would.
And what of my lost Mary? My darling little one. A crossbow bolt of my own making, and most likely intended for me, had cut her down. Guilt overwhelmed me and I could not think for many moments. When I returned to my senses, I recalled her life when she was little. She had been so sweet, so tender, although she cried frequently. As with Joseph, Amaya had been unable to nurse Mary and we had been forced to use the supplements that others had created. Many of the children of Mary’s generation had had the same problem and many parents had speculated why without gaining any understanding. For hundreds of years, children had nursed properly, and suddenly an entire generation struggled. It was a mystery.
We tried to have a third child, but Amaya could never become pregnant again. No one in our community had become pregnant after Mary’s birth, and sometimes, when I was with just the men in the Temple, I asked discreet questions. No one from other communities who had been willing to answer me had been able to conceive with their wives either, so the problem was not just limited to us. Mary was the youngest of any children of any parents I had ever met.
I realized now, sitting in the tree and waiting for nightfall to evade my pursuers, how naive Amaya and I had been. We had explained away Joseph and Mary’s lack of ability to nurse. We had explained away being unable to conceive any more children, of no one being able to conceive any more children. We had explained away the terrible behavior of our children, only seeing the good in them.
Joseph’s bite had not been the first time he had hurt his sister.
Before then, his cruelty had been emotional, not physical. I had attributed it to sibling jealousy, although very little of that had existed between me and my siblings or between Amaya and hers. Our families had grown up in peace and harmony and we had expected to raise our children the same way. As I sat in the tree, it was as if I had been living one life in my head while actually living another in my body.
I had not been accepting reality.
I still was not ready to accept it. I fantasized for a while that Mary had been deluded and that Amaya still lived, had not been killed with a knife wielded by her precious daughter, her remains not been burned in the awful deflagration that had once been our home, that Joseph had come to his senses and returned, apologetic, and that little Mary had survived the injury I had witnessed. That I had foolishly fled without a proper assessment of her state.
That I had not seen Bishop Haskell and his wife murdered by their own children, and those children had not attempted to murder me also. That it had all been a misunderstanding. That they had fired the crossbows in error and had not been aiming for me when they had taken the life of my little one.
A wooden crossbow bolt glancing off a nearby branch jolted me back to the present, to the actual, painful reality of my world. To a world the Master must have forsaken, because how else could a place exist where children slaughtered their parents?
Another bolt skipped harmlessly through the branches. I was well protected in my current spot. But how long until the Haskell boys climbed after me and fired at close range? How long until one of them thought to set a fire at the base of the tree and force me out?
There are two ways to quickly descend a tree.
One of those ways is quite sudden and could be fatal. The other way involved training I had received in gymnastics when I was still in secondary school. I had not been graceful and never had attained a level of ability where I dared to compete with others, but I had successfully learned the shoot over, which is the transition from the high bar to the low bar on the uneven bars. It consisted of a handstand on the high bar, and then a swing with a somersault in the air to catch the low bar.
Jumping from a high branch to a low branch was child’s play in comparison.
Joseph and I had practiced it many times and we joked that we were monkeys swinging through the trees. I waited now until two bolts had been fired at me, wondering for a fraction of a second where my assailants had procured so many bolts, then swung down to a lower branch, then one even lower, moving outside with each transition, until I caught one of the lowest branches towards its end, and the tree gracefully lowered me back to the earth.
Caught off guard, one of the Haskell boys, I wasn’t sure which one, ran to where I was about to descend and raised his crossbow. I let go of my branch.
One of my feet caught his weapon, causing it to fire wildly, and the other foot hit him in the chest. I tumbled to the ground, curling and twisting to avoid injury, although my landing still hurt, but the boy I struck had no such luck. His head smacked the tree trunk sickeningly. However, I had no time to try to help him. His brother was on me instantly with a knife.
I had never fought before, other than playful wrestling with my siblings and schoolmates, but millennia of human conflict had instilled certain basic instincts in me, and I struck out at the boy with my foot, kicking the arm that held the blade, and quickly stood. I was taller by almost half a meter and probably weighed thirty-five or more kilograms than he did. The force of my charge staggered him and he fell under my assault.
I don’t know what I had intended to do next, but the blade he carried turned in his weak arms and when I stood back up, it had pierced his abdomen. His life blood flowed out. I did nothing to stop it.
I looked back at the first boy I had struck, and his head sat at an odd angle to the rest of his body. His eyes stared glassily at nothing.
I had just killed two children. Would the Master ever forgive me?
I ran back to my house.
My thigh hurt as I ran. I must have injured it while swinging out of the tree. I had never broken a bone before and did not know how to tell if I had broken one now. Perhaps I wouldn’t be able to run if it were broken. Regardless, I pressed on. If I could run, I would. And I did.
My house smoldered when I reached it. There were still flames in places, but I could get close. Mary’s body was gone. Perhaps she had survived after all.
I sifted through the ashes and rubble of my life, the acrid smoke clinging to my clothes and hair, not knowing what I looked for. I had seen images of skulls in books that I had read. I supposed that I looked for one of those, for a lifeless bone with empty eye sockets that had once been my wife’s lovely head, but the light was failing and the task hopeless.
“Run!” a man’s voice cried. Somewhat stupefied, I stared at a man running for his life toward me. I did not recognize him. “Run!” he cried again and then he was past me.
I moved out of the smoking rubble in his direction, but my mind had not yet processed his urgent command. Why would I run? Why would I trust a complete stranger?
I had always trusted everyone I met; it was one of the fundamental tenets of the Master’s teachings. Everyone was trustworthy and everyone was trusted. The events of the past few hours had soured that belief. I trusted nothing at the moment. I wasn’t even sure I trusted the Master. How could he allow this to happen?
I heard animal cries. Yet I knew they were not animals, but a pack of children. Probably armed. Hopefully not with crossbows.
I started running after the man.
I lost him in the dusk. He took a path I did not choose. I returned instead to where I had fought the Haskell boys. I knew that climbing a tree would no longer be safe, that I must return to a place with walls and a group of adults helping each other. Surely such a place existed. And if so it would be in the City, not in the Country where individual houses would be indefensible against packs of wild children.
Had all of the children turned wild?
I struggled at first to think of a place where I would be safe, then I remembered the only real possibility. The Master had taught that it was a refuge from the storm although I had never understood those words. My house was a refuge from rain and wind and occasional hail, from thunder and lightning, but I knew his meaning was metaphorical. I was in a storm now like I had never seen before and there was only one place where I might be safe.
I resolved to run to the Temple.
But first, I found the scene of my battle with the Haskell children. They still lay where they had fallen, the younger boy slumped against the tree, his head still sitting at an unnatural angle to his body, the older boy lying on the ground with the knife plunged deep into his stomach. I grabbed the knife, pulling it out of him, but no more blood flowed. I wiped it off on his trousers. A crossbow lay fallen nearby and I picked it up. I found the second one behind the tree. The younger boy wore a backpack and I gingerly touched him, I had never touched a corpse before and contact with it turned my stomach and made the hair on my neck stand up, and pulled him forward to take the backpack off.
It was filled with bolts. More than I had ever made. The boys had been planning this day. They had worked with Joseph to steal my crossbows and make more bolts. I should have listened to my bishop and never created these weapons.
The backpack was oversized and the two crossbows fit in easily. The boys had planned well. There was also dried fruit and a water bottle in the pack. As thirsty as I was, I didn’t dare drink from the bottle. Perhaps the children had taken some form of hallucinogen that had driven them all mad. Perhaps it was in the food and drink in the backpack I now carried.
I dumped the water out and discarded the bottle. I also discarded the food. I did not want hunger or thirst to tempt me into eating or drinking the same poison that had turned my children against me, had turned all children against their parents as far as I knew.
I put on the backpack with the crossbows inside and ran.
My mental state changed as I ran. I had never been this tired before in my life. I had not eaten, it seemed foolish now to have discarded the dried fruit, and I had not drank, also foolish to have emptied the water bottle, since I had been to the Temple earlier in the day. The Temple was over an hour’s walk from my house, so I expected to be there in less than forty-five minutes from my present location. If I could run that long. If I didn’t pass out first.
But despite my exhaustion, my shoes pounded the grass, one foot after another, and my mind disassociated itself from my body. My mind no longer felt the physical hurts, but dwelled instead on the spiritual ones. How could I have let my children turn evil? All of Joseph’s behaviors growing up should have warned me. I saw them all now in a new light. His hostility toward his sister. His lack of obedience unless I was giving him my complete attention. He wouldn’t even clean his room unless I helped him! I had attributed all of these things to normal, child-like behavior.
Yet I hadn’t acted that way when I was a child.
When he had learned to read, he gravitated to my book collection. I had attempted to steer him to the classics of literature, books I felt that everyone should read although few did, but instead he was intrigued with the fiction of cowboys and pirates and astronauts. We had role played such individuals endlessly in his room and balcony and in the woods around our house. I had felt we were bonding, but now I realized that he often “killed” my character during that playing. We were seldom on the same side, or if we were, my character was treacherous and had to be killed by his.
It was fiction. It was play. I had never considered that there might be a deeper meaning until now.
What was wrong with my children?
The paths between the City and the Country were cleverly designed so that one did not see houses along the way. Hidden by hedges and trees, one had the illusion of complete isolation. I was not sure I wanted that isolation just now, but the sky was lit with flames from other burning houses and it was probably best that I stay out of sight, even in the dark.
Eventually, unable to see, for smoke had shrouded the moon and made it glow reddish-amber, I was forced to walk.
Almost within sight, I would have been if it had been daylight, of the row of town homes that demarcated the edge of the City, I heard animal cries again. I quickly scrambled into the trees near me and debated climbing the first one. I moved instead deeper into the woods, five or six trees between me and the path, and waited, unable to breathe.
A group of children with torches and farm implements, one had a shovel, two had pitchforks, and several carried hoes, ran screaming passed where I hid. If I had been running blindly along, I would have crashed straight into them.
In the light of their torches I could see that they had painted their faces. But the color was all the same, a darkening red.
Somehow I knew that these children had painted their faces with the blood of their parents.
I waited until they were long gone, then moved slowly through the forest in the direction of the City. I lost all hope at that point. Had the children of the City already killed all of their parents? Did anyone survive?
The flames burning the town homes added to my hopelessness. I could not reach the path I normally took, the fires were too intense, so I remained in the trees and made my way around the perimeter.
The City was huge, more than a day’s walk from one side to the other, but there were large green spaces, parks for children and adults to play, and some of those parks extended all the way to the City border. Although the paths I knew of were impossible to use because of the burning houses next to them, I might be able to enter the City and reach the Temple through a park.
A part of me wondered what horrors might await me in the park. Had I not already witnessed enough?
Staying under the cover of the trees, my only light the light from buildings burning in the City, was more difficult than I could have imagined. I stumbled over branches and into tree trunks and was faint with thirst and hunger and exhaustion before I saw the closest park, an opening in the flames that beckoned darkly to me.
We had been to this park often. Amaya and I had attended open air concerts in its pavilion. We had played on the splash pads with our babies when they could first walk. We had taken them on the swings and the teeter-totter and had done all those things that good parents were supposed to do, that my parents had done with me. But we had not done them because it was expected. We had done them because they were fun. Because they bonded us together as a family. Because we drew closer together and loved each other more.
Or so I had thought.
How had my children become evil? How had their love for us waxed cold?
Perhaps it was something in the food supplement that had replaced nursing. Perhaps it was unnatural, and it had damaged their brains, had damaged the brains of all the children who couldn’t nurse. Should Amaya have tried harder to nurse? Should I have forced her to nurse her children, like mothers had done for millennia before us? Had the fact that others couldn’t nurse their children unduly influenced us into giving up too easily?
There were many things I would have changed about my life if I had known earlier the things I had learned this day.
I waited in the trees, unable to decide if I should enter the park now or wait until sunrise. My lack of strength made the decision for me. If I stayed too long in the trees, I would pass out and a pack of children would find me and kill me in my sleep.
That almost appealed to me. I could rest, I could die. I would be with Amaya again, if I could trust the words the Master had taught us.
But I sighed. I could not give up so easily. I had to make it to the Temple. I had to understand what was happening. I could not go back in time and change the past, but I could change the future. If I could survive until daylight, I could help my fellow brothers and sisters find the remaining children, stop their madness with medicine or blessings, or both, and rebuild our world.
I would even pray for a miracle.
I pulled one of the crossbows out of my backpack. A handful of bolts followed. I didn’t load. I didn’t want to be spooked and shoot at the wrong person, but I was ready.
I knew from my reading that every pack had a leader, and that often when that leader was killed, the pack dissipated. It might not always work, but I decided that was what I would try first. Kill the largest and loudest boy in the pack, if I encountered one, and then hope the rest would flee.
“I love you,“ I whispered to my wife and set off in a crouching run across the opening between the trees and the park.
I hadn’t run fifty meters when I was spotted. The pack was several hundred meters to my left, I hadn’t seen their torches, and they swarmed toward me. I stopped crouching and stood and ran for the park.
My mind raced with my legs, trying to plot a strategy. I risked a look over my shoulder, hoping that it wouldn’t cause me to stumble or slow, and saw that there were more torches than I could count in a brief glance.
I would never make it to the Temple.
I thought of places in the park and discarded each as indefensible. The splash pad wouldn’t help. A little water meant to be played in by toddlers would not slow the animals down. The playground was equally useless. I could use the toys as obstacles if I were chased by one or two children, but not by a horde.
A stage. Stone steps leading up to it. A grassy knoll for spectators. A structure over the stage where torches and curtains hung from. I could climb on top of that. Use my crossbow to kill the leader or leaders of the pack that now chased me. Hope for the best.
Or die there, but at least I would have tried.
I angled through the park, mentally trying to picture where I ran to avoid obstacles. I missed one, or simply didn’t think about it, and tripped on a teeter-totter, flying headlong into a slide. The crossbow I carried broke on the slide. The bolts I carried were scattered. Blood filled my eyes.
But I didn’t stop.
I reached the stage of the pavilion and was surprised to see torches still lit, hanging from it. Then I saw the bodies. All beheaded. There had been a performance this evening and the children attending it had risen up against their parents. Most of the adults had died trying to flee. There weren’t enough bodies to account for an entire audience, so some must have escaped. Yet the houses in the City burned. Where had they escaped to?
I looked at my crossbow in the light and the prod was cracked. It was useless. No prod, no spring to propel a bolt. I discarded it.
The structure above the stage was easy to climb, which was both encouraging and disheartening. I would have to kill one or more of my attackers before they attempted to follow me, or else I would still be overwhelmed when they all climbed up after me.
I found a spot where I could sit and see most of the way around me, particularly down the side I had just climbed. I would have to twist to see the other, but I could do so, shooting anyone who climbed after me.
If someone made it atop before I shot them, I could stand easily, brace my feet on two of the beams, and fight for as long as I could.
This was where I would make my defense.
As I waited atop that structure, I looked through the beams to the stage below me. There were two men and a woman in costume lying there. Only one of the men and the woman had been beheaded. The second man had merely been stabbed in the heart, the blade still stuck out of him. I wished I had noticed it before and grabbed it, because I couldn’t find the blade I had taken from the Haskell boys. I must have dropped it in my haste, either when I tripped over the teeter-totter or earlier, in the woods. I stared down, wondering why they hadn’t beheaded the one actor like they had the others, wondering if they had been disturbed and had fled.
Then I heard the pack.
They had spread out, searching for me. I could understand some of their words, but much of their communication was in grunts and cries that were as meaningless to me as the howling of dogs.
I pulled the second crossbow out of the backpack and armed it with a bolt.
The first child I saw was a stringy, blonde-haired girl not much older than my Mary. I could not shoot her.
“There he is!” she cried. “There he is! There he is!”
The first child to reach her was an older boy who stood almost a head taller than her. He carried a bloodied machete, and blood soaked his hands and clothes. There was no mistaking my first target.
He never even cried out when the bolt entered his chest. He simply fell backward. The girl picked up the machete he dropped.
More children arrived, and my next shot caught a boy in the shoulder, felling him, but I knew he wasn’t dead. The little blonde girl finished him off by slashing at his neck with the machete. A spurt of blood covered her, making her appear in the dim torchlight like an ancient ghoul.
An older boy helped her sever the head.
I shot at him also, but missed. The rest of the children moved back, under cover, and I didn’t waste any bolts on them. I heard their whispered instructions, their plan to surround the proscenium and attack simultaneously.
I felled the first child that moved out of cover. I don’t know if I killed her or not, but the rest of the children remained put.
One of the boys hiding more distant than the others picked up a rock and threw it in my direction. It landed on the stage, skittering across the stone surface until it stopped against a pole. I hadn’t considered this method of attack against me, but the rest of the children quickly adopted the idea and I was soon lying flat on the roof under a hail of pebbles and stones.
Some hit the wood framework hard, and I knew I couldn’t expose myself to this assault. A good shot and I would be brought down like Goliath under attack by a pack of Davids. Worse, I could see some of the older boys moving under the cover of the rock barrage toward the stage. I hung the crossbow through the gap in the rafters that held me and fired at one of them, but missed. Rocks crashed into the spot where I had just had the crossbow.
As the first boy reached the proscenium and began to climb up, the pelting lessened. Perhaps the other children didn’t want to hit him. Perhaps they were just running out of rocks. The parks were normally kept quite clean, and the rocks they were throwing at me must have come from the landscaping.
I used the opening to leapfrog along the open rafters and get right over the climbing boy. The bolt hit him in the face and he fell, crying out.
Two others climbed the other side and I waited until they were on top. The first fell off the structure when I hit him, the second, moving unsurely over the open roof, watching his footing more than me, stayed on the rafters when I killed him, landing in almost the same spot where I had first set up.
The rest of the children didn’t seem to know what to do. Were these the ringleaders that I had killed? I hoped so. I hoped their deaths would cause the others to flee and I wouldn’t have to shoot at any more children.
I wondered how many bolts I had left. I made my way back to the boy who had fallen on the roof and pulled the one out of his neck. I shoved him over the front of the structure and he fell onto the stage below where he landed on his head. It crunched and I almost threw up.
I couldn’t look away, though, and saw something that disturbed me even more than the pack of wild children who surrounded me.
The actor, the one who hadn’t been beheaded, moved.
He was clearly dead. The knife protruded from his heart. He lay in a pool of blood. His arms and legs lay at unnatural angles around him. He had to be dead.
But he moved.
His eyes opened.
Perhaps it was a trick of the light, but his eyes appeared milky or cloudy, and didn’t seem to be able to see anything. He jerked in a manner I had never seen before and was suddenly on his feet.
I heard the children running away.
“Cowards!” screamed a primal voice from the animated body below. “Cowards!”
He flung his arms angrily out at the air, his body jerking around, almost toppling.
“Cowards!” he screamed again.
Terrified, I said nothing. He had just saved my life, but I didn’t understand what was happening. Had the actor not died? What was below me?
He pulled the knife out of his chest and gasped with the effort. He then turned and looked up at me.
“It hurts!” he screamed at me. “It hurts! Did you know it would hurt?”
I shook my head but I didn’t think he could see me that well.
“I don’t understand,” I called back.
“When I took the knife out of the poor fool’s heart who used to own this body. I didn’t think it would hurt, but it really does.” He cried out as if to demonstrate his pain. “Does everything you do hurt your body?”
“They’re the cowards, you know,” he said, waving his knife at the empty darkness. “You’re brave.” He waved the knife at me now.
“They’re just children.”
He laughed. A deep belly laugh that mocked me.
“Children,” he finally cried. “They are not children. They’re cowards! Afraid of Father’s so-called punishment.”
I was confused.
“Who are you?” I called down to him.
He laughed again.
“Do you see all these headless corpses?” He waved the knife about. “The children learn quickly. They have learned that those like me don’t brook their injustice and they can only prevent us from taking over your bodies by burning them or by cutting their heads off.”
“Who are you?” I yelled down again.
“Do you have a name, mortal?” he asked. “I mean, I know you had a name in Father’s presence, just as I, too, had one. But I don’t suppose you remember yours. You received a name when you received that body, did you not? What is it?”
“Kieran,” I replied, still confused. I put another bolt in the crossbow. I only had three left, including the one I had just loaded. But whatever was below me had saved my life and I didn’t point the crossbow at it.
“Kieran. I like that name. Can I have it when I kill you?”
Now I was really confused.
“Why would you kill me? You saved my life.”
He laughed, that deep belly laugh mocking me again.
“You don’t know anything, do you? The Master hasn’t prepared you for this moment?”
I didn’t reply. I didn’t know what to say.
“It’s the end of the world, Kieran. Those cowards who seek to kill you are the spirits who fled Father’s injustice in the beginning, like I did. He gave all of us one last chance to accept a mortal body, and those cowards took it. As if the punishment he would give them as resurrected beings would be any less than what he threatened the rest of us with.”
“Outer darkness?” I asked. I had read about it in the ancient scriptures.
“It was all prophesied, you know. ‘And when the thousand years are expired, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison and shall go out to deceive the nations which are in the four quarters of the earth to gather them together to battle: the number of whom is as the sand of the sea.’ Did you ever wonder who those people would be? Those who would be wicked at the end of the Millennium? They’re the spirits who followed Satan, Lucifer himself, and then chickened out at the last minute and allowed themselves to be born as mortals. As your children. Cowards!” He screamed his epithet horribly. “Cowards!”
“Why did you save me from them?”
“Save you?” His mocking laugh again. “I didn’t save you, Kieran. Those like me, who cannot tolerate the injustice of our fellow spirits bowing to Father, have been reanimating corpses and using them to torture the children. To make them suffer in these bodies that experience pain, to make them pay the price for their cowardice!”
“But you did save me. I’m grateful.”
He laughed again. I had grown to hate his laugh. Everything about it attempted to make me feel foolish.
“The enemy of your enemy is not your friend, Kieran. If this body didn’t hurt so much, I’d climb up there and kill you as well, just because. But I would never make it. And I hurt. So much. I didn’t realize how much it hurt to be inside a body. I don’t know how you stand it.”
“It doesn’t really hurt like that. Just sometimes.” My thigh still ached where it had hit the ground when I had dropped from the tree on the Haskell boy.
“You’re one of the brave ones,” the creature below called up. “One who chose the pain and ignorance of mortality from the start. You wouldn’t know how I feel. I’m not brave like you.”
He stood on the stage and put his arms out, looking up at me.
“One shot to the head should do it,” he said. “To put me out of my misery. I won’t even move. I promise. It’s not the same as beheading, but I think it will work.” He tossed the knife on the ground, out of his reach. “If it doesn’t, please cut my head off with that knife.”
I only hesitated a second before firing the shot at the horror below me. Everything made sense now, I supposed, but what was I to do?
I kicked the body when I climbed down onto the stage, but it didn’t move. The eye without the crossbow bolt in it had returned to a glassy coldness. I left the bolt in the other, perhaps out of respect, perhaps out of fear that if I removed it, another spirit would reanimate the corpse and it would chase after me.
After mentally expressing my gratitude to it once more for having saved my life, I fled.
The Temple burned.
Not all of it. Just the outer building on the west side that housed a laundry and a cafeteria, but that was enough to sap the last hope out of my weary body. The outer wall of the Temple, which I had always imagined was for ornamental use only, was surrounded by children. There truly were more of them than could be counted, which is what I decided the scripture meant that said there would be more than the sands of the sea, and they all wielded torches and staves, knives and swords, makeshift pikes and spears, and all screamed together in one great inhuman cry.
The defenders were few, but the wall helped, their larger size helped, and their greater intelligence helped. The adults kept the flames from the torches thrown over the wall from burning any more of the Temple, and crews worked to extinguish the fires that had already started.
Around me first four, then seven, then ten had gathered. Stragglers like me, all men except for one athletic woman carrying a staff that had been whittled to make a short spear. The men carried various weapons, a plumber’s wrench, a broom handle, several hoes. Most had evidence of having been used.
Someone behind the gate to the Temple yelled out to us.
“Is that everyone?”
No one else responded, so I did.
“I don’t know. We don’t see anyone else coming.” I wasn’t sure he could hear me over the din.
“We’ll open the gates in thirty seconds, then they’ll close and no one else gets in!”
I couldn’t believe it. I was going to be saved. Once inside the grounds of the Temple, I knew I would be safe.
“Now!” I cried and the group with me surged forward.
At first the children fell back from our onslaught. I picked out a large boy and shot him in the back with a crossbow bolt, then used my crossbow to knock others aside. It was not as effective as a club would have been and I broke the prod, but it helped clear the way to the gates.
Once the gates opened, pandemonium broke loose and all the hell children rushed that spot. Defenders came out to help us, and getting the gate shut was a miracle. I counted quickly and unless I missed someone, only four of us made it in. More defenders than that died helping us and I recognized that they would have had more people left if they had not tried to save us. But if I had been in their shoes, I could not have intentionally left others outside to die, and neither could they.
The children desecrated the bodies of those who had fallen outside the gate, beheading all of them.
Someone gave me water. I asked for food, but they had none.
The ranks outside the walls quickly swelled and the screaming crescendoed. I had arrived just in time. I didn’t think anyone else could get through. We were the last.
The children didn’t attack often, though. It was obvious that they were leaderless, just massed children intent on destruction. Some got bored and were observed leaving the crowd and playing with the fires that burned the homes surrounding the Temple. Some of those grabbed burning brands and launched them over the walls at us, but they were ineffective.
At one point, several older boys grabbed some of the younger girls and held knives to their throats. They threatened to slash them if we did not let them in. It made me heartsick, but there was no point in granting their wishes.
They killed the girls as we watched. I did not watch as they desecrated their tiny bodies.
How had two such evil beings lived under the same roof as my wife and me?
When I had named my first son Joseph I had been teased a little at the Temple. For some reason, many people were naming their sons Joseph. Or Jose. Or Yusuf. Those who had more than one son named all of them Joseph, and the younger ones went by middle names. Similarly, everyone was naming their daughters Mary or Maria. The Master said that he respected such honor, but that it was unnecessary.
We did it anyway.
What in my heart had made me want to name my children after the mortal parents of the Master? What did my unconscious spirit know that my consciousness didn’t acknowledge? Had I come to this life prepared for what was happening this terrible night?
What would the morning look like?
There was a surge attack by the children and we fought for what seemed like hours. We killed ten for every of our number that fell, but it didn’t matter. They still came. They climbed over the wall in swarms and often, particularly the littlest ones, we just threw back over. It was hard to kill children, although by the darkest part of the night I had already lost track of how many I had felled.
I couldn’t wait until sunrise came. A new day. A fresh start. I hoped the light of day would chase these hellions away.
Some of the children set others on fire and threw them on top of the outer building. Then they rushed the defenders, kept the fires burning, and someone realized that we couldn’t hold the wall any longer. A man stood in the doors of the Temple and yelled retreat and I was shocked that there were less than a hundred defenders remaining who bolted for the doors. The man locked both sets of doors behind us, they were made of heavy glass, and we watched as the swarms of children filled the Temple courtyard. Some battered their bodies into the locked doors. I was surprised that they even locked. The Temple had never been locked before.
Some of the children left after conferring with each other, and we watched the rest step back. Either they were heading to get a battering ram or they were planning on burning the Temple down with us inside.
“Are we really going to kill children inside of the Temple? If they get in?” a man asked and his question started an argument. I stayed out of it. I didn’t know how I felt. Killing children, in or out of the Temple, seemed like such a horrendous act that perhaps I had already lost my eternal salvation. But it had all been in self defense. In ancient days, the Master had commanded warriors to fight on his behalf and perhaps that is what I had done today.
That is what I hoped.
Suddenly, everyone shut up. I looked out of the glass doors first and saw children returning with large beams from the houses they had destroyed. Dozens of children latched on to each beam and they headed for the doors.
But that wasn’t why everyone had quieted. I turned and saw what they had seen. A man in a white robe standing at our backs. His eyes were sad, world weary, but he smiled gently at us. I had seen him before and knew immediately that it was the Master. When I looked at him, he looked directly back at me and I felt as if he pierced my very soul.
“Why?” someone cried.
I realized I knew something that the others didn’t. I half-raised my hand and the Master nodded to me. There was a crunching sound as a battering ram hit the outer doors.
“Father and you knew who our children were. Why weren’t we prepared?” I asked. I tried to be humble. I wasn’t angry, but I wanted to know.
The Master looked at me with kind eyes.
“Even these children are children of the Father and he wanted them raised in love. If you had known…”
He was right. The rest was obvious.
The outer doors to the temple shattered.
“We need a miracle,” someone cried, and the Master nodded.
I felt like I was wearing too many clothes. Heavy wool things wrapped over and around me, but I wasn’t hot. Quite the opposite. It was chilly and my feet, partially exposed in heavy leather sandals, were the coldest. There were women weeping around me and I looked to see what they were weeping at.
Three men hung from large wooden crosses.
The two on the outside were tied to their crosses, but the man in the middle was nailed to his. He wore a crown of thorns and a small plaque had been affixed just above his head. He was naked, except for a small loin cloth which was soaked in blood, and dried blood covered his entire body.
We did not dwell on the crucifixion when we talked about the Master, but I knew the imagery well. I knew who I looked up at.
I made to move toward him, but soldiers in brass armor and red cloaks prevented any of the crowd from getting too close. The soldiers closest to the mourners used only their shields to keep people back, but others behind them held short spears and I didn’t doubt that they would use them if anyone broke through the line.
I heard the Master say something in a foreign tongue, but I understood his words.
A sponge was brought to him, and with a long pole it was raised to his mouth. I couldn’t tell if he drank from it, but when it was pulled away, I felt as if he looked directly at me. He pierced my soul now and I understood that he had fulfilled the Father’s will in all things. All things followed a plan. All things that happened were necessary.
He looked up and uttered immortal words that I have never forgotten.
“It is finished.”
I came out of the trance I had been in as the outer glass doors to the Temple were shattered by the battering rams of Satan’s legions. I knew now why no one had come to me that morning in this very building. The Father’s work was complete.
I saw the men around me lay down their weapons and prostrate themselves on the ground. The battering ram crunched into the inner door and I looked down at my broken crossbow. It would save no one. I set it on the ground also, and knelt down.
Peace filled my soul.
Also by Bernard Wilkerson
The Worlds of the Dead series
Beaches of Brazil
The Creation series
In the Beginning
It Is Finished
The Hrwang Incursion Trilogy
New Israel (to be released)