By Pembroke Sinclair -- Contributing Author [Email This Story]
Mala had been having nightmares for a week. In her dreams, she is standing in the middle of a dirt road surrounded by the crunchy husks of dead corn fields with the sun setting, casting an orange glow onto the world. Her eyes burn and she can barely see, but she is tracking something in the field. With her gun in hand, she uses her hearing to follow whatever as it moves through the stalks. It breaks through the plants and skitters across the road, a fuzzy black object about the size of a golden retriever, and she shoots, but it is too fast and ducks back into the cover. She whirs around as the stalks swish together behind her, and she catches a glimpse of another creature as it slides into the field. For a moment, all is quiet. She rubs her eyes with the back of her hands as the sunset fades from orange to pink to gray. She moves forward to examine the area where she saw the second creature, and as she is separating the stalks with the barrel of her gun, something swipes at her calves. Pain burns from the back of her legs and she collapses to the ground. Mala pulls her legs close; blood is dripping through claw marks on the back of her jeans and her breathing is coming in rasps. Something moves in the plants next to her. She turns to face it, but it is too quick; she can feel the blood rising on her back. She screams at the pain and rolls onto her stomach, firing blindly into the dead field. The gun clicks and the slide locks back as the last bullet exits the barrel. Scrambling, she grabs another clip off of her belt. Out of the corner of her eyes, she sees the two black creatures, one on each side of her, moving in quickly. They hiss as they lunge, it sounds almost like a cat's growl when it is in the midst of a fight. She braces herself for the attack, and right before it comes, she wakes up, her sheets soaked and her breathing coming in rasps.
She stared out the window of the Dodge at the pine forest; it was hard for her to get the images out of her head.
She turned to Mortis and nodded. He was six feet five inches and weighed in at two hundred seventy-four pounds. His face was round with a wide, flat nose and brown eyes and had black hair that was shaved close to his head. His complexion was naturally dark and he had several scars from old bullet wounds. He wore a white T-shirt that clung to his muscles and a pair of black jeans. A Dharma wheel talisman hung around his neck, and a likeness of Siddhartha was tattooed over his heart. A Vektor SP1 Sport pistol, with long barrel and adjustable target sight, sat on the seat next to him and a Sphinx 3000T pistol, short-barreled tactical version with flashlight installed on integral rail, was tucked in the door on his other side.
Mala stood six foot three, was one hundred and seventy-pounds of pure muscle, and had buzzed white hair. Her face was square with a pointed chin and straight, pointed nose. Her eyes were set close and her right one was brown while the left was green. Her lips were thick and only a shade darker than her tanned skin. A scar stretched from behind her left ear, down her neck, and stopped at the top of her sternum. She wore a black tank and a pair of jeans over black combat boots. She held a holstered CZ-75B on her lap and had a Five-seveN tucked into her door.
Mortis slid the truck to a stop, about half a mile away from the church. Mala took out a pair of binoculars and glanced up at the four silver-blue steeples with crosses that made up the four corners of the stone building. She scanned the crowd of people, who took up the lawn singing praises, kneeling and praying, or standing and swaying like a drunk with eyes closed, then handed the glasses to Mortis.
"You really want to go in there?" he asked as he tucked the binoculars under the seat.
Mala shrugged and met his gaze. "Yeah. We were hired to do a job, and we're going to do our job."
Mortis spit out his open window. "I know, I know. I just have problems going into the church and shooting shit up."
She stared at him for a moment; his eyes were locked forward, staring out the windshield. "Why?"
He sniffed. "We have no idea what we're up against here. We're going in there blind. And I hate going into something I'm not a hundred percent positive I'm going to be walking out of."
She turned her stare to the people on the church lawn. For a long while she and Mortis both sat silently, taking in the scene in front of them. "I don't give a damn about the war these two groups are in." Mala spoke quietly, almost in a whisper. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Mortis turn his whole body to look at her.
He shook his head. "What about protecting our home?"
Mala snapped her head around and narrowed her eyes. "It hasn't felt like home for a long time." She knew the exact moment it had all changed for her. It had been three years ago. An extremist from the Valley had broken into the city and was planning on blowing up the temple. Mala had beaten him to the door and put a bullet between his eyes, right in the center of the city for everyone to see. Murder was forbidden, both socially and religiously. He may have had intentions to kill hundreds of people, but he was still a living entity that was entitled to his hopes, fears, and dreams. It would have been better if she had let him take his own life. At least then she wouldn't have had to deal with the looks. Some of the citizens looked at her in fear, some with sympathy, but the ones that drove her nuts were the looks of pity. She couldn't walk down a street anywhere without drawing stares, but what could she say? She was tired of it. She was tired of holding her tongue. She was tired of being nice.
Mortis stepped out of the truck and opened up the back door. He slid the Vektor into a holster on the back of his belt and attached the Sphinx to his chest. He pulled on his leather bomber and zipped it up to his chin. He grabbed a Remington 870MCS with a 10-inch barrel and no buttstock and checked to make sure it was loaded. He looked through the truck at Mala as she tucked the CZ into her right hip holster and placed the Five-seveN under her left arm. She slid an 8-inch knife into her boot, and fastened a belt with extra clips around her waist. She slid on her denim jacket and nodded at Mortis.
"So, what's the plan?"
Mala leaned forward so that her elbows were resting on the back seat. "Well, what do we know about it?"
"Not much. We know that it's an alien, the church gains its power through it, and they're preparing now for a sacrifice of thanks."
She pointed a finger at him. "That just might be our angle."
"The preparing for the sacrifice of thanks thing. We already know it's here, so we can only assume it's going to watch the ceremony. If we can get in there, we can get it."
"How do you plan on getting in? Only the priests involved are allowed."
She straightened up and placed her hand on her gun. "I don't think it will be that hard."
Mortis laughed a deep, bass-like grumble and slammed the truck door shut. He pulled his amulet out of his shirt, kissed it, then tucked it back against his chest. They headed toward the church, pushing their way through the wailing crowd, and slowly approached the mahogany doors that were carved with a tangle of crosses and leaves. Just as they were about to push open the entrance, a man wearing a black robe with long black hair and a beard that fell to his waist placed his arm in front of them. Two white streaks danced in his beard from the corner of his mouth to the ends where they were swallowed by his robe. Ice blue eyes shone under thick eyebrows and contrasted the dark wrinkled skin of his face. He was only a few inches shorter than the two and had skeletal hands with round protruding knuckles.
"No one is allowed in the church!" he boomed and looked them up and down. "Especially you!"
The crowd on the lawn had stopped their chanting and was staring at the scene in front of them. A smile curled across Mala's lips and she moved so that she was only an inch away from the priest's face. "Why don't you make this easy on yourself." She moved her coat back so her weapons were exposed. "Now be a good priest and open the door."
The man dropped his arm and, like her, smiled. "You cannot intimidate me, darling. If you kill me, they'll kill you." He nodded toward the crowd.
She shrugged. "Fair enough. But what will happen to them? If you don't perform the ceremony, the Deity will leave, right? But since you'll be dead, it won't really matter, will it?"
The priest's smile faded and his eyes narrowed to slits.
"It's your choice. You can either be saved by these people, or you can save them."
He glanced at the crowd, letting his gaze fall on each one, then pushed open the thick door. The door shut behind them, and they stepped into the foyer and glanced around the bright room that shone like gold. A table of pamphlets about "How to be a Good Deist" and "Are You Ready for Taivas?" sat to her right under a picture of Jesus Christ praying. On the opposite side of the hall was an indented wall shelf that held a figure of Mary with her head bent down and arms stretched out at her sides. Below her was a basin of holy water. The carpet was blue with gold crown-shaped designs that pointed towards the sanctuary at the other end of the church. They proceeded down the hall that was covered with pictures of Saints and tables with candles. Mala walked slowly, cocking her head to listen and paying little attention to the decorations. Mortis pushed the priest along until they came to a round room that had several marble pillars that rose to the glass ceiling. Blue couches with tables and lamps sat at every fourth pillar and the floor was carpeted in red. Opposite the door they had come into was another set of doors that rose to the ceiling in an arch and were carved with crosses on a hill. Mala stopped and Mortis pulled the priest to a halt by the back of his collar.
The man swung around and faced his captors. His eyes flared with anger and his fists were clenched so tight they looked like they would crumble and turn into dust. "What do you think this will accomplish?"
Mortis folded his arms across his chest, cradling the shotgun next to his body. "Rumor has it that you are planning on raising an army to attack the city. We know that you don't have the manpower to attack us, but with Deity's grace and technology, you might just be victorious. We're here to see that that doesn't happen."
The priest snorted and folded his hands into his robes. "I don't know where you people get your information, but nothing like that would ever happen. We live a charmed life here in the Valley, why would we want to risk losing that?"
Mala began to pace around him. He followed her with his eyes, never turning his head. "Maybe your life isn't so charmed down here." She stopped at his back and leaned forward so her mouth was right next to his ear. "Maybe Deity needs something more," she whispered and placed her hands on his shoulders. "Maybe he needs more followers."
The man shrugged her hands off and straightened up, clearing his throat. "You two must be very fond of fairy tales. Deity is very happy with the church, as is."
Mortis looked over the priest's shoulder and they both rolled their eyes. Mala walked back so she was standing in front of the priest. "How many other people are in the church?"
"Right now, none."
"How many will there be?" Mortis found it hard to hide the annoyance in his voice.
"Twelve. Plus the sacrifice."
Mala and Mortis exchanged a glance. "You're sacrificing a human?" she asked.
"What else would you suggest? Deity doesn't rule the animals. It came here to save man, to ensure our survival. It gives us what we need, so in return, we sacrifice ourselves to it."
Mortis looked at Mala and smiled. "Well, I guess that explains why he wants in the city. Pickin's must be getting' a bit slim out here!"
Mala chuckled, never taking her attention from the priest. "How long will it take to set up the sacrifice?"
"About thirty minutes," he stared at Mortis, his body once again becoming tense. "What exactly are you planning on doing?"
"Oh, not much," she said softly. "I just want to see the Deity and blow its head off."
The man smiled. "What makes you think you can?"
She furrowed her brow and pulled the gun out of her shoulder holster and pointed it at his head. "I think you've stalled us for long enough. You have thirty seconds to get moving and get this ceremony underway before I blow your goddamn head off!"
The man continued to smile at Mala's red face. "Without me," he spoke calmly, "you have no ceremony."
Mala's anger suddenly flared, and she swung the gun over her left shoulder before ramming the butt directly into his right eye. He crumpled to the floor and blood trickled out from between his fingers as he covered his face.
"Ten seconds. Then I kill you and start sniping your followers from the roof," she snarled.
The priest rose slowly and headed toward a door near the Sanctuary. Mortis fell into lock step behind him.
The Sanctuary glowed a dark orange with rows upon rows of uncomfortable looking benches that led to a raised dais with a podium and two chairs. The area was lit with hundreds of candles, which reflected off the organ pipes on the wall and surrounded it with a golden hue. A huge cross hung from the ceiling and separated the people from the Holy men. Mala propped herself in the rafters some twenty feet above the floor, hidden by the cross, and Mortis crouched by the organ, hidden by some of the pipes and a row of pews. The priest had taken his position behind the podium while the eleven other subjects formed a half-circle behind him. The sacrifice knelt on his right with hands in the praying position and head bent.
The priest stretched his arms out and stared up at the cross. "We give thanks, Deity, and are gladdened that you have returned to Earth. Please accept this Sacrifice in honor of your greatness." He lowered his arms and turned toward the man kneeling at his feet, placing his hands on his head.
From somewhere in the room there echoed a soft click, as if someone was opening and closing a door. Both Mala and Mortis stiffened and brought their weapons closer to their faces, scanning the room slowly.
"Are you ready, my son?" the priest asked in a gentle voice.
The Sacrifice responded by leaning his head back as far as it could go and stared up at the ceiling. The priest pulled a knife with a 12-inch blade out of the folds of his robe and stretched his arms to the ceiling. "Gratias agere tibi!" he bellowed before bending down and digging the man's eyes out with the knife. The Sacrifice sat perfectly still and didn't make a sound.
Mala and Mortis lost their focus and were forced to stare at what was happening.
"Now, look at Truth!" the priest gently ordered the man while holding his eyes high.
The man stood and stared with bloody sockets into the empty Sanctuary. After a short while, he smiled and held his arms out in front with palms up. "I see it! I see Deity!" he said almost breathless.
The eleven men standing behind the priest began to hum, and then they closed their eyes and lowered their heads. The priest, Mala, and Mortis could not take their gaze off the Sacrifice, when, suddenly, and without reason, three claw-like marks began to cut their way from the man's lips to his abdomen, tearing away flesh and exposing the bone underneath. He collapsed into his own pool of blood and died.
"Deity has accepted our Sacrifice!" the priest shouted, elated.
The eleven men behind him began to shuffle off, still humming. Mortis leapt from his hiding place and stopped the half closest to him.
"Don't move!" Mala's voice echoed through the room.
"Fool!" the priest scolded. "You'll ruin everything!"
She slid down the cross and jumped in front of him, grabbing his collar with one hand. "Where is it?" she shook him. "Where is Deity?"
"I'm right here," a voice, which sounded like someone screaming underwater, answered inside their brains.
Mala spun around and scanned the empty pews and dark rafters, a knot developed in her stomach. Mortis looked behind the organ. The eleven men and the priest began to slowly make their way out of the church.
"Show yourself!" she demanded.
"So I can see what you look like before I send you to your own version of hell."
"I have been around for thousands of years and worshipped on hundreds of planets throughout the universe. Do you think you're the first to oppose me? What makes you think you can kill me?"
"Well, show your face and if I can fucking blow it off . . . "
It began to laugh a laugh that sounded like a mixture of nails on a chalkboard and an angry cat. Mala's stomach knotted tighter and visions of the black creatures from her dreams popped into her brain. The sound reverberated through their minds, bouncing off their skulls and threatening to explode their heads. Then, abruptly, it stopped. "You two are fools," it hissed. "And those Buddhists who hired you. Your weak, pitiful race needs me. You are nothing without me!"
The sound of running footsteps resounded through the Sanctuary and the priest and his men, who had almost made it to the door, stopped and knelt. The doors at the opposite end flew open. They both stared in disbelief.
"No!" Mala whispered under her breath and then took off running, Mortis right behind her.
They ran to the main doors of the church, which were standing open, and returned the glares of the followers on the lawn. "Son of a bitch!" Mortis yelled and punched through a wall.
Mala stormed back inside and grabbed the priest by the neck. She dragged him the half mile back to the truck and threw him in the back seat. The crowd had been watching them in disbelief and followed them cautiously. Mala shot twice into the air and they stopped short. She climbed into the vehicle and Mortis started the engine.
"What do you want with me?" the priest asked evenly.
"You're going to take us to it," Mortis replied in the same manner. "Or else you'll die."
The truck spit rocks at the bewildered crowd as it sped down the road. The priest straightened up and brushed the wrinkles out of his robe.
"You two have no idea what you are dealing with." He couldn't hide his amusement and a smile crept onto his face.
"Shut up," Mortis snarled over his shoulder.
"What you saw in the church is only a taste of what Deity will do to you."
"Your friends." He moved his hands slowly into the folds of his robe. "Your family."
The priest pulled the knife out and lunged into the front seat. Mala saw the glint of metal out of the corner of her eye and grabbed at his arm. They bumped into Mortis and the truck swerved off the road, rocks clinked against the undercarriage, the tires slid on the uneven surface, and he slammed on the brakes. Both Mala and the priest flew forward into the windshield. She was only unconscious for a few minutes, brought back by the sound of Mortis grunting and pounding his fists into the ceiling. With blurred vision and a headache that throbbed all the way through her back, she sat up and noticed the knife had his leg pinned to the seat. She went to pull it out, but he stopped her with a yell.
"Just go get the son of a bitch!"
She stumbled out of the car and pulled her CZ out of her hip holster. She made her way back to the road and scanned her surroundings. Blood dripped into her eyes as she searched row upon row of dead corn stalks. She saw movement off to her right, so she stumbled toward it. A fuzzy black creature, about the size of a retriever, scampered across the road and ducked into cover. Mala froze. The stalks behind her swished together and she whirred around to see another creature as it disappeared into the field. The sun cast hues of orange and pink onto the field, and Mala wiped the blood out of her eyes with the back of her hand. She slowly backed away from where the last creature had been, her gun trained on the field with her finger tense on the trigger when something swiped at the back of her calves. The pain burned the back of her legs and she collapsed to the ground. Blood dripped through the claw marks on the back of her jeans and her breathing was coming in rasps. Something moved in the plants next to her. She turned to face it, but it was too quick and she felt blood rising on her back. She screamed in pain and rolled onto her stomach, firing blindly into the dead field. The gun clicked and the slide locked back as the last bullet exited the barrel. She grabbed another clip off of her belt, and in her peripheral, she saw the two black creatures, one on each side of her, moving in quickly. They hissed as they lunged, a sound almost like a cat's growl in the midst of a fight, but there was something unearthly about it. Like Deity, it sounded like it was coming from underwater. Her hands began to shake and she couldn't get the clip into the gun. She closed her eyes in anticipation of the attack.
"They're called Deitoms. They are Deity's most valuable assets." The priest knelt down and grabbed her chin, pulling her head up to look him in the eye.
She pushed herself into a kneeling position and opened her eyes slowly. Mala's breath caught in her throat as the beast put its face right in hers. The large round yellow eyes glowed in the dark, and its short snout, with a nose that was nothing more than two slits in its head, was devoid of fur. Its large ears sat on top of its head, furry and round with a dark gray inside that lay flat as it hissed through pointed teeth and splattered Mala with saliva. As it slinked away, making a circle around the man, she noticed the muscles under its slender body were well-defined beneath its black fur and its thin legs held six toes, each with a two-inch talon on the end. The long tail swished in the air and it took a seat next to the priest. She slowly started to move her hand toward her boot.
"They live in the shadows, watching, waiting. You won't even know they're there until it's too late." He patted the closest one to him on the head. "Stealthy, perfect killing machines. A few of these dispatched into the city, and they'll never know what hit them." He took his hand off the creature's head and her chin and stood up, a condescending smile on his lips. "We will get into the city. We have toiled too long here in the Valley. Hungry, dirty, craving a larger selection of women. There will be those who resist, but Deity will enslave those who do not follow his rules. It's a shame you won't be there to witness the new era." The Deitoms hissed again and moved closer, the one right next to her put a paw on her thigh and dug its claws into her flesh. The priest chuckled and stepped backward.
Mala cringed in pain and closed her eyes as it brought its paw up to her face. She felt the points begin to penetrate her skin, and a vision flashed before her mind's eye. She saw buildings engulfed in flame and recognized the temple in the background; her breath caught in her throat. A group of citizens ran aimlessly through the streets, and when they approached the shadow cast by the inferno, two Deitoms leapt forward and sunk their teeth into their necks. They collapsed onto the ground, gurgling on their own blood. As they twitched in their final throes of life, the creatures slinked back into the darkness and waited for the next victims to happen by.
The claws dug deeper into her flesh and she came back to reality. She grabbed the hilt of the knife and whipped it out of her boot, slashing it across the Deitom's throat. The second one moved in for the kill, but she spun out of the way and stabbed the blade into its spine. As it lay twitching on the ground, the priest stared at her with wide eyes. Mala grit her teeth and took a deep breath. The man held up his hands in defense, but she ignored him and sliced his torso. As he doubled over, she grabbed him by the throat and stabbed out his eyes.
"Can you see the truth?" she hissed before throwing him backward into the cornfield and heading back to the truck.
Mortis was barely conscious as she pulled the blade out of his leg and tied a tourniquet around his thigh. She struggled him into the back seat and got the truck back onto the road. The bouncing shook Mortis into reality and he sat up.
"What are you doing?" his voice was silent and shaky.
"I'm going to save our home."
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