The stars were exploding. The air was toxic and the earth quaked. Every breath he took made him consider taking another. Clement stood, body shivering, teeth vibrating, inside the bowels of the town's local church.The sign that had once guarded the entrance with pride and purpose, welcoming its visitors with open arms, no longer adorned a name nor mission. Two charred stakes of rotted wood were all that remained. "Saint Sonia" he whispered to himself.
Clement had a thing for names. He believed everyone and everything in life has a purpose, therefore deserving the privilege of a title. At the moment, Saint Sonia was keeping him hidden from many dangers. More importantly, she was keeping him alive. A pretty important purpose he thought, the most crucial purpose of all.
Clement knew the stars weren't really exploding in the sky. He just thought a healthy imagination and a little fantasy might help lighten the mood. After bearing witness to a nuclear bombardment in his home country, watching the sky burn away its blue, he needed all the comfort he could muster. Ten large openings lined the church walls. Beneath each of the portals slept piles of stained glass. In the right light, the combination created an illusion quite unlike any other on earth. Clement called them Mud Rainbows.
In the center of the church stood sixteen marble pillars. They were tattooed at their crowns with gorgeous frescos, each one intricately depicting the life stages of Christ. Fire stains left the bases of the pillars deformed and weak, yet each fresco sat high enough to avoid the stretching claws of the flames. He craned his neck to admire the resilient artwork. "Closer to heaven, the safer you are" he mumbled with sarcasm.
Behind the altar, which was now hiding beneath piles of stones from the gaping hole in the ceiling above, hung a bronze crucifix. Once held in place by three steel chains, it now pathetically swung by one. Clement had tried numerous times to take down the crucifix. He hated watching it hang in such shame. After the third attempt of stacking pieces of broken pews together proved unworthy, he took the hard fall as a sign to stop. He then began to pray to the swaying cross above for his ankle to only be strained. He needed to be mobile, ready to move at any moment. His life depended on it. A broken ankle meant death.
He was a stubborn man who had just turned fifty the previous night. Nursing a horrible hangover and now a furious ankle, about to erupt, he decided to hold his whiskey coated breath for as long as possible. He knew he was dying, so why not speed up the deed. Upon arriving at the church, he became aware of their unfortunate situation. They were without any equipment capable of filtering out the cancerous air that was rapidly consuming everything it touched. They were also without transportation. They had arrived on foot, seeking shelter and the aid of an old priest. The fumes would soon consume them as well. There was no way out.
A few moments passed then suddenly he exploded with a deep, decaying cough. Red saliva found quick exits, like a buckshot from a shotgun.
"Can you please stop being an idiot, and stop mumbling to yourself. It was weird at first, now it's just annoying" a weak voice as sharp as winter proclaimed. As a thin, tall figure emerged from the depths of the church's shadows.
Aida stood a few feet behind Clement; arms crossed, with dark eyes penetrating his body worse than the nuclear wind.
"How is your ankle? Can you put pressure on it?"
Although his wife of seven years, Clement knew Aida's beloved tone was not sincere, strictly business. He knew she was no idiot. A broken ankle for anyone in their company meant death.
"Like you care," he said.
"I need to know, Clement. In case we're forced to leave you behind. I like to plan ahead, you know that."
He couldn't help but smile. Although eleven years younger, Aida had always been tenacious. Cold as a killer, warm as a lover. It was that lustful balance of machinery and human that fueled Clement's attraction to Aida.
He claims that this attraction is what ultimately led to his marriage proposal. For Aida, it was solely her attraction to older, powerful men. She had plans, big plans, and she knew what she had to do to achieve them. Her manipulation? Or true love? Each side claimed a different version of their history.
"As much as I would truly enjoy seeing the expression your angelic face would make if you did actually have to leave me behind, I am afraid we are both going to have to wait a bit longer to see it. Ankle is good to go. A bit sore, but nothing to worry about."
"I hope not," she said.
Aida was positioned beside the main door, peering through a bullet hole.
"Because we have movement, tree line."
Clement slowly sprouted to his feet and shimmied his way to the nearest portal. He peeked his head through the hole while removing a small cylinder object from one of his jacket's deep pockets and gazed out into the night. Aida was right, multiple shadows shifted beneath the tree line which rested on the outskirts of the town. Through the scope, Clement guessed the assailants were no more than a mile out from the church's front door.
"We need to move," he said. "Fast. Get the priest."
Aida left her post by the main door and rushed to the chapel which hid one floor beneath them. At the base of the stairs, she was met by a long, candlelit corridor. Aggravation set in. She knew time was of the essence, so she broke out into a full sprint. She finally reached the end of the corridor and collapsed. Struggling to breathe, she craned her neck upwards to admire a stone archway adorned with a pair of brass angels engraved into the rock, protecting the chapel’s door.
She stepped through the threshold of the holy room and found the priest in the back of the room, on his knees, praying to a golden crucifix.
"We need to leave," Aida exclaimed.
"One moment child, I have not finished praying."
Aida knew of the immediate dangers and took no part in the priest's devotion to his religion. She stormed her way across the room and grabbed the old man by his frail shoulders, lifting him cleanly to his feet.
"No more prayers father. It's time to go."
Surprised by the sheer strength of this thin woman, he dared not challenge her. He could feel the fire stoking in her eyes and he could smell the death on her breath so he made the smart decision of succumbing to her demands. He too, knew of the dangers that lay before them. Although a priest, strong in faith, he was not quite yet ready to meet his maker.
"Lead the way my child."
"Where is the violin?" Asked Aida, annoyed.
"Locked in my chambers upstairs," he said.
"We must not leave here without it. It is too important."
"Why? Why is that violin so important to you and your husband?"
"Because of what it carries."
"What does it carry?
"Change," she said softly.
"Change? What does it plan on changing?"
Clement removed the pistol from his waistband, a beefy Colt 1911, a gift from his grandfather. A grandfather who lived in Italy and who fought and survived the second world war. The pistol was passed down to Clement’s father whose untimely death in the MiddleEast led the pistol to him. Clement wasn’t born in Italy like his father and grandfather. He was born and raised in the small New England town of Melrose, right outside of Boston. That’s where he had met Aida, a beautiful immigrant from Italy who traveled to the states to advance her studies in nuclear physics. That was until he learned her true motives were those of a bounty hunter hunting a rogue scientist guild who vowed to wipe out the entire human race with precise nuclear explosions.
Since Aida had left to retrieve the priest, those slivering shadows hiding amongst the trees had broken their cover. They quickly manifested into six, two legged bodies. Masked by darkness, the exploding stars provided short glimmers of description. They were heavily armed, equipped with gas masks and moved with frightening stealth. Clearly military, or at least had some extent of tactical training. They moved on their targets with impeccable speed. Clement calculated their approach. Five hundred yards and closing. From behind he heard the arrival of footsteps and low murmurs, he turned his body, gun raised, finger on the trigger.
"Do you always aim guns at priests?"
"Sorry father. I'm a little tense at the moment."
The priest motioned to Aida.
"That door there leads to my chambers."
The priest raised his hands to his neck and removed a hidden leather necklace, with a large copper key attached to the end. He removed the old necklace and handed it to Aida.
"There is a silver case beneath the bed. This key will unlock it. Inside that case, is your violin."
Without a single word, Aida rushed into the priest's chambers. Clement returned his tiring gaze to the impending threat just in time to see them split into two groups. Three flanked right while the other three flanked left.
"Do you know how to use a gun, father?" Clement asked.
"I know that a bullet has the power to kill a man and the trigger makes the bullets fly."
A weird response but Clement didn't have time to challenge it. He handed the priest his pistol with five remaining shots.
"Take this and watch the front. If anybody tries to enter, you make those bullets fly."
The priest looked at Clement with horror and confusion, clearly uneasy about the idea of killing. So Clement reassured him.
"Trust me father. The next people to walk through that door have no intention of letting any of us live. So unless you have plans to meet Jesus this morning. I suggest you prepare yourself to pull that trigger."
Clement turned from the stale gaze of a scared old man and hurried to the back of the church.
"Where are you going?" Screeched the priest.
"To make sure they don't enter through the back and kill us before we have time to defend ourselves."
A silly thought considering that even if they did somehow manage to survive the armed death squadron, if they didn’t find a transport, they would still be dead in a matter of hours. Pushing away the negativity, Clement struggled his way through the rubble of the church to check on the southern defenses. A few moments passed when suddenly Aida reemerged from the priest's chambers. She was carefully cradling an oddly shaped object wrapped in silk.
She had a maternal look about her, as if she was holding her newborn child for the first time. Aida began to panic. She jerked her head and body back and forth.
"Where is Clement?" she asked frantically.
"He went to make sure the back door was locked and secure-."
Aida and the priest both froze in place. Three more gunshots rang out, making six in total. The shots were spread out, as if from a long rifle or heavy pistol. They started to ricochet off the marble pillars. Two went zipping directly over Aida's head, close enough to graze a lock of her hair. Two more found homes in the pews next to where the priest had sought cover. One bullet hit one of the mud rainbows, sending shards of stained glass and mud flying through the air. The last bullet, after penetrating wood and marble, finally nestled its way into the priest's lower back. A quick, sharp cry let Aida know he was hit. She was two pews down, seeking cover from the heavy fire. Once the barrage had paused long enough, she managed to crawl herself over to where the priest lay still, silent.
Aida slid the silk woven parcel beneath one of the pews and attempted to console the dying man. Blood was seeping through his pristine robes, soaking the floor around him. He was laying on his back, clutching the pistol Clement had given him. As Aida went to pull him up, his arm raised to the ceiling, pistol in hand.
He pulled the trigger.
The sound was deafening. Aida was frozen in shock. The priest had just pointed a gun at her head and fired it. She was sure she was dead. Teetering in and out of consciousness, her hearing began to return. As her ears started to work again, she heard a loud moan, followed by an even louder thump come from right behind her.
She turned to see a large figure, lying in a pool of blackened blood. He was dressed in military gear and armed with an automatic rifle. A gaping bullet hole left the inside of his throat exposed. He was dead. This Aida was sure about. She turned back to where the priest had fallen. His face had gone ghost white and his skin had turned ice cold. She checked his wrist for a pulse but found none. The priest had saved her life and now he lay dead in front of her.
That pissed Aida off. She reached under the pew and snatched up the silk wrapped parcel. She shoved the pistol the priest had died with into her waist band, picked up the dead grunts rifle and slowly made her way towards the back of the church. She had no idea how many attackers she faced. She only knew that one had been killed, and at a great cost. She began to call out to her husband.
"Clement! Answer me, please!"
Echoing off of the church walls, a deep, strange voice responded.
"Your Clement is dead."
Primal terror quickly consumed her.
"Coward! Show yourself!" Aida screamed with fear.
Just witnessing two deaths, she wasn’t in the mood for games.
"You have something. Something that does not belong to you,” replied the voice.
Aida took cover in the shadows once again. This new voice, unrecognizable yet oddly familiar, was scrambling her clarity. She needed to stop and think. Could Clement actually be dead? The priest had just been killed without hesitation, so she knew the chances of him still being alive were slim and who the hell was this new mystery man? So she played the only card she had left.
"Where is Clement?” Aida hollered with fury. “The only way you get what you want is to show me Clement. I need to know he is alive.”
Silence washed over her. Dragging on for a lot longer than she’d like, her nerves started to overwhelm. She was about to make another demand when she heard the bone chilling voice once again.
"Clement is dead. Hand over our property now, willingly, or we will take it with force. I will not ask again."
"You will never find it. It is hidden. Away from the world, away from you" she said trembling.
"Enough! No more games, Aida"
How did this mystery voice know her name? Fear truly began to settle in the pit of her stomach, a primal fear she had not felt in many years. She was about to make a run for the chapel when she remembered something crucial that could help save her and her husband. When they had first arrived at Saint Sonia, the priest had mentioned the installation of a secret passageway; one which he had personally requested and oversaw the construction of. A back door beneath the back door, she thought. That was her way out. She had no other option. Clement's fate was now in the palms of his own hands and she had to trust that he could handle himself. That is, if he wasn't already dead.
Aida muttered a quick prayer then made her pursuit to the stairs leading down to the chapel. As soon as her hand touched the railing, two small cylinder objects came sailing through one of the portals. One found a cozy home at the base of her heels. She heard a faint click then thick, gray smoke began to escape from the canister. Her eyes caught fire, her throat began to close and she collapsed to the floor. The silk parcel slipped from her fingers as the world around her faded from view. She heard distorted murmurs approach her position. As the voices became clearer, her eyes went black. Nothing but lifeless wonder.
Is Clement dead?
Am I dead?
As her eyes shut she pondered these final thoughts. A dark shadow fell atop of her limp body and she could hear a sinister voice whisper into her ear.
“Your priest is dead. Your husband is dead. You have failed, Aida. The world will burn, as it should.”
“No, no you can’t,” Aida mumbled.
“Do not worry, my love. Thanks to you, we will be able to see the mission through. You see, thanks to you, Aida, we now have the cure to the fallout. Your serum. It worked.”
Hearing these words out loud, the realization of the mystery man finally set in. Putting a name to the face, she was able to identify her attacker. Impossible, she thought. This man shouldn’t be here. This man shouldn’t be alive. I killed this man. Using all of her remaining energy, she forced herself back to life and grabbed him by his collar. She peered deep into his eyes, she had so much to say to this man. Unfortunately, all she could muster were tears. A person can only take so much heartbreak, her grip loosened on the collar and she fell back to the tiled floor of the church.
Floating into oblivion, the world around her succumbed to complete darkness.
She was gone.