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 that everyone and everything on the planet had a purpose, therefore deserved the privilege of a title. At the moment, Saint Sonia was keeping him hidden from many dangers. More importantly, she was keeping him alive.
Clement knew the stars weren't really exploding in the sky. He just thought that a healthy imagination and a little bit of fantasy might help provide a wave of much needed relief. After all, he did just witness a nuclear bombardment in his home country. Lost in loss his eyes kept straining upwards, hypnotized by the sky as it was viciously burning away all of its blue. He desperately needed all of the comfort he could muster.
Ten large openings lined the church walls. Beneath each of the portals slept beautiful 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 all 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 his third attempt of stacking pieces of broken pews together proved to be unworthy, he decided to take the hard fall as a sign to stop. He then began to pray to the swaying crucifix for his ankle to simply be strained. He needed to be mobile, ready to move at any moment. His life depended on it. A broken ankle here 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, a locket and the aid of an old priest. The fumes would soon consume them too. 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 also knew that 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 intimate human that fueled Clement's desire of 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?
"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 with a hint of sarcasm.
Aida was positioned beside the main door of the church, 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 slept 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 is 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 ready to meet his maker.
"Lead the way my child."
"Where is my locket?" Asked Aida, annoyed.
"Locked away in my chambers upstairs," he replied calmly.
"We must not leave here without it. It is too important."
"Why? Why is that locket so important to you and your husband? Excuse my impertinence but the locket is unusually large and awkwardly shaped. It looks like someone tried to mold it into a heart but fell short, very short. It is also quite weathered, and why is it red? I do not see the value."
"It is important because of what it carries."
"What exactly does it carry?" The priest asked, concerned.
"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 had 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 had 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.
Machinery and intimate human.
Since Aida had left to retrieve the priest, those slivering shadows hiding amongst the trees had broken from 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 towards the church with impeccable speed. Clement calculated their approach. Five hundred yards and closing, he thought to himself. Mentally preparing himself for the oncoming threat, the darkness snuck up behind with bearing heavy footsteps and distorted murmurs. He turned his body, gun raised, finger on the trigger.
"Do you always aim guns at priests?"
"Shit. Sorry father. I'm a little tense at the moment. We are about to have some serious company," Clement grunted back.
The priest quickly 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 of it. He removed the old necklace and handed it to Aida.
"There is a silver case beneath the bed frame. This key will unlock it. Inside that case, is your locket."
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 with concern.
"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 soon, they would still all 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 burgundy silk.
She had a maternal look about her, as if she was holding her newborn child for the first time. Realizing her husband was not where she left him, Aida suddenly began to panic. She jerked her pounding head and skinny body back and forth frantically.
"Where is Clement?" she hollered.
"He went to make sure the back door was locked and secure-."
Aida and the priest both froze in their place. Three more gunshots rang out, making six in total. They then both dove to the floor, seeking cover. The shots were spread out, as if from a long rifle or heavy pistol. They started to ricochet off of 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 wooden protection. One of the bullets exploded in 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 that he was hit. She was two pews down, seeking what limited cover she could from the heavy fire. Once the barrage had paused long enough, she managed to crawl herself over to where the priest laid 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 black 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, finger squeezing 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 just saved her life and now he laid dead in his own church 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, removed the dead grunts gas mask, picked up his 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. But now she had some firepower and protection against the encroaching noxious fumes but she still needed one more mask for Clement. 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 the locket now, willingly, or we will take it with force. I will not ask again," boomed the voice.
"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's life. 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 herself a quick prayer then hustled 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.
Before she could slip away a dark shadow fell atop of her limp body and she could hear a sinister voice whispering in her ear.
“Your priest is dead. Your husband is dead and the locket is mine. You have failed, Aida. The world will burn, as it should.”
“No, no you can’t,” Aida mumbled.
“Do not worry. 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 face to the voice, she was able to identify her attacker. Impossible, she thought. This man shouldn’t be here. This man shouldn’t even be alive. I killed this man. Using all of her remaining energy, she forced herself back to life and grabbed him by his gas mask and yanked it clean off of his face. She peered deep into his eyes. She had so much to say to this man. Unfortunately, all she could muster were reddish tears. A human being can only take so much heartbreak in one lifetime. Energy spent, she fell back to the tiled floor of the church.
Floating into oblivion, she watched as her brother toyed with her final moments on Earth. The last thing Aida would ever see was her mother's red locket swaying in the reflected light of Clement's mud rainbows.
Her heart was broken.
The world succumbed to complete darkness.
She was gone.