Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Light Crusader's Dark Dessert
    by James Beamon

Light Crusader's Dark Dessert
Artwork by Andres Mossa

Things were looking up in the worst way possible when we finally made the Dismal River. Instead of blue gray, now the water flowed yellow-brown. Festering, putrid plants draped the banks on either side. It looked a lot more dismal than I remembered. But the reports had been accurate; these were badlands, remade into the liking of whatever death god claimed dominion nowadays. It meant the long trip to put a bullet into my wife and son's heads hadn't been a waste.

"Nebraska sucks," Alex said from the back of the dinghy, her head panning the landscape as if to find a redeemable patch of turf. I couldn't see her eyes behind the blue tinted goggle lenses, but I wagered they weren't twinkling with wonder.

"Careful here," I told her, turning up the collar of my leather duster against the clammy damp of river spray. "Even before the Twilight, the Dismal wasn't a leisure river. Make sure you keep an open line with Sweet Potato."

Alex's goggled eyes regarded me, her mouth tight. "Yam. My god's name is Yam."

"Whatever."

"Not whatever, Jake. Next time it's Sweet Potato, someone's gonna drown, cabron."

"I get it," I said holding my hands up in surrender, "it's been a long trip. West Virginia didn't help. Just make sure your god keeps us afloat."

Alex smirked, like the thought of us drowning amused her. An azure aura surrounded her body as she communed with her god.

My friend and fellow paladin was a bit touchy, but three days on the water was enough to strain any relationship. I had tried to keep her out of this, but Alex insisted she go. Waterways remained the safest routes from D.C. through lands whose gods and factions and blessings and curses were always in flux. So it had been a long, twisty journey from the Potomac to the Greenbrier to the New River to the Ohio to the Mississippi to the Missouri to the Platte to the Loup until finally the Dismal and the point where I couldn't tell if Alex's threat to drown me was real.

I'm the one who should've been moody. The way I figured it, if the Canaanite god of the sea didn't want to be called Sweet Potato, his mama shouldn't have named him Yam. Besides, Alex made me carry all seventy pounds of boat on my back between rivers.

We moved carefully. A death god, whether it was Thanatos or Izanami-no-Mikoto or Pluto or one of a dozen others, reigned here. That dominion had changed the Dismal into everything short of the River Styx, but kept it as treacherous as it had been before the Twilight of the Gods. The river had a continually winding nature, with rushing currents and areas of heavy deadfall. Alex guided us through such an area now, moving the boat slowly against the current and around two trees that had fallen into the river. Through her blue aura, I saw sweat trickle down Alex's forehead and run around the rim of her goggles before soaking into the goggle straps.

As usual, I smelled the zombies before I saw them, an unnatural, overpowering stench of rot. There were literally thirty-one flavors of the Apocalypse out there to choose from, and the zombie variety was my least favorite. Mainly because of the smell. It's a stench that shouldn't be allowed to hit your flaring nostrils to make your mouth gag and your eyes water without first having to get through six feet of hard packed Mother Earth.

The sight and sound of zombies wasn't exactly Cirque du Soleil either. We saw them on the river bank as the dinghy came around the bend, where turbulent murk-water rushed through the branches of a felled tree. The zombies congregated, if you can call it that, half a dozen raw meat enthusiasts shuffling back and forth without direction. They saw us and let out moans, hoarse guttural wails. They stutter-stepped into the river toward us with new purpose, the purpose being lunch.

"Your god gonna handle this, amigo?" Alex asked, grinning at her own joke.

"Just keep the boat from rocking," I said. "I'll let Moses speak." I stood up and brought my 590A1 Mossberg pump action shotgun out of my coat. Moses was a law enforcement model, matte black, issued to me back when I had uniform laws to enforce. I sighted a flesh eater, taking a second to see if I recognized the desiccated face as someone I may have gone to school with. Not that it would've mattered.

Moses spoke of wrath, his commandments punctuated with fire and brimstone. Heads exploded after each sermon. The air filled with successive booms followed by the ka-clack of Moses being racked. One by one, I dropped zombies for the river to carry away. The soothing sulfuric bite of gunpowder replaced the stench of rot.

I hadn't gone to school with any of them. Most likely these were the remnants of the previous administration, devotees of some wheat goddess who got the bad end. A damn shame -- it would've been nice to shoot Troy Lister. I sat back down and fished 12-gauge shells from my coat pocket.

The rest of the way upriver was zombie free. Not surprising; this wasn't Hollywood where they'd fill the camera's wide lens up with zombie horde until they ran out of extras or stage makeup. No, this was Nebraska. A scant spattering of living people also meant a scant spattering of living dead.

Our winding river trek ended at Route 97. After we shored the boat and climbed the ravine to the highway, I found myself looking southbound, down a familiar stretch of road empty. It was devoid of anything save memories of a lost era so blissfully good they burned to dwell on.

"How far to this town of yours?" Alex asked as she sidled up beside me, her gentle way of nudging me, to bring me back to the task at hand.

"Twenty-two miles down."

Tryon wasn't much of a town, but I was proud to call it home just the same. Now that this region was under the reign of a death god, chances ran high the loved ones I had put to rest in Tryon were restless. It wasn't natural for Terra and Cody to claw their way back to daylight, just like it wasn't natural for me to not provide the peace of the grave I had promised them.

I took step one toward knocking down twenty-two miles.

"Ey, cabron," Alex said walking beside me, "not too late for you to devote yourself to a messenger god. Mercury feet would be oh so nice right about now."

"At least that'd make sense culturally," I said. "More sense than a Mexican with a Near Eastern sea god."

"I'm brown. They're brown over there in Palestine. Same difference," she said with a shrug. "Besides, you know what paladins say: you don't choose your god, your god chooses you."

"That's exactly why we don't get Mercury feet."

We wouldn't need god-powered swiftness; five miles into the hike we came upon a truck by the side of the road, not so much abandoned as overran. Two zombies huddled in the adjacent ditch, still munching on the former driver. After Moses chastised them soundly on gluttony, we looked the truck over. An empty gas tank and a full five-gallon gas can in the truck's bed told the story.

"Amateur hour over there should've just run a half mile and doubled back," Alex said, shaking her head at the broken bones, shredded clothes and unidentifiable gristle of zombie meal.

We couldn't all be paladins, gods-blessed and specially trained to travel from zone to zone waging war. Lots of people don't live through zombie style apocalypses because they don't know the basics. Zombies don't run. The dark magic keeping their rotting meat together already has its hands full without adding wind sprints to the zombie can-do list.

A lot of this stuff was common sense to a paladin or anyone into horror movies. Since I used to be an average American moviegoer, I already had a leg up when it came to the zombie apocalypse.

The dead man's truck was an unfortunate way to find fortune, but only fools pissed on fortune when it sat there with a V8 engine. We fueled up and turned her around, headed straight for the place he had been trying to get away from.

There wasn't much to say as we rolled through this stretch of dead land, on an old, cracked highway. We couldn't plan out the mission like usual. This wasn't exactly official paladin business.

"We gonna kill the harbinger?" Alex asked as she looked out the side at sparse patches of dry, brown shrubs. There had never been much out here, to the point that I couldn't tell the difference now.

"Depends." I didn't have to tell Alex what it depended on. She had been through a few death zones. She knew the various deities and their following had a range of proclivities and practices, most of them grim, all of them sick. I had to find Terra and Cody before deciding whether Moses needed to come down as lawgiver.

When we got to town proper, we got a hint of which death god ruled here. A singular zombie stood by the Welcome to Tryon sign, chained to it by a spiked collar around its neck. It saw our truck and tried to shamble toward us but wound up marching in place as the chain stretched taut.

"Maybe a death game," Alex said. "Could be Dis Pater. Or a gate guardian, Cerberus to our local Hades. You think?"

I pulled up right beside the zombie. This one I recognized as old man Dozier. He had always been old, ancient for as long as I could remember. By the time I had grown up, gotten deputized, gotten married, and aged in a hundred other ways, he was still the same kind of old -- too ornery and cranky and miserable to die. Even undead, he seemed more crotchety than most zombies. I had always hated the bastard.

Old man Dozier's putrescence was seeping into the truck, despite the rolled up windows. "Part of me wants to see him stuck here, but the better parts of me want him ended. You're more discreet than Moses." I rolled the window down and Dozier's raw stench blasted us.

Alex didn't waste any time. Her azure aura flared up and twin rivulets of water snaked their way out of her goggles. Goggles don't hold much water, but Alex didn't need much, especially when it was Sweet Potato's sacred stash. The water straightened out in the air into two pencil-length razors and shot out from the car to hover on either side of Dozier's neck above his spiked collar. The two liquid razors swapped places in a blur.

Alex pulled them back to fill up her goggles while Dozier's head rolled off his shoulders.

I had my own ideas about this death faction as I drove, ideas confirmed within a few brief minutes as we approached Longman's, which was still painted a glaring red and looked every bit the cliché Western saloon minus the swiveling hinge doors. The sign in front of the bar read "Welcome Home Jake Tamerlane."

So much for a quick trip to Miller Cemetery. I parked in front of the sign, my special invitation to enter the underworld. Expecting zombie guardsmen, liches, Ghede loa or, worse yet, valkyries when I opened the door, what I got was the warm smiles of old friends: Longman, Cleave, Bobby Draper, and my old boss Sheriff Davies, who came up and put a hand on my shoulder.

"Bout time you showed up, Jake."

"Sheriff," I said with a nod.

"Come on in," he said putting a hand on my back, escorting me to a table. After we sat he leaned towards me. "How's life in the city?"

"Complicated," I answered. While the gods subjected rural areas to open warfare for land grabs, the major cities survived more or less intact under a curtain of Cold War. The gods wanted both land and followers, and a handful of wrathful gods decimating major metropolises would deprive them all of the latter. So the urban areas got divided into rough chunks, street corner embassies for the gods to practice subversion, coercion, and espionage as they tried to claim more followers and more city blocks under their banner. Out here, in the Nebraskas of the world, the war was anything but cold.

Sheriff Davies nodded. "Remember how it was after the New Dawn?"

Memories clear as glass spoke of the storms and earthquakes, behemoths and leviathans that had signaled the return of the gods. I grimaced. "We put a lot of good people in the ground."

"Those were grim days, ones that put a big hole in all our hearts," Sheriff Davies said. He flashed glances to Cleave, Longman, and Bobby Draper. They all pulled pistols and trained them on me and Alex.

"Those were holes Demeter and her daughters weren't gonna fill with wheat," Sheriff Davies said.

The sheriff pointed at Alex. "Your goggles give you away, water follower. Put your god juice in the sink."

Alex held her hands up, confusion reigning on her features. "No habla Ingles."

"I see. Do you habla three fifty-seven?" the sheriff asked as Cleave nudged Alex's cheek with the magnum.

Alex's blue aura sparked to life and her sea god's blessed water ran out of her goggles and into the sink.

Sheriff Davies smirked approvingly as Alex's aura died; with it her ability to control the water moving its way deeper into the sewer system. He turned his attention to me. "You're not as obvious. Who's your god?"

I moved my hand slowly to my neck, pulling the simple gold necklace out of my shirt until the small crucifix dangled into view. The men holding us hostage all looked at it and erupted into laughter like it was the world's greatest punchline.

"That's our Jake," Sheriff Davies said between guffaws. "Always was a stubborn cuss."

Their laughter didn't bother me. The Twilight pretty much disproved our old notions. This never made the New Testament. The fact that Jesus or Yahweh or a Supreme Being by any other name never made an appearance when all the other gods came back pretty much sealed the deal. There was no pie in the sky, only thunder-gods hurling lightning bolts at one another. Besides, why expect a miracle from an invisible god when you could make your own miracles by aligning with a god you could see? No one in their right mind followed the old ways.

Me, I wasn't in my right mind. And I didn't think it manly to follow a god named Baal or Tefnut.

"Got any more religious paraphernalia?" the sheriff asked.

I took out my hip flask, struck in silver with a cross emblazoned across the front and filled with holy water.

"Keep it. It may come in handy if you encounter any vampires or demon possessed, bed-ridden girls," the sheriff said, his voice dripping sarcasm. "I was asking about Moses."

"Just because we haven't seen vampires and demons don't mean you shouldn't keep an open mind." As I talked, I unstrapped Moses and put him across the table. "You'd know that if you ever ran across the Pawnee god, Raven, and his Bigfoot Militia."

Sheriff Davies stood up. "Now that you and your lady have been rendered friendly, someone wants to welcome you home."

He held his hand out at a dark corner of the bar -- an unnaturally dark corner. The shadows curled like flame in slow motion. They unraveled to reveal a man who looked the cowboy with a shirt too snug, jeans too tight, and boots too pointy.

Troy Lister. While good people had a habit of dying prematurely, jerks had a knack for surviving nuclear-grade calamity like roaches. Troy had left town ducking warrants years before the gods put their collective stamp on the world. Apparently he found his calling and came back to spread the message, a gospel of Osiris judging by the crook and flail tattooed on his arm.

"It's nice to see another familiar face, friendly or otherwise, at the ass end of human history," Troy said. "Glad you came back, Jake. C'mon, let's go see the old neighborhood."

Without much option, I found myself walking with Sheriff Davies, my old boss in law enforcement, and Troy Lister, the career criminal whose charges I could never make stick.

I must've been too busy scanning for zombies earlier to notice how restored Tryon was. The schizophrenic destruction that had marred this place had been replaced with clean-lined wooden homes, clear streets. It would've been the Tryon I remembered if it hadn't been for the lady across the street leading a zombie who stutter-stepped behind her with a red wagon tied to it, pulling her groceries.

"I wanted to make some use of stalwart followers of Demeter," Troy said, following my eyes as we walked. "Everyone else was spared, except that old bastard Dozier."

"Shouldn't you be using mummies?" I asked.

"Mummies, zombies, they're both reanimated corpses," Troy said with a shrug.

I had a better question. "So why the warm welcome back for me? We weren't exactly friends."

Troy smirked, the kind I remembered when he'd say he was home all night instead of knocking off a liquor store. "Doesn't mean we can't be friends now. These are strange times, Jake. Some think this is some new, everlasting Age of Ascension. The fools have thrown their lot in with Dionysus or Aphrodite to either sip or screw their lives away. Not me. I agree with the paladins. This is the start of Ragnarok, the Twilight of the Gods. It may take lifetimes or centuries, but when the balance of power shifts clearly in either direction or when the immortals tire of stalemate, the war of the gods will break this world."

He waved his hand at the town. "I mean to grow this domain for Osiris. North all the way to Rapid City, east all the way to Omaha. And keep going. To do that I can't be like other harbingers, blindly laying siege to the neighbors. Zombie armies don't fare so well when they're invading dominions of fire and ice gods, and they're even worse in the reincarnation zones. I need to know who my enemies are."

I stopped short. "You want the Paladin Intelligence Network."

"The same eyes and ears that let you know what was going on here all the way from D.C.," Troy said. "I want that working for me."

"I think not."

Troy grinned. "Well, aren't we contrary? Don't you want to hear how I'll make it worth your while? Wait," he said, holding a hand up to kill my budding protest. "We're not friends yet, after all. Maybe someone else should tell you the benefits."

"Jake!" a woman's voice called to me, a sound full of melody and memory. It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and my heart stop. I turned to face it.

Terra stood in the doorway of our old house, alive and whole, as beautiful as the day I married her. One hand clutched her flowing dress, the other held Cody's hand. My twenty-two month old boy looked at me the same way he used to when I showed up after a long day at work.

"It's not possible," I said with breathless words.

"But it is," Troy said. "Osiris isn't just a god of death, zombies, and rot. He's also a god of afterlife, of what awaits us all in the end."

"Terra and Cody's here for you, Jake," Sheriff Davies said. "Just like my Diane's here with me. It's the only piece of heaven that matters. The world can war itself to hell for all I care."

I stared at my wife and son as if blinking would make them disappear. She let Cody's hand go and he ran toward me on little legs, full of that joyous, exuberant energy that made adults want to chase after toddlers. I met him in a kneel, scooped him up into my arms, and rose to my feet where my wife stood before me. The intoxicating scent of sunflowers clung to her, affirming that those memories of her smell weren't my imagination or the fancy of wistful thinking. We reached for each other and she exhaled a deep sigh into my neck, letting herself go in my embrace as if my arm around her was the only thing keeping her standing.

"Welcome home, babe," she said. "God, how I've missed you."

"I can see the Tamerlanes got some catching up to do. Take your time, Jake. We'll be at Longman's." For the first time ever, I was grateful for Troy Lister's voice. It cut through, letting me know I was still in my right mind.

I swiveled to face Troy, my boy still cradled in my arm, my wife at my side. "What about Alex?"

"She'll keep," Troy said with a smirk. "In fact, I'm glad you brought her along. The chica's gotta have some familia. I'm sure she'll want in, same as you, especially when you come back and convince her it's legit. See ya soon."

I didn't bother looking behind me as Terra pulled me gingerly into the house. My legs moved like they had forgotten the routine of putting one foot in front of the other.

When I stepped into my house, it was like I had walked in from a time machine. All the furniture, the pictures: it was just as I remembered, untouched from the New Dawn's destruction.

"Do you like it?" Terra asked, worry creasing her features. "I was beside myself for days, and I swear I fussed with Mr. Shafer on every detail when he was making the sofa and chair. I just wanted everything to be perfect for when you got home. Is it okay?"

I set Cody down. "It's wonderful," I told her.

"You're just saying that," she said, her worry easing on her face without truly leaving. "I need you to be honest."

Whenever she invested a lot of time and energy into a project, she never believed my first response to it. The nostalgia was almost overpowering; I wanted to kiss her on the spot. I went up to her, caressed her cheek with my hand. "There's no other place I'd rather be. This is absolutely perfect."

She closed the gap between us. "If you think this is perfect, wait till dinner," she said, kissing me before darting off to the kitchen. She had that excited spring in her step, the one that always made me want to see what she was up to.

I sat down in the chair, my old chair made new again. That's when I noticed Cody. He sat with his back turned to me, his mop of brown hair disheveled as he focused on his shape-sorting puzzle. He always got hung up on the circle, like he had already made up his mind that the circle should have no problems fitting into the square hole.

I did what I routinely did when he was in his own world; I crashed into it by creeping up behind him and assaulting his ribs with my tickling fingers. Like always, Cody descended into high-pitched laughter as he writhed and convulsed under my onslaught.

Then we did what Terra hated most and made a fort out of the couch cushions. Cody, King of Fort Tamerlane, was giving proclamations from within when the roof collapsed. He squealed with delight. The smells of dinner wafted to us, an aroma hinting at garlic and onion and sage.

I told Cody to hold down the fort and went to check out the missus. She stood at the counter, tending ingredients on the cutting board. Like Cody, I crept behind her, this time my hands finding their familiar places on her waist. I kissed her neck.

"One of these days you're going to do that and I'm going to cut myself," she said smiling.

"Saying it a hundred times don't make it true. And it won't keep me off your neck." I looked down at the cutting-board and saw she was making her special chicken and dumplings, but only a few ingredients were being worked.

"You know that's not enough," I said, kissing her neck again.

"Cody and I have been snacking all day," she said. "You're the one who hasn't eaten a real meal in who knows how long."

Her words started a cascade of thoughts. The idea of real meals, not sharing this meal with Terra and Cody, of being able to come home to this every day, it all rang and bounced and compressed as other thoughts filtered in.

"I really do wish you'd leave my neck alone," Terra said. "It makes me realize I don't have my necklace and I get uncomfortable. It's the one thing I couldn't find."

I pulled the chain from under my shirt. She looked at it and breathed a sigh of relief.

"I know your mother gave you this necklace and how much you love it. I love it now, too. Do you mind if I hold onto it for just a little longer?"

She stepped back and looked at me, her eyes crinkling at the corners as she smiled in pleasant surprise. "Why, Jake," she said, "when did you find joy in the cross?"

I smiled back. "Maybe a little too late," I said. "But better late than never. When will dinner be ready?"

"Oh, about an hour."

"Perfect. I'll be back in plenty of time. First, I have to go see Troy."

The dying sunlight made its own stark war in heaven as dusk came to Tryon on the walk back. In a world where some zones experience the endless light of sun-gods or the forever night of moon-goddesses, the transition from day to night here seemed to be the punctuation mark to my decision.

Everyone was where I left them.

Longman stood behind the bar while everyone else sat at a table, where Troy talked amicably to Alex.

I made my way over to the bar and nodded at Longman, who brought out a glass and a bottle.

"So what's the good word?" Troy asked to my turned back.

I took a long gulp and relished the burn a moment before I spoke.

"She won't age, will she?" I asked into the glass.

"She'll be a timeless beauty forever," Troy said behind me, "for as long as I keep my domain."

"That's a damn shame," I said before taking another hard swallow of whisky. "While part of me can't complain at coming home to see Terra forever beautiful, another part of me regrets not being able to grow old with her. That same part weeps bitter tears over Cody, who'll never grow to manhood."

"Small sacrifices," Troy said. "The important thing is you got your family back."

"Mummies, zombies, the revitalized essence of my wife and son, they're all just reanimated corpses. They only eat one thing." I turned to face Troy. "Right now I take it they're feeding on the people that didn't want to sign up for Team Osiris."

Sheriff Davies stood up. "You gotta look at the big picture here, Jake --"

"Shut up," I said pointing a finger at him while the rest of the hand clutched my glass. "You may be fine throwing your wife dismembered arms and legs, Jared, but I'm not. This is a diabolical engine, one I can't be a part of fueling."

I put my hand up to kill Troy's reply before he could say it.

"At least with Demeter you got some fine grain, which made for some fine whisky," I said looking at the liquid swirl in the glass. "Which is another damn shame."

I wheeled in a blur and smashed the glass into Longman's face. He screamed in pain and dropped his pistol. Grabbing the bar, I hoisted myself over it and came down on top of Longman, bringing him crashing to the floor onto the broken glass and spilled whisky. I grabbed a bottle out of the well and smashed it against the back of Longman's head.

Turned out I had a friend behind the bar with me. Moses sat there, ready to preach. I grabbed him, racked him, and rose to check on Alex.

Alex hadn't wasted any time. Apparently, she had turned over the table and now had Bobby Draper in a chokehold, pulling him toward the door, using him as a meat shield between Cleave and the sheriff's drawn pistols.

Sheriff Davies ended any budding relationship he might've had with Bobby Draper by blasting rounds into him, determined to shoot through to the paladin on the other side. Alex overturned another table to get behind. Cleave swiveled on me with his pistol.

Moses filled the darkening room with thunder and lightning. The shot took Cleave off his feet as his chest exploded. Troy ran into a corner of the room, where protective shadows wrapped around him. Sheriff Davies turned his sights on me, forcing me back down as his gun replied, and I stayed down as it rained shattered glass and cold liquor.

"Chingalo!" Alex cried.

I peeked over the bar briefly before the sheriff's shots forced me back down. But I saw enough. Alex had been forced to run for more cover as the dead Bobby Draper next to her had gotten back on his feet, hungrier than ever. Cleave had also risen.

That was another thing I hated about the zombie apocalypse; you always had to work twice as hard.

First the sheriff. I low crawled to the end of the bar, turned on my back and bent my knees so both feet were firmly planted on the floor. Moses at the ready, I pushed out from cover, sighted the sheriff's brown pants, and blasted. The sheriff crumpled in a holler as his right leg below the knee evaporated into red mist.

The rest was clean up really. I got to my feet and blasted Bobby Draper's head off before he could get to Alex, turned on Cleave so Moses could give him a more permanent sermon, walked over to Sheriff Davies, who shouted in pain as he clutching his stump, and kicked his gun away before he recovered the good sense to pick it up.

"You've think you've won?" Troy's voice said from the darkness of the corner. "You think you've done something?"

The shadows unfurled around him, leaving Troy standing in full Osiris battle regalia. White, metallic bandages covered his body from head to toe. A purple cape listed behind him and on his head sat the crown of a pharaoh. In either hand he held a crook and a flail.

"What do you think happens when the War of the Gods finally starts?" Troy asked. "It all goes to death. It all comes to Osiris."

"This ain't about the war," I told him. "It's about what you did to Terra and Cody."

I'm sure Troy was grinning behind his bandages. "Speaking of your family, they're on their way here right now, along with all the other dead at my disposal. It's going to be fun watching your boy chew through your neck as you gurgle in blood. Your bullets can't stop me, much less the dry-eyed follower of some god named after a sweet potato."

Alex grit her teeth.

"You shouldn't have said that, Troy." I shook my head. "There's not much difference between paladins and harbingers, but there is a difference. See, your god wants to expand his power, which means relying on power-hungry overachievers like you. But the god never fully invests in his harbingers. Even generals fall in battle, and what better way to keep the fight going than by having the power-hungry overachieving lieutenant pick up the reins with a quick battlefield promotion? That's why all your power resides in transferable totems, which to me looks like that crook and flail you're clutching.

"Then there are some gods who are altruistic. Enki, Quetzalcoatl, Prometheus: deities that don't want to see the world end or watch people suffer. These gods trust in altruistic people, who go out into the world and fight to maintain balance. The paladin's power resides wholly in them, not in the god-blessed water some of them may carry."

I took out my flask of holy water.

"Someone's gonna drown, cabron," I said, popping the top.

Alex's blue aura flared and the water streamed out of the flask and shot like tracer bullets into Troy's nostrils. I watched as Alex kept the water in Troy's lungs and throat, where he couldn't project it out no matter how violently he coughed and sputtered. Troy dropped the crook and flask with a clang and grabbed at his own neck. He collapsed moments later. Alex kept her aura up and the water working well past the point where the harbinger had stopped twitching. Then she deposited the water back in my flask and kept a little for her goggles.

I looked down at Sheriff Davies, who had been crawling towards the crook and flail. Once I racked Moses, the sheriff froze.

"I'm afraid you won't be getting that promotion today, lieutenant."

The sheriff moaned in anguish and defeat before passing out.

I bagged the totems of Osiris and placed them in my coat pocket. They were god-forged, not something I could just blast with Moses or melt with a small fire. We had ways of dealing with totems back in D.C.

"Sorry, brother," Alex said putting a hand on my shoulder. "About your family."

I fished my cross out of my shirt and looked at it, steeling myself for a long night of turning my tattered past into ashes. Terra and Cody would be reduced to so much dust, beyond the reach of harbingers and gods. At least none of the gods we could see, at any rate.

"It's a preview of what's waiting for me," I told myself more than Alex. I closed my eyes and inhaled, my mind replaying the scent of sunflowers.

Maybe if I did enough good in this world, I'd smell it again one day.

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