The Stranger contemplated a fork in the road. A nearby crow took a break from his late morning repast of roadkill innards to cock his head questioningly at the disheveled man now scratching his unshaven chin and barely moving in the already blistering heat. In its reverie, the juicy entrails slipped from the crow’s beak and onto the desert ground.
The Stranger was cloaked in rags: a simple cotton shirt that had long since surrendered to the sweat and blood and oil stains that marked it, a leather jacket matted down with road dust and a pair of faded jeans. His only apparent belonging was an empty canteen secured at his hip. He carefully inspected a piece of driftwood that lay at his feet, lying like a barrier in the road. It was a long way from the ocean, just as the Stranger was from his place of origin, if he even remembered where that was.
The man lifted one end with his bootheel. A tiny scavenger lizard that had sought shade and refuge from its hunters scampered angrily away in search of new hiding place. The driftwood was light, seemingly without substance. With a sudden flick of his wrist, the Stranger tossed the stick in the air. It tumbled end over end until it landed with a thud and a cloud of dust in the desert turf. The Stranger again examined the stick where it lay. This time the driftwood was aimed like an arrow down the left path in the road’s fork. He looked down the road. It traveled due west; he’d be in the foot race with the sun. Whatever he was searching for, whatever he hoped to find, he needed to find it before dusk.
The Stranger forced his hands into the empty pockets of his jeans. He followed the length of the wood down the western trail and disappeared over the horizon.
I was in the kitchen washing dishes when the Stranger strolled into town. I had been thinking all day for some reason that I had better clean up the place in case some big business came in. I always have stupid thoughts like that. Of course, hardly any business ever came through my door in those days, and I had little hope that any would in this lawless town. Still, an old man needs something besides a pot of black coffee to keep his bones moving and mine is work.
I heard a rumble outside and then a silence. It was like a storm rolling in from the mountains, and then suddenly stillness, an artificial quiet that made the hair on my arms stand up as if I was just about to be struck by lightning. That’s when the front door creaked open and I heard soft footsteps on the steps leading to the foyer of the restaurant.
“All I ever asked for was some peace and quiet and a lean cut of beef,” I grumbled to the heavens, where I knew no one would be listening.
I dropped a broken teacup back in the soapy water, wiped my hands on my apron and hurried through the kitchen. A customer, I thought. I was almost sorry I was still in my everyday clothes and not my waiter’s uniform when I noticed the Stranger standing at the maitre d’s podium. He was nothing but a migrant worker, I thought, or worse, a hired thug looking for easy money. The town already had plenty of both. Too many, if you’d asked me. Nobody ever did.
I grumbled my dissatisfaction, but I felt uneasy at the thought of throwing him out. I could never turn anyone away.
The Stranger paused at the sight of me, then deliberately moved to one of the closest tables to the door and sat down. His demeanor caught me off guard at first; it was a stark contrast to the boisterous, loud-mouthed, and frequently violent customers that stumbled into my place.
“Want something to drink?” I said. “Beer? Whiskey?”
“No, I think I’ll something to eat instead,” the Stranger said dryly. “What’s good here?”
I handed him a menu. “The rice pilaf has turned mush, yesterday’s poached salmon is dry as a bone, and the rotta twee tastes like shit.”
“That sounds fine,” he said unfazed by my obvious lack of salesmanship. He dropped the dog-eared menu on table without a glance. “A good balance.”
As I turned to retrieve his meal, the Stranger called after me. “Old man--”
I cut him off. I knew what he was going to say before the words left his lips. “I know, you’ve no money,” I spat, but I continued on my way. The man obviously needed a meal and there wasn’t anywhere else within walking distance that he was going to get it. I just hoped he’d take the food and leave me alone.
“I’ll get a job,” he said. “I’ll pay you back. I’m a good fighter.”
A fighter? The words struck me like a knife in the back. It infuriated me that my worst expectations of people always come true in this awful town and were often exceeded. And this one was certainly among the worst, I thought. Whatever his manner, he was just a common thug like the rest, with a temper as short as his life expectancy, too, I wagered.
“No. No fighting,” I shouted at him. I didn’t care anymore if I riled him up enough to murder me. “If you’re going to do that, you can just get the hell out of here right now. Don’t bother to pay. Just go.”
The Stranger was unmoved, yet he said nothing in reply. He just sat there at the table as if waiting for his meal to arrive. I didn’t know what else to do, but he obviously wasn’t leaving until he saw some food. I trounced back into the kitchen and clattered some pots and pans angrily. As unarmed as he appeared to be, I kept no weapons in my shop, apart from the large cleaver that I used to cut through ribs and prepare. Anyways, I was handy with a knife, but only in a culinary sense, and the Stranger’s muscular frame suggested he was more than a match for this withering little man.
While I prepared the food, I propped the kitchen door open so I could keep an eye on him. He didn’t move from his chair, but took in his surroundings with an inquisitive stare. There wasn’t much to look at, as I was no interior designer. Was he trying to case the place? I wondered to myself. He seemed to be meditating on the restaurant’s only decoration, a bloodstained reproduction print of “The Last Supper,” when I dropped a plateful of food on the table in front of him. It was an appropriate picture to have here, since many last suppers were eaten in this room. Without bothering to ask for utensils, the Stranger gathered up a handful of fish and rice and happily stuffed his face.
Just then, there was a banging coming from the floor below. The Stranger cocked his ear but continued to gorge himself.
“What’s that noise?” he asked.
I growled. I knew what it was and I knew what it meant. “It’s this town’s only profitable independent business owner: the cooper, probably building more homes for the corpses.”
“He makes coffins?”
“That’s what an outsider would call them,” I said. “Around here they’re called meat lockers. This town has as many meat lockers as people. And by the way, he’s a she. Lea does a good job because she doesn’t have to see the filth they put in them.”
I grabbed my broom and banged it hard against the floor. “Shut up down there!” I screamed so that Lea could here me. The banging stopped, but only for a moment.
The Stranger stopped eating. He looked up at me expectantly, as if waiting for me to tell him my life story. Well, I’d tell him a story all right, if just to get rid of him.
“It’s bad enough when a town has one band of blood suckers,” I said. “But we have two. They’ve been fighting for control of the city for the past five years, ever since the central government collapsed. Everyone with a brain got out of here as soon as they could. It’s inhuman what they’ve done to this community. They’re inhuman.”
“Competition’s good for business,” he said.
“Only if you make pine boxes,” I spat, adding an exclamation point by thumping my broomstick sharply on the floor. Lea, interpreting this as a signal to stop her own hammering, paused for a second, then resumed her rhythmic pounding.
I decided angrily that I’d had enough of playing games with this fool. He had no idea of what he was apparently so eager to get himself into. I was sure to burst his little bubble with the razor’s edge of the ugly truth.
“Listen, I’m going to tell you what’s going on here,” I said. “If you’re smart, you’ll finish your food and leave as soon as possible before anyone knows you’re here. Once they find you, there’s no escaping this place. Do you hear me? If you stay, you’ll either end up like me… or as one of Lea’s customers.”
I didn’t wait for a reply. I moved towards the wooden shutters that covered the windows on the west side of the room. They were the only furnishings in the room not coated with dust or mildew from disuse.
“Do you know why I keep my business on the seventh story and not on street level for easy access to my customers? Hmm?” I said as I began rapidly opening the shutters. The heat, sun and wind poured, stirring up glistening flakes of dust in the air. The Stranger picked up his plate and followed me to the windows. “So I can keep an eye on these vermin.
“Look out there,” I pointed to a gothic church about two blocks to the east of my restaurant. It was oddly constructed nightmare for a desert town that had at most 10,000 living souls in it at one time and it towered over the smaller buildings of the downtown. “Nobody prays there anymore, unless it’s for a quick death. That’s where the bloodsuckers live. Been running this town into the ground ever since the dark times began. Their leader hooked up with a pharmaceutical company that did human testing a few years ago. It was a profitable business- for them- until the flesheaters came.”
“The flesheaters?” The stranger asked between bites. He still seemed more interested in his food than what I had to say.
I hobbled over to the other side of the room and undid the shutters on that side. There, on the western bank of the Crystal River, was a bombed-out factory. The blackened hulk crouched over the water like a vulture picking over a dead carcass. The Stranger casually followed me and leaned his arm against a chair, lazily dropping his bowl on the table next to me.
“They hooked up with the meat packing plant a year ago,” I growled. “Can’t get a damn decent steak to save your life these days, and now I dare not buy even ground beef for fear that it’s tainted. The flesheaters spread disease like black flies, and they stink too.
“These two factions have been fighting for control of the city since then. The Flesheaters are led by a thug named Cutie. He began sweeping the streets at nights for converts to his cause or feed on--or both. A harpy named Precious Ness leads the bloodsuckers. She’s been desperate for warm-blooded bodies to fend off the Flesheaters long enough to hatch some diabolical plan,” I looked down at the stranger. “I bet you wonder why they’ve come here?”
The Stranger rubbed his nose. “Yeah, why are they here?” he asked unconvincingly.
His disinterest only stoked my fire. I grabbed his arm and forced him over to the southwest corner of the restaurant, near the kitchen. He didn’t offer much resistance. I quickly threw open the shudders and pointed to a spot three blocks down.
“There,” I said simply.
I could tell by his expression the Stranger’s interest was finally piqued. But then, he couldn’t be blamed. There aren’t many cities with large glowing chasms where a quaint village green should be.
“A hellmouth,” the stranger said dryly. “That explains a great deal.”
“You’re damn right it- what?” Now it was my turn to have my interest piqued. In my arrogance and bull-headedness, I almost misinterpreted the stranger’s attitude as indifference or stupidity or both but I had an intuitive flash about the man that unsettled me. I shrugged off an involuntary quiver in my spine and looked the Stranger square in the eye. “I mean, that’s right. It is a Hellmouth. But how did you know that?”
“I’ve seen one before.”
“I doubt you’ve seen one of these,” I said. “I’ve never heard of any others.”
“I have,” he said. “There are.”
“Then you no doubt understand their significance,” I said. “One of these can power a large city for nearly 100 years, or burn the life out of one as fast as one of those damned H-bombs in the last Armageddon. My grandfather used to tell me the Hellmouths were remnants of the worst of that Armageddon. That superstitious old fart.”
“The question is,” the stranger, chewing thoughtfully on another dry piece of fish. “Why haven’t these flesheaters and bloodsuckers cooperated to harness the power of the Hellmouth?”
What a stupid question, just when I was beginning to take him seriously. “Look out there,” I said. “Do you see any schools? These children of the night, unlike you, never got any share time in kindergarten. And the bloodsuckers and the flesheaters don’t like each other for very fundamental reasons: the bloodsuckers feel they were here first and the flesheaters are usurpers on their territory and the flesheaters think the bloodsuckers are obsolete oldsters like myself and should be just pushed aside in the name of progress.
“They spend much of there time fighting over control of the town and the Hellmouth. They’ve stooped so low as to lure in suckers and thugs like you in here to fight their little wars for them during the day when they go underground and scheme. It’s gotten so that an old man can’t get any rest.”
The Stranger sat handed me his empty plate. It was obvious he hadn’t heard a single word I’d told him, or ignored most of my diatribe. “So they’re hiring mercenaries for a proxy war, eh?” he said. “This could yet work to my advantage. Which group is the stronger?”
“Stronger? What difference does it make, who’s stronger?” I said, slamming the plate on the table before me. “Haven’t you been listening, boy?”
But the stranger was already half out the door, in mind if not body by the time I’d uttered those words. “The Flesheaters,” he said firmly. “They would not have come here had they not sensed a weaker opponent. I must therefore go to the Bloodsuckers and offer services. They’ll likely be more desperate and eager to pay for someone to rid them of their Flesheater problem.”
“If you help either one of those murderous groups, you’ll be part of the problem,” I warned. “That is if they don’t kill you outright. The sun is setting and they’ll all be out on the prowl.”
The Stranger looked over his shoulder at me on the way to the staircase at the front of the restaurant. He gave me a sly smile and a wink.
“I understand, old man. I’ll give them both what they want—and fear most—and then they’ll be gone from this place. I promise,” he said. “Thank you for the meal. I will repay you.”
“Fool,” I spat, even as I followed him down the rickety spiral staircase to the street level. I don’t know why I did, whether I sensed something different about him or, like everyone, I just enjoyed the spectacle of a good tragedy in the making. It didn’t occur to me then to ask myself who was the bigger fool: the fool or the fool who followed him with a spatula tucked inside his apron, the only thing that could pass for a weapon on the dangerous streets of Lost Vegan.
When I reached the landing at the floor below mine, I was greeted by Lea, who was trying to make her own way down the stairs after the Stranger. It was unusual for me to the poor lamb her outside her shop, especially this close to dark. She had her hands stretched out towards the railing and was edging her way to the stairs.
“What are you doing out, you foolish girl? It’s nearly half past seven,” As I passed, I quickly took her by the arm and tried to escort her back to her door. But she wouldn’t move. “If you needed groceries, you should have told me earlier in the week. For now you’ll just have to choke down those old army rations I gave you. This is no time for outdoor adventures.”
Still she wouldn’t move. Though little more than a whisp of a girl, she might as well have been rooted in stone; her tiny body was stiff and unbending as a mannequin’s. Her soft blonde hair, which she usually kept wound in a tight bun, cascaded in little golden ringlets down to her shoulders and spilled over my hand. Her chin pointed defiantly towards the sky. She had a beauty that could move even an old man, but she didn’t even realize it. That just made even more important to keep her out of sight of strangers and prowlers in the night.
“I need to see the Stranger for myself,” she said.
I didn’t need to remind her that she was blind; she knew that from a very early age. Her parents had abandoned her after the war, when the Bloodsuckers moved in and took over. Besides her carpentry skills, which were considerable, Lea had a talent for “visions.” I don’t believe in that rubbish, but the Bloodsuckers did, and that probably kept her alive all those years. Certainly the protection of one feeble old man wasn’t enough against the nightmares at large in this town.
“There’s nothing to see,” I said. “Just another idiot wanting food and a job. He’ll come to a bad end soon, I suppose.”
“He seemed different.”
“No,” I shook my head. “The fools never listen. I tried to warn him but he wouldn’t listen.”
Lea pointed in the vague direction of the Bloodsuckers’ cathedral. “Did someone warn them?”
Precious Ness tried to pretend that there wasn’t a stranger in town. There were the usual chores that needed attending to: floors to scrub, shirts to mend, corpses to be buried, crypt walls to be mortared and set, just as there had been every day for the last 20 years.
Of course, Precious would touch none of it. She hated getting her hands dirty. But the minions required a great deal of supervision, and in these days of darkness and despair, it took all her strength to motivate them. These days, even she needed a little motivation.
“Buttercup, oh, Buttercup,” she called out in her sing-songy voice. “Would you please lay out my nicest things for me? I believe we will be receiving a guest this evening.”
Precious rose from her velvet-lined coffin and stretched her limbs. She rarely slept in her big bed anymore, unless she had a male friend to entertain, and then she didn’t sleep at all. A quick stretch of her limbs and an arch of her feline back and she was up and running. A rush of energy propelled her lightly across her bedroom, formerly the nave of the cathedral.
Buttercup flitted nervously about the room, attending to her mistress’ needs. The way she skittered about like a frightened mouse, one would never guess the poor little geisha girl been sucked almost bone dry just the night before.
Precious took off her silk nightie and slipped on her favorite leather riding pants and frilly red satin shirt Buttercup laid out for her. Her skin was like fine porcelain and only the faintest waft of embalming fluid could be detected through the strong aroma of wooly nightshade. To her prey, it might as well have been Chanel No. 5. Precious next found her stiletto on what used to be an altar in the old cathedral, which now served as her dinner table, stage and personal soapbox. She slipped the small knife in its appointed place, a sheath against her inner thigh.
“Buttercup,” she called to her trembling handmaiden, who was forever trying to scrub the freshest bloodstains from her gown. “Where is Frederick? Where is that boy? I don’t see him here.”
“Frederick is not here, mistress,” Buttercup said. “He’s been missing since the Flesheaters ambushed Jupiter on Spike Street. Near the Hellmouth.”
“Oh,” Precious felt her good mood dissipate and sink into the black hole of the Hellmouth. She had a bad habit of slipping into denial each time she awoke, pretending as if all was well, imagining she still held the town in the palm of her hand, telling herself it wasn’t all slipping away from her like the precious life fluid that dripped ever so slowly from her concubine’s neck. “I-I had forgotten.”
Her hands grew icy and her feet numb. She slumped onto one corner of the bed and leaned against a post. “Very well then, tell the Oddsmaker I need to see him. And hurry.”
Buttercup darted from the room. The servant fled more from an aversion to enduring one of her mistress’ dark moods than in a desire to please. Precious had always been temperamental, but her recent “moods” were something different. She felt as if she were slipping into a bottomless crevasse of despair, desperately clawing at oily slopes for some sort of handhold to stop her descent. These terrors haunted her sleep, but now they haunted her waking nights as well.
It all started when the Flesheaters came to town, those bloodless automatons, whose only ambition was the acquisition of power. As a pragmatist, Precious was willing to share—up to a point, but that was word that didn’t seem to exist in their vocabulary. Not words existed in the Flesheater vocabulary.
Precious noticed her hand was trembling so she made her way to the former tabernacle, which served as her liquor cabinet and jewelry box. A mirror was propped inexplicably atop the gold box, but of course she could no sooner see herself in it than a shadow darting down a darkened hallway. She found a small vial tucked away in a secret compartment. She kept it for special occasions or emergencies. Precious quickly downed the extra virgin blood and wiped the slight spillage from her lip. It didn’t seem to help, however. She suddenly became aware of a sharp clicking behind her.
When Precious turned around, she found the Oddsmaker waiting patiently in the third pew, watching her with some concern.
“Dammit, Odd, don’t you ever announce yourself,” she fumed.
The Oddsmaker was small for a vampire. His girlish, white fingers clawed nervously at the surface of a notepad, belying his otherwise cool demeanor. He had nothing to fear from his mistress. He was rather indispensable to Precious and knew her moods well, but he suffered from a general paranoia that afflicts those who constantly worry about the future.
“I’m sorry, madam,” he spoke in his whispered voice. “You looked preoccupied. I didn’t want to disturb you while you looked so angelic.”
Precious gave a low growl and clenched her quivering fist. She didn’t like anyone to see her in a weakened state. The Oddsmaker’s sly grin also annoyed her, and it reminded her of all the other things that annoyed her about him: the lazy eye he kept sheathed behind thick-lensed glasses, the way he tended to dress in a clichéd black trench coat and fedora, and how he always kept clicking that damn pen over and over.
“Enough sarcasm,” Precious said sharply. “You know what I want to hear.”
“Yes, the news,” Odd said. “The news is this: Since our unfortunate accident on Spike Street, we’ve had very few fresh recruits to our cause. Most of the new arrivals are quick to learn who has the stronger hand and are foolishly joining the Flesheaters. I place the odds that the Flesheaters drive us from our lair within the year at 2-to-1 in favor. The probability that they will then take full control of the Hellmouth shortly thereafter is 12-to-1 in favor. That may be a moot point because the likelihood that we will run out of food stock before either of those events takes place is 2-to-1 in favor.”
“And that is all the news you have to report?”
“No, madam,” Odd said. “That was the good news.”
Precious sighed. “What else?”
“There is a stranger in town,” he said.
“And this is worse news?”
“It is for me,” the Oddsmaker said, scribbling on his pad. “It throws my calculations off completely.”
“Where is he now?”
“Outside, madam,” Odd said. “He wishes to speak with you.”
Precious paused. She couldn’t remember the last time an outsider had had the audacity to speak with her directly and it intrigued her. The color came back to her cheek and her limbs ceased trembling.
“I will speak to him,” she said, then with a flourish. “From the bell tower.”
“Suitably dramatic, madam,” Odd said dryly. “I shall notify the young man.”
Precious ascended the long spiral staircase at the rear of the nave. The Cathedral, the La Madre de Penas Magníficas (Mother of Great Sorrows) as it was called even before the Armageddon, lived up to its name. Just before the first Armageddon, the cathedral was built on donated inheritance money and then promptly abandoned before completion by a scandal-rocked Catholic Church. The building then fell into the hands of religious fanatics convinced of a second Armageddon. They were widely heckled and ridiculed, since most thought the horrendous human purge of the first Armageddon and the severe shortage of weapons of mass destruction precluded the possibility of a second. The Armageddonists II, as they were called, eventually lost interest in casting their warnings on deaf ears and gave up. This was too bad because on the very first day the cathedral abandoned, Armageddon II unexpectedly struck, as did Armageddon III. After the third Armageddon, the ever-shrinking number of survivors were unable to differentiate between the three catastrophes and simply referred to them under a single collective term. Perhaps the only positive miracle to come from Armageddon is that the cathedral happened to survive all three Armageddons, one chemical attack and two hydrogen bombs, which only succeeded in shaving off the top third of its formerly magnificent spire.
Now the pristine white marble had been reduced to twice-charred molten-like rock with stalagmites serving as buttresses. As Precious climbed the stone stairway, it seemed as if she were climbing upon mammoth sticks of wax, barely capable of supporting even her nimble frame.
When Precious reached the top of the spire, she could look out over the smoldering husk of the city. It wasn’t a paradise she presided over, but once it was all hers, and it would be hers again if she had any say in the matter.
Precious looked down upon the front steps to the cathedral and spotted the Stranger immediately pacing with one hand clasped behind his back and the other casually scraping across one sandpapered cheek. She had never seen a man quite like him, but she was sure he was just another common thug.
“Well,” she called down to the Stranger from her perch. “What is this disturbance? State your purpose or make peace with your creator.”
The Stranger regarded her with veiled eyes and an expression of almost bemusement. Such a cocky demeanor could only be had by a newcomer to town, and then only for a short time. Several of Precious’ minions were already encircling the Stranger and would soon teach him a lesson if he did not tame his arrogance and learn to show humility in the presence of the Vampire Queen.
“I hear that you are hiring mercenaries,” the Stranger said evenly. “I offer my services to you and your gang.”
“How surprising,” Precious muttered dryly under her breath as she watched the noose of men slowly tighten around him. Still, she had to admit his cool directness was arousing to her. “You look too pretty to be any good at the martial arts. Tell me why I shouldn’t have you killed for your insolence right now on the spot.”
The Stranger only brightened his smile at the threat. “A demonstration,” he said. “Watch.”
With that, the Stranger turned and headed down the street directly towards the encampment of her main rival. Precious noticed one of her lieutenants glance furtively at her and she raised a finger to allow the Stranger pass through the security perimeter. Her interest now piqued, she scurried down the steps like an excited schoolgirl, past the astonished looks of Odd and Buttercup.
I was very surprised—almost astonished—when I saw the Stranger return alive from his brief encounter with the Bloodsuckers. My surprise quickly faded as I watched him walk past my building and continue on towards the Flesheaters camp. Lea insisted on following so I grudgingly took her hand. I had to admit that even after all of the misery I’d endured, I was now curious to see what was going to happen. If nothing else, it might prove to be an interesting show and I’d have the grim satisfaction of standing over the Stranger’s mangled corpse telling him, “I told you so.”
The Stranger wasn’t hard to keep up with. His gait was slow and steady and movements as unstealthy as you could make them. It seemed that he wanted all of Lost Vegan to witness his execution. The Flesheaters had to be aware of his presence by now and were assembling a welcome party.
It was past dark but the Hellmouth illuminated the city in its unearthly glow and even the sky melted from what should have been a velvet black cloak to a hazy purple nightmare. The abandoned hulls of buildings seemed to come alive and twisted their frames over the road, their naked iron beams poised over them all like unsheathed claws ready to strike.
Before we hit Druscilla Avenue, we could already spot a gang of the Flesheaters’ men. There were only a few of them, but they had Tiny with them and Unit 3—one of Cutie’s dim-witted protégés, so I knew they meant business—meant to kill the Stranger. Still, their demeanor was casual and they pretended not to notice the slow, deliberate pace of the man headed directly towards them.
I put my hand on Lea’s shoulder. “We should go,” I told her. “This is a bad idea.”
But Lea listened to me about as well as the Stranger had. Though sightless, she navigated through the garbage and debris that littered the street as though she had night vision or as if she had been born on the street, which she had. Lea wanted front row seats to this execution, though I wasn’t certain exactly what she expected to witness.
Finally, the Stranger ambled to within 20 feet of the Flesheater gang. The human mercenary contingent of the group seemed to be laughing at an inside joke one of them had cracked but quickly stopped when Unit 3 turned his pudgy metallic frame to face the approaching Stranger. The corners of his mouth were turned down in a constant frown and he had a scar slashed across his bald pate that resembled a single wicked eyebrow. A single fang whose only practical function was opening beer cans protruded from the middle of his thick upper lip. Tiny stood stoically in the back like a giant sequoia of death.
“What do ya want, Stwanger?” Unit 3 said, his overhanging fang slurring his speech.
The Stranger said nothing, but appeared to be sizing up his competition. He walked straight up to the row of mercenaries and looked them up or down. He seemed shocked when he got to within a hairs breadth of Tiny and found he came up to the middle of his 7 foot- 7 inch frame.
“They call me Tiny,” the giant said.
The Stranger’s look of shock melted away to an air of bemusement
“Of course,” he said and sauntered casually up to Unit 3. What was he going to do unarmed against 6 men? I thought to myself. Did he intend to stare them to death? Or was he simply going to swap pleasantries about the weather? Either way, he was going to be disappointed. The Flesheaters would soon as kill a man as look at him.
“Don’t make me wepeat my qwestion, Stranger.” Unit 3 said angrily. “I despise wedundancies.”
The Stranger shrugged. “I have business with the bloodsuckers. They wish me to kill some of you.”
If I had had the time, I would have slapped my forehead in disbelief. Instead, clenched my jaw and braced myself for the onslaught. At the Stranger’s words, the flesheater crew jumped and took up postures around him. This time, I thought for sure the Stranger’s fate was sealed.
Yet, in one instant, the Stranger glanced coldly at me and I was shocked by the intensity lurking in the shadows in his eyes. The next instant the Stranger disappeared in a blur of motion. Before I knew what was happening, a saber slid from a flesheater’s grip and pistol was unholstered from another’s belt. There were gunshots and screams and suddenly the dismembered head of Unit 3 rolled in front my feet. Three other flesheaters lay lifeless in the dust. Tiny was on his knees, doubled over in pain. The giant made a low groan and slowly shrank away towards the cover of the Flesheater camp. The fourth flesheater thug spun like a top on his head, cradling the stump upon which his left leg used to be attached.
The Stranger casually tucked away his stolen arsenal and headed towards the bloodsucker. He paused by me and gave me a knowing look, but I was too astonished to mask my emotions.
“Tell her four coffins,” he said, and as the screams died down, he added. “Make that five.”
The Stranger continued on his way, not waiting for me to say anything. Nearly a block away, I could see the greedy, hungry eyes of the bloodsuckers and their queen awaiting their prize and savior.
In the beginning, there was darkness. Darkness was everywhere. In every direction you looked, there was the endless abyss, an infinite stretch of nothingness—and everything at the same time. Therein lay the conundrum into which the universe was born. God looked into murkiness of the void and saw the limitless possibilities that dwelled inside it. He wanted them all and could have delivered them all, yet he chose the one universe in which we find ourselves. Why?
After three Armageddons, numberless wars, plagues, famines and anti-Christs, creation’s only sentient creature has to ask why God, in all of his infinite power and wisdom, chose this path of all possible paths—a path of injustice and suffering.
Are we all strangers to God’s will?
Precious had Buttercup bustling around the old cathedral, tidying up things in preparation for a special guest. And to think, only a few minutes ago she had contemplated executing the Stranger like a common vermin. Now he would enter her throne room like a hero—a savior, even.