Zeno questions his God as he prepares for the end.
A crucifix, the most well-known symbol of the kingdom of Icthys stood canted in the dust. Zeno; a wiry, emaciated Negro, charred blacker still by the region’s unforgiving sun squinted as he glared upwards through its rays at the effigy. ‘Twas a statue of Iēsous Christos, demigod of Icthys, represented in his final moments on earth as he remunerated the sins of humanity with his life.
“So what do I do now?” His raspy voice scratched ‘gainst the harsh, dusty breeze. Debris pelted his face, yanking at his matted afro as a playful child would. He struggled to expel leaves and dirt past his chapped lips, though he struggled owing to his dehydration.
“Say something damnit! Anything!!” his voice broke with nihilistic despair. “I thought we had a ‘personal relationship with our ‘lord and savior’?! That’s what the damned priests always barked. Then why won’t you answer me?! I’ve been here for two fucking days begging you for guidance! And I’m supposed to worship your ass…for what?! All I’ve ever known is pain, suffering, hardship…evil.”
His ears perked up as the sounds of footsteps approaching from behind him, though he remained fixated on cross as he continued his tirade.
“Man, we’re created in your image right? Then…your image is corrupted with dishonesty and hatred?! And…and your supposed to be all loving right?! Right?! Then why do we suffer…why did I have to suffer. I never pretended to be smart, but your ‘holy scripture’…your ‘word’ feels like a lie…”
The footsteps grew louder still before coming to an abrupt end mere feet from him.
“A crisis of faith?” A clearly feminine yet stern voice queried.
She joined his side, taking a knee in the dust with clasped hands, her attention fixated on crucifix before them.
“I sympathize, I often come here myself to make sense of the atrocities I’ve witnessed…” She paused, obviously bothered by her own sorrows within. Her head fell as she raised a clenched fist to her breastplate. “…That I’ve committed…in the name of our lord. I won’t pretend to know whats going on in your life, but—
“Then don’t…” Zeno interrupted, he rose to his feet on wobbled legs, weak from malnutrition.
The woman was a dame, a female knight of the Catolican citadel; the largest city within Icthys’ border. She stood and watched as Zeno traipsed off past the crucifix, her silver armor shone in the sun, almost as radiant as an angel; her red robes beneath fluttered in the increasingly violent winds. She extended her wings; appendages blessed to her by their god, and used one to shield her from the elements as she observed Zeno’s march towards the wastelands.
The sliding of steel ‘gainst wood and the cutting of a blade through the air brought his progress to a halt. The dame rotated the blade parallel to the ground and trained it on her quarry.
“You hear to enforce his will, drag me back to fuckin’ slavery? Or kill me?” He growled
Her brow furrowed as her attention shifted to his left arm, ‘Twas severed at the wrist; a common consequence for thievery in those lands. The ends of his bandages, blotched with crimson and umber, whipped about violently in the winds.
“A thief…” a hushed grunt escaped her as she readied her steel for combat. Though, the heavy clang of handguard and sheath signaled her reluctance to apprehend a clearly morose and harmless Zeno. “Forgive me brother, I shouldn’t judge and I mean you know harm. I assume you came here to seek solitude and peace of mind. I simply came to pray for the lost souls of Baptista, will you join me?”
She folded one wing, continuing to shield herself from the debris with the other and approached Zeno. His fist clenched tighter as the crunching of the dry, dusty earth beneath her greaves grew louder.
“Pray with me…” She requested with a smile. “…and perhaps we can both find absolution.”
“No, I’m done praying, I’m done asking…I’m done kissing his ass.” Zeno repudiated. With a sly smile he turned to the dame, making a concerted effort to lock eyes with her. “I wouldn’t mine kissing yours though…”
“Lecherous blasphemer!” she barked, reaching for her blade once more. “Hold your disgusting tongue!”
“Or what!? You’ll kill me? Strike me down? Or will he?! Not like I give a damn anyways…you want this life I didn’t ask for?! Then fucking take it!”
His statement incensed the dame, though I am sure that was his intention. However, she yielded yet again. Re-sheathing her half drawn blade and gathering her wits, she exhaled and offered a hand in prayer again.
“Go ahead, draw your damn sword…you would be doing me a fucking favor.” He coughed, choking from dehydration and rage.
“Our god…he loves us, and you. He knows your heart, he knows you hurt and he has sent me…to offer you solace.” The dame attempted to appease.
However, Zeno would have none of it. He chuckled sardonically, in between violent fits of coughing as he expelled dust that had become caked inside his esophagus.
With seething disdain he eyed the dame once more. “Love, I believe in that shit even less than I believe in him…cause if it exists in this world, ive never seen it.”
“He does exist, and so does love, and his is omni benevolent…He IS love!” she countered passionate conviction.
“Then if he is so damned benevolent why does he allow evil to exist?!” Zeno barked, now fully turned towards the dame. “Why was I made to live my life in chains! Serving masters who didn’t give a damn about me!? Why was I sold by a mother who didn’t give a damn about me!?”
With what little fluid that remained in his body, the corners of his lips frothed with saliva and dirt. Another fit of coughing over took him as he collapsed to his knees, he pointed in the direction of Baptista with the stump that was once his left hand as he struggled to remain upright with the other.
“Why…was my home destroyed?! Why am I the only one left…to suffer?!” His raspy voice broke with anguish.
The dame shifted her focus to Baptista, the city had been leveled by a ghastly phenomenon known only as “The Rot”. It plagued cities the world over, though it was not sentient it actively sought to consume and devour life before retreating to the nether regions of the planet. The angels had descended upon it and leveled the city in order to drive it back to the depths, they did nothing to rescue the inhabitants before doing so.
Shocked, the dame found herself at a loss for words. “You…you have escaped bondage?! I have no choice but to…”
Realizing the inhumanity in her statement, she relented once more. Kneeling beside the distressed Zeno, she helped him gently to his feet. He attempted to shove himself away from her, but in his weakened state he could do nothing ‘gainst her preternatural strength. Still, she released him, allowing him to stumble on his own path.
“I am not without compassion…I recognize your pain and offer you respite; if you return with me to Catolica.”
“And if I refuse…” He challenged, shambling away from the ruined city. “Not like he’ll do anything anyways…didn’t lift a finger to save Baptista. Or did he send you to do his dirty work?”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize this was your home. I thought all were dead. When Michael and the archangels descended to lay waste to the city…” She paused, shaking her head as if to dispel her previous sentence. “…no…He did not send me. I frequent this crucifix…and extend my assistance of my own accord.”
“I got jack shit…story of my life. I’m done with this city, with him, with living…and with you.” Zeno denounced * “Just leave me fuckin be…”
“So you’ll wander the desert alone? Once you pass the crucifix you will break his covenant, he will not protect you! Return with me, we knights have room enough in our slave quart—
She stopped just short, realizing she had most likely already offended him. Though, he barely reacted, continuing his shambling towards the unforgiving desert beyond.
“Maryam…my name is Maryam.” She continued.
“I’m not too keen on returning to slavery…and that’s if you highfalutin Catolican bastards don’t do me in first. I’m going to hell, and I can find my own way there. I don’t need your fucking directions.” Zeno rebuked
Maryam removed a dagger from a sheath on the back of her belt; it glowed with a faint white light. After a brief examination of the blade, she tossed it at Zeno’s feet; the dull thud attracted his attention, bringing his forward progress to a halt. He reached for the blade, curiously examining it himself. This was the first time he had ever witnessed a blessing firsthand.
“Thank you…” His scratchy voice struggled ‘gainst the whistling winds.
“I may not be able to convince you to return, but I can’t in good conscience let you wander unarmed. It has a small blessing and will be good for a few uses; hopefully it will last till you find safety…or decide to return.”
His eyes rose from the blade to lock with hers, the wind picked up, whistling and howling with increased ferocity as the duo stood with the wordless understanding that the gift was a useless gesture. For they both knew that Zeno had very little chance of surviving, and even less of returning. Maryam lurched forward, as if to give chase as Zeno turned his back to resume the journey to his certain demise before relenting, not wanting to disobey the covenant of her lord.
“Will you tell me your name, I will pray for your safe journey brother.” She entreated compassionately.
Though there was no response, he simply marched with sullen and dogged determination into the unforgiving desert before him.
His legs wobbled, his head hung back, eyes towards the sky as he fought ‘gainst his weakness and dehydration to continue to his unknown destination. A fit of coughing overtook him again, causing him to stumble into a petrified tree. He had stumbled into a ‘forest’ of them, ‘twas also littered with the rusted shells and frames of odd four wheeled vehicles from the old world. Their presence barely registered as he struggled with dehydrated delirium.
Zeno’s head trembled as it swiveled slowly to the rear, he crashed ‘gainst the tree as he gazed back towards his old hometown. The city was a barely visible, but a dot on the horizon; recognizable only by the smoke rising from the destruction. He was no long able to withhold his emotions, his knees buckled as he collapsed into the dirt; wailing with raspy whispers through his parched esophagus that were nigh inaudible in the howling winds; huddling closer to the tree to conserve body heat as the night encroached; he allowed his sorrows to lull him into a forlorn slumber.
An unfamiliar sensation roused him from unconsciousness. Though groggy, he attempted to focus his eyes on his abdomen. He jumped immediately after he recognized the two tailed scorpion crawling across his belly, he swatted the creature from him and stabbed it as it scurried back towards him after hitting the ground.
“Fuck!” he exclaimed “I hate bugs!”
Squinting, he turned his attention towards the sun that hung just over the horizon. He struggled to his feet, he braced ‘gainst the tree, brushing caked on dirt from his body weakly. He let out a labored cough, expelling more caked dirt from his mouth and continued on his aimless march into oblivion.
The sun rose directly overhead, his body trembled and he struggled to continue forward. He collapsed to his knees under the oppressive heat, his body now completely bereft of sweat; he clutched his side as his kidney exerted its final efforts. He crawled desperately across the ground, his attention fixated on the cliff face before him, fully intent on heaving himself over its edge. The sudden shock of what he witnessed as he reached the edge brought him back from the brink of demise.
“What the hell is this?!” He gasped
Below him, black ominous clouds churned, red lightning crackled and thunder rumbled with an intensity that shook Zeno to his bones. An updraft from the hellish depths smacked him in the face and drove him to his feet. He managed to regain his balance as he remained fixated on the ominous sight below. With a heavy heart, Zeno heaved a heavy yet relieved sigh.
“This is it, I’m free now…” he uttered with a raspy growl. “Free to live as I want…and die as I please.”
He leapt over the edge, tumbling end over end; instinctively, he attempted to right himself, though his weakness soon put an end to such efforts. Hail pelted him, the winds and heavy moisture of the clouds made it nigh impossible to breath, he cringed ‘gainst their unknown makeup that corroded his skin and seemed to attack his very soul. He gasped, somewhat relieved for fresh air as he broke through the cloud bottoms. However, the speed of the rushing air made breathing a difficult task. He succumbed to unconsciousness from the trauma of the experience and the icy cold of the atmosphere. His body went limp as it raced towards the inky black of the ocean below.