It was a hot day on the western plains. A goatherd struggled up the crumbling side of a high, windswept mesa, his flock far below, grazing peacefully in the sparse vegetation. As he reached the
It was a hot day on the western plains. A goatherd struggled up the crumbling side of a high, windswept mesa, his flock far below, grazing peacefully in the sparse vegetation. As he reached the top, he caught sight of a hairy, bearded man seated a few paces back from a nearby precipice.
The man’s name was Joshua. He was dressed in buckskins, sitting cross-legged by a wooden shack as he stared off into the west. A quail fluttered up from below, passed over his head, and then came to an abrupt, midair stop, as if it had struck some invisible wall. It dropped, dead, into the wild man’s waiting hand. As he plucked it, the panting goatherd walked up to him.
“They say you’re the prophet,” the goatherd said.
“Yeah. The one from Hadochee. They kicked you out for disturbing the peace.”
Joshua remained silent, never looking up from his task.
“Well, is it true?”
“I would not have left if the Lord had not called me out.”
“So you really are a prophet?”
“What do you think?” Joshua answered, the ghost of a grin spreading across his downturned face.
Adam’s eyes narrowed.
“Tell me my future.”
“You will meet a beautiful woman.”
“Really?” He blinked.
“I’m a prophet, not a fortune teller.”
“Can’t you give me some sign to prove God sent you?”
At last Joshua looked up, his pale gray eyes fixing Adam with the wild stare of a man gone half-mad in isolation.
“You want a sign? Pay attention. The signs are all around you.”
For a moment, Adam said nothing. Joshua turned back to his quail and continued plucking, a mess of bloody feathers accumulating beside him. Answered, but unsatisfied, Adam plopped down next to him and stared off into the west to watch the shadows lengthen.
“What’s your name?” Joshua asked.
“Would you like some quail?”
“Yeah. I’m starved.”
“It will be ready soon. Rest yourself.”
That night the two strangers shared a meal together, gathered around a small fire near the mesa’s edge. A motley collection of goats grazed nearby, keeping a distance from the dark chasm. They huddled together as thunder rumbled in the distance.
“Storm’s coming,” Adam said.
“Always does. You can sleep here.”
“I need to find shelter for my goats.”
“Use mine. I’ll stay out here and watch the storm.”
Adam stripped the last bit of meat off a wing and tossed the bone into the fire. He groaned as he lifted himself off the hard ground and went to herd the goats into the shack. Soon they were all corralled. Adam closed himself in with them.
Joshua sat still, gazing into the night. Thunder rumbled again, and a slow, steady rain began to fall. It dripped on Joshua’s face, rivulets carrying away dust in little muddy streaks. It gathered in his eyelashes, and he blinked the water away. His eyes caught something deep in the dark clouds, lit by lightning— a figure of a man.
“Joshua,” the cloud figure called.
“I am here, LORD.”
“Joshua, the new moon has come and gone thirty-nine times since I sent you into exile. The time is almost fulfilled. You have served me faithfully.”
“Thank you, LORD.”
There was a gentle rumble of thunder, and the Angel of the Lord continued.
“Rise up and go towards the east, to the land that I love. Go that way, and stop only to minister to my flock. But do not cross the river and enter the land until the time appointed.”
Thunder crashed and lightning split the sky, filling Joshua’s plane of vision. When the afterburn faded, the Angel of the Lord had receded into the clouds.
In the gray light of early morning, Joshua stood, soaking in the loneliness of the wastes. Content, he went into the shelter, where Adam slept soundly, surrounded by his goats. He reached out a hand and shook the goatherd, who sat up with a startled cry and a rifle in hand. The goats bleated in protest.
“I am leaving this place, Adam. Come with me.”
“The LORD is calling me back. If I leave you here, the storm will return and overtake you, destroying this shelter and scattering your goats. Come with me to Hadochee. There we have pastures for your goats, food in plenty, and a people to settle among.”
Adam put the rifle down and sat up straighter.
“I don’t want to settle. There are no people out here. No fighting. No violence. Only God and the goats.”
“And you, Adam. There is violence in you. Come to Hadochee. See the work of the LORD. It will make your heart glad.”
They walked east across miles of barren land, the wind whipping their ragged clothing and drowning out the cries of bleating goats. They walked into the rising sun, and they walked in the noonday heat. They walked until evening, and they walked beneath the shining stars. Their path took them along ancient roads all worn away, gray and black rock broken by creeping grass and the passage of time. Their path took them past enormous mounds, squares of crumbled rock and earth. Their path took them weaving through the shells of towers whose names were long forgotten, into a ruined city, into the land of Adam’s nightmares.
“We shouldn’t be here.” The goatherd trembled as he spoke, the words barely a whisper.
“The LORD is with us. We will continue.”
In the shadow of a building there was the clatter of hooves and fleeting motion among the ruins. There was rustling in the alleys, then silence. Up above, on the remains of rooftops, there loomed what seemed to be the silhouettes of men.
Adam shivered as a howl rent the night. Both goats and goatherd pulled near the stoic prophet and kept their eyes on the shadows about them. They were deep and dark beneath the waning moon. A slow, winding scrape issued from one of the buildings. The goats pressed tighter, tripping Adam up.
“Are you afraid, Adam?” Joshua asked, walking.
“It will get worse, farther into the ruins. Do you want to stop here and wait until dawn?”
The sound of some distant cacophony echoed through the abandoned streets. It sounded like laughter and the braying of mules. And screams.
“That doesn’t sound safe.”
“We are safe either way. But if we seek shelter, you may not have to see what lurks in the night.”
Adam’s blood ran cold.
“Alright. Let’s stay here.”
Joshua stopped and looked about him. Then he went directly to the corner of a large building. Its roof had caved in, leaving a vast opening, and rubble spilling out into the grassy street.
“Don’t go anywhere,” Joshua said.
The inside was like a cavern. Any doors that might have led out had been buried by the collapsed ceiling and the debris of upper floors. Joshua paced all about that dark and lonely space, gazing into corners, checking around heaps of steel and concrete.
Outside, the goats were starting to panic. They were backing away from the street and towards the opening where Joshua had gone. Adam spread his arms, trying to hold them back, looking out into the darkness for whatever frightened them. Again, the clatter of strange hooves filled the night, and he thought he heard laughter in the alleys across the street. He grabbed a billy by the horns to prevent it from passing and cast a hasty glance into the building to check on Joshua. Something cackled across the way, and he looked back. Nothing but rubble, grass, and waving saplings in a windless city.
Something grabbed him.
“It’s safe,” Joshua whispered in his ear, “bring in your goats.”
The moonlight pouring through the opened roof shone on Joshua’s upturned face as he leaned against the wall, his eyes closed in sleep or prayer. Farther down the sloping pile of rubble on which he was seated was a flat, smooth stretch where the goats huddled together, sleeping fitfully. At the very bottom of the heap slept Adam, his back to a flickering campfire. Wind howled in the distance, cackles floating on its edge.
A shadowy head peered around the edge of the ruin’s entrance. It came around the corner and stepped into the light. The creature’s face was wide and squat, with long ears sticking out to either side. Long, thin hair started at its crown and drifted down the pale skin of its back. It skittered forward on hoofed goat-legs and squatted like a beetle beside the fire, gazing with milky white eyes on Adam’s sleeping form. Its donkey-tail swished back and forth. Leaning forward, the satyr opened its angry red mouth and licked a vicious row of shark-like teeth with a long, thick tongue.
Joshua’s eyes snapped open and fixed on the monstrous form, but the creature was already scampering back into the darkness. Without stirring, Joshua simply closed his eyes and returned to his meditations. Adam slept undisturbed.
The moaning wind swept through the ruin and the goats shifted about restlessly in the chill. One young billy raised its head and bleated in a sudden panic. Sweat beaded on Joshua’s brow. The wind whipped the fire higher, and the shadows flickered about the room.
Quietly, gently, one of the shadows in a rubble-strewn corner took shape and stole forth to the fearful goats, gently stroking their backs. She sung a quiet lullaby, and they went back to sleep. But the melody continued, and the spectral woman moved again, drifting down the pile of rubble, towards Adam. Her dress billowed in the wind, her hair blown away from her pale, beautiful face. She swept between the sleeper and the fire, but no shadow fell on his huddled form.
Sweat dripped down Joshua’s nose and his grimy cheeks and into his beard, but he did not open his eyes, and did not move. Quietly, carefully, the ghostly creature crouched over Adam, pressed one hand to his chest, and stroked his forehead with the other. He seemed to relax for a moment as she leaned forward, her lips hovering over his. Then those lips peeled back into an vicious snarl, her face possessed by a look of bestial hunger, and her dress swept back in an unfelt wind like a pair of giant, moth-eaten wings. Her mouth fell towards Adam’s, and he groaned in pain as a glowing aura seemed to rise from his body and sweep up into the specter’s gaping maw.
At the touch of Joshua’s hand, the growling banshee burst into a flurry of sparks which then rushed up to the heavens. He stood in the flickering light, waiting as Adam first writhed a bit longer, then woke. He jumped when he saw the prophet standing over him.
“What?! What is it?” he said.
“Nothing,” Joshua answered, “Just a nightmare. Go back to sleep.”
Adam nodded uncertainly and pulled his blanket back up.
“How long have you been standing there?”
Joshua’s smile was warm, almost fatherly.
“Just keeping watch. Don’t trouble yourself.”
Adam watched the old man turn and climb back up the pile to his place by the wall.
“Okay. Good night.”
The night slipped quietly away as Joshua sat high above the goatherd and his goats. The wind blew, but it seemed to be an ordinary gust. No satyrs disturbed Adam’s rest, no succubi lurked in the shadows. Moonlight poured down through the rent ceiling, bathing all in silver. Hours passed with no greater disturbance than Adam’s snoring.
The light dimmed. A large, sinuous shadow maneuvered its bulky head into the upper part of the room. The moonlight disappeared as a body and wings blocked the hole. It slithered into the room like a snake into a bird’s nest, uncoiling slowly as it went. Claws scraped against stone.
Joshua had his back against one wall. The dark shape clung to the opposite. Adam slept between them. It wove its way down towards the sleeper. It sniffed the goats as it passed, but left them untouched. Coming to a halt over Adam, it swelled outwards, spreading its wings, arching its neck. Its great serpent mouth opened and venom dripped from its jaws. The dying firelight lit the creature in a hellish glow, and a single drop of venom glittered as it fell down and splattered on Adam’s blankets, burning through.
Adam bolted upright and skittered backwards, towards the fire. He screamed in terror and crashed into Joshua’s shins. The prophet stood over him, pointing his staff at the beast. It bellowed. Joshua bellowed back.
“Hold your peace!”
The devil’s mouth snapped shut, but its whole face leaned forward until its nose nearly touched Joshua’s, its serpentine pupils staring into the prophet’s eyes. He stared back, and Adam scrambled out from between them.
“Get out of this place,” Joshua said.
The creature huffed, nostrils flaring, then opened its jaws again in an enormous roar which sent the goats scattering. Then the dragon’s wings beat once, twice, thrice as it surged back out the hole in the ceiling, out into the early dawn, where sunlight struck the tips of the highest ruins. The beast fled west in search of darkness or shadows, a place to hide, a place to escape the day.
Joshua turned to Adam, who trembled at the base of the rubble pile. “It’s almost morning. We should get started.”
To be Continued…