The darkness in the forest was almost complete, but stray beams of moonlight broke through the canopy to coat a few spindly tree branches in white. They tore at Eva’s skin as she darted through the forest. But despite the obstacles, and even though her lungs burned, she wouldn’t stop. She was trained for this and trusted her body to her instincts, which meant she was fast in the night drenched woods.
The black mass that appeared ahead alerted her to the fallen tree in her path. Eva felt more than saw it.
After leaping at just the right moment, her feet reconnected with the soft earth. But she ran only a few paces further before a bulk slammed into her from the side, crushing her into the ground.
Her long legs twisted around her assailant as her reflexes responded to this new development. The man grunted as she dragged him to the side with a powerful jerk.
He grabbed her ponytail, yanking on it, but she’d gained enough space and swung her elbow up, connecting with his cheek. The force loosened his grip, and she jumped to her feet to continue her sprint.
There were three men, she knew. One was far away by now. He could never keep up. His expertise wasn’t in the chase. The second man that she left behind in the leaf litter was no longer a threat, but the last —
She changed her angle, aiming for the river that she could hear flowing nearby, and quickly left the safety of the woods.
Rushing water blinked beside her as the peaks of waves caught the muted moonlight, then disappeared into the flat expanse beside her.
The riverbank left her exposed, but it also afforded greater speed with the longer loping strides she could affect in the open. And if she stayed on this course, she could get ahead of her last pursuer and make it into town by the time the sun rose.
She was focused on the path before her when an explosion of light erupted behind her eyes, followed by a shock of pain on the side of her head. She tripped forward then staggered sideways as the looming shadow of the third man appeared. But before she had time to react, her mind numbed, and she dropped into the raging water beside her.
A dull whoosh coated her ears, and the world went black.
“It’s dead. I’m tellin’ ya’.” The voice of a grown man. Deep.
“Poke it.” Another voice. This one the thready sound of a woman.
“I’m not gonna poke it. You poke it.”
“I ain’t touchin’ that thing.”
“You afraid it’ll bite ya?”
Eva grunted and lifted an arm against the light filtering through her eyelids.
The woman shrieked. “I knew it wasn’t dead!”
“Holy mother of Jesus. It’s a girl, see?”
A muffled curse. “Franklin R. Palmer, you get on your knees and repent.”
“Stop it, Ma. I’m a grown man. I’ll do what I want. Besides, I was just sayin’.”
“But that ain’t a girl. It’s a woman. And you weren’t just sayin’. You were lookin’. And lookin’ is the same as doin’.”
The man grunted. “What are we gonna do with her?”
“We can’t leave her here. She’s not dead, but she will be soon—Look at that.”
Eva felt the press of fingers on her wrist.
“That tattoo,” the woman said.
“Just some small squares. Could be anything.”
“Doesn’t need to be big to mean a lot. Looks to me like she’s been branded. Son, I believe we’ve been called to the Lord’s work. Give me your bag.”
“’Cause you’re gonna carry her—But don’t touch nothin’!”
“How am I supposed to carry her if I can’t touch her?”
“You know what I mean.”
Pain shot through Eva’s body as she was lifted. But despite the fog that remained over her thoughts, she maintained control in her half-consciousness.
She didn’t know it was her training that gave her the strength to remain silent. She couldn’t remember anything at all.
As they went, each bounce sent a shock of agony through her body, and it wasn’t long before she lost consciousness again.
It was a coughing fit that brought Eva around the second time. The electric shock that ripped across her forehead and tore at her ribs pulled her from oblivion.
She blinked her eyes open, and a heavyset woman filled her vision. The woman had a face like a frog. Her fat lips pushed out in a scowl that confined her eyes to slits.
“You’re awake,” the woman said. “You’re lucky you’re not dead.”
Eva changed angles so she could sit up.
“You sure that’s a good idea?” the woman said.
Eva didn’t care. Laying down made her vulnerable, but it was still several minutes before she could get upright. She pressed a hand to support her ribs as she lifted herself, but her head spun when she was finally sitting, and she had to breathe slowly through her nose, bowed over until it settled.
“Where am I?” Her voice came out a croaking whisper.
“My house.” The woman tipped her head sideways, her eyes roaming down Eva from head to toe. “You’re a determined little thing, ain’t ya?” She held out the cup she was carrying. “Can you drink this? Or am I gonna have ta feed ya like a baby on the teat?”
Eva took the cup, but frowned down at the brown liquid. She swished it in a worthless attempt to identify the contents. The smell was pungent, but not bad.
“What is it?”
“It’s not poison, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“That’s not—” Eva coughed again.
The woman scooped the cup from her hand to keep it from spilling. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” she mumbled.
“Sorry.” Once the coughing stopped, Eva held her hand out to take the cup back.
The woman’s face softened from suspicion to pity as she handed it over. “Oregon grape root, echinacea, ginger. I could go on, but I won’t waste my time or yours. Just drink it. If I wanted to kill you, I’d have left you at the river.”
“Yeah, that’s where we found you washed up like a drowned rat. Thought you were dead. You looked dead. If I’m being honest, you still look dead.”
Eva took a sip, but choked on it. It burned down to her stomach, where it threatened to bring up whatever juices were stewing in there.
“I’m sorry,” she said again after regaining her breath. “Maybe I should get to a hospital.”
The woman snorted. “You must really have a death wish, darlin’. God brought you here to save ya. Don’t know why yet. May never know. The Lord works in mysterious ways.”
“What does that have to do with the hospital?”
“If you go back out into that wilderness they call civilization, you won’t last a second.”
Eva set the cup on a small table by the bed. She couldn’t remember anything, but those words triggered a sense that she wasn’t someone who trusted many people, either. But she couldn’t stay here. “Then I should get home.”
“Home? You really want to go back to that miry pit you came from?”
“Don’t you remember?”
“I can’t remember anything. Except—” Dark images swam through her head. She was running in the dark.
“I was being chased. I got hit. That’s all I can remember.”
“I knew it. I knew I was right. I could feel it in my bones. You escaped from a cult.”
“You were part of a cult. You escaped. It was very brave.”
“How do you know all that?”
“Where else would you have come from? You said yourself that you were chased and attacked. Not to mention you’ve got that mark on your arm from them to prove it.”
Eva looked at her wrist. She ran a finger over the squares there that were slightly raised on her skin. “This is from a cult?”
“What else would it be from?”
“Do you know which one?”
“There are so many to choose from. But does it really matter? All I can tell you for sure is that God has work for you to do. That’s why he sent you to us.”
“My son and I live here. But I can’t keep lookin’ after you. Once you start feeling better, you’re gonna to have to pull your own weight if you want to stay. I have no patience for freeloaders.”
“You a parrot, girl?”
The woman hooted. “You keep repeating everything I say. Guess I should go easy on you. They would have trained you to repeat after them. Do as you’re told. Lord knows I do as I’m told. But only when God speaks, and God needs to give you a home. You have nowhere else to go and mine is as good as any. Probably better than most.”
“So I have no home to go to?”
The woman’s face dropped into a frown and she sat on the end of the bed, putting a hand on Eva’s knee. “I’m sorry, child. I really am. But the life you came from was a nightmare. It was no home. But we will open ours to you if you’ll have us.”
“That’s…generous of you.”
“Just doing my part. My name is Clara, by the way. My son is Franky. He doesn’t say much, but he’s a good boy. I think you two will get along just fine.”
“And Franky is okay with me staying?”
Clara waved the comment away. “You let me worry about him. You’re welcome here.”
“Thank you.” Eva was not settled on the matter, but she didn’t have the energy to get into it further. If she came from a cult, then she must have a family out there somewhere looking for her.
“I am always obedient to the Lord’s command. Now, you rest a little longer and try to drink more of that tea. I’ve got a few things to do, but I’ll heat some water and bring a basin for you a bit later so you can clean yourself up.”
Eva reached her hand up and scrunched a handful of stiff hair. She could feel it was a tangled mess.
“Yeah, it’s a mop,” Clara said. “Not sure what we’re going to do about it besides give it a good soak. I could cut it all off, but I think the Lord would rather we keep it long if we can. You rest up now. I’ll be back later to check on you.”
After Clara left the room, Eva looked down at the gray shirt and plaid boxers she was wearing. They were much cleaner than the rest of her body. She searched the room with her eyes and saw a black mass of filthy fabric draped across a wooden chair near the door. Clara must have changed her clothes. She shivered at the thought of someone touching her while she was unconscious but pushed away the revulsion. She would have been more thankful for what Clara had done if she could ignore the sense of self-reliance that came more naturally to her than being cared for.
With her eyes still roaming the room, she studied her surroundings properly for the first time. The walls were rough hewn and the little wooden table next to her bed was basic pine and homemade. A small window high up on the wall offered a little light and judging the size, it was probably too small to climb out of.
A crease formed between her eyes. Why would she even think about climbing out? Clara had been nothing kind and no threat had been made. But when Eva looked at the door, she had taken it for granted that she wasn’t locked in.
Slowly, she lifted herself from the bed and took tentative steps across the room until she reached the other side where she used the door handle to steady herself. It gave way under her weight and opened a crack. She peaked down the empty hall, then back up at the window.
Even if she couldn’t remember anything, she knew for sure that she wouldn’t allow herself to end up caged. But because of her injuries, she had no choice but to cooperate with Clara and gain back her strength until she could better assess the situation she now found herself in.
She took a step back toward the bed, but her head spun, and she dropped into the chair. Pressing a hand to her head to ease the spinning, she felt a tender spot near her temple where she’d been struck. It was the only thing she could remember from her past. She was running, and it was dark. Then she was attacked. Someone must have been chasing her and they got to her before she could escape. But who was it and why?
She reached to the back of her neck and squeezed. It could have been a cult as Clara had said. But whoever it was, they were dangerous. And if they were still looking for her, Eva could be putting Clara and her son at risk after they’d saved her life and offered her a place to stay.
Or perhaps it was like Clara had said and it was God. But Eva had no concept of who God was in her life. She understood the idea of a higher power, but whether or not she had a connection to him in any way, or if she even believed a god existed, was hiding behind a veil she couldn’t penetrate.
After resting for several minutes, she stood and stumbled across the floor, falling onto the thin mattress where she collapsed into a cocoon of pain and exhaustion. Her eyes fluttered for a moment as she fought through her lapsing consciousness to discover where it was she had been running to. But her mind would not concede, and in the end she fell asleep with no answers.
Ben adjusted his grip on the heavy suitcase as he looked up at the building that loomed ahead. It was unremarkable to look at from the outside and appeared identical to those around it with its plain brick façade. It should be filled with stock standard offices and florescent lighting. But what went on inside the building was far from ordinary.
He had begun working for the Underwood foundation not long after leaving the special forces. After serving for seven years in the military running secret missions, he’d spent many months agonizing over what to do next. He was approaching thirty years old and found it impossible to settle into what those around him called a normal life. It wasn’t normal for him. So when Julian offered him a job as security for an organization whose sole purpose was to bring about a genuine change for the better, it felt to Ben like an assignment straight from heaven.
But he was wrong.
That lapse in judgement meant he ended up working for a man bent on controlling a country for his own power and greed, and Ben lost all confidence in his ability to hear the God he thought he’d been serving. Today was his chance to make up for that.
He approached the guard who monitored the front door. The first of a host of security.
“Here again?” the guard said, taking Ben’s pass and marking his entry. “That’s three days in a row.”
“I know,” Ben said. “I’m waiting on my next job. In the meantime, I’m stuck running back and forth.”
The guard shook his head. “That must be killing you, running errands.”
“It’s not so bad. You know what Julian says: We are each an important part of the greater purpose.”
“Yeah. That’s what we’re all here for, I guess.”
“You’re not happy with the part you play?”
“No! Don’t misunderstand me. I love my job. It’s a privilege to serve Julian’s vision. I just meant—”
“I know what you meant.” Ben laughed. “This wasn’t a test. I was just giving you a hard time.” And making sure he was more focused on himself than Ben’s peculiar visits.
The guard let out a quick breath that carried a fake laugh of partial relief. Ben couldn’t blame him. Julian ruled with a powerful mix of love and fear.
The guard handed Ben back his pass and fired off his next words in quick succession suggesting he would be more comfortable once Ben moved on. “Right. Okay then. Should I expect to see you tomorrow?”
“No. This is the last of it here for me. I’ve got a new assignment tomorrow.”
“Well, good luck.”
“Thanks.” Ben nodded to the guard then crossed the gate into the building.
The entry hall was empty, and he stopped to take a breath before moving to the next door.
He positioned his face in front of the eye scanner and waited for the pop of the lock and the green light before entering a long corridor.
His steps were even and steady, but they belied the fast pounding of his heart. He had come to despise this place and would be relieved to never set foot in it again. To Ben, it represented evil at its core.
After turning the corner, he noticed the door ahead was open, and as he approached, the hair on the back of his neck raised. He didn’t stop, but glanced into the dark room as he passed, sensing the shadows that watched him from inside. Or was that his imagination? He never knew any more.
It used to be a gift, being able to discern the spiritual environment. When he’d worked in the special forces, his insight proved to be an invaluable asset. With God’s help, Ben had saved a lot of lives and received the metals to prove it. But back then, he’d gotten lost among the praise of his peers and forgot that without God, it was all worthless.
He never saw the demons themselves. It was more like being in a dark room with other people and feeling their presence. He didn’t have to see them to know they were there. But now, he’d been in the dark too long.
When he’d first agreed to work for Julian, he had no sense of their presence. He’d felt a warning that they were there, but by then, he trusted too faithfully in his gift. And by the time the demonic forces finally revealed themselves, it was too late, and he’d done things he couldn’t undo.
His fingers squeezed the handle of the case to keep his hand from shaking. He might have gotten lost along the way, but now was his chance to make things right.
He swiped his pass in another door and continued through to the next hallway.
Julian didn’t often make mistakes, but he’d made one with Ben by trusting him with too much. Now, Ben would use that error to stop him from hurting anyone else.
He turned into a large, windowed room.
“Ben,” said a young woman wearing a white lab coat. “I didn’t expect to see you in here today.” She tucked her hair behind her ear, self-conscious in Ben’s presence. He’d been assigned to protect Trish a month ago when they were tweaking the program. They’d heard that a traitor was among them and Julian wanted to make sure nothing interrupted their progress.
At the time, Ben was sure he’d been discovered because he’d already begun planning what he was carrying out today. But when he confirmed that he was safe, he used Trish, who it was clear had a crush on him, to gain valuable information. Perhaps it was cold-hearted of him to take advantage of her, but it didn’t feel much like he had a heart anymore.
“Hey Trish,” he said. “I won’t be around long. Julian’s got me running all over the place for him today.”
“I guess I’ll have to make myself indispensable again to see much of you anymore.” A blush colored her cheeks.
His smile was close-lipped. “Can you do me a favor?”
“What do I get?” When Ben hesitated, she waved her comment away. “I’m kidding. Tell me what you need.”
“Can you unlock the data room for me?”
“What’s Julian got you doing in there?”
“I’d like to tell you, but I’m afraid it’s confidential.”
“I’m not supposed to let anyone in there without proper authorization.”
Ben looked down, ignoring the pang of guilt and focusing on the toe of his shoe. It had a smudge on it. “I’ll tell you what. If you can just ignore protocol for half a second, I promise to give you all the details of my next assignment over dinner.”
“Unless you don’t—”
“No, I’d love that. All right. I’ll open the door, but don’t tell anyone.”
“Not a soul. Thanks.”
Ben headed down another corridor toward the data room. He’d spent the last two days placing explosives strategically around the building in order to set off a chain reaction after he destroyed the data. It was the only way he knew how to stop Julian.
He entered the room that was the heart of the AI program that had given Julian a dangerous amount of information. If Ben hadn’t seen the students with his own eyes and observed what he’d done to them, he never would have believed it was possible. Now, he’d put an end to it.
He opened the suitcase, set up the bomb at the back of the room, and armed it.
This was it. On his way out of the building, he would set off the fire alarm to make sure the building was evacuated. There were a lot of people in the building who deserved to die for what they’d done. But there were too many others, like Trish, who were deceived. Most of them hadn’t chosen to be a part of this. Julian hadn’t given them the option, and Ben wasn’t willing to take their lives for that.
He doublechecked the bomb and the remote before he walked back out into the hall.
Callum, one of Julian’s personal bodyguards, stood at the far end of the corridor.
“Hey, Cal. What’s happening?”
Callum rested his hand on his gun. “I was looking for you. Rick wants to have a word.”
“I’m in the middle of something. Can we do it later?”
“But I’m on an assignment from Julian. You really want to make him wait?”
“I’m not too worried about it.”
“Okay, it’s your head.” Ben walked casually toward Callum, but as he passed him, he punched him in the stomach. It was only half a second of incapacitation. Callum was highly trained, but so was Ben. He pulled his gun and hit Cal over the head with it, knocking him out.
He raced down the hall, but when he turned the corner, two more men were there waiting.
“Ben!” One of them shouted as they both pulled their guns. “Stop.”
Ben retreated back past Callum, who was beginning to stir, and into the stairwell.
An alarm went off as he jumped the railing and dropped a flight of stairs.
He entered the floor. Pausing long enough to judge which hallway he should take before heading left. He didn’t know the floor, but he knew the building’s exit was east.
When he reached the end of the hall, he found another stairwell that he tried to enter, but the door was locked.
He ran back the way he came, but when he opened the door, he could hear the shouts of men coming from below and above. The building would be crawling by now. It would be impossible to get out unnoticed.
He closed his eyes. If he got caught, he was a dead man anyway.
Turning slowly back down the hall, he entered the closest room. It was full of filing cabinets.
He went to the back of the room and sat on the floor before pulling out the transmitter that would destroy Julian’s work.
He stared at it, then he lifted his eyes to the ceiling. He didn’t pray, just looked.
There was no turning back now. This was the only way he could stop Julian. He had no other choice. He couldn’t let the program continue. So many kids had already lost everything to Julian.
He thought of Sampson in the book of Judges sacrificing himself after he’d screwed up. He had gotten himself into a bad situation because he made terrible choices, and Ben had done the same.
Sampson had been willing to do what he needed to stop the enemy and make things right, and this was Ben’s opportunity to do the same.
Ben blew out a thin stream of breath as he considered the end. It wasn’t that long ago that he’d been certain of so many things, but now he wasn’t sure of much as far as his soul was concerned. He still had faith. He still believed everything the Bible said about Jesus, but he couldn’t begin to imagine what Jesus thought about him right now.
He squeezed his eyes shut and pressed his thumb on the button to blow the bomb.
A loud cracking explosion followed by a white light filled his senses, and heat seared his skin.
Ben shot up in bed, gasping for air. The dark stillness in his room accentuated the sound of his whimpering. He gulped down air and took several minutes to steady his breathing.
“It was a dream. It’s not real.” Except it was. The memory was seared into his mind, intent on replaying itself in his dreams.
He swiped at his sweaty forehead with the back of his hand, focusing on slowing his pulse, but his heart pounded like a relentless drum.
He glanced at the clock. It was three in the morning. That was his night gone.
After throwing back the covers, he slipped out of bed and padded to the bathroom where he splashed water on his face, trying to remove the heat that pretended to be there, blistering his skin. That part of his memory, at least, was a lie. He hadn’t been burned in the flames, even if his mind insisted that he had.
He looked at his bloodshot eyes, the red veins a sharp contrast to the deep blue iris. Then he blinked.
“You’re stronger than this. Come on, Ben.” He slapped his face. “Dreams can’t hurt you.” But they did. They wouldn’t let him escape what had happened. He had survived the blast, but inside he was dead.
His heart was still racing when he moved into the living room and turned on the light. With faltering steps, he wandered the space, unsure what to do next. Finally, he sat.
His Bible was in reach beside him, but it took him a moment before he drummed up the courage to pick it up.
After opening to a random page, he slid his finger down line after line as he read the words, but the sick tightening didn’t abate and he knew why. God’s word was alive, but he read with dead eyes. It was impossible to trust those words anymore. He wanted to. He knew they were real because he’d experienced the power in his life more times that he could count. But in the early hours of the morning when he woke to the same nightmare that wasn’t a nightmare, he found it impossible to escape the truth that he didn’t know how to live anymore.
When the explosion engulfed him that day, he gave himself over to whatever eternity awaited him. He let it claim him. But when his consciousness had remained long after it should have, he opened his eyes and saw a man standing in the fire. The man reached out and took Ben’s hand, pulling him up from a floor that was no longer there.
For a moment, Ben thought he was being escorted to heaven and couldn’t decide if he was surprised or not.
But the angel didn’t remove him from the earth. Instead, he’d brought Ben through the rubble. They walked through twisted metal and smoke and Ben came out completely uninjured. His ears weren’t even ringing.
The man, dressed in plain clothes, steadied Ben on his feet.
“He’s not done with you yet,” the man had said.
“You know who. He has work for you to do.”
“No.” The word had come from his lips unbidden, but he knew he had nothing left to give. He didn’t try to deny that it was a miracle that saved him. But after escaping, he found he didn’t know how to live again and all he could think to do was hide. So he moved to a small town in a meager attempt to conceal himself from God.
It was only a couple of weeks before the angel had visited him at his new home. Ben pleaded with him to leave. But the angel stayed long enough to give warning that he would one day return.
Now Ben waited in fear. Part of him looked forward to escaping from this existence of the living dead. He was a trained soldier, after all. He knew how to go into battle unafraid. But the fear was somehow stronger than his will. So even though he went through the motions of training daily so that he would be prepared when the time came, he knew he would never be ready.
He spent the rest of the early hours of the morning staring at the wall, but when the rising sun sent light through the curtains, Ben closed his eyes in relief. The daylight would wash away the memory of the dream.
But as the remnants of the nightmare melted from him, something sparked in the memory of it, and he sat up straight in the chair. Among the cracking steel, flames, and heat that he’d endured again, something was different.
He leaned forward, squeezing his eyes closed in an attempt to recall the alteration, but he couldn’t bring it back. He could only feel it.
There had been a shift. The sense of hopelessness that had always fastened itself to him through the dream was still there. The fear of death and then living, squeezed him from the inside out. But there had been a change in the battle itself. The only sense he could make of it was that the enemy had lost footing. He pushed aside his anxiety and went back through the dream to try to find the moment, but it was gone.
He went to the window and looked out at the woods that were still heavy in shadow and put a hand to his chest, rubbing a hand across his muscle there. He had the strength and skill to match the best, but living as a hermit made him afraid of his own shadow most of the time.
The sun hit is face and he considered the possibility that God would realize he was unfit for service, and the angel wouldn’t return. That thought filled him with relief as well as agony that he couldn’t dwell on for long without spiraling into depression.
He went outside, taking deep breaths of the still morning air, then trotted down the steps, walking in bare feet through the dewy grass around to the back of the house.
He put his hands on his hips pretending that the animal that had been digging in his garden was a nuisance. But worrying about regular things, being annoyed by a hassle, was exactly what he needed to release the knot of tension around his heart. He’d never wanted a normal life, but it was the only place he could hide.