THE TRAIN A COMIN'
The angel stood tall in front of him, his burning sword firmly in his hand.
Shelby took a deep breath as he tied the rope around his waist and stepped into the circle.
20 minutes before the world had seemed.
A shooting star darted across the night sky as an old cargo train en route separated the desert in two. In front of it, an endless track of steel and wood; and in its wake, a dusty cloud of pebbles and sand. The speeding colossus roared down the line, adorned in heavy metal plates which had been crudely welded on. Inside, an armed posse of 6 guarded its precious cargo: barrels of oil, clean water, and crates of vegetables for the citizens of the 5 outskirts. The shabby gunmen peered out of the few windows left unobstructed, gripping their weapons, watchfully scanning the horizon for any signs of the enemy. The one man who was not, a scruffy, middle-aged man by the name of Mark Shelby, sat upright in the corner. His head tilted forward, as he slept in one of the many torn and broken seats onboard. The train and its interior had long stopped serving the passengers of old, and rust and decay had gradually, but surely taken its toll.
He awoke with a gasp and sprung his eyes open in terror. The noise of the wheels rumbling along on bare metal was loud enough to muffle his quiet gasp of fear, and thankfully, his gang were too busy on look-out duty to have noticed it. He exhaled calmly and ran his fingers through his greasy grey hair, telling himself that he had simply had another nightmare. Across from him, and separated by a table that had seen better days, sat a short, sturdy, 16 year old girl with red dreads, heavy black eye make-up, and an amused look on her face. Her name was Strawberries, and they both knew each other. In fact they knew each other very well. B, as he had affectionately started calling her, had been in his employment for several years. Her real name no one knew, not even B herself, but as long as he could remember, she had called herself Strawberries. Ever since he first rescued her 4 years ago—Rescue being a horrible fairytale-kind-of-word to the affair. After their meeting, he took her in as his partner-in-crime, though of course there were no crimes to be had anymore. For that you would need the law, and in the barren wasteland all the justice you could hope for went through the Ghede family. B had worked closely with Shelby on their many odd-jobs, and sometime during the last two years, the Ghede family, or more precisely; the Baron himself, had gotten whiff of their operations and requested Shelby to work for him—That was gangster talk for "hostile takeover". Shelby had seen no other way out but to shake hands and sell his soul to the devil, figuratively. Although, in this day and age, people could be forgiven for taking that statement quite literally. The Baron had put Shelby and most of his crew on boring logistics duties. Strawberries had loved it, doing nothing but hauling big crates, and gazing out of train-windows for the occasional infernal creature in the far distance. She called it easy money; staying out of trouble and collecting a decent wage.
"What are you looking at?" he muttered, annoyed and mildly ashamed of the condition he had woken up in. She in return smiled and shot him a confused look as if he was tonight's entertainment, which he probably was.
"What's the matter, Shelb? Nightmares again?" She crossed both her arms and pretended to mope like a little child. In the Old World, people wouldn't have given her a second glance. She was stocky and tough, wearing old battered clothes, ending in a pair of oversized boots. Years of living in the desert had taken its toll on her skin, and most folks from the Old World would probably call the young girl neglected. Then again this wasn't the old days, and in this life everyone had been through the wringer.
"Fuck you, B." Shelby scoffed at her, trying and succeeding in being a grumpy grey bastard. He squinted out of the gap in the window that separated the two protective steel plates. Strawberries, in response, let out a defiant sneer. He was indeed of the fossil generation, weighing in at 56 years of age. At the rate the earth had chewed through its survivors he was lucky when he met people who had been present at that great fuck-all, 32 long years ago. But hey; one must not dwell on things one cannot do anything about. He had learned that from fortune cookie.
"I love hearing about dreams, Shelb. Come on." She interrupted, her smile now a fully fletched grin. "I reckon it would make you feel a whole lot better, speaking about the terrible things in your wrinkled head." She spoke as if she wanted to quench her thirst of boredom, rather than genuinely engage in a therapeutical conversation.
"It was just a bad dream, is all." Shelby stared out of the window again, trying to think of something else.
"That seemed like hell 'ova lot more than just a bad dream, you looked like you just saw the King." She shifted his attention back to her again.
"It's shit. And you'll want to have me committed."
"Committed?" she seemed perplexed. She knew what commitment meant, but couldn't place it in the context of the sentence. "Is it one of your Old World words again?" Strawberries said with such a mix of pity and genuine compassion in her voice.
"Look, babe, I don't go nagging about all the guys you fuck, and you don't go nagging about me being old." He adjusted his thick, beaten-down vest while secretly giving himself a compliment for being an asshole. She had figured out sex could be used as a way of getting what she wanted, and Shelby knew this was the way the world worked now. Most had resigned to violence, and those alive were the ones who had turned whatever they had to their favour. The slave auctions in Babaco, the gladiator den in Le Choix. Either you held the gun, or you were the one getting robbed.
"But you do Shelb, you nag about me fucking guys all the time." Her devilish grin had long gone, and was now substituted by a condemning grimace. Shelby knew she would react that way. It was alright. He would take heartfelt disgust over apathy any day. The world had shattered and its cities burned. A new generation had risen from the ashes. Humanity had proven to be resilient, and Shelby found himself slowly growing obsolete.
"Remind me of firing you when we get back home." He jokingly said as he stood up.
"You're a funny old man," she half-heartedly chuckled, having heard his harmless threats a million times before.
Shelby straightened his charcoal black coat and adjusted his firearms. The first, a 357 magnum caliber revolver, dangling from his shoulder holster. More precisely, a 1990 Colt Python, double action trigger, 6 round chamber, 6 inch barrel. Loaded with soft bullets. He had bartered it for the shock and awe it would strike into his enemies' hearts whenever he raised it. The other gun was a Beretta with hard bullets, chosen 'cause it would fire fast. One of the gunmen was slouched over the train cafe counter, carving curse words into it with his knife. His name was Marvin, or Martin, or something like that. Shelby couldn't be bothered to remember any of their names as he considered them all babysitters. They'd been handpicked by the Baron—save of course for Strawberries—for the supply run. Shelby's own posse was back at the 5th, probably getting drunk by now, impatiently awaiting their return. Jonny, Gavin, and Oliver; those were his own boys. Mainly because everyone else was dead, or completely useless. He suspected the Baron had split up his posse in a slight case of paranoia - this was of course a cargo train, and his boys were very much capable of robbing it. Marvin… or Martin, however was a scrubby son of a bitch. He had a long, frail beard. He chewed the disgusting low-grade tobacco they made in the tunnels, and he would always wear a stupid cowboy hat, regardless if he was indoors or not. Cowboy hats annoyed Shelby as a matter of principle. Only John Wayne should be allowed to wear a god damn cowboy hat, and this Marvtin was the furthest thing from a true American hero.
"Everything good with the guys?" Shelby cordially asked, whilst pouring himself a cup of water from the drum-barrel next to the counter—They usually had one to share for the ride back home. The other drums they stored in the third, fourth and last train car, alongside the oil and crates of newly harvested vegetables. This was their primary cargo; humanity's most basic necessities.
"You reckon we'll be back at dawn, sir?" Marvtin stopped carving and looked up at him.
Shelby noticed he had been drifting off, staring down into the cup of water for a while.
"Looks that way, Mar.." he coughed and tried to carefully muffle his name.
"Excuse me sir?"
"Looks that way, soldier." Shelby revised, and rested his arms on the counter, wishing his own posse was there with him instead of these useless clowns. A leader should know his men before sending them into war. Know what he can use them for. The armoured train would travel the supply route every month with few incidents, still, it wasn't a place to train new recruits. Marvtin had just begun working for the Baron, and the two men in the corner both shared similar stories. It appeared the fragile peace had made cardboards of soldiers. And he was stuck leading them.
The two greeted him as he walked over. Yankees, and Black Metal were their names, or, at least those were the names Shelby had given them in the privacy of his own mind.
"Any signs of trouble out there?" he smiled glibly at them, drank from the cup he was still holding, and peered out the window.
"No, sir." Black Metal replied in a stern voice. "Clear skies and a full moon out. If anything wants to attack us we'll see them coming a mile away."
Black Metal, and Yankees shared similar appearances; both had dirty caps on. One read; Yankees. Lettering in white smooth curves on blue. The other; Black Metal. Lettering in white jagged edges on black. The one in the Black Metal cap had been in the Baron's service for a couple of months. He was probably the best man on the train, whereas Yankees, Shelby reckoned, was in all likelihood just as incompetent as Marvtin. Seeing as he was holding a sawed-off shotgun and had sunglasses on. As if he could see anything in the dead of night, or if he did, hit it at a distance further away than 2 feet. The men had probably never heard of the Yankees, nor Black metal for that matter.
"We saw a shooting star." Yankees burst out. "about 15 minutes ago."
Shelby pretended to be surprised, as rookies annoyed the living crap out of him.
"Well, did you wish upon it?" he smiled disingenuously back.
"Excuse me, sir?" The young gun replied, then gawked over to this partner hoping for some clarity.
"I said, did you wish upon it?" Shelby repeated with more clarity in his voice.
"Eh, no, sir?" Yankees scratched his head.
"Then why the fuck are you telling me this? Watch the land, not the skies. And take off those stupid sunglasses, you look like a fucking idiot." Shelby swiftly swung around and walked away, hoping his little spiel had made them more alert.
All of a sudden, intense scraping noises came from the roof.
"Shelby…" Strawberries quietly spoke and then reached for her rifle.
"I know." He signaled to Marvtin, "Go tell Damphousse to speed up."
Marvtin, in turn sprang out from behind the bar counter with an expression of panic on his face, and then headed for the control cab. The driver, a young man named Damphousse, was a permanent resident of the train. Shelby was confident the man could push the locomotive to the limit. The scraping and shrieking was rapidly increasing. As if giant metal cockroaches were scurrying around. Shelby had heard them before; how they'd managed to get onto the train without them noticing was beyond him.
"Everybody, stay away from the windows, and be cool," he ran over to Strawberries who was now clasping her rifle. The train was gradually speeding up, the wind howling into the open cracks, making the curves of the track feel more distinct, and keeping balance become much more difficult. Marvtin came stumbling back from the control cab and grabbed his rusty revolver. "Check your ammo, folks!" Shelby raised his voice, pretending he was preaching to a group of marines and not the village nut-jobs. "We don't wanna be firing softs out there!"
The men inspected their weapons, but all of them knew what they had boarded the train with. The scratching expanded and shifted to the side plates. A black oily arm burst through the wall, its sharp nails scratching the wooden interior, searching for something or someone to grab. All of its tendons exposed; black muscles, nerves expanding and retracting, detailing the inner workings of the Hell creature. Shelby's heart was racing. This didn't seem to be a mindless attack, this was orchestrated. Telling from the sounds coming from the rooftop there were just too many, and the only time there were too many was when they were being herded. Yankees grabbed his sawed-off shotgun and pointed it at the black arm squirming to find passage.
"No!" Shelby yelled, as a loud bang rang out.
The hand fell limp onto the ground, profusely bleeding an ink-like substance, as the stump it belonged to vanished back into the night. Yankees fell down, screaming and grabbing his own face.
"Ricochet, Captain!" Black Metal yelled, as he dragged the bleeding man to the middle of the room and cocked his rifle.
"Fucking moron," Shelby muttered to himself. The armored plates would not only stop a shotgun blast up front, but also deflect it back. The lights flickered, went out and the train halted to a screeching stop. Bodies flew across the room and landed on top of each other.
Nothing but silence and darkness as Shelby clumsily tried to catch his bearings. The lamps flickered again before going back on. The train stood dead in its tracks.
"Shit!" Marvtin spat out as he stumbled onto his feet and scrambled to find his rusty revolver. "We're so dead!"
The scratching returned with a vengeance. The creatures were back and now gathering outside, hammering to get in. Wet screams, and shrieking metal. Shelby picked himself up,
"Stay here! I'll check the locomotive." He grabbed the handle of the door and slipped inside.
The control car was pitch black, save a lone light source fluttering in front of him. A small fire that had broken out in the front controls. The wind whirled through a broken window. On the ground laid the mutilated corpse of what once had been Damphousse. From the shadows two ruby red dots glowed menacingly. It moved slowly forward with intention, hissing as it did so. The shape of an obsidian, slender, oily figure emerging from the darkness. The fluttering fire highlighting its face. Its eyes were soulless droplets, its face burned and disfigured. A large grin surfaced, spanning from ear to ear. Black oil dripped down from the sides as its jaws opened, and sharp fangs appeared. Shelby automatically went for his revolver and placed three shots straight through the face of the creature. The bullets plopped trough it as if it was made of sand.
Dumb, old man. He'd gone for the wrong gun. The creature leaped forward in response, and Shelby fell on his back.
A loud bang rang out, and the beast exploded in front of him, covering the control car along with Shelby in black muck. He wiped his face immediately, shocked and in panic, before peeking over his shoulder at Strawberries, who stood there in the doorway with Yankees sawed-off shotgun.
"Get lost!" she grunted.
A still stunned Shelby staggered to his feet and unsuccessfully tried to mop the black mud off his coat.
"I'm never firing you again!" He confessed, as she rolled her eyes in return and threw the empty shotgun on the floor.
"This is bad Shelb, we have to get out of here, right now."
"I know," Shelby gazed out the front window. On the horizon, he could see silhouettes of several large horned figures standing still. He'd seen them before. The Tunnelers had told him they herded the mindless creatures, which could only mean this was a strategic operation, which meant the Banner of Hell. "I reckon we're surrounded." He glanced back at B who had grabbed her rifle again, and was now opening the door back to the second car.
Black Metal laid bleeding on the floor as Marvtin frantically fired towards the slimy figures clawing their way through an increasing hole on the side of the car.
"Shit! We're so fucking dead!" Marvtin cried out as he fired off another shot at the creatures. "We need a bomb or something!"
"Won't matter Marv. That's the King's own." Shelby ran passed him towards the third car.
"Where are you guys going? They're fucking everywhere! And who's Marv?" Shelby opened the the door,
"Your name's not Marv?" he glanced back at him. Two of the creatures finally slithered through the opening, hissing and grinning. Strawberries promptly grabbed Shelby by the shoulder and disappeared into the third car.
"So this is really it, Shelb?" she gave him a pitiful stare as he closed the door, picked up a wood crate from the corner, and jammed it into the handle. The supply cars had no windows, no cracks, and were designed to be the most impregnable part of the train.
"You know I was once a salesman?" Shelby said with sadness in his voice.
She put her hand on his shoulder and smiled half-heartedly,
"I know Shelb, back in the Old World."
What a cock-up this had all turned out to be. The crew had proven to be useless, and now they would meet their demise in the hands of vicious beasts. He desperately rummaged the cargo around him. Big drum barrels in front, dozens of them. He knew the provisions were in the fourth and fifth car, but those could be overrun by now. Strawberries checked her ammo as Shelby surprisingly drew his old Colt Python revolver again. He aimed it at two different drums, firing one shot into each. They penetrated both just beneath the top, then he holstered his weapon, ran over to the drums and cracked the first one open. This was the last water drum they had tapped; those were never full, and this one had a fifth of water.
"Get in, B," he whispered as she stared back at him in disbelief.
"But, what about you?" she frowned. He slapped his hand reassuringly on the other drum.
"I'll be in this one. Now get in, quickly!"
"Shelb, that one's full of oil. It'll kill you!" A loud bang hit the door. The handles bent down, and the hinges begun to give in. Shelby laughed and lied through his teeth.
"The last one is almost empty B, I'll be alright." He grabbed her and helped her into the barrel. There she crawled up like a ball, with the water reaching up to her waist.
"This is not a good idea, Shelb." She sighed and watched him place the top over. A couple gentle patts on the drum with his hands, then he bent down to the bullet hole and replied.
"Sure it is, girl. This is a great idea! Now shut up, and breathe through the hole."
The cacophony of scratching and hissing was almost deafening at this point. Shelby cracked opened the other drum and peered into it. It was black, and half-filled with thick petroleum. He took a deep breath whilst quietly cursing to himself,
"Yeah... this is a great idea." The nut bolts bounced against the walls as they gave in and the door finally flung open. Menacingly the same dark figures emerged through the entrance, hissing and grinning. All this Shelby could watch from the bullet hole he'd made in the drum. The oil now reaching him up to his chest. The fumes were so strong that he was already dizzy, as he pressed his lips against the opening to feel the fresh air from outside. The creatures scoured the car trying to remember what they'd been searching for in the first place. Shelby silently prayed to the gods of nothing. His own little gods of science, physics, and probability. The ones he'd believed in before the age of demons and angels. The ones who calculated the chance of the beasts finding the perforation in the drum barrel suspicious, or the odds of not dying of asphyxiation whilst swimming in petroleum. The fumes were almost unbearable now. Shelby drew one last big breath of air and then used the hole to peer out. The sounds had fallen silent; in its wake laid 4 murdered men.
The creatures noticed a higher presence and stopped moving, as someone else entered the gaping hole in the train. A tall, broad shouldered man sauntered in and stood at the center of the room. The black long-coat he was wearing appeared to have once been some sort of a military garment. Now it looked mouldy, as if dead bark wood covered him. On top of his slick, long hair he had an old military hat, and on his shoulders, thick brown fur that could hardly have been from any earthly animal. He was human, but his eyes were white; so were all of the dead that hell had let walk back into this world. Men damned to an eternity of punishment, and then when the Great Fuck-All came to pass drafted to serve in the infernal army, under the Banner of Hell. This man must have climbed pretty high in the career ladder of the afterlife.
"Colonel Francis! Colonel Francis!" Another man entered from the opening in the side. A thin, raggedy clothed man who ran up to this Colonel Francis. "There's no signs of him, Colonel, sir." Hanging onto his body was what once had been a fairly decent tennis outfit; it had deteriorated since then. Few Flatliners ever changed their appearance; some said they wouldn't, others that they simply couldn't. Like ghosts of solid matter they would linger in a state of who they once were, but could never be again. He must had been someone important when he had lived, but now was nothing more than this Colonel's lackey.
"General Byleth wants us to keep moving, Colonel, sir." The Tennis Player stood in attention, his white eyes nervously drawn to the tall black figures now seemingly in a trance-like state.
"Well we must'n disappoint our great leader." Colonel Francis smiled and scratched his clean shaven chin. "Gather the men."
Shelby quietly sighed. Half out of relief, and rest out of concern. The Banner would soon be leaving, but any mention of a General was certainly not a good omen. It was even less comforting that it was uttered by two seemingly high standing members. It had been decades since Hell or Heaven had fought over these parts. Not since FarHaven, not since the angels had disappeared, and whatever was left had been carved up between the merciless. His thoughts started drifting as the fumes grew stronger. He glared into the hole and noticed the men seemingly dissolve into shadows and shapes, their voices hushed and incoherent… Then Shelby blacked out. The rest of the night was a blur for him. Locked inside a 22 by 33 inch barrel, and floating through an eternity of his own memories, hopes, and fears. He would remember only a handful of things; seeing his old girlfriend and her child. They would smile, embrace him, and tell him it was never his fault, although he knew that it was. And lastly; the nightmare from before returned with a vengeance, taunting his ineptitude, and tormenting him with its cryptic message: someone is looking for Oliver Cavanaugh. Someone is coming...