At half past five, it began to rain.
Brother Raymond of Baskerville was trudging his way back from the Achrenite compound, his boots sucking on the mud of the fertile fields surrounding it. The weather was utterly miserable, but still, he was not looking forward to returning to the shelter of the Horizon Initiative’s lines, no indeed, and certainly not to reporting his humiliating failure at making the Achrenites see reason. It wasn't that he was afraid that his superiors would reprimand him for it, since he knew they would understand. No, it was that very same understanding, so typical of the Shepherd Corps, which infuriated him. He could already picture the Abbot’s kindly smile, that look of vaguely disguised condescension that would no doubt accompany the metaphorical pat on the head he was about to receive, like some sort of slow-witted dog. He was well and truly sick of being looked down upon, and the fact that his fellow Shepherds didn't even have the dignity of doing so to his face only made it worse. He should have stayed at the monastery.
Raymond cursed under his breath as he ducked under the red-tape marked lines, and slunk his way to the derelict electric shed that served as the command post for the Shepherds. He expected the Abbot, maybe a few other high level operatives, but instead he found the tiny space occupied by no less than twenty people, most of whom Raymond had never seen before. The exceptions were the Abbot and his two assistants, relegated to standing dejectedly in a musty corner, and the figure in the very center of the room, currently peering at a tactical map of the area with a disinterested look on his sharp-featured face. While the man wasn't particularly tall, or handsome, or otherwise very notable at all, there was a certain aura of command about him that Raymond couldn't deny. He had only seen him once before, on the day he left his monastery to join the Horizon Initiative- Director Henry DeMontfort, head of Project Malleus. Seeing Raymond enter, the Abbot waved him to approach with as much magnanimity as he could muster while attempting to brush an old spider web out of the folds of his robes.
“Raymond, I am glad to see you returned to us safely. Tell me, how fared your mission?”
Another thing Raymond detested about the Abbot was that flowery way he used to talk to his underlings. He wasn't quite sure what made the man think that it was anything other than ridiculous, but he supposed he had to suffer through it quietly. That was what being a Shepherd was all about.
“Poorly, Sir. The Achernites refused our offer of gradual integration, and furthermore rejected any regulation of their preaching or expansion within local communities. Sir, if I may ask, what are all those people doing here? And why is he here?”
The Abbot sighed, giving up on the attempts at cleaning his now dusty attire, and gave DeMontfort a wary look. “It seems like Project Malleus does not approve of the way we conduct our business. He said he is taking charge of the situation. I was hoping you’d have good news I could use against him, but now…”
“Honestly, Sir, this really couldn't have gone any other way. The Achernites are heretics, and should be treated as such.”
“That is not for you to decide, my son. We are Shepherds, and our role is to guide the lost into the light.”
“Lost? They’re Neo-Pantheists! Every word that comes out of their mouths is filth, besmirching everything we believe in. They spit at the face of God, and you’re telling me we should turn the other cheek?”
The Abbot was about to reply, when a clear, steely voice interrupted him. “You, emissary. A word, if you will.”
Raymond turned to see DeMontfort exiting the shed, and winced as two very large, very scarred, and very well-armed individuals grabbed a hold of his shoulders and dragged him after the Director. DeMontfort stopped beneath the shadow of a dead pine tree and started going through his pockets in a search of something, as his lieutenants tossed Raymond on the mud at his feet. He tried getting up, but a not-too-gentle prod of a steel-toed boot to his ribs made him reconsider. Finally, DeMontfort produced a small paper packet from an inner pocket and examined it with a look of vague displeasure on his pointed face.
"Er, no thank you?"
"Smart man. This nicotine stuff is rather terrible. I understand that your… peace mission was a failure." That wasn't a question.
"Um, how did you know?"
DeMontfort snorted, and began chewing on a rather unappealing piece of grey gum. "I read the dossier. The Achernites are the worst type of heretics. The Shepherds were fools to even attempt a peace mission. No, they must be dealt with more severely."
Despite being stuck in the mud under the boot of the human equivalent of a bull shark, Raymond found himself nodding. "I told the Abbot just that. The things I saw them do at their camp, Sir, the things they said… no godly man could bear them to live."
DeMontfort gave him an apprising look, and motioned to his lieutenants. The weight of the boot lifted, and Raymond got to his feet, gingerly picking globs of greenish mud from his hair. The Director began moving again, and Raymond followed, the two hulking lieutenants not far behind.
"You're not as stupid as you look. I half-expected you to weep and faint at the mere mention of violence. That's what your Abbot would no doubt do."
"I'm nothing like that doddering old fart!" Raymond was surprised by his own outburst, but DeMontfort looked pleased.
"Hah, that's the spirit! Maybe there's hope for you yet, Brother Raymond. Come, walk with me for a while, we have some business to attend to." Again, this wasn't a suggestion, as the the two lieutenants, whom Raymond dubbed Brickjaw and Sawscar after the only notable features on the slab of meat they called a face, made abundantly clear. For a short while the group walked in silence, until Raymond realized with a growing sense of horror he walked this way earlier today.
"Um, Sir, I don't think we should be going this way, we'll wind up right in the Achernite camp."
"I should hope so, since that's where we're going."
"But…why? I though you said negotiating with them was stupid."
"I'm not going there to negotiate. I'm going to talk, and they are going to listen."
"And if they don't?"
"A good question. Lieutenant, what's the ETA on the Gofrit team?"
This was directed at Sawscar, who checked something on a small tablet computer and replied, in an unexpectedly soft voice: "About ten minutes, Sir."
DeMontfort nodded, and continued walking, as if that answered Raymond's question. It didn't, but Raymond thought it would be unwise to argue. The group continued its track along the wheat fields, finally reaching a clearing in front of a small, gated community. DeMontfort stopped before the gate and rang a brass bell connected to a long piece of rope that hung on a post next to it. The sound of other bells came moments later from within the community, but all stayed quiet otherwise. Raymond gingerly approached the Director, who was tapping his foot impatiently and struggling with the packing of another stick of nicotine gum. "They wouldn't let me in, at first. I had to wait outside for nearly an hour before someone came out to meet me."
DeMonfort cursed and dropped the gum, instead pulling a silver cigarette case from an inner pocket. "Well, I suppose we'll just have to attract their attention. Lieutenant?"
Sawscar nodded, and with one swift movement drew his handgun, cocked it, and fired three quick shots into the air. The silence following the gunshot was soon punctuated by shouts. The Director smiled, and lit a slim cigarette with a match he managed to produce without Raymond noticing. "That should do it."
And indeed, a few minutes later a trio of figures approached the gate. Two were scruffy-looking guards, each carrying an ancient carbine and sponsoring a filthy beard. The third was a woman even older looking than the guns, her skin and hair mottled with strangely textured patches of brown, green and grey, though it was too dark to see exactly what they were. She hobbled over, heavily leaning on a stout branch she used as a cane, and stared at Raymond and DeMontfort with unconcealed disgust in her eyes. DeMontfort, in turn, looked like he just stepped on something nasty and was examining the results. After a silence which Raymond thought would last forever, the old woman finally spoke, her voice creaky with age:
"What do ye want, fat monk? All that was said still holds, ye know, and ye big friends ain't gonna change that."
"Mistress Achren, if you'd please reconsider, I'm sure you'd find our terms quite reasona-"
"We told ye, we ain't interested in none of your fractional god muck! Off with ye!"
DeMontfort gave the woman a smile that held all the warmth of a glacier. "I think talking to my young companion might have given you the wrong idea about our organization. We weren't asking. You will cease your preaching, dismantle your complex, and disband, or we will be forced to take action."
"And by what right would ye do that, priest? This is our land, and we'll preach as we wish. The Gospel of Wholeness will be spoken, like it or not. Ye shouldn't reject it, you can't anyway. You're part of it, as is everything. You'll listen."
"I'm not here to debate theology with a heretic, woman."
"Heh, well I ain't asking. You want us to disband, you'll listen."
DeMontfort considered that for a moment, exchanged a few quiet words with Brickjaw, and finally nodded. "You have four minutes."
The old woman cackled, and sat on a wooden post near the gate, still clasping her cane. "Ye see, it's really simple if ye just look, but you're too busy nosing around in old books to see it. Yer looking for some beard in the sky to give you divinity and think ye all have some invisible light in ye, or some such nonsense. Ye aren't looking in the right place at all!"
"Get to the point."
"God is everything, ye daft bastards! It's the trees and skies and soil and birds and bees and it's me boots and me stick and me nose and me arse! There's no reason to look anywhere else if yer God, and I am, and so are ye and yer fat friend."
DeMontfort clenched his jaw, barely holding back a furious snarl. "Two minutes. If you wish to be spared, hag, I suggest you consider what you say next very carefully."
"I ain't got nothing else to say. I'll show ye all you need to see." With that, the old woman reached with a skeletal hand and, to Raymond's horror, tore at the skin of her other hand with sharp fingernails. Ripping and clawing, apparently not in any kind of pain, she tore a long strip of skin from the top of her hand.
"You're mad!" Raymond mumbled, edging away from the bleeding elder.
"You just watch."
Slowly, the old woman bent down to the ground and with her uninjured hand tore a handful of grass, roots and all, then thrust it into her open wound. Raymond gasped as the roots began to knit themselves into the broken skin, weaving through flesh and tendons. Now, Raymond understood what the strange blotches on the old woman's skin were; patches of brown were soil, grey was iron and rock, green was living flora. Indeed, now he saw that the mottled beards of the guards were spliced with moss and ivy. Shaking, he turned to look at DeMontfort, and was surprised to find the man utterly unmoved.
"Time's up. I've suffered through your witchcraft for long enough. Do you submit yourself to the Initiative's judgement?"
"Hah! Not bloody likely! Ye see what I can do, why should I listen to anything ye say?"
"Because if you don't, I'll destroy you. Simple as that."
The old woman limped towards DeMontfort, and thrust her now healed palm, grass blades slowly waving in the evening wind, under his nose. "How could ye destroy us, when we and the land around us are one?"
Brickjaw laid a hand on DeMontfort's shoulder, and the Director turned his eyes to the gated community, a strange look on his face.
"Well, I can think of one way."
A wave of heat and sound knocked Raymond off his feet. The world around him was a cacophony of flames and noise and screams, and his mouth was full of dirt and there was ash in his eyes and he couldn't breathe and around him people were fighting and twisting and dying and he just couldn't breathe why couldn't he breathe why couldn't he brea-
A sharp pain in his side, and nothing more, for a while.
The sound of dirt crunching under feet, the labored breath of the man carrying him.
Uniformed men, their faces covered in gas masks, appearing from between the wheat stalks, looking at their work. DeMontfort doing the same, exaltation and terror wrestling on his visage.
"Wake up, brother."
Raymond found himself laying on a bed of pine needles, and was greeted with the fairly unpleasant sight of Sawscar's face hovering above him.
"Gofrit team happened. Got a bit overzealous, but that's to be expected, I suppose." Raymond was again surprised to hear the man's gentle whisper of a voice.
"It's all in the name, really."
"What about all the people? There were more than a hundred in there, families."
"God will find his own."
Curiously, Raymond wasn't upset. Shouldn't he be upset? He was a Shepherd, he was supposed to guide the misguided into the light, and yet he didn't seem to mind at all that the only light this particular group found was a funeral pyre. It was…right. It was divine will.
"I…don't think I want to be a Shepherd anymore."
Sawscar nodded, and helped him to his feet. "You were never a Shepherd, my friend. I could tell from the moment I saw you. "
"Really? How is that?"
"Shepherds don't have fangs."