Pestilence (The Four Horsemen Book 1), p.1Laura Thalassa
Table of Contents
For Teresa, who cares fiercely, gives endlessly, and loves absolutely. You are what the world needs more of.
Then I saw when the Lamb broke one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures saying as with a voice of thunder, “Come.” I looked, and behold, a white horse, and he who sat on it had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer.
— Revelation 6:1-2 New American Standard Bible (NASB)
They came with the storm.
The sky surged, great plumes of clouds tumbling and roiling together. The desert air thickened, feeling damp and smelling unusually ripe.
The world lit up like it was on fire, and there they were—four great beasts of men astride their terrible steeds.
The monstrous mounts reared back, pawing the air as their masters stared out at the world with foreign, fearsome eyes.
Pestilence, his crown perched upon his brow.
War, with his steel blade held high.
Famine, a scythe and scales at hand.
And Death, blighted Death, his dark wings folded at his back, a torch of bilious smoke tight in his grip.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, come to claim the earth and lay waste to the mortals that dwelled within it.
The sky darkened and the steeds charged, their hooves kicking up dust as they galloped.
The horsemen rode to the four corners of the world, and in their wake machines broke, fuses blew. The Internet crashed and computers died. Engines failed and planes fell from the sky.
Bit by bit, all the world’s great innovations ceased to be, and the globe slid into darkness.
And so it was, and so it shall be, for the Age of Man is over, and the Age of the Horseman has begun.
They came to earth, and they came to end us all.
Year 5 of the Horsemen
“We draw matches.”
I level my hazel eyes on the tiny wooden sticks in Luke’s fist. He strikes one against our roughhewn table, the flame flaring bright for a second before he blows it out.
Around us, the fire station’s overhead lights hum in that distressing way most electronics do nowadays, like at any moment they might sputter out.
Luke holds up the matchstick with the blackened tip. “Loser stays behind to see our plan through.”
This was the painstaking decision we made. One person doomed to die, three more to live.
All so we could kill that ungodly sonuvabitch.
Luke folds the tip of the burnt match into his palm with the three unburnt ones, then dips his hands beneath the table to mix them up.
Outside, beyond one of our decommissioned firetrucks, all our necessary belongings are packed, ready for a quick escape.
If, of course, we’re one of the fortunate three.
Luke finally lifts his hand, the matchstick stems jutting from his closed fist.
Felix and Briggs, the other two firefighters, go first.
Felix draws a matchstick …
He lets out a breath. I can tell he wants to fall back in his seat; his relief is obvious. But he’s both too macho and too aware of the rest of us to do so.
Briggs reaches for his …
Luke and I share a look.
One of us is going to die.
I can see Luke preparing himself to stay behind. I’ve only ever seen that expression on his face once before, when we were putting out a wildfire that had all but encircled us. The fire moved like the devil drove it, and Luke wore the expression of a walking dead man.
Both of us survived that experience. Perhaps we’d survive this devil too.
He holds his fist up to me. Two wooden sticks jut out. Fifty-fifty odds.
I don’t overthink it. I grab one of the matchsticks.
It takes a second for the color to register.
Black means … black means death.
The air escapes my lungs.
I glance up at my teammates, who are all wearing various looks of pity and horror.
“We all have to die sometime, right?” I say.
“Sara …” This comes from Briggs, who I’m halfway positive likes me more than a colleague and friend ought to.
“I’ll go instead,” he says. Like his bravery counts for anything. You can’t date a girl if you’re dead.
I close my fist around the match in my hand. “No,” I say, r
Staying behind. I’m staying behind.
“When all of this is over,” I say, “someone please tell my parents what happened.”
I try not to think about my family, who evacuated with the rest of the town earlier this week. My mom, who used to cut the crusts off my sandwiches when I was little, and my father, who was so upset when I told him I volunteered to stay behind for the last shift. He looked at me then like I was a dead woman.
I was supposed to meet them at my grandfather’s hunting lodge.
That’s no longer going to happen.
Felix nods. “I got you, Burns.”
I stand. No one else is moving.
“Go,” I finally order, “he’s going to be here in days.” If not hours.
They must see I’m not dicking around because they don’t bother arguing or lingering for long. One by one they give me tight hugs, pulling me in close.
“Should’ve been different,” Briggs whispers in my ear, the last to let me go.
Should’ve, could’ve, would’ve. There’s no use dwelling on this now. The whole world ought to be different. But it isn’t, and that’s what matters.
I watch through one of the large windows as the men leave, Luke unhitching his horse from the garage, Briggs and Felix grabbing their bikes, their things strapped to the back.
I wait until they’re long gone before I begin to gather my things. My eyes move over my pack, stuffed with all manner of survival gear—and a book of Edgar Allan Poe’s best works—before landing on my grandfather’s shotgun, the oiled metal looking particularly lethal.
No time for fear, not until the deed is done.
I might be doomed to die, but I’m taking that infernal fucker down with me.
No one knows where the Four Horsemen came from, only that one day they appeared on their steeds, riding through cities and wildlands alike. And as they passed through town after town, human technology broke like waves upon the rocks.
No one knew what it meant. Especially when, all at once, the Four Horsemen disappeared just as suddenly as they had appeared.
Our electronics never recovered, but we began to rationalize the inexplicable events away: It was a solar flare. Terrorists. Synchronized EMP pulses. Forget that none of these explanations made any sense—they were more reasonable than some Biblical apocalypse, so we cringed and swallowed down those half-baked theories.
And then Pestilence reappeared.
I sit at our table for a long time after my teammates—former teammates—have left, running my fingers over the polished wood of my grandfather’s shotgun, getting used to the feel of it in my hands.
Other than re-acquainting myself with the weapon over the last two weeks when I shot the crap out of some tin cans, it’s been years since I handled a gun.
I’ve killed a sum total of one creature using this weapon (a pheasant whose death haunted my twelve-year-old dreams).
Going to have to use it again.
I get up, sparing another glance out the window. My bike and the trailer I jerry-rigged to the back of it sit across the way, my food, first aid kit and other supplies strapped to the back. Beyond my bike, the Canadian wilderness perches on the hills that border our city of Whistler. Who would’ve thought a horseman would come here, to this lonely corner of the world?
On a whim, I head over to the fridge and grab a beer—the world might be ending but fuck it if there’s no beer.
Popping the cap off, I cross over to the living room and click on the T.V.
“Oh for fuck’s sake.” I’m going to die a horrible, shit-sucking death, and the T.V. decides that today is the day it stops working.
I slam a palm down on the top of it.
Muttering oaths my grandfather would be proud of, I kick the good-for-nothing T.V., more out of spite than anything else.
The screen sputters to life, and a grainy image of a newscaster appears, her face warped by the bands of color and contortions the T.V. makes.
“… appears to be moving through British Columbia … heading towards the Pacific Ocean …” It’s hard to make out the reporter’s words under the static-y white noise. “… Reports of the Messianic Fever following in his wake … ” Pestilence has only to ride through a city for it to be infected.
Researchers—those that remain dedicated to their work even after technology has fallen—still don’t know much about this plague, only that it’s shockingly contagious and the primary vector of transmission is horseman. But a name has been given for it all the same—the Messianic Fever, or simply the Fever. The name was cooked up by spooks, but that’s what the world has come to—spooks and saints and sinners.
Turning off the T.V., I grab my bag and gun and head out, whistling the Indiana Jones theme song. Perhaps if I pretend this is an adventure, and I’m the hero, it will make me think less about what I’m going to have to do to save my town and the rest of the world.
I spend most of the day and a good part of the evening setting up camp off of Highway 99, the road he’s likeliest to take. And dear God do I hope that the horseman will pass through while it’s still light out. I have shit aim in broad daylight; at night I’m likelier to shoot myself than I am him.
Seeing how my luck’s going today, there’s a chance, a good chance, I’ll fuck this up. Maybe Pestilence makes a detour, or decides to be clever and approach from another direction. Maybe he’ll pass by without my ever noticing.
Maybe maybe maybe.
Or maybe even wild, frightening things have a pinch of logic to them.
I grab my gun and extra ammunition, creep close to the highway, and I settle in for the wait.
He comes with the first snow of the season.
The entire world is quiet the next morning as the powdery white flakes blanket the landscape and turn the road pearlescent. More snow flutters down, and it all looks so ridiculously beautiful.
Out of nowhere, the birds take flight from the trees. I startle as I see them all high above me, their bodies dark against the overcast sky.
Then, from a dozen different locations, wolves begin to howl, the sound sending a primordial shiver down my spine. It’s like a warning call, and in its wake, the rest of the forest comes alive. Predators and prey alike flee past me. Raccoons, squirrels, hares, coyotes—they all rush by. I even see a mountain lion loping amongst them.
And then they’re gone.
I exhale a shaky breath.
I crouch in the dim forest, shotgun clutched in my hands. I check the gun’s chamber. Remove and reload the cartridges just to make sure that they’re properly in place. Adjust and readjust my grip.
It’s as I’m double checking the ammunition in my pocket that the hair on the back of my neck rises. Ever so slowly, I lift my head, my gaze fixed on the abandoned highway.
I hear him before I see him. The muffled clomp of his steed’s hooves echoes in the chill morning, at first so quiet that I almost imagine it. But then it gets louder and louder, until he comes into view.
I waste precious seconds gaping at this … thing.
He’s sheathed in golden armor and mounted on a white steed. At his back is a bow and quiver. His blond hair is pressed down by a crown of gold, and his face—his face is angelic, proud.
He’s almost too much to look at. Too breathtaking, too noble, too ominous. I hadn’t expected that. I hadn’t expected to forget myself or my deadly task. I hadn’t expected to feel … moved by him. Not with all this fear and hate churning in my stomach.
But I am utterly overwhelmed by him, the first horseman of the apocalypse.
Pestilence the Conqueror.
No one knows why the horsemen arrived five years ago, or why they disappeared so soon afterwards, or why now Pestilence and only Pestilence has returned to wreak havoc on the living
Of course, everyone and their Aunt Mary has their answer to these questions, most that are about as plausible as the tooth fairy, but no one has actually ever had a chance to corner one of these horsemen and pump them for answers.
So we can only guess.
What we do know is that one morning, seven months ago, the news bleated to life.
A horseman, spotted near the Florida Everglades. It took the better part of a week for the rest of the report to drift in. About how a strange sickness was taking the people of Miami by storm.
Then the first death was announced. They did a big spread on the woman, for the few hours she held the sole title of tragically deceased. But quickly the death count doubled, then doubled again. It grew exponentially, first wiping out Miami, then Fort Lauderdale, then Boca Raton. It moved up the East Coast of the United States, right along with the movements of this shadowy rider.
This time when the horseman passed through a city, it wasn’t technology he destroyed, but bodies. That’s when the world knew that Pestilence had returned.
I stare at Pestilence. This is no human any more than his mount is a horse.
The last footage I saw of him, he was storming through New York City, an arrow notched into his bow, firing into the retreating stampede of screaming people bent on fleeing him.
I had to watch the newsreel five times before I believed it. And then I could watch no more.
Now here he is. Pestilence, in the flesh.
Clop—clop—clop. The rider and his horse move slowly. Snow has gathered on his shoulders and in his hair. And somehow, on him, even the white flakes add to his strange, alien beauty.
I hold still, afraid the mist coming from my breath will tip the horseman off. But he seems utterly unconcerned about his surroundings. He wouldn’t need to be; no one except me would willingly choose to get this close to the literal embodiment of plague.
Never taking my eyes off of Pestilence, I raise my shotgun. It only takes a few seconds to line up the sights. I fix my aim at his chest, which is really the only thing I can hope to hit. My stomach begins to churn as I watch the horseman through my weapon.
I’ve seen men die. I’ve seen fire blister bodies beyond the point of recognition and I’ve smelled the sickening scent of cooking flesh.
And yet my finger hesitates on the trigger.
I’ve never killed (pheasant aside). Forget that this creature isn’t human, that he’s been carving a path of carnage through North America; he looks alive, sentient, human. That’s reason enough for me to fight with myself.
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