On a secluded stretch of gravel road on the foothills of Bethel Peak, Andre parked his car and stepped out. A light shower dripped from the overcast sky and caused the forest undergrowth to shiver and sag. To the left of the dead-end road, a trail meandered into the uninhabited forest reserve clinging to the side of the mountain like a scarf of wind-battered coniferous trees circling the base and stretching along the steep edges of the cliffs. The trail was hard-packed and damp underfoot. Winding and climbing over rock shelf and fallen timber, it directed its route east and then north parallel to the sea.
Though his hike was long, Andre brought nothing with him but the clothes he wore, the faded blue jeans and a gray cotton t-shirt his aunt had brought him. A pair of sunglass hung from one of his back pants pocket. Though it was cool in the higher altitude, he did not bother with a jacket; it would only become cumbersome when the hike warmed his overworked muscles. He would soon be longing for the chill mist on his bare skin.
The terrain was so familiar he did not need to concentrate on where he was going. Andre had hiked this path so many times in his sixteen years living on Koinonia, it was a part of him now. The noises were nothing but background, like the sound of his breathing. Not the wind rustling overhead or the flutter of starling wings alighting from tree to tree. Nothing interrupted his flow of thought as he walked. Andre was completely alone. The prophet always had to make the climb alone. Until the Panoplia joined him.
Lavi was always the first, standing on his usual perch on a landmark slab of rock which jutted over the path. Standing seven feet tall with broad shoulders and close-cropped straw-colored hair, Lavi was an intimidating sight. He had a fierce, chiseled face lit from within rather than some mediocre outside source, such as the sun. His weapon of choice was a broad, diamond encrusted spear, but he also carried a pointed dagger strapped to his leg with black leather cords. His clothing was made of a rippling material not known to earth. It was well-fitted but not confining, moving with each flex of muscle or bend of joint as easily as oil over the surface of water. The uniform was made up of a sleeveless tunic and matching leg coverings which disappeared into leather boots equipped with light soles. His uniform was the color of a midnight sky flecked with shards of starlight. Lavi’s eyes picked up on the color and mimicked it, burning with furious strength and inviting humor all at once. His sleek, raven-colored wings moved with an independent spirit, similar to the tail of a cat, expanding and contracting to provide balance as he moved lithely from the center of the rock to the ledge and over, landing with light feet on the path beside Andre.
“You are late, Agabus,” the Spirit Warrior called him by the prophet’s respected title with a roguish grin.
Andre ignored the jab without slowing down. There was still a long way to go and it was nearing noon. “I came as soon as I could.”
“I assume you are ready?” Lavi nodded while using his spear to clear a low tree branch standing in their way.
The Agabus didn’t immediately respond, withholding some doubts that had been growing since he began his hike.
“Three families, ten souls,” Lavi pointed out. “It is going to be a long fight. Your head must be clear. What is it filled with?”
“Nothing. I’m not thinking of anything. I’m just—”
“Very,” Andre muttered. “I’m not feeling very confident in myself.”
“That is good,” he replied blandly. “Our Lord Theos would not have much use for you if your confidence was in yourself.”
Andre couldn’t help but smile. The blunt Panoplia Warrior certainly knew how to put things into perspective. “I guess.”
They walked on in silence. Andre began to sweat in his light t-shirt. His breath was short in the higher altitude and his muscles were feeling the pull of the climb. Lavi seemed neither bothered nor effected by the hike. His brow was dry, his footsteps light. He watched the surrounding trees and jutted rock faces with a quick absorbing eye. No movement of wing in the branches or small varmint among the fern escaped him.
The path curved to the right, and waiting for them there was Malachi. “Good morning, Agabus,” the spirit greeted him with a voice resembling low rolling thunder. Malachi was even taller than Lavi and appeared older and wiser. Every one of his movements was precise and never wasted. He wore a similar uniform to Lavi’s but in the color of evergreen with a matching cloak which circled around his feet. With a thick-barreled chest and hands as large as steamship portholes, he was a giant even of his species. His hair fell across his shoulders like a thick silver mane with manicured whiskers along the chiseled lines of his face. Outside of battle he carried no visible weapons. His sharp tongue was his sword, his strong jaw his shield. Malachi was a Messenger.
“I have a word for you, young prophet.” He didn’t waste any time.
Andre gave him his full attention, pausing in his hike and waiting for the Word.
“Progress requires reversal.”
Progress requires reversal… Andre would have liked an explanation, but Malachi wasn’t an interpreter, he was the Messenger. “Thank you,” he told him, though Andre wasn’t really sure if he was thankful for the advice just yet. “Are you joining us?”
“For a time,” Malachi answered vaguely and began to lead the way further up the trail.
“Our prophet has some qualms today,” Lavi informed his comrade. “He is feeling a little disproportionate to the task.”
“It’s not that,” Andre grunted, pulling himself up over a protruding boulder in his way.
“Seems like that,” Lavi argued.
“I can do it, I just—”
“Doubts are footholds for the Enemy,” Malachi cut in. “This is not the first time you have done this.”
“It’s the first time with this many,” Andre pointed out. “Abaddon nearly won last time, and it was over only four souls. This is ten.”
Malachi wasn’t impressed by his arguments. “It is only a number. An increase in souls means an increase in aide. Do not forget that you will not be alone.”
Andre had not forgotten. It just didn’t make it any easier.
“That is the purpose of the Message,” Malachi read his thoughts.
“What does ‘reversal’ have to do with fighting for souls?” Andre wanted to know.
“In this case?” Malachi turned and looked down on him with a steady, golden gaze, “It is everything. Now go,” he motioned Andre forward with a single nod of his head. “The others are waiting.”
The trek to the summit of Bethel Peak was the most strenuous part of the journey. The path was a series of steep switchbacks over sharp-edged stone shelves. The scruffy pines and sporadic brush were left behind, and Andre was in the open air. Koinonia stretched out below him to the south surrounded by leagues of water and an endless sky. Kaluma sat like the tip of a thumb sticking out of the sea not far from the main island. Andre could make out a Phulake Security vessel leaving the docks in the harbor, ready to make its afternoon rounds surveying the island perimeter.
Turning north for the final few yards to the top of the peak, he saw the rest of the Panoplia Army waiting as Malachi had said. The Koinonia division was small but powerful, a handpicked collection of specialized spirits assigned for Protection. Invisible to everyone but Andre, they spent much of their time on watch at the top of Bethel with a full vantage of the land and beyond. At times, Andre had seen them patrolling the beach or crossing the water between islands.
“Welcome, Agabus.” Raisel, the Giver of Joy, greeted him in the shadow of the Peak’s topmost pinnacle. Here the rest of the army stood at varying heights with their eyes on the ground below. They were watching the new citizens. The spirits were eager for news upon the mortals’ admittance within the carefully guarded borders of the secluded country. “What do you think of them?” Raisel asked, with a voice like a song which carried on the wind. Her uniform was pale lavender with a lightweight train trailing behind her, never touching the ground. Her hair fell to her waist in loose, auburn curls, and her cream-colored wings were tucked neatly underneath. Coiled about her right arm and wrapped around her slim waist was a thick golden cord tied at one end with three silver, four-pronged stars. Belted loosely, it was a stunning ornament, but with one invoked movement it was a deadly whip with a sharp, piercing edge.
“There are two young families,” Andre informed her, moving up the remainder of the trail and standing in a patch of dusty floor before the assembly, “one with three children, the other with one. There is an older couple. I’m guessing they’ll be named deacons—”
“Yes, but what do you think of them?” Raisel asked again.
Andre squinted into the deep blue of the northern sea while he caught his breath from the climb. “I didn’t see any shadows if that’s what you mean. The Acclimation Team did their job. We shouldn’t have any problems.” Since receiving the gift of Sight three years before at the age of thirteen, Andre had learned to use it well. He could recognize the shadows of sinful nature lurking within every breathing soul in a glance and had been trained by the Panoplia to look for darker, more deadly spirits which tried to cling and hide within the soul in an effort to break through the protected walls of Koinonian purity. It was his duty as Agabus to meet the new citizens at the harbor upon their arrival to See if they still carried any shadows of their past that they were supposed to leave behind once committing to the Koinonian way of life. It was what his grandfather, Alex, had done as prophet. It was what Andre’s father, Aleixo, had done when he was called. It was what all Dietrich prophets had done in service to their country since it was founded fifty years before. “I saw nothing,” Andre repeated plainly. “They were all clean.”
Both Malachi and Raisel nodded, exchanging a silent word Andre was not privy too. “And are you ready to begin?” she directed the question at Andre.
“Yes,” he said, though his certainty did not reach his response.
“You are doubtful.”
“He is doubtful,” Malachi echoed, “though he has been given a Message.”
“I don’t understand it.” Andre couldn’t help but be short with them. He was tired and hot, and the fight had not even begun. “It’s not much comfort yet, to be honest.”
“A Message doesn’t need to be understood for it to bring comfort. The comfort comes from the presence of the Message itself. Understanding will come when it’s needed.” Malachi met the prophet’s gaze and held it, feeding him strength and resolution in a steady glance.
Andre inhaled the reassurance and nodded before turning back to Raisel. “Okay.”
“Let us prepare you.” Leading the way, Raisel walked beside Andre with the others following behind. A new trail led off the precipice of the summit, curving down a steep grade on the north side of the mountain. There was no tree cover, just stone and patches of low lying brush. “You must drive away these doubts you carry. Not just for your safety, but for the ten new souls and for all on this island. Think of them, and not of yourself.”
Andre bit back a retort, quite certain he wasn’t thinking about himself. His fears were anything but selfish. As his personal thoughts veered toward the negative there was a sudden smack on his shoulder and pain shot through his arm. The Agabus nearly stumbled as he looked up in alarm. Lavi’s spear rested heavily on the place it had hit with the razor sharp arrowhead uncomfortably close to Andre’s left ear. The entire procession had stopped with more than a dozen eyes in shades of brilliant color all resting on him.
“This boy is not prepared,” Lavi spoke. “He is not up to the task.”
“He will be,” Raisel said, bringing a soothing tone to the strain of Lavi’s pronouncement. “And he is not a boy, Lavi. He is the Agabus.”
“I’m sorry.” Andre swallowed sharply, eying the spear still on his shoulder. “I’m sorry, Malachi.”
The wise Panoplia nodded, not the least bit bothered by Andre’s poor attitude. “Keep moving,” he instructed. “Lower your weapon, Warrior. He is not the enemy.”
Lavi did as he was asked unemotionally, and the procession moved on. They walked the short distance to the Bethesda Altar positioned on a flat rock shelf jutting over a steep drop. The area where the altar sat was a portion of the island not visible to any human eye except by plane. Not even the Phulake officers aboard the coastguard boats could look up from the water and see over the bluff where the altar sat in the shadow of Bethel Peak.
A four-foot high pile of stones, the place of prayer had never been anything but that. No animal or mineral had ever been sacrificed on the flat slab tabletop of the altar. Andre’s grandfather had built it by hand and carried each of the stones a few at a time from the seashore below. It had become a place of petition to Theos their King and Creator, and it had stood strong on the peak for fifty years.
The Panoplia stepped into the shadows, leaving room for the prophet to kneel before the altar. It was not hard; he was exhausted, thirsty, and starving for food. There was no time to eat, nor did he have anything if there had been. A fighting day was always a fasting day. Chesed the Merciful brought him a bowl of ice cold water, bowing in her pale yellow robes as she set the bowl beside him and backed away with a smile.
Andre thanked her and sipped slowly at the refreshing drink, though he longed to gulp it down greedily. It was all he would get until the end; it wouldn’t do to waste it. Gingerly setting the bowl back on the ground without spilling, he took a deep breath and wiped the dampness from his brow.
“Lavi’s right,” he prayed out loud. “I’m not ready for this.” The group of ten souls was the largest collection accepted on the island at one time in all of Koinonia history. The most his grandfather had to fight for in one sitting was seven, and he had been a grown man when Theos granted him the Sight. Somehow it just didn’t seem fair. The Enemy already had an advantage over Andre. He knew the souls personally and had weapons against which the Agabus would not be able to argue. The Enemy also wouldn’t doubt his ability to destroy, and he would sense the prophet’s weakness the moment he arrived.
Progress requires reversal, progress requires reversal… “Help me understand when the time comes,” he beseeched, barely above a whisper. “Help me not to miss it.” He asked for a clear mind, for the words to fight the Enemy’s claims, and for strength to resist the oppressive forces which would try to tear him down. Andre recalled Malachi’s comforting words, reminding him that with more souls came more help to protect them. Andre may have been the prophet, it may have been his responsibility to barter for the safety of his people, but it was true, he wasn’t going to do it alone.
Kneeling before the stone altar, Andre breathed slowly and used all of his senses, paying attention to every detail of his surroundings. The pressure of the air in his lungs, the wind cooling his damp skin, and the hard stone pressed against his knees. There was a clear patch of sky through a break in the clouds, a dark penetrating blue that was endless. He could hear the waves crashing against the jagged fjords far below the bluff and a seagull calling a warning on the shore. The Panoplia stood still as statues, mute guards appearing like splashes of color against the mountain wall. Andre ducked his head to his chest, closed his eyes, and listened to the air.
He was tired, but renewed. Scared, but determined. There was no strategy, just reaction. He recalled the last time he was beside the Bethesda Altar. It was for a family of four. They had traveled all the way from Cameroon. The father worked at the mines now and the mother taught at the children’s school. Their oldest son was thirteen, the youngest was eleven. It was arguing over the soul of the oldest that Andre nearly lost the fight. The Enemy had something on the boy, something he wouldn’t easily let go. It had cost him dearly, but Andre had won. Theos had provided, and He would provide again.
“He is ready,” Malachi’s booming voice spoke over the wind and the waves. Instantly the sound of the earth diminished, sucked like a vacuum away from that space. The air grew heavy and tasted sour, acidic, and foul. Though the temperature rose intensely, Andre shivered. His stomach clenched and it was all he could do to keep himself from vomiting back what little water he had sipped. Pressing his palms into the gritty earth, he pushed himself from the ground and forced himself to turn around. The Evil One, the Minister of Death was there. Abaddon had arrived.