With one breath, one heartbeat, it went on. The world moved onto better things and slowly became normal once more. The event which had shattered untold hundreds of thousands of lives in a million different ways across the globe became known simply as ‘the Blackout’. A horrifying unnatural disaster which spawned furious shock, horror, indignation and ultimately apathetic forgetfulness. That was the true nature of the collective beast, all events fade from living memory – some more quickly than others. Even in the days of twenty-four-seven online presence in which everyone from DrunkChick99 to the Queen of Sheba could continue to post their conspiratorial whisperings on the internet from the comfort of their toilet seat; the world forgets. It moves on.
For some, like Rick, they were still stuck.
Two years had passed since the Blackout, two years since he was forced to confront his dark nature in the pouring rain and unnatural starlight. Two years since he had taken the lives of Stacey Munroe and Janet Frasier; both of whom had been twisted into unrecognisable engines of hate by an ancient force. A fact which did not make him feel any better. Two years since the only man he had ever truly loved died in his arms, his blood staining his hands forever with his failure. Two years for things to move on and for him to remain as he was.
Ben. He still thought about him every day. The two of them had been carrying on an affair for eight years, on and off, been snatching moments of time in the forgotten spaces between seconds of their other lives. Only in the final few hours were they truly together; both of them honest and open and ready to face the end side by side. Ben had been taken by Janet none the less; he had been left to pretend to carry on.
The glint of orange sunset reflected in his eyes as he watched the world below. He sat upon the edge of the rock, looking out across the seemingly endless swell of the Mediterranean Ocean and allowed himself time to think and to feel once more.
Ben, whose full name had been Jose Benjamin Ramirez, had spent most of his life living with his Aunt in the UK. His home, where his highly catholic mother and father still lived on the family farm, was along the southern coast of Spain. Amongst the scorched and sun-drenched lands of the costas they had continued to live their existence; almost as if they’d never had a third son. He hadn’t come to see them, hadn’t come for any reason other than a promise to dead man-made amongst the bedsheets in an offhand way all those years before. A comment he’d probably forgotten about but which had remained stuck in Rick’s mind ever since.
In long rambling conversations about everything and nothing, Ben had talked a lot about growing up on the family farm. He talked fondly of the gorgeously hot summers; the refreshing coolness of the sea as he and friends leapt from the rocks; the lazy days of everything and nothing in the world that was their own to explore. As he’d talked it had been with a trace of sadness. Even then, even without knowing everything that would happen, he probably knew he’d never return to his homeland – not in any real way. His relationship with the family was strained even before his eventual coming out.
Rick had said he would have loved to see it, would love to go someday and Ben made him promise he would. Made him promise he would sit upon the rocks, cool beer in hand and simply watch the sunset. He hadn’t said they would do it together, Rick had never presumed they would. Now they never could.
He took a sip, the bitterness flooding his mouth, the cooling bubbles a soothing balm against the dry summer heat. He tipped a nod to the indifferent ocean, the swelling, rhythmic beast that breathed in the spaces between the land and downed the remainder of the bottle entirely. He placed it back into the carry case and leaned back on his hands, feeling the breeze on his face and the still-warm rock beneath his palms.
Here he felt connected to him. In some small way, as he sat there with the sun fading into the far off west he imagined for a moment he was not alone. It was dangerous to indulge for too long but to allow himself a moment would be fine. He could spare himself a little time even though the world was still not right. The Blackout had cost them a lot. The First Horseman had nearly broken them all. She had been conquest, riding forth to conquer.
She had failed. Seemingly. Now the others thought perhaps it was over; perhaps somehow with the Shadow organisation destroyed by her hand and her body now long gone, there would be no more reason for them to fear. No more reason for them to worry that they had started a chain of events that would lead to further cataclysm. To apocalypse long foretold.
Perhaps it was the beer, perhaps it was the feeling of sorrowful serenity that plagued him in the still silent moments when he was alone, but he knew they were wrong. Somewhere out there, somewhere in the raging throb of humanity, there was a figure waiting to be born. Conquest had only been the beginning. Somewhere there would be a red horse, a red rider upon it, the Second Horseman come to take peace from those they saw. Someone come to set them all to slay one another; coming with their great sword.
Their name would be War.
* * *
Mia Dickerson was bored. There was no earthly reason she should be, she was on a boat in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea being gently rocked by relatively calm waters. They drifted in between Morroco and Gibraltar; in almost entire isolation. The last time they had seen another ship was two days ago; a cruise liner from whose side the little blonde children waved. They had waved back from their yacht, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, as casual as they could be.
After all, they were there illegally.
Her life had the spice of danger, the intrigue of international travel and none of the boring humdrum of her other more academic friends who’d settled for desk jobs at universities or museums. God, one of them had even become a history teacher – what a way to waste a degree. She’d take potential imprisonment over dealing with thirty snot-nosed little brats learning about the Civil War any day – half of them still were confused the first question on the exam paper wasn’t whether you were Team Cap or Team Iron Man.
Still, there it was – the boredom worming through her like an unwanted parasite along for the ride. She was bored because she simply had very little to do. With only the two of them, an intentionally small number, one of them always had to remain on deck while the other went down. Since she was the one without letters in front of or at the end of her name, she was always the designated monitor watcher. Which was – you guessed it at home folks – boring.
At that time though, as the sun began to set, she was growing more nervous than anything else. Nervous because the orange light in the sky indicated it would be getting dark and Nate had already spent way too much time down there that day. She would be surprised if he didn’t have the bends, the amount of time he’d spent on the nitro, a thought which didn’t fill her with as much terror as it should considering they had only one toilet.
Dr Nate Steele, the man she was waiting for that afternoon-slipping-into-evening, was her mentor and one of the finest marine archaeologists around. It had taken one lecture in her early university days, on the shifting patterns of sea levels in the Mediterranean and how access to now flooded caves in Menorca was uncovering evidence of new splinter factions of older civilizations (content which was, on the whole, a little dry), to convince her to continue her studies in archaeology by applying for her Masters under him.
He was also quite a controversial figure in the academic community considering his well-known penchant for completely ignoring international laws and digging/diving wherever the hell he wanted. As he was doing on this particular expedition to which she reluctantly agreed figuring he’d learnt from his past mistakes. He hadn’t. Not even close.
He’d told her about it on their second day when he’d become shiftily fixated on a ship on the horizon that turned out to be an actual yacht-wielding rich couple sunning themselves off of the southern Spanish coast. His focus was on a galleon which had sunk and was now stuck on a natural shelf formation along the slopes of a submerged and thankfully extinct volcano. It may have been the Pecador Inocente, the ship of seventeenth-century Spanish explorer Diego Juarez. At first, she had simply nodded along to his story; then he’d explained it sank in the strait of Gibraltar and was therefore under mixed jurisdiction between the Gibraltar government, the Spanish government – and because of how close it was to the meridian of the two continents – may technically belong to Morocco. Her response had been not to speak to him for a whole day like an insolent child and wonder whether it was too late to switch to dental nursing as her mother had wanted in the first place.
Eventually, he’d managed to talk her around. Diego Juarez was, apparently, the Holy Grail of Marine Archaeology. An explorer like himself, Juarez had made his entire mission to collect artefacts of the ancient world, using the most advanced diving practices of the time – practices with which he was somewhat legendary. Rumours had been after several unusual items had made their way onto the Spanish black market, that he’d located the Lost Library of Alexander the Great and treasures the likes of which the world had not known since pre-Flood. Then he and his vessel had disappeared in a great storm, the artefacts were deemed to be cursed and either destroyed or thrown into the depths of the sea; Juarez fell into obscurity and now only stuffy academics even knew of his existence.
She was a little ashamed that tales of lost treasure and grand adventure were enough to convince her that the danger of possible capture and imprisonment was worth it. She just hoped he found what he was looking for before anyone came questioning why this ‘lovely couple’ hadn’t yet moved on from their current location; she didn’t think she had the temperament for prison. Four walls would be even more boring than staring at a computer screen all day. At least on the deck of the yacht she could occasionally sunbathe.
She sighed into the empty as though anyone was around to hear her displeasure and stepped out from the bridge onto the back deck. Still no sign.
She felt a slight breeze now she was out and away from the screens; out in the air. It brought a flush of goosebumps across her ebony skin that quickly disappeared in the lazy heat of the late afternoon sun. She strode across the top deck towards the back and peered down into the water, the surface of which was now layered with orange and brilliant sparkles of the dying light. She bit her lip, nervous was beginning to turn to serious concern.
He was an experienced diver, he would have known he’d been pushing the limits. Still, perhaps that was something in him she admired, a part which connected with something deep inside her. The carefree, adventurous spirit that pushed boundaries and strove for the very best. A big maybe.
She turned back to the cabin but the monitor hadn’t changed, the radio was not crackling into life announcing his ascent. There was only disturbing silence, which grew more disquieting with every moment it went on. They were in a stretch of sea that in reality was only miles wide – she couldn’t even remember how few, but they were few. Yet in that moment she wondered if this was how people disappeared, fell through the cracks like this one in the world – the ocean around her felt endless.
She could have screamed when a thick wet thud came from behind her. An organic, heavy sound that made her think of giant tentacles. She’d wound herself up that much that every b-movie, every shark attack film was flashing before her eyes like some horrifying final wish. As she turned slowly she expected to see a gaping wide mouth, something with teeth – something sent from the depths just for her.
Instead, she saw a thirty-something academic in neoprene and felt like she could commit a bit of violence.
“You bloody bastard!” she snapped at him, harsher than he intended. The water was still coming out of his ears as he took off his scuba mask, the red marks still visible on his cheeks and looked up at her with an oafish grin.
“What?” he asked. She settled instead for an annoyed ‘ugh’ and started down the steps to join him on the lower deck.
The heavy thud she’d heard appeared to be the sack he’d carried with him, containing Lord knew what. He’d thrown it onto the boat first before using the ladder to lift himself out of the gentle waters. With the depths he’d been going to he had required the full kit and caboodle so before she dealt with any lingering feelings of anger, she helped him to take the heavy air tank off his shoulders and put it to one side. He squirmed, evoking memories of a toddler struggling to get out of their coat so they can get to their toys. Her sister’s kids did the same damn thing.
He rushed to the bag, kicking off his flippers with practised ease and knelt.
“A thank you would be nice,” she reminded him; but just like Trey being distracted by the PlayStation, he was barely listening to her. She got a grunt from him before he turned, wild-eyed and excited.
“You will never guess what I found down there,” he told her enthusiastically, “seriously, it’s like the motherload – I even found some air pockets and everything.” His words were spoken that quickly that they seemed to coalesce into one and she struggled to keep up. “Mostly bodies are gone, washed away and eaten by the fishes, but everything they found is there – a whole haul. I think they were moored here when they were hit by the storm...”
He turned back and began to rummage through the bag.
“I mean, most of the stuff you could find at any site, some of it is going to require some placing through the archives – but there was one piece…”
He stopped dead and for a second she thought something bad had happened. But after the longest, most excruciating pause he finally pulled it out of the bag. She saw a glint of gold reflected in the late afternoon light and then he turned, the coin being almost the size of his palm. He held it gently, as though in reverence, his eyes trying to find hers for a semblance of recognition or of confirmation of his own excitement.
“Seriously, Nate?” she asked him, “You’ve found a million gold coins, all of them just end up in the museum.”
“No look at it,” he insisted, holding it out to her. He was sure, certain there was something she needed to see. Needed to realise. Only then would she have the profound childish reaction that he was having. She moved closer, delicately holding her fingers under it to help support its considerable weight.
At first, it seemed almost impossibly smooth; the surface like golden glass. Soon she saw imperfections which were not from the march of three hundred years below the surface of the waves – but instead intentional. A softly embossed structure that seemed oddly familiar, worn down through either use or erosion. At the bottom an inscription, two words which at first seemed confusing until she realised it was Greek.
She took a moment to translate it in her mind. When the English translation swam up into her consciousness she stopped dead. She looked at Nate for confirmation, his grin continuing to widen at the realisation she was having in front of him. The same one he no doubt had already been through.
“This is not a joke?” she asked him, sceptically. Not that anyone would joke about something like this – not a serious academic anyway. He shook his head, lingering droplets of the Mediterranean splashed onto her from his wet hair. It brought her back into reality and the sudden weight of their discovery pressed down harder upon her.
She wouldn’t be bored anymore.
* * *
The sun-kissed sand felt warm beneath the couple’s feet as they strolled along the beach laughing and joking about everything and nothing in equal measure. They were young, they were in love and they were on holiday. What more did they need or would they ever want?
Earlier in the afternoon they had strolled along the promenade now beginning to fill up with people as they approached tourist season and the warmer months. The breeze had begun to blow a little stronger, the air turning a little cooler, as they’d reached the end and the sunset just began to kiss the horizon on the edge of the world. The promenade had ended but they still weren’t ready for their evening meal – though as per usual they’d selected the tapas bar they would be frequenting once they’d built up their thirst.
The beach was short and ended in a row of jagged rocks that thrust out into the ocean and curved back around inland to create a little private space. They’d been there a few times once they had managed to confirm it was not some creepy local nudist beach or something; and found it a quiet romantic spot sheltered from the wind in which to sit and watch the dying throws of the sun. Plus they could get to like second base without being disturbed, so bonus.
What they didn’t know was that day it would be different.
The breeze picked up suddenly, lifting the back of her dress in a comical way leading him to say something which would be inappropriate to anyone else but simply made her cackle and blush. She slapped him on the arm and ran playfully out into the edge of the nearest lapping wave. Seeing as they were so close to their rented villa neither of them were wearing their shoes or flip flops so he rushed after her into the surf.
A particularly large wave sent a spray of foam spitting into the air and caused another loud cry of excitement and happiness from both of them. He took her in his arms and they kissed. The wind whipped her hair about her face but he brushed it from her eyes delicately. Lovingly. Everything was so perfect in this moment, he almost wished he hadn’t left the ring behind at the villa.
The waves grew a little gentler, a momentary pause, the wind died down a little and she shivered, pulling her arms close around herself. He had no jacket to offer her, the day had been warm and they were now a little unprepared for the sudden chill the waters had given them. Before he could suggest they go back a frown clouded her face, her eye-line caught by something further along the beach.
“What is that?” she asked him, he turned to look and saw what she saw. He knew instantly what shape it appeared to be and felt a sting of fear. There on the beach, impossibly pale despite the tanned skin, was a human being – lying half in, half out of the surf. As the sea pulled back away it seemed as though, without mark around them, they had been deposited there from the ocean itself and were now lying as naked as a baby in the sand.
She, ever the carer, rushed over concerned. He, ever the worrier, told her to be careful. He feared the worst and didn’t want her to be scared by the memory of finding a dead swimmer. But the body moved, of its own volition, turning around onto its back and revealing (despite the sudden rush of another wave covering them temporarily) that it was most definitely a he.
“Are you okay?” she called out as she reached him. He whirled around, confused, coughing and spluttering. He lurched further onto the sand, clawing for land and away from the cold sea; his fingers digging deep into the sodden earth. The man did not respond to her. He didn’t know what to do, so he took off his shirt and tried to throw it over him though it would be woefully inadequate to give him any modesty.
The man stopped coughing, ending finally on his knees on the warm fresh sand untouched by the waves and drew in three deep breaths. Finally, he looked up at the both of them, the young couple, the striking depth of his amber eyes the first noticeable thing about him. The confusion filling his expression the next.
“Are you hurt?” she asked, “What’s your name?”
This seemed to disturb the man yet further as if the situation could get any more bizarre. When he looked back up at them the confusion was even more evident. He was searching, hunting for something locked deep behind those amber eyes the colour of molten gemstones. Finally, he focused on her gaze and with true sincerity admitted in perfect unaccented English,
“I don’t know.”