Boston, MA. Four months ago.
Former Lt. Colonel Devon Graves strolled the boardwalk of the piers closest to Waterfront Park, taking in the picturesque vista of the fading sunset. The sky was a vibrant splash of orange and blue behind his beloved wife, who twirled and laughed to the music of several carnival musicians nearby. It never ceased to amaze Devon how accepting she was, how unassuming. She could approach anyone, anywhere, and befriend them. She dazzled, lighting up every room she entered with the brilliance of a thousand suns.
She was an angel. Then how on earth did I wind up with her? he mused. Was it me, or just that the competition was that much worse?
The music ended and the band moved on, leaving the two alone beside a heavy wooden rail where Devon leaned. "Penny for your thoughts," she interrupted.
"I'm not sure they're worth that much, Corrinne," Devon smiled back to her.
"A smile, then," she answered, "and a kiss."
Not a moment later, their embrace was spoiled by a frail voice that issued from beside a low wagon across the walk. "I believe you have mistaken the value of a lover's arms, my dear. Surely they are worth more than that."
A figure stood beside the wagon - one that neither of them had noticed before - that of a sallow old woman, perhaps four times Corrinne's age, if not more. Her skin was draped over her skeletal remains like soiled rice paper, and her chalky hair looked ready to shatter in the chill sea breeze. She approached the pair slowly, her joints threatening to collapse with every step. Devon moved to assist her, but she brushed his arm away with unnerving speed. "I'm all right, young man. Dedicate your efforts to those who will appreciate them!"
The couple shared bemused glances, then returned their smiles to the wizened crone. "I'm sorry." Devon said, by way of introduction, "my name is Devon and this is -"
"Corrinne Jericho. I know," the woman interjected. "I am Esmerelda, the carnival fortune-teller."
"How grand!" Corrinne gleamed. "Can you read our fortunes?"
"I already have," Esmerelda answered. "Your destinies are both quite powerful - and linked to a third individual. A warrior with the heart of a demon!"
A chill ran through Devon as he realized whom she was referring to. His first instinct was to end the conversation with as much tact as possible and run, taking his beloved Corrinne with him. But something deep within him urged him to remain, and listen.
"The warrior is guided by forces he cannot comprehend, let alone control - and he is in grave danger," Esmerelda continued. "He has so far been held in check by his own obsessions, but now. he is suddenly found the hero by his peers, and that makes him all the more dangerous. I feel that you are the only one left whom he can talk to - who can prevent him from consuming himself, and everything he touches."
"Where is this man, good woman?" Devon was suddenly insistent, focused. Corrinne had only seen him like this once before. She shuddered to think that the incidents were connected.
"West. At the edge of the nation, where the world falls into the sea – in a place called Gomorra. You will find him there!"
Esmerelda tore away from the pair and turned to scuttle away toward her wagon, regaining the disturbing speed she had exhibited earlier. Devon moved to follow her, but Corrinne, acting on the ugly feeling in the pit of her stomach, clutched his arm and held him close. What am I to do, seer?" Devon called after the fleeing woman. "What can I do to stop him?"
"That is for you to decide," she called back to him. "But remember that war only begets war, and rarely answers to anything else." Esmerelda vanished into the wagon and closed the door, leaving Devon and his wife to their own stunned silence.
Inside the wagon, Esmerelda moved through distended pools of darkness, pierced only by narrow shafts of fading light streaming between the heavy curtains hung over her windows. Her gait was still strong, intent. "Moootheeer," a voice exclaimed from further inside. All light fled before the sound. "Excellent work."
Esmerelda nestled herself into the booth where she typically read fortunes for the public, and lit a tall, gnarled candle. Its pink wax was soft and puffy, and scarred before sloughing away instead of merely liquefying. But the light it gave off was strong and pulsed with a life of its own.
"Scratch." she answered. "I am merely a shadow of your greatness." The light slid away from the ringmaster's face on all sides, illuminating only the fabric of his suit, the pristine white gloves protecting his delicate fingers, and the tall hat which rested on the low table in front of him.
"Nearly there, Mother. Can you feel it? Welling all around us?" From beside him, Scratch produced a small gilded box, which he held up to the light. All around it, darkness roiled, cutting off the light and threatening to overwhelm it. Esmerelda smiled, a broad and tight grimace that splintered the skin across her face and reminded her of another time, another place, before the Troupe had come here.
"The final game," Old Scratch pondered, "set in motion at last. It's been so long coming. Soon, we'll be home again." Another moment of silence. Esmerelda was never sure what happened to Scratch during the long, pensive moments between words, when he seemed to simply slip away. She wasn't even sure he was conscious of them. Maybe they seemed like long seconds to him, rather than minutes or sometimes hours, as they did to others.
When Scratch finally came out of it, he moved with sharp and critical speed, depositing the box into a pocket of his suit and grabbing his hat to leave. He rose and took two quick strides, only pausing for a moment over Esmerelda's booth, where the candle was now little more than a wisp of flame above a gruesome pile of rotting tallow. "Your sister is a remarkable craftsman," he observed. "I think it's time we paid her a visit."
Esmerelda beamed, her eyes growing wide with slavering hunger in the moment before Scratch extinguished the flame between his thin fingers. "Gomorra," she purred, the word a spike of elation between them. "The Last Kingdom."
Gomorra, CA. Three months ago.
Brigadier-General Patterson sat alone in his office, his fingers steepled, observing the simple box resting upon the table before him. The Drifter's words resounded within his mind. "You have neglected my gift, friend. And after all that we have done for each other." It was true. Patterson had declined to open the box when Jolinaxas had first delivered it. Indeed, he had been hard-pressed just to fill the shoes that Katie Karl had left, and organize Confederate interests in Gomorra. But for the first time, it seemed as if he could make a real difference in the war against the vicious Northern states, and he wasn't about to let it slip through his fingers.
That's the least I can do for you, Neil. He sent the silent message out to his former commander, who had fallen behind enemy lines at the Sixth Battle of Manassas, and followed it with a hushed prayer for the dead. So many dead. Neil. Every member of his family. All the Graves. Countless more. "A new age is coming," he said, reaching for the box, "where there is no more fighting. No more death. No more suffering."
But first, someone has to win this war, he thought, turning the tiny, ornate key and opening the lid. Inside, lying upon a bed of red velvet, was a simple gold medal trailing a slip of light blue fabric. Almost without consideration, he lifted the field-scarred medal of honor to his breast and pinned it into his own uniform. He recognized its frayed edges and the pit where it had caught a bullet meant for Major General Neil Harrison. nly then can there be peace.