Bones flicked his fedora up so he could see the contents of the frying pan. The hat was always slipping forward since the loss of his hair a while ago. He stabbed another chop with the cooking fork and lifted it carefully out of the marinade dish, careful not to drop it in the red sand that blew across the floor of Death Valley. The frying pan greeted the chop with a sizzle and a pop, instantly sealing the juices in the succulent meat.
The boys’ll be in for a treat tonight, that’s for sure.
He looked west, shielding his eye sockets from the grit being whipped up by a brief squall. The sun was turning the western sky to flaming copper and gold as it accentuated the silhouette of a lone rider lazily trotting toward him across the dustbowl.
Bone’s pale grey mare whinnied in recognition, tossing its head in anticipation.
“Yeah, you’ll be able to trade stories with Carmine in a minute or two.” he said to her in his southern drawl. “No doubt he’ll want to sniff your butt too.”
He flipped the four chops over and shook the pan to spread the oil evenly. Hickory smoke fingered his nostrils and set his mouth watering. He noticed a drop of saliva fall through the cavity in his lower jaw to the floor, only to be absorbed by the baked sand in the next instant. Flesh had its limitations, but he sure missed it sometimes.
By the time the rider had dismounted, Bones had got the chops simmering on a low heat. Mustn’t over-egg it. These boys like their meat medium rare.
“Awrite.” The rider greeted him in a rough Glaswegian brogue.
“Watsup, dude. You ready for some chow?”
“Aye. Don’t tell me – pork again?”
“Nothing but the best for Hex. We want him in a good mood, and nothing lights his fire better than pissing off the Head Honcho by eating meat from an unclean beast of the field.”
Bones watched as his ancient compatriot dropped down beside him, armour clanking on the stone seat as he did so. Scrim was a muscle-bound ox, with hair as ruddy as his mount – and a temper to match.
“I sure don’t envy you, riding in that gear under a desert sun all day.”
“It’s a bummer, I canna deny that,” said Scrim. “How’ve ye been keepin’ anyway?”
“Well, dude. It’s all about eschatology now. Business has always been good but since the turn of the millennium, things’ve ramped up pretty darn sharp.”
“Aye. I’ve been putting a bit your way over in the Middle-East.”
“Cool. Ishmael and Jacob’s descendants are always ripe pickings. I guess they’re not sparing the women and children are they?
“Does the pope pray? They’re vicious buggers. Always have been. And they call us depraved!”
“Say …” Bones paused. “There’s no chance of the hostilities moving north to Megiddo?”
“Nay lad. I put a stop to that. What d’ye take me for – a fool?”
Bones served the thickest chop from the pan onto Scrim’s plate, followed by a generous scoop of beans and mashed potato. “Not so loud, OK? Voices carry in this valley, and we wouldn’t want Hex to hear, now would we? You got any of that Islay malt on you, Scrim? I could do with a tot.”
Scrim reached behind him and pulled a half full bottle from his saddle bag. Bones rummaged in a sack and eventually found two small billy cans.
“Never tastes as good as from lead crystal,” said Scrim.
“Beggars can’t be choosers. Just a tot mind, I’m only going to have a snifter.”
The Scotsman looked at his companion’s frame. Bones knew there wasn’t an ounce of tissue left on his body now. The sun had bleached his skull to a shade of dry ivory.
“Life’s denying you one pleasure too many if y’ask me,” said Scrim
A hollow laugh, like blown desiccated leaves rose from the depths of Bone’s chest. “Yeah, Life and me don’t have much in common.”
Scrim chewed on his food for a minute, tomato sauce mingling red with russet in his beard. “I hear ye’ve been reaping a holocaust over in Babylon,” he said finally.
“It’s called Iraq now, dude, and yeah the blood-letting doesn’t stop. This new brotherhood are employing methods of dispatch I haven’t seen since the crusades – at least on this scale. Beheadings, setting prisoners alight. They’ve even re-instituted the khazouk.”
Scrim dropped his fork. “Fuckin’ hell, a spike up the rectum? I’ve got to get me a piece of that action.”
“Yeah, it’s pretty rad. I love micromanaging those executions. I even delegated the oversight of an earthquake to my lieutenant so I could be personally involved.”
“Aye, I dinna blame ye. It seems we dinna need t’even light the spark of atrocity these days. The human race can manage a’ by themselves.”
“I sometimes think about their motivation, y’know dude?”
“What. Y’mean seventy two virgins in paradise? That cracks me up. Imagine the frustration? I’d want them t’ be well-shagged whores. Sluts that kin show me a good time.”
The sound of hooves pounding in the iron-hard valley rose on the next breath of the wind.
“Comin’ in from the north,” said Scrim. “Must be Foodstamp.”
“Crazy man. He’s forever riding like a hellion.”
“Faster than a greased turd out’ve an oiled arsehole. He’s driven by hunger. Probably smelt that boar-meat cooking from the other side o’ the canyon.”
Foodstamp rode a white stallion. It wasn’t a handsome beast. Bones could see its ribs poking through the hide covering its chest. Its breath came in short wheezes and the emaciated legs looked like they could hardly support its own weight, never mind that of its rider. The man himself was nubian black, but his build matched that of the horse. He was naked except for a loincloth, his fluid-swollen belly protruding over the top in the advanced stages of protein deficiency.
“How’s it hanging dude?” said Bones.
“Many apologies for my lateness. Engendering crop failure in Central Africa is more of a bore than it used to be. Drought-resistant maize has seen to that.”
“Quit moaning hinney and get some of this grub down ye,” said Scrim. “Looks like ye could do with a square meal. When was the last time ye ate?”
“More recently than Bones here.”
That set them both baying like hyenas.
“Hey. Don’t get all heavy with the sarcasm dudes,” Bones said. “Maybe I’ll feed this chop to your horse. He probably deserves it more than you anyway.”
Bones grudgingly served up a plate of victuals, taking in the aroma as his only source of nourishment. Scrim offered the horses some hay. They chomped on the coarse roughage hungrily, snorting their pleasure.
“Won’t be long before you’ll have to turn your attention to California,” said Bones to Foodstamp once the nubian had polished off his plateful.
“You may be right there. Global warming is accelerating, and I don’t see an end to the water shortage.” He sopped the remains of the pork marinade up with a piece of flatbread. “Things could still be moving faster though. I need to impress Hex in this next quarter. My average is dipping dramatically.”
“Don’t over-egg it my man. It’s a finely balanced art.”
“True. But I’m nudging opinions to the right for the next election. There are more climate change deniers in the Republican movement.
“Syph’s cutting it fine,” said Scrim while rummaging in his pack. “What time did Hex say he’d be here?”
“Twenty one hundred hours,” replied Bones “and he’s never late.”
“Unlike the final curtain,” said Foodstamp. “Man, this must be the most overdue final reckoning in history.”
“It’s supposed to be the only final reckoning dude.”
“Long may it loiter.”
“Speaking of which-. ” Scrim upturned a metal tray onto a flat rock and slapped down a deck of cards. “It’s time for our usual game.”
“Oh man, I’m done with this shit, dude.” Bones stretched until his joints cracked. “We all know which cards each other is holding anyway.”
“That’s naw the point. We need to practice our poker faces.”
Scrim’s statement set Foodstamp roaring with laughter again. “Ha! Bones has a permanent poker face. I’ve seen more subtle expressions on a gargoyle.”
“Dude – sarcasm.” Bones kicked up the sand in irritation. “Anyway, you never let us play poker, Scrim.”
“Too right. Far too clichėd. Now, three card brag is the game of warriors.”
Foodstamp sighed. “Go on then jock. Deal them out.”
A minor rock fall announced the arrival of the last horseman. The South exit to the valley could only be traversed over an incline littered with shattered sandstone, and the ebony horse nearly unseated its rider as it stumbled on the slabs.
“Whoaa, fuck. What’s that stench?” Scrim pulled a neckerchief up over his nose and moaned his complaint.
“Hey dude, get downwind of us,” Bones shouted at the lump of flesh which was Syph.
“Bugger you all with a rusty spike,” he said as he slid like a sack of sand off his mount. “Is there any of that scran left for me?” His voice sounded like the lid of a funeral crypt, grinding stonily across its base. Every word seemed to require a monumental effort, just to expel it from his mouth.
As the last horseman stepped into the flickering light, the ravages waged on his body were plain to see. Blood oozed from every orifice while suppurating wounds poured pus in a puce torrent.
“Och, ye’re more disgusting than the last leper in hell,” said Scrim. “What have ye given yerself this time?”
“Hemorrhagic fever. I’ve really outdone myself. Death toll’s running at over ten thousand.” Syph smiled wearily in self-congratulation.
“But dude, no one said you had to catch the disease yourself.”
“I like to immerse myself in my craft. I have to feel the pain of the suffering thousands. It makes the experience more … exquisite.
“You’re one sick motherfucker,” growled Scrim.
“You’ve just given me a far out thought man,” said Bones. “The Head Honcho has a thing about his emissaries sharing human’s pain. Remember Jeshua?”
Foodstamp drew a card from the discard pile. “The guy with the messianic complex?”
“Yeah,” continued Bones. “He took the pain and sins of the world during that heavy crucifixion scene. The Head Honcho really laid into him.”
“But he got his reward, didn’t he? Call, by the way.” Bones laid out two deuces and a queen in response to Foodstamp’s play.
“You made that too obvious, dude. You better leave the talking to us when Hex gets here. He’ll read you like a scroll.”
“Reward?” said Scrim, dealing out another hand. “If you call sitting at the right hand of Mr Anger Management for eternity a reward, then Jeshua was a greater masochist than Syph here.
“Oh, be assured,” said Syph, chewing on his chop. “My motives will always be sado-masochistic.”
“I bet the Storyteller wishes he had come up with a plot like that. Giving humanity a hope that can never be fulfilled is right up Head Honcho’s street,” said Foodstamp.
“Yeah. The Teller has some great tunes and even greater tales, but that collection of sixty six short stories is still the all-time best seller,” said Bones as he threw in another runechip.
Scrim leaned forward conspiratorially. “A shame so many on our side haveny’ read the last four chapters. I don’t think they’d be as enthusiastic if they saw how the end plays out.”
“Keep your voice down, Scrim,” said Foodstamp. “It’s nearly nine o’ clock.”
“Dinna worry mon. We’ll hear Hex before we see him. I still can’t believe we were lucky enough to snatch a glimpse o’ the original manuscript that hermit of Patmos wrote.”
“I can’t believe that Hex hasn’t seen through our ploy yet,” said Bones. “You know, sometimes I wonder if our centuries of toiling have been worth the effort. It seems like aeons of torment. Hey, why are you raising me dude? Your hand’s worth shit.”
“Poker face, me’ bonnie boy. Poker face.” Scrim waited for Foodstamp to make his move.
The skinny nubian flicked the cards back and forth between his hands, as if ordering them. “If you want to know torment, then give him what he wants. We can all burn together in the Lake of Fire for all eternity. Call.”
Bones revealed his pre-determined hand of three queens and cleared the table.
All at once, the cards and rune-chips began to vibrate on the tray top.
“He’s coming,” said Syph. He licked his plate clean and then stood with the rest of them.
The ground shook as The Storyteller’s disciple appeared on the glimmering horizon astride his scaly leviathan.
“Like I told ye,” said Scrim. “Always has to make the grand entrance. The only thing heavier than that reptile is his ego.”
“Quit the negative vibes dude. Let’s do this professionally.” Bones stepped forward to the approaching beasts and bowed low.
“Lord of the Flaming Seas. Greetings.”
Bones concealed his fear well. With his face it wasn’t difficult. He hoped that the rest were playing their parts as rehearsed.
At nine feet tall, Hex dwarfed Bones. He noticed that Hex had lost both ears since their last meeting. Only two bloody stumps remained, scarring the mottled grey skin that stretched over his skull like parchment.
That could be punishment from the storyteller, but I’m putting my money on self-mutilation. He’s obviously got self-esteem issues.
Hex slid from the bone saddle on to his beast’s raised forelimb, then jumped onto the hardpan. “All four of my horsemen present in one place – and at the same time. I applaud you for your punctuality.”
Pleased to see you too. Pretentious dickhead.
“Throw my beast some food and let us sit down and discuss business.” Wires, hooked round the flesh of his mouth, extended to the back of his head, pulling his lips into a permanent grimace. Consequently, his voice slurred on the sibilant consonants, spraying spittle over Bone’s face.
Vanity over practicality.
Scrim hefted the rest of the swine carcass in the direction of Hex’s beast, then retired quickly. It sank its jaws into the raw flesh and dragged the hog over to the edge of the camp. Safely withdrawn, it slumped down, raising a cloud of dust and put its claws on the food protectively. The grinding of bones between carnassial teeth the size of cinder blocks set Bone’s teeth on edge.
Hex perched himself on Bones’ seat and reached for the remaining pork chop. He bit into it with relish.
“Nice flavour,” he said.
“I’ll give you the recipe for the marinade if you want, my Lord.”
Scrim kicked Bones, who promptly clamped his jaws shut.
“Tell me, War. Did you manage to foment a full scale conflict in Palestine?”
Scrim shuffled forwards. “It was a long and bloody struggle, My Lord. Each side escalated their reprisals, and there was a hefty toll on life.”
Hex turned to the Scot, the triple digit tattoo fully visible across his forehead in the baleful glare of the campfire. “Then explain to me why the armies stopped short of Megiddo?”
“International diplomacy, My Lord. It’s the scourge of any honest warmonger. I tried setting up one superpower against the other, but they managed to hammer out a peace deal.”
“Idiot!” Hex slammed his fist down on the tray, scattering cards and rune-chips to the floor. “There was a time when you could prolong a war for a century. That one over in Europe for example.”
“Technically,” said Bones “the war between France and Britain was one hundred and sixteen -“
“Silence,” roared Hex. “Megiddo is a crucial strategic location. I was counting on you to escalate the battle and bring on the next phase of the Storyteller’s plan.”
“I apologise, my Lord. I will re-double my efforts.”
“Now, Pestilence. Tell me some good news for a change.”
Syph winced at his proper name but reported back on the ebola outbreak with due deference.
“Excellent,” said Hex, once Syph had finished. “The bowls of wrath will be outpoured soon and the Scarlet Whore of Babylon shall be transcendent.”
“I thought the Babylonian whore happened after the Wormwood bit,” whispered Foodstamp to Bones.
“I know, I know. But let him keep thinking things are going to plan.”
“Famine,” said Hex. “What are you mumbling about?”
“Just getting my figures right, my Lord.”
The beast fixed his amber eyes on Foodstamp. “You claim to get results by stealth and subtlety. So – give me your report.”
Foodstamp reeled off his accomplishments, quoting foodstock percentages, trading deficits and mean global temperature increases until Hex started to yawn.
“Enough, enough. Your report is drier than the book of Numbers. Why can’t you send a plague of locusts? Far more appealing, and faster results.” He sprang up from his seat and picked up a rock the size of a medicine ball in his hand.
“The final chapters in the Storyteller’s tale are being enacted as we speak. Soon, our enemies will be crushed.” He sank his fingers into the rock as he spoke, fracturing it into a hundred pieces. “Your intelligence report is very mixed. I had expected better. Sometimes I think you deliberately engineer this sluggish inertia.”
Bones cleared his throat. “My Lord. Two steps forward and one step back is still progress. It is better to have a steady, robust advance rather than overreach ourselves by being too ambitious.”
“Too ambitious? Death, you need to start living up to your name. If the Storyteller had entertained such notions he would never have dared challenge the Creator’s throne.”
“And never got thrown out of Heaven too,” muttered Scrim.
“What?” Hex sprayed saliva over all of them.
“Nothing,” my Lord. “I was simply scolding my wee skeletal friend here.”
Seemingly assuaged, Hex called his beast to him. “I must depart now. But we shall meet again in six months and I expect great advances. Mobilise your hordes and get to work.”
The horsemen bowed once more and watched as Hex and the larger beast thundered into the distance.
“That was a close one, dudes,” said Bones.
“I still canna get my head round how he still thinks we can turn the tide of prophecy.”
“Power deludes,” said Syph. “And absolute power deludes absolutely.”
Foodstamp’s stomach rumbled. “It’s like when Julius Caesar was told about the ides of March. He just kept on in his merry way and eventually paid the consequences.”
“Hex is in denial,” said Bones. “Both him and the Storyteller. Sometimes the leaders need to be saved from themselves. Like I said, it’s all about eschatology.”
“Shall we head out in the morning?” said Foodstamp.
“I’m heading off now,” said Syph. “I’ve got a new microbe to incubate in China. Goes by the name of Klebsiella pneumonia. If I start an outbreak in The Xinjiang province tonight, it’ll have carriers in New York in twenty-four hours.”
Bones picked up the scattered deck of cards one by one. “What about you Scrim?”
“I’ve blotted my copybook wi Hex. I better get a head-start in the Ukraine. A little pressure in the right smoke-filled room, and we’ll have an insurgency by the end of the week.”
“Looks like it’s just you and me, Foodstamp.”
“Yeah, I’m in no rush. The Greenhouse effect is inevitable. All I need to do is create the conditions for Syph and Scrim to thrive. I’m going to get me some shut-eye.”
“Lazy bastard,” said Scrim.
As the two departing riders mounted their steeds, Bones held their reins for a moment. “Remember, dudes,” he said,
They looked at each other and declared in unison: “Don’t over-egg it!”