The Reverend pulled a sweat stained bandana out of his back pocket and wiped the sweat off his forehead. He stood just off the pavement in the edge of the forest and watched as his disciples fought with the Pagans occupying the military vehicle they had ambushed. The Pagans were fighting back and when they opened up with the machine gun the Reverend momentarily feared for his own safety, but the tree he sheltered behind was over three feet thick and no machine gun bullet could penetrate. As he watched, one of his favorite disciples aimed the large sniper rifle the Chosen had liberated from the National Guard armory and fired at the vehicle, knocking the engine out of commission. Unfortunately the machine gunner returned fire and shredded the Reverend’s followers that were clustered around the rifle, including the sniper.
James Earl Boone said a silent prayer for the fallen disciples and pulled out a small note pad to make a note for himself to be sure and praise them during his next sermon. He wrote in a cramped hand, the letters poorly formed and most words misspelled. Jimmy, as he had been called before taking the title of The Reverend, had almost no formal education. The son of a whore that worked the Nashville truck stops along I-40 and an unknown father he had stopped going to school in the third grade. Despite no education The Reverend was a very intelligent man and instinctively knew how to influence and control others as if it was the most natural thing in the world for him. With a formal education he would have perhaps been a successful politician or even a CEO of a large company, but the voices in his head would have talked to him no matter what he did.
A large man at nearly six and a half feet tall and 300 pounds he had worked as a hand on the barges that plied the Mississippi River, bounced drunks out of bars and brothels from St. Louis to New Orleans and had broken legs for Cletus Harmon, the most vicious loan shark in Middle Tennessee. Time spent in prisons in Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas had packed muscle onto his frame and refined his fighting skills, but at heart he was still a coward which he masked by being a bully. But a few years ago Jimmy’s voices had told him it was time to spread the word of God and gather a flock of disciples. He had attended adult literacy classes to learn to read and had devoured the Bible, Torah, Koran and the Book of Mormon. From each of these he had drawn the beliefs he preached, picking and choosing the parts that spoke to him but he absolutely preferred the wrathful God of the Old Testament. Many times he had the thought that what the world needed was another vengeful and wrathful God and in his mind that was what he was becoming.
The heads of his enemies, who were actually simply people who had refused to follow him, decorated tall stakes that his disciples had driven into the ground along the highway that passed by their compound. He had thought about also using the heads of the demons that had appeared in the world but decided they were better used for sport to amuse his flock and routinely pitted his best fighters against them. Knowing that a leader needed to lead, he also occasionally entered the pit with the demons but always after making sure his most trusted disciples had weakened them in advance by cutting and bleeding them.
Now he watched as the fire fight raged on and dozens of his disciples fell to the Pagan in the Humvee. When the machine gun finally fell silent, the barrel so hot it glowed cherry red in the darkness and appeared to physically droop towards the roof of the vehicle it was mounted on, his men started coming out from behind their bullet riddled vehicles and advancing on the Humvee with rifles at the ready. Seeing the opportunity The Reverend moved out from behind the tree and quickly crossed the pavement, arriving at the abandoned Humvee ahead of his disciples. To them it looked like he was responsible for stopping the machine gun and as they approached each of them briefly bowed their head to him in a sign of submission and respect.
“The Pagans have fled our might!” He raised his voice loud enough for all to hear, even those who still huddled behind their vehicles. “Brother Chris, take some men and go after them. They must be punished for resisting us. Bring me their heads!”
A small man with a face like a ferret stepped forward, bowed his head briefly then pointed to eight other men and told them to follow him. They disappeared into the woods at a trot at the only place the occupants of the Humvee could have gone. The Reverend spent a few minutes walking around the ambush site and rallying his disciples with words of encouragement. He came across a young boy, no more than 17, huddling in terror behind the wheel of a large pickup that had been devastated by the machine gun.
“Rise and fear not the Pagans, young Brother Joseph,” The Reverend said, standing over him. The boy sniffed and shook, his fear still paralyzing him. The Reverend frowned, bent and gathered the front of the boy’s shirt in a giant hand and lifted him up with one arm to stand on his toes. The smell of urine and voided bowels caused The Reverend’s frown to deepen and he released the shirt and took a step back, the boy sinking to his knees in the road and shaking with renewed fear.
The Reverend looked around to make sure his disciples were paying attention and drew a heavy blade from the sheath that hung along his right leg. Grasping a handful of the boy’s hair he raised the blade high in the air and slashed with all of his strength. The head separated from the body and as The Reverend raised his left hand high in the air it swung slowly back and forth like a pendulum. Looking around the assembled group of disciples The Reverend again raised his voice.
“Young Brother Joseph was not worthy. Fear became his master. Your only master is the almighty God, and he has chosen me to lead you. I cannot lead you if you accept any master other than God!” His voice boomed across the forest and spittle flew from his lips. “There is nothing to fear as long as you stay strong in your faith and obedience to me and to God!”
“Praise God! Praise The Reverend!” Jeremiah, his most loyal disciple started the chant and soon the entire group was chanting their praises at the top of their lungs. The Reverend looked around, beaming with pride, the severed head still dangling by its hair from his massive hand.
The chant was interrupted by a loud explosion that sounded from deep in the forest. The Reverend looked in the direction of the noise as if he could see the battle that was being fought. The chant died out as the men turned and looked in the same direction. Several shuffled their feet in fear, but no one would dare express any doubt or concern. Fear was a mortal sin in The Reverend’s church.
“Brother Jeremiah, who knows these woods the best?” The Reverend asked, tossing the head to one of the men closest to him who fumbled it before quickly pulling it to his body and securing it. He had seen other men hacked to pieces for allowing one of The Reverend’s heads to touch the ground.
“Brother Dale, Reverend. He grew up here and has been hunting in this forest for 30 years.”
“Good. Send him and a group into the forest. I fear Brother Chris may have failed me.” The Reverend turned and stalked to the edge of the forest where he stared at the dark trees and began praying that God would rain his wrath down on the Pagans.
The Reverend stood there for a long time, as still as the trees he stared at and praying to God in a loud voice. His disciples stripped anything useful from the Humvee then pushed it off the road into a shallow drainage ditch. They then set about checking their vehicles, pushing the ones with too much damage into the same ditch and changing tires on others. Sometime later they rushed to cluster around The Reverend, rifles at the ready when they heard the sound of someone stumbling through the underbrush. Several flashlights clicked on, aimed at the forest, and a few moments later one of Brother Dale’s group emerged from the brush and stumbled to his knees in front of the Reverend. The man was gasping for air and soaked with sweat, wattles of fat around his neck quivering.
“What news?” The Reverend asked, wanting to refer to the man by name but he was a new disciple and The Reverend didn’t know who he was.
In a shaking voice the frightened and exhausted man relayed the story of tracking the Pagans through the forest with Brother Dale. How they had found the bodies of Brother Chris’s group as well as numerous demons that had also been slain. He told of the group following Brother Dale along a narrow path and how Brother Dale had fallen as if shot even though he hadn’t heard a shot fired. Embellishing his role he described how he had helped fight off the Pagans before escaping back into the trees, the sole survivor of the group. The Reverend stood ram rod straight, bending his head down to glare at the man as he talked.
“Which way are they going?” He asked after a long silence.
“North, Reverend,” the man stammered. “They’re following the Little Chambers River and should be close to the falls by now.”
“Thank you, Brother.” The Reverend said, reached out and placed his hand on top of the man’s head. A moment later he grabbed the hair, raising the head up and swinging the blade in a blur then tossed the severed head to one of the men behind him.
“Brother Jeremiah, I believe we have some former military men that are part of the Chosen?” He asked, still staring at the trees.
“Yes, Reverend. Some former Marines and one Navy SEAL.”
“Very good. Would you ask them to make use of their skills and go bring me this Pagan’s head?”
The Reverend stayed where he was while Jeremiah organized the next party, then turned and stalked to a muddy Chevy SUV that had been shielded from the machine gun fire by the other vehicles. Jeremiah fell in step with him, signaling the remaining men to go back to their camp. At the Chevy Jeremiah slipped behind the wheel and started the engine, waiting for The Reverend to tell him where to go.
“North, Jeremiah,” he finally said. “The trail that cuts off the road to the falls that the Godless follow when they want to fornicate and use drugs. Take us there. I want to see this Pagan for myself.”
“Yes, Reverend,” Jeremiah answered, shifting into drive and pulling away with a squeal of tires.
Driving fast he covered the distance to a small turnout in only a few minutes. Putting the vehicle in park he locked it up after The Reverend exited then followed the larger man into the dark forest. The path was originally a game trail that local kids had found and used for easy access to the falls. The waterfall was a favorite local spot to go drink, smoke pot and try to get girls out of their clothes. Not much more than a foot and a half wide the path was just beaten earth that wound through the heavy foliage.
It was very dark in the trees, the leafy canopy blocking almost all of the light from the moon. No matter, The Reverend knew the sun would be coming up soon. Besides, he had taken this path plenty of times with local girls and they had always taken their clothes off for him. Whether they had done so willingly or not was beside the point as far as he was concerned. The Reverend killed a female demon that leapt out of the forest at him, the blade flashing out of the scabbard almost inhumanly fast and stabbing deep into the demon’s chest, piercing its heart. He never even broke stride and sheathed the blade without bothering to wipe the blood from it. Minutes later the path opened out and they stopped on a small rock shelf that overlooked the falls. Below a figure could be seen making its way down the steep slope that abutted the waterfall.