When I woke up the sun was hot on my skin and my entire body ached, but the pain in my hands and shoulders was excruciating. My eyes didn’t want to open and when I was able to force them they felt like they were full of sand and ground glass. My mouth was so dry my tongue was stuck to the roof of my mouth and I was having a hard time breathing. Gathering myself I squinted in the bright light and saw a large, primitive camp. Numerous large canvas tents were set up not too far in front of me and beyond them was a sea of small camping tents in all different colors, shapes and sizes. Realizing I was looking at the camp from an elevated position I let out a string of low curses when I saw a small forest of human heads impaled on stakes like I’d seen on the road just before the ambush. Taking stock of my situation I just stared when I realized what they had done to me.
I had been crucified. I was up on a cross. A rough rope circled my wrists which were tightly bound to the horizontal arm of the cross and all of my body weight was being held up by these two ropes. I groaned when I tried to flex my hands, cranking my head around to see what was causing so much pain. I just stared in shock when I saw the nail head protruding from my right palm. After a long moment I checked my left hand and saw another nail. In a near panic I checked my feet but they hadn’t been nailed. I didn’t understand why but I wasn’t about to look the gift horse in the mouth. It took me a few minutes to resolve myself to what had happened to me and start assessing the rest of my body. I had been stripped naked before being nailed to the cross and as I took inventory of my injuries I could feel the sunburn across my body. Looking up at the sun I guessed it was mid-afternoon which meant I’d been hanging in the hot summer sun for at least eight or nine hours.
“You’re awake.” I looked down and saw a young woman dressed in a simple white shift and sandals looking up at me. She held a small bucket and a long pole and was constantly flipping her head to keep her long hair out of her eyes.
“Where am I?” I croaked.
“You’re a guest of The Reverend,” she answered. “Praise God. Praise The Reverend.”
I just stared at her. The Reverend? Great. I’d rather fight an army of infected and a whole city full of anarchists then mess with religious zealots. There’s a level of crazy in the world and I’d always found the craziest of the crazy used religion to justify themselves and control their equally crazy followers. Just fucking wonderful.
“Water?” She asked, sitting the bucket on the ground. She maneuvered the long pole which had a ladle taped to the end of it and after dipping it into the bucket she raised the ladle to my mouth. Tilting my head forward I greedily drank the water, then two more ladles, stopping only because my stomach started cramping. I didn’t want to throw up the water I’d been able to drink. I was severely dehydrated and needed to get some fluids in me so I could figure a way out of the mess I was in.
“Thank you, Sister Carla.” A loud, deep voice boomed out as a very large man emerged from the tent closest to me. From my uncomfortable perspective he looked to be a good deal taller and larger than me. I’m no slouch in the muscle department, but he was huge. Arms and chest swollen from many hours in the gym and perhaps a little chemical assistance as well. His hair was long and spilled down his back, held in a lose pony tail by a simple band of leather. But despite his size the feature that grabbed and held my attention was his eyes. They were the eyes of a fanatic and reminded me of some of the Muslim fanatics I’d encountered in my day.
The girl bowed her head and quickly picked up the water bucket and scurried away. The man, I was sure he was The Reverend that the girl had mentioned, walked over to me. He strode with confidence and the aura of absolute certainty and authority. Taking up position in front of me he stood with his feet spread well apart, massive arms crossed across his equally massive chest, and tilted his head back to look me in the eye.
“You’re quite something,” he said. “You killed over 30 of my disciples last night, including four Marines and a SEAL. They were all good men and didn’t deserve to die, but God and I praise their sacrifice.”
“They weren’t that good or they wouldn’t be dead,” I answered, my smart mouth speaking before I thought about what I was saying.
If I had expected anger as a response I would have been disappointed. The Reverend thought about what I said for a moment then laughed a deep, rumbling laugh. All things considered I would have preferred anger.
“Oh yes, you are going to be fun.” He said, turned and strode back to the tent where he disappeared inside. Even after he was out of sight I could still hear his rumbling laughter. Oh shit.
The afternoon wore on and I drifted in and out of consciousness. The pain in my hands was a constant, but I had determined that the nails had been driven in between the bones. Again I didn’t understand the care that had been taken to not seriously cripple me. Not that this helped much at the moment, but if I survived at least I shouldn’t have permanent damage. That was all well and good but the first order of business was to survive. During one of my more lucid moments I analyzed my situation.
I didn’t know where I was, but suspected I wasn’t far from where the original ambush had occurred on the road. I was injured, nothing immediately life threatening unless they left me hanging up here in the sun without water for a few more days, but I was still in relatively good shape. On the negative side I was naked and unarmed. All things considered it could have been worse, much worse, but I needed to be thinking about how to escape and not focus on the negatives. I had tested each of the nails that were piercing my hands but they were solidly embedded into the wood. The heads on the nails weren’t very big and I believed if I had to I could tear my hands lose, but that would get me nothing as my wrists would still be tightly bound to the cross. The amount of damage that would cause and the probable accompanying blood loss was also something I needed to avoid if at all possible.
Besides, I was something of a curiosity to the people in the camp and it was rare that there weren’t at least half a dozen people standing below and staring up at me. No one offered me any more water and my body had quickly consumed all that Sister Carla had given me earlier. I felt weak and light headed, whether from dehydration or blood loss I couldn’t tell, but while I didn’t have any illusions that I’d be able to rip my hands free, untying the ropes binding me and hopping to the ground to fight my way out of the camp was a pipe dream. Conserving my energy I tried and finally succeeded in putting myself in a partial meditative state. This didn’t get me any closer to freedom, but it did help me compartmentalize the pain and discomfort and shut my racing mind down to rest for a while.
The sound of a tool box being dropped on the ground snapped me back to reality sometime later. The sun had dipped below the forested hills and it was dusk in the camp. Fires dotted the landscape and the smell of game cooking caused my stomach to growl loudly in protest. My hands screamed in pain when two burly men started doing something at the base of the cross that caused it to shake violently, then it was falling backwards with me still nailed and tied to it. When the impact with the ground came I bit my lip to keep from screaming. I wasn’t about to give them the satisfaction.
They walked up to my right hand first, one of them placing a knee on my wrist while the other one used a claw hammer to extract the nail. To say the pain was from a realm I’ve never experienced would be an understatement. Bolts of white hot fire shot up my arm and I drew blood as I bit harder on my lip. A few moments later the process was repeated on my left hand and I nearly lost consciousness, my vision narrowing to a dark tunnel and my hearing limited to my own pounding heartbeat. When I came back from the edge they had already cut all the ropes holding me to the cross and each had grabbed an arm and lifted me to my feet. After all the hours on the cross my legs weren’t functioning and I would have collapsed if they hadn’t held me up.
Behind me I started hearing the voices of a crowd, growing in quantity and volume as apparently more people arrived. I was spun around and frog marched across a large clearing to the center of a circle made up of hundreds of people. Whispers of “murderer” and “Pagan” rippled through the crowd but they stayed where they were and seemed content to call me names and stare at me. Moments later they all bowed their heads as one and started chanting.
“Praise God. Praise The Reverend. Praise God. Praise The Reverend.” The chant continued, growing neither louder nor softer, and eventually The Reverend walked into my field of view. He was dressed simply in black shoes, slacks and a black dress shirt as he came to stand in front of me and look down at me. He was a truly massive and impressive specimen. Night had fallen and the people in the front row of the circle held torches to illuminate the clearing and his fanatic’s eyes danced in the torch light. Finally he turned away from me and faced his followers, a large smile on his face as he raised his hands in the air. They immediately fell silent and all eyes were on him as he stalked around the circle and looked into the crowd.
“Praise God!” His voice boomed across the clearing. “You, my friends, are His Chosen. You have survived the horrors and destruction brought on our world by the Pagans, and you have done so because He chose you!”
A cheer erupted from the crowd and more chants of “Praise God and Praise The Reverend” were shouted.
“God has also chosen me to lead you through these trying times,” he was interrupted by more chants praising God and him and let them go on for almost a full minute before raising his hands for silence again.
“All of you know about all of the good men that died last night. Good men that were simply following my instructions of what God wanted them to do.” He kept walking around the circle as he spoke, and he had the voice and presence to command the full attention of the assembled people. In fact they looked at him with nothing less than complete love and devotion in their eyes. Glancing at the two men that still held my arms I could see the same look in their eyes as they listened. Carefully testing my legs I was happy to find that the feeling had returned and I could stand on my own, but chose to remain slumped in their grip for the time being. Why let them know I was stronger than they thought?
“This man,” The Reverend roared and whirled to point at me. “This Pagan. He is responsible.” More mumblings of “murderer” and “Pagan” rippled through the crowd and started to grow into a chant until cut off by The Reverend’s raised hands. “He killed our brothers, and I have brought him here before you to face justice. He must answer for his crimes against God and you, the Chosen.” He appeared to swell in size as he stood in the center of the circle and slowly turned as he looked to the crowd.
“Here he stands. God has judged him guilty but asks you, the Chosen, to pass sentence on him. Tell me, now, here in front of God. What say you?” He boomed out the last, standing stock still with his right arm raised as he pointed a finger at the surrounding people.
“Pit! Pit! Pit!” The chant was deafening, the people in the crowd emphasizing each shout of the word with a thrust of their fist into the air. The Reverend spun in place, smiling and laughing while the people chanted, eventually raising his arms.
“The Chosen have spoken!” He roared, and as the crowd screamed and cheered he waived several men forward into the circle and moved to the side. With only torch light to see I had failed to notice that in the center of the circle was a giant, round, wooden plate lying on the ground. The selected men rushed up to it and started folding it back in sections, revealing a gaping hole in the ground 30 feet across. Cover out of the way they grabbed torches from the crowd and stuck them into the ground around the perimeter of the pit, casting light down into it. I was jerked forward and drug to the edge of the pit and got a good look. Eight feet deep and the upper inside foot of the walls were lined with rows of sharpened stakes pointed up at a 45 degree angle. Below those stakes looking up at me were three infected, two males and a female. Thinking there’s no time like the present I started to stand to break free of the two men holding me, but The Reverend had circled behind me and with a massive shove sent me flying through the air into the pit where I landed on my face in the dirt.