Rain fell from the ever-gray clouds over the towering cathedral of Prosser, Washington. It ran down the spires and over the blackened steel arches before spilling over the edge of the steep metal roof and into the accumulating rivers below.
The cleansing downpour rinsed the dirt and blood from my battered steel armor as I approached the monolithic structure before me. Water pooled on the brim of my helmet before dripping off, running down my mask and into the collar of my angular breastplate. My rifle hung on my back with oily rags wrapped around the muzzle and receiver: my feeble attempt to prevent water from saturating the inner workings of the tarnished old weapon. The equally worn sword that hung from my left side sharply contrasted with the much newer, semi-automatic handgun that was holstered on the right.
The sword and rifle, along with my armor, were a final gift from my father. An inheritance and a tribute to the proud legacy of a Republic soldier. My father was always a hero in my eyes. A soldier to the core and loyal to the Republic, he was rarely home, but when he was, he showed me wonderful things and taught me even more. Every campaign he went on, he always found a trinket to bring back for me, souvenirs if you will, trophies from the battlefield and the myriad of cities he visited. I still have some of them, some of my favorites, packed away safely in the locker next to my bunk in the leviathan waiting just outside the city walls. Among the items is a string of three-inch claws from a Scourge he killed while defending the city of Richland, a crude metal spearhead from a cannibalistic tribe near the Madras fortress, and a cracked seashell from a trader on Tillamook Island; the mother of pearl still glistened brightly just as it had the day he gave it to me. But my favorite gift is something that I still carry on me during every deployment and use almost every day: an old three-inch brass artillery shell that he made a handle for and turned into a mug. It isn't quite as convenient or versatile as the flasks or canteens that most soldiers prefer, but it's a hell of a lot more stylish.
It hung on my belt even then. Its patched and dented surface lightly clinked against my armor as I walked through the downpour to the cathedral. I stopped at the outer gate and grasped my helmet on each side, unclasping it from my mask and lifting it from my head, I set it on the pommel of my sword, letting it hang at my side. Then came the mask that the helmet was locked to. The buckles at the back of my head were loosed and the mask was hung from its straps next to the helmet.
You never realize how entombed you are in cold steel plates and foam padding until you shed them and feel what the world has to offer without a stifling barrier numbing you to all that you touch. The cold wind and pounding rain hit me in an exhilarating blast that would stir vitality in even the most unfeeling of warriors. I closed my eyes for a moment, relishing the feeling of rain on my face. When I opened them again, I gazed at the cathedral for the first time since my father's death without an orange glass visor tinting my vision. I had barely had the opportunity to visit the city of Prosser since, and every time I did, it was on duty.
Five years ago, when the cathedral was only two years old, I visited it for the first time under much graver circumstances. I had just learned that my father had been killed in combat. The Crusades had just begun, and troops were being sent out all over Washington, intent on the destruction of the heretics who dared oppose us. My fathers was among the first platoons deployed to the wasteland that Central Washington had become. Most of the Western cities were overrun with Scourge that had never been cleared after Impact, and nests stretched for miles under the ruins of the Old World. Human settlements were scattered all over Central and Eastern Washington; some were friendly and even traded at times, but most were openly hostile and opposed our every move. The Republic had never indicated the intention of expanding to Washington, but terrorists can't be reasoned with. Seven years ago, a platoon of soldiers on a diplomatic mission to the Centralia coal plant were attacked unprovoked, imprisoned, and left to die.
Immediately afterwards, the Baker City Fortress was bombed at night in a suicide run using the stolen trucks from the Centralia platoon. Over 100 soldiers were killed in the subsequent Scourge invasion. Fortunately, the same lockdown protocols that condemned the soldiers to death saved thousands of civilians from the bloodthirsty horde that ravaged the city until daybreak.
The Crusades began the following month as hundreds of soldiers were deployed to Washington, then thousands. My father was killed by the same terrorists who initiated the war to begin with. I blame his death on them and rightly so. Now I follow in his footsteps, bringing death to all enemies of the Republic, the Church, and our Lord God Almighty.
My father told me when I was very young that the Republic was chosen long ago to lead the world out of the darkness. In serving the Republic, my father told me he was doing the will of God and that's the best thing you can hope to accomplish in this life. He told me that if anything ever happened to him, I shouldn’t be sad, because he faithfully served God all his life and he would be granted eternal life in heaven because of it. If I did the same, I would too, and we would be together again. I grew up hearing this; I went to church every week, even when my father was gone, and I read the Bible as much as I could. When I received the news that he had been killed in combat, I felt a strange mix of emotions: sadness intertwined with happiness as I knew that he was in paradise and would never have to enter the bloody field of battle again. I also knew that it was my time to pick up his armor, rifle, and sword and take his place defending the light in a dark world.
I stepped through the gateway and followed the same path that I had five years earlier. I nodded to the monolithic concrete statues of war heroes as I climbed the front steps to face the high-arched double doors. Walking closer, I examined the beautiful carvings that covered the thick, banded slabs of wood. The intricate carvings were weather worn, but I could still easily recognize the scenes depicted in the splintering etchings.
It was a recount of our history: the God-ordained events that brought the world to its knees and lifted the Republic to power above all others. The left door was dedicated to pre-Impact events that profoundly shaped our faith to what it is today: namely, the creation of the universe and the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The Harrowing of Hell was shown in particularly gruesome detail. The final panel at the bottom of the left door was a large piece portraying Impact and the destruction that it wrought upon the world.
One side of the carving showed a fiery meteorite streaking towards a sprawling city and the oblivious world that could never comprehend what monstrosities it might contain. Towards the edge of the city rose flames and the decaying ruins of a crumbling civilization. Piles of bodies were burned in a desperate attempt to contain the virus that was ravaging the world but that did nothing to slow its all-consuming path of destruction. The other side showed war and destruction, the death that humanity brought upon itself in a last final struggle for superiority in a faltering world. The Scourge were shown fighting among soldiers, ripping men apart and sinking long ragged fangs into their struggling victims. Some scenes portrayed soldiers killing the Scourge, blowing them apart and staking their heads outside imposing fortresses: small victories in a long line of defeats.
The right door was reserved for more recent history, and I spotted several well-known events that every child raised in a Republic city learns from a young age. The founding of the Republic from only a handful of farmers and bedraggled militia 130 years after Impact. The appointment of the Church and its subsequent rise to power after the divine ordainment of High Patriarch Kaden Wright.
The construction of the cathedral was shown as well as the beginning of the crusades only six years ago; the doors must be new. I peered closely at the panels of the crusades, carefully noting each armored figure shown: the detail of their weapons; their tattoos and armor; and, most importantly, the platoon code painted on their chest in stark white lettering. It was tiny and hard to make out, but it looked like most bore the “B” of an infantry platoon. The background showed several distant gunships releasing bombs on the condemned city of Yakima. Those bombs were the same ones that ended the battle that killed my father and most of his platoon. After death, it would seem that they had been immortalized for all to see, carved in the face of a door in one of the most important buildings in the Republic’s sprawling territory.
Smiling at the thought of what my father would think if he ever found out about it, I grasped the blackened steel handle and shoved the door open with an echoing creak. I stepped inside and closed it again, cringing slightly as the rasping sound echoed through the sprawling interior and gained me several irritated glances from nearby proselytes. I nodded pleasantly to the custodians as I passed them, walking down the center of the main hall and turning right towards the west wing.
My boots thudded softly on the polished concrete floor and echoed through the wide-open space. The wing was really just a long, wide hallway with small rooms on either side. The peak of the high arched ceiling stood at least 80 feet above me, and ornate chandeliers hung from the heavy steel beams that spanned the 30-foot hallway and turned sharply into vertical pillars that ran down the walls and into the floor. Statues like the ones I passed outside stood at regular intervals along the walls of the hallway. They were smaller than those outside, 20 feet tall rather than 50, but they were equally striking. Though all bore the same distinctive armor worn by Republic soldiers for the last 45 years, they were not all identical. Some stood at attention, arms at their sides and rifles slung on their back. Featureless, battleworn masks shielded their faces from the world, giving them the cold, inhuman facade of unfeeling warriors. Others appeared to be in the midst of combat, with a sword or mace held high in anticipation of delivering the killing blow to an enemy.
Each statue represented hundreds, if not thousands, of soldiers lost in battle. The side rooms that bordered the hallway led to stairs to the catacombs below the cathedral, catacombs that housed the remains of those lost soldiers. I would not go inside. It was an endless maze of tombs that had quickly been filled and turned into mass graves with no sense of reverence or honor for the dead. My father was in there somewhere, but I didn't know where. The cathedral itself was an immense grave to all those lost in the recent wars and visiting it instead of a formal grave and tombstone was the best I could do.
I reached the end of the hallway and knelt before the heartbreaking monument that covered the entire back wall. It was a monument of death, reaped from the fields of battle and paid for with the lives of thousands of men and women of the Republic. The wall was covered, from top to bottom with hooks, nails, and any other hardware you can imagine. The assorted bits of metal protruded crookedly from the wooden planks of the wall and served as supports for the sheet of glistening metal that covered it. Thousands of dog tags covered the wall, many hanging from the same chains they had been issued with. Some were old and rusting while others were bright and new. They hung like a coat of armor over the wall, barely allowing an inch of wood to show through the curtain of gleaming steel.
Each tag represented a dead soldier, and not only those in the catacombs. Over the years since the cathedral’s construction, people have been bringing tags to hang on the wall. It started with one or two at first, then dozens at a time, usually from Prosser locals. Then the word spread, and hundreds of tags began to appear each month.
I made the decision to hang my father’s tags here five years ago. They have since been buried under dozens more, but I still know exactly where to find them. In the lower right corner, about six feet off the ground and two feet from the side wall, is a rusty, square-head nail that I scavenged out of a pile of scrap wood outside for the occasion. I hammered it in with the pommel of the sword I had just received from the proselytes who had prepared my father's body for burial. I spent hours convincing myself it was the right thing to do before I hung the tags up, collected my inherited gear, and left, hoping never to return.
Yet here I am once again.
Standing, I walked slowly to the right corner of the wall, brushing my hand across the tags as I went. They lightly clanked and rustled as they swung against each other and the wall that supported them. I stopped and eyed the spot for a moment, not quite sure if I was ready to reopen the old wound. Several minutes passed, and I heard footsteps approaching at a distance. I ignored them as they drew closer, thinking it was a grieving spouse or friend coming to lay yet another soldier to rest. The footsteps eventually stopped, and I soon forgot that they had even been there as my internal conflict raged on. Finally, I forced myself to the wall, stiffly pulled off my right glove and reached a trembling hand to brush away the chains and tags that obscured my view.
There was the nail just as I had left it, but with several more chains than I had left it with. I traced the chains down the wall to the clump of tangled tags at the bottom. Minorly irritated at the mess that had accumulated in my absence, I began to shuffle through tags in search of my father’s. My temperament softened as I read the names and codes on the tags. Hunter Scott, B-27. Abigail Scott, B-28. Hunter and Abigail Scott; a married couple, I wondered, or perhaps siblings. Saddened at the thought I moved on. Joshua Evans, E-49: Suppression platoon, affectionately known as the Purge Squad. I automatically respected Joshua for that. Anyone brave enough to sign up for the Purge Squad has to be simultaneously tough as nails and stupid enough to run into a Scourge nest with nothing but a flamethrower and balls of steel. Their distinctive emblem of a charred cross and wings commanded recognition from whoever they encountered, Republic or otherwise. When you put your life on the line to clear entire cities of Scourge considering the logical course of action would be to burn it down and start over, you deserve all the respect you can get.
Gently pushing the tags aside, I reached for the last pair hanging from the nail and slowly turned them over to reveal the name and code. Daniel Anderson, B-19, right where I left him.
I stroked the tarnished metal surface lightly, feeling the indentions of the letters and the slight nicks around the edges. Suddenly, it felt like it had only been a day since I left it, and unwelcome emotions came rushing back all at once. I fought them back, pushing away the regret and pain, loneliness and feelings of abandonment. I hated the power that a small piece of metal held over me. Feeling my eyes well up, I dropped the tag abruptly and stepped back as it fell back into the mass of others and was swallowed in the curtain of metal. I stared absently at the place it had been for several minutes, collecting my dignity and pushing my emotions away.
I started as a sudden voice broke the silence behind me, “Laying someone to rest?”
Remembering the approaching footsteps from earlier, I turned around to find an old, wrinkled man in the typical attire of a proselyte standing in the hallway leaning on his long mace. Though he wore the ornate robes and armor of a proselyte ready for battle, he appeared far too frail to put the ceremonial mace to use any longer outside the capacity of a walking stick. His thin face held the stern countenance of a religious leader, but his eyes were kind and almost seemed to smile on me.
He seemed genuinely concerned about my well-being and patiently waited for me to answer his question. Though he seemed like the kind of person I could easily converse with, I had no desire to talk or even tolerate the presence of another human being in my current state. I knew I would regret it later, but I brushed him off quickly as I started down the long hallway, “Just making sure he’s still here.”
I heard a quiet “I’m sorry” as I walked away and immediately felt bad for my shortness, but I couldn't go back then. I silently promised to return to the cathedral the next time through Prosser to find the old man and apologize.
Stepping up to the doors again I pulled them open and stepped back out into the rain. As I walked down the steps, I buckled my mask back on and locked my helmet on over it. Time to take the mantle again, strap on the armor, and pick up the sword; time to be a man and leave the little boy in the cathedral with the wall of dead memories.
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