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All that could be was still, while that which could not flowed with unmatched beauty, for in that moment, the world was entirely his own. Trees swayed on the horizon, gently raising and waving as if they themselves were breathing. So natural a rhythm it was that he too found his chest moving inward and outward. There was a subtle sweetness in the air, like a pinch of sugar rewarding every breath. The dew this morning was so sweet, he felt that it had always been like this, but the taste was a blessing nonetheless. Before memories could collect though a chill crossed his cheek and began to trickle down. His hand brushed against a multitude of short hairs on around his mouth. Dew in the breeze had accumulated into rain-sized droplets, or so he assumed as he brought his hand into view.
Pain jolted from the tip of his moistened finger into his neck. Eyelids twitching, he touched his cheek again and looked to his hand. A deep red, not dew, but instead a bloody smear. What sweetness had once enchanted both taste and smell now succumbed to a strong bitterness. A great heat began to rise from below him then, bringing his vision to what had before been a lush field. Beginning from afar, the green blades were consumed, burnt up by a red glow, which seemed to spark a field of fire. Gluttonous flame passed under him without a moment’s hesitation and left simmering coals spread about his feet. Warmth built up under the calloused soles of his feet as the smell of scolding flesh clung in his mouth and nose. He could not bare the pain, no, instead he retreated his view back toward the glorious trees on the horizon. Only narrowly had his eyes succeeded in capturing the sight before the wooden giants were laid to siege. The bark blackened as it popped and cracked, releasing puffs of black powder to rise up in the flames. Black smoke rolled across the field in the breeze, soon clouding his vision and lungs. He stood wide-eyed, regardless of the sting as the ash stuck in his eyes, as the world that he so briefly enjoyed was taken. Astonishingly there was no bitterness or disgust in his face, simply concern as he turned to his side. A woman’s flesh, soft and pale, her grip of his hand tightening in that moment as the angelic shine of her face became dirtied.
“Leonardo,” she whispered faintly as the black plume flattened out and her hand moved to his cheek.
What was smoke moments before became a dark brick wall on which the two leaned. The tranquility in her voice drew him out of the dream, her touch reassuring him of reality. Sometime amidst the dream his body had tensed, easing now to her voice, as a smile stretched across his face. He was the first of the two to rise and offered his hand. While she stood, the sight and smell of the place beckoned him to look, to observe. Everything seemed a haze except the dream and was it not for the beauty beside him no memory would have likely returned. As it was, however, the foggy visions of the two wandering across the ruined town and happening upon a half-standing home did surface. He looked to the clearly brutalized brick wall, at first absently, before passing onto the blown entrance across the room. The wall to their right was half-open to the outside, having apparently crumbled inward sometime ago. Normally taking refuge in a position so open to the environment would be taboo, he could only assume fatigue had hindered their reason. Despite their surviving the night, the discomfort clung to him, and she could see it.
Leonardo hid nothing in his face when his words grew scarce. Throughout the morning calisthenics his eyes would gradually drift north, no matter the direction they were facing. At first, she assumed there might be some interesting sight on the horizon, possibly a creature of some sort, but when she looked, none could be seen. Once their jog slowed into a more manageable pace she guided them toward the northern edge of the town. Like the first home they had happened upon, little more than wooden frames, half-toppled structures, and scorched homes remained in the small town. Within ten minutes, they had reached the end of the neighborhoods and could clearly see a range of hills before them. Catching her breath, she pointed across from them and looked to her husband.
“By the foot of the hill, can you see it?” she asked, her voice peaking at the end as she strained her eyes.
Leaning forward, Leonardo squinted and placed his hand over his brow, “The ground looks healthy still. Do you think it’s possible they spared some shred of life, Isabella?”
A tattered hope, tucked away just beside his heart, ignited in that moment. Uncertainty rarely justified any inclination that brighter days were to come. In fact, in most cases, when no information was available doom most likely lurked around the next corner. These precautions stood as part of a mental defense system with Leonardo’s sanity at the core. The higher his hopes rose, the more painful and drastic the fall would be. Somehow, life managed to surprise him though; this sight was just so unlikely. He eased his eyes and tipped his chin toward the sky as the possibilities settled in.
“I’d like to hope so,” Isabella sighed, walking back into the town, “It could only be a matter of time though. Maybe that place is next.”
“Or maybe it’s our chance. We didn’t see anything yesterday and everything seems quiet so far,” his optimism suggested as they passed a charred home. His hand ran along the pealing, black flakes of burnt wood on their way passed. How such delicate pieces still stuck to the walls baffled him, unless this had happened recently. Isabella probably noticed this before when his eyes were, for whatever reason, taken to the hills to the north. Such only empowered her stance that those hills might be next. Were this true it was possible, Leonardo thought, that they might see the last piece of fertile land. Already it had been weeks since either of them had seen even a flower, let alone grass or trees. He stepped through the crumbled wall of their settlement with this thought and helped Isabella in as well. Together they slung their travel bags over their shoulders and scouted the home while contemplating their next move. Without realizing it, the slow decay of wood all around them made the decision for them.
“There might not be another opportunity to get fresh food,” he said quietly.
Standing at the opening of the wall, Isabella looked to him and smiled, “I wouldn’t mind something other than canned beans.”
The scorched dirt plain between the town and the hill ate little more than half the day. Traveling chiefly by foot had toned them, quickly forming their calves and thighs to a constant pace. At times the two appeared as if mindless, caught in a deep trance as their boots crunched step by endless step. Lost in their minds, what would usually seem as if a grueling ordeal passed almost painlessly. For every foot which they progressed the ground below seemed to change in texture. Before, nearer and within the town, they might be surprised with a sharp snap as sand that had turned to glass shattered under a boot. Here, at the foot of the hills, there were no bits of glass or unnatural lack of color in the dirt. Even the feeling through their boots was softer, more pleasant.
From the town it could not be seen, but from up close, the couple walked in awe of the natural green. Blades of grass, shortened by the intense heat that had reigned down from on high not long ago, covered the steep incline as far as they could see. It seemed that as the hill grew taller and more distant from the scorched plain that so too did the earth become greener, the grass taller, and the two happier. Neither had expected such beauty, but neither regretted the decision either. Leonardo, in particular, gazed upon silhouette of the hilltop with such hope, such ambition, that even without locking eyes with his wife, Isabella too felt inspired. Quickly approaching the peak of the hill, Leonardo grabbed the hand of his wife and hastened their pace.
He was without words again, his eyes locked ahead as the tips of trees came into view. Between four of the wooden giants within close proximity of one another stood a shack and a man sitting cross-legged in front of it. Isabella glanced to her husband, who approached slower with the sight, as she reached to her belt. Not twenty yards from the man, who remained in his position quietly, Leonardo halted. His eyes grew wide, his mouth literally gaping open, clearly dumbstruck but the reason yet unknown to his wife. Hands held out ahead of her, Isabella began to speak until finally she stood beside him. A bright and vibrant blue reflected from out of her dark eyes and his too, as neither moved nor blinked.
Without muttering a single word, the two scrambled to the edge of the water. Cupped hands dipped into the clear pool and rose to their desperate mouths. Hasty as their movement was, when the water touched their lips each of them drank slowly. Two days had passed since either enjoyed the refreshing delight of untainted water and both realized this could be the last time as well. While Isabella took their canteens and began to fill them, Leonardo looked up toward the man. His robes were loose and flowing, his necklace and bracelets made of a series of brown wooden beads, and he wore nothing upon his feet or hands but tattoos. Numerous patterns seemed to line from the center of his forehead, trailing downward upon his neck and partially exposed chest, eventually leading to the tips of the centers of his palms and soles of his feet. Open hands faced upward toward the sky as the relaxed feet rested on the earth, the delicate baby blue lines between them seemingly connecting the two through this body. Leonardo found himself drawn once more, crouching a couple yards from the man who appeared to be in a meditative trance. Canteens in hand, Isabella stood from the edge of the pool and though she felt no such eerie attraction, she too made her approach.
Holding his head still, the man parted his lips, “He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely.”
As these words settled, a vibration in the earth turned Isabella’s gaze off the hill. From this high seat, she looked over the vast, barren lands between them and the town. Flimsy ruins of old homes toppled as a great metal body descended from the clouds, hovering over a clearing at the foot of the hill. Isabella found her hand at her belt again as unnatural black bodies slipped down the ropes, sparing no moment before beginning their work. Their shoulders were massive, encased by black armor, which also broadened their chests and hid their true, soft faces. Instead, they looked on the world through stoic masks, judging it as weak in comparison. No longer men, no longer empathetic, they were a plague unleashed upon the land armed with fearsome power. From the cannons, which they held with both heaving arms, they spouted fire onto the land. By their hands the last remnants of earth, as Isabella saw it, were consumed.
Black smoke rolled across the field on the breeze clouding his vision and lungs. Pulling up the keffiyeh hung around his neck, Leonardo took his wife by the hand. Together they crouched in the haze of the destruction and waited for the figures to appear on the crest of the hilltop. He stood wide-eyed, regardless of the sting as the ash stuck in his eyes, as the world that he so briefly enjoyed was threatened. Astonishingly there was no bitterness or disgust in his face, simply concern as he turned to his side. Their eyes locked, their fingers intertwined, and as the head of the first destroyer appeared their thoughts aligned.
Isabella and Leonardo rose to meet their enemy. Chests toward one another, the two slipped the pistols from their belts and took aim. Between the smoke and the sun, the figure became a massive silhouette. All that could be still was, and fingers, which could pull, did. Kindred spirits sent kindred shots as the bullets spun through the smoky air and delved into the bridge of the helm. Behind the two, the cross-legged man remained, his head raised as the smoke cleared and the destroyer came into view. Broad shoulders and a thick chest worked well to intimidate and endure threats, but pride had come before the figure fell. Their breath came quick when they saw that which they had done.
“Leonardo,” Isabella whispered, pointing to the fallen foe. Compelled by something rooted inside his chest, he charged ahead. He stood upon the plated body for a moment before drawing a heavy saber from hip of the corpse. Leonardo took the blade with both hands and raised it high before swinging it down unto the destroyer’s neck.
So esteemed a leader was he, that when Leonardo held up the head of the fallen his followers lost hope. The metal beast, which had unleashed the terrors upon the land, lowered once again, having seen the head as well. Isabella came forward beside her husband despite the show of brutality. Unwrapping his fingers from the handle of the sword, she grasped his free hand and looked unto the world. Suddenly a gust pushed back the black smoke and the transport appeared yet again. This time it came far nearer, so close that when Leonardo recovered from the powerful wind he could make out the extended arm of the figure at the door. A flash lit from the end of the arm before he could react to the sight. Upon seeing it, he knelt beside the body at his feet and brought up the cannon still attached the back of the corpse. Though the craft began to jerk away, it had done so too late. Steadily a pillar of flame filled the craft even as the door began to shut. Yellow and red licked the glass of the cockpit as they entered a chaotic spin back and landed in the ruined town.
Fatigue from the weight of the cannon brought Leonardo onto his knees. He was not accustom to such things, to killing, to any of this. Sweat surfaced on his face and arms as the strain eased and the cannon rolled from out his hands. The rhythm within his chest appeared quicker than that to which the trees danced. Funny, he thought, it all seemed so familiar – and yet, not. Leonardo turned to Isabella while taking in a deep breath. There he saw her hunched forward, her bloodied hands cupping her side.
“Leonardo,” she whispered faintly as darkness spread all about his vision.
When the man finally came to, he felt the many bent blades of grass beneath him. They seemed so crisp in feeling unlike ever before. Placing his hands against the cool earth, he rose from his back and rubbed his eyes. The sky had dimmed and day had fallen since he could last remember. In that instant, his hands became still and his eyes wide. Frantic, he looked about to find the cross-legged man now standing beside another, Isabella. She stood naked, but this somehow made sense to him. Leonardo took to his feet and began toward his wife and the man, but not before feeling a sting in his side. His fingers beat his eyes as they ran down the cage of his ribs onto a thin line – a scar. Closing both eyes, he took a long, slow breath.
As Leonardo raised his head there, before him, stood Isabella with her hand reached out for his own. Under her arm, he could clearly see a scar from where she had been shot. He took her hand and stood by her side before the man without question or fear.
A smile upon his face, the man looked unto them and said, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth.” Hand in hand, the two bowed to their healer before approaching the crest of the hilltop. Gazing upon the world from on high left little doubt in either of their hearts for that which had been destroyed could be rebuilt – for in that moment, the world was entirely their own.
“I believe this is our chance.”