It was challenging and painful for Michael to remember the beauty that once graced Green Valley. The town was small, nestled neatly in a lush valley, surrounded by towering, jagged snowcapped mountains with dense forests as far as the eye could see. Green Valley was split in half by the majestic Salmon River, aptly named for its sizable biannual salmon migrations. The fall salmon run was always Michael’s favorite as a younger child. He used to lose himself fishing in the calm, crystal-blue waters. He was always aware that soon, the gentle ebb and flow of the river would fade away along with the brilliant colors of autumn. A more powerful and turbulent river fueled by monstrous rainstorms would come with the harsh winter season.
April studied Michael as he surveyed what was left of Green Valley. Michael had grown distant since the war began, and he seemed to be carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. His usual upbeat and optimistic views on what could be in the new world seemed to grow fainter every day the war dragged on. Their enemy, Perdicium, had not just stolen their friend, Damian, but was also slowly eating away at what was left of their humanity. April reached out and lightly touched Michael on the arm. “Michael, what are you thinking about?” asked April.
Michael slowly turned to look at April and locked on to her greenish-brown eyes, swollen with held back tears. He only caught her eyes for a moment before looking away back toward his desolate hometown. He was usually better at hiding his pain and feelings from everyone else, but April always found a way to disarm him, which he both loved and hated. “Nothing and yet everything all at once. This sight is a lot to take in,” Michael explained. As he looked around, he could see the forests still smoldering from the repeated attacks on the town that began over a year ago. Ash was still falling all around them, and everywhere they turned, there was twisted metal with bricks and ash scattered over the ghosts of their friends and family. Michael’s deep brown eyes were red and swollen as he looked up to the clouds swirling around the valley. “Even the air is a mixture of decaying corpses, rotting food, and burnt buildings. How is that possible after all this time?”
“I don’t know? Maybe we should try to remember what it was like before the war. Don’t you remember how beautiful the fall was?”
“Of course, I do, but it is gone now, April.”
“Fall was always my favorite too. I know it was yours. That was our home, Michael, before the war. Don’t forget that.” Michael nodded, understanding what April was trying to do. He knew that April was worried about him. War is not easy on anyone, but it takes an extra toll on the soul when you blamed yourself for all that happened.
“April, do you know what is down there in the valley?” Michael asked, pointing toward Green Valley. April shook her head from side to side. Michael steeled himself as he explained, looking more distant than ever to April, “Down there are the remains of my friends and family.” Michael paused, composing himself; he turned to April. “Your family too. Your mother, your father, your siblings, and almost everyone we ever knew and loved. Besides that, you can still see the remains of everyone caught in the attack scattered throughout the banks of the river and on the streets of Green Valley. You remember how the first attack came without warning on the holiday, don’t you?” Michael looked away. “Barely anyone survived, April. Eighty-two thousand people were gone in a single day. Their bones line the streets to remind the living. They haunt me in my dreams.”
Michael carried a burden of regret that he hadn’t shared with anyone, not even April. “This is all my fault,” Michael began to confess. April looked at Michael, confused and without understanding. “You remember how we used to hunt for the relics before the war?” April nodded and began to follow his train of thought. “I was consumed and driven with the power that the Apple could contain. Perdicium only attacked us once they learned that the Apple had been discovered. It was my fault they learned of its discovery.”
“But how, Michael? All you did was retrieve it. It’s not like you used it, did you?” Michael looked at April with shame and regret, a look April had seen only once before. “Michael…”
“I wished that was the worst part,” Michael struggled to explain. “I was selfish and wanted it for myself, so I retrieved it without…”
A large crash shook Michael out of his nightmarish daze, and he spun around in anticipation as a nearby small building collapsed under its own weight, not able to hold up the concrete slabs on its twisted foundation any longer. A small plume of black ash rose in the air and covered his truck in yet another layer of soot. The truck had once been a bright royal blue, but now it mirrored the world around it, a shade of gray with its bright color choked out. April shielded her eyes from the ash and turned back to Michael. Her ash-covered face was streaked with tears, and she wore a look that pierced Michael to his core. Her long, brown hair, matted with dirt and ash, was wild in the morning breeze. This was not a look she wore often.
It was the first time she had seen the destruction of Green Valley. She turned to see if Sarah was still sitting in their truck; the three of them had been inseparable since the importance of Ethos’s Triad was discovered. Sarah was making her second trip to Green Valley; she had done a solo mission a couple of months prior and now would not leave the truck because of how difficult it was to take in the carnage. Standing a moment, April and Michael locked eyes, leaving the rest of the conversation unspoken. As painful as the moment was, they needed to remain focused. Minutes turned to hours as the triad waited in anticipation of fulfilling their mission.
A low rumble could be heard riding the wind off in the valley, quiet at first, but it grew slowly louder off in the distance. It was a convoy of trucks they were familiar with, and their anticipation quickly turned to action at the realization they were standing on an exposed bluff. Michael cried out in a shouted whisper to find cover. He motioned to April to remain hidden as their mission was to observe and not engage. This was a defining moment of truth for them; the mission had been months in the making, and if they were right about who was in the convoy, perhaps they could turn the tide. Concealed behind a boulder, April motioned for Michael to come closer to have a better vantage point.
“Perdicium,” Michael muttered so that only April could hear. She gave him a quick sideways glance and nodded her head. They dare not speak too loudly as the wind could carry their voices and could give away their position.
A tall, olive-skinned man wearing scars from various battles was below, exiting a truck in the middle of the convoy. They could clearly make out his most defining feature, the twin figure eight serpents tattooed on each arm. He calmly brushed his jet-black hair out of his face to survey the site where he would continue his search.
“Damian!” whispered Sarah, startling April and Michael. She had joined them at their position stealthily. Michael nodded with a smile that April and Sarah hadn’t seen for months. They watched for a time as Damian barked out orders to the Perdicium troops as they searched in vaults of old banks and various old structures that were barely still standing. As the day waned on, the afternoon winds switched and were now blowing in the stench of the dead straight to their position. They collectively decided to keep a rotating watch on the enemy movements below while the other two went back to rest in the truck.
“I can’t believe he is working for them. He knows better. We must find a way to get to him,” Michael explained to Sarah.
“And then what, Michael?”
“Then we bring him back to us. We need to make him see that working for Perdicium is a mistake. All those years working together to find the relics and uncover the mysteries of the realms couldn’t have meant nothing.”
“Michael, you don’t know why he chose Perdicium. Maybe there was a good reason for him.”
“A good reason? Sarah, what are you saying? How could you even think that? They have murdered hundreds of thousands of people. What possible reason other than brainwashing could there be?” Michael was becoming upset by the conversation, and he hated how Sarah always could see things from the other side’s point of view. He felt that this was dangerous, and it was a defining reason why their relationship was always strained and why they could no longer be anything more than friends. April had just approached the truck leaving her post and could feel the tension between Michael and Sarah.
“Perdicium has left for the night,” said April. “Everything okay?” Michael shot a look at Sarah that April knew all too well.
“Peachy!” said Michael as he stormed off to the bluff. Michael sat for a moment in solitude and tried to regain his composure. Sarah always had a way of getting under his skin. As he looked out over the valley, he let his mind go back to the day’s events. Damian could detect the movements of those around relics; it gave off an unseen power only he could sense. It was one of his many gifts. Today was the first time that Michael could track Damian without him being aware. It brought a particular sort of satisfaction to know that Damian left Green Valley empty-handed; after all, only Michael knew the new location of the Apple of Eden.
To Michael, it appeared that Damian’s actions made him look more desperate, and a desperate Damian was a dangerous man from his experience. Perdicium knew that too, which was why they used him and his power to cripple the world in a devastating first blow of the apocalyptic war over a year ago. Sure, there were survivors, but none could stand against them after the initial attack. But Michael knew that the next great battle would soon be upon them. The peace of the last three months was only to buy them time, time they were running out of and time they were hoping would lead them to find the lost relics. The whole world knew of the discovery of the first, the Apple, which ultimately led the world into war and the age of the Apocalypse. Damian assumed Michael was still sentimental enough to hide the Apple in their hometown of Green Valley.
“Clearly you forgot, old friend. You taught me never to forget the past, and I learned from the best,” Michael whispered to himself. A sense of pride and hope washed over Michael, dangerous feelings in the best of times in this war. The Veil was shattered, but its power lingered just enough for Michael to use. Damian wasn’t the only one with exceptional gifts, and Michael was learning to use his a little more each day. He remembered Damian’s lesson on the Veil of Humanity. The Veil had a simple yet essential purpose: shield the world from the realms, protect the world from those with extraordinary powers, and protect the realms from the world’s wrath.