After The Flash

by Kyle Hildebrandt

 

“In the beginning…” The High Red Witch intoned words from high atop the central sarsen of the Henge. Her silken robes fluttered. “God said, ‘Let there by light,’ and there was the Flash. Seeing that it was good, She separated the light from the darkness.” Her words echoed off of the stones and out over the hundreds of gathered souls from the disparate clans. Twilight began as the setting sun dipped into the Solstice Notch, signaling the start of the wedding ceremony. From her vantage point, the witch eyed the sinuous line of packed, grey earth that divided the brides, who donned multi-colored silken robes, from the groom-choices, who were shrouded in their black-burlap cloaks. She continued the Reading, telling of how God had created the heavens and the earth, the fish of the sea, and the animals to rule the land… how She had created woman to rule over all, and man as her companion—to faithfully serve woman. As the witch finished, for a moment, in the distance, she thought that she had seen a woman with an unruly mane of red hair furrow her brow at the witch’s final words. Shrugging the thought of the amber-haired woman aside, she began the call and response portion of the ceremony.

As Lilith mouthed the familiar refrains, she wondered if the red witch had noticed her moment of bare doubt. Did the witch’s powers include the ability to read someone’s innermost thoughts? She shivered, as her mother’s voice whispered deep inside:

The Flash wasn’t the beginning. It was an end. A death. A death to a terrible, but glorious age. When giant swords stabbed the sky, when men flew in birds made of silver and gold. Yes. Once upon a time, men ruled over the Earth, not women. And when the Flash came, it ended it all—wiping out nearly everything they had created… leaving all men fallow and barren—completely sterile. After the Flash, men were helpless… useless… unable to contribute to reproducing life. After the Flash, witches have had their way with the world.

Grimacing, she managed to squelch her mother’s burning, heretical words… still; she didn’t dare to smother her cherished memories. Her hair had been amber-hued, not unlike Lilith’s. The way it would have danced and sparkled and lit up her smiling face in this dying light. She had smelled like nothing else Lilith had ever smelled. She had said it was the smell of the Broken Mountain, where her distant clan had come from. How she missed her. Lilith begrudgingly returned her attention back to her dutiful responses. She couldn’t take the chance that the witch might spot her being anything less than devoutly concentrated on the holy words the crowd chanted back to her prompts.

“So God created womankind in her own image…”

“In the image of God she created her.”

“Man to serve; Woman to create…”

“Joined together now in this blissful state.”

The muscles in Lilith’s neck cinched. Blissful state. Lilith swallowed. Her mouth was dry. Within minutes, she would have to decide which of the three groom-choices the witches had nominated for her would be her husband.

As her eyes scanned the three banners of each of her groom-choices, she tried to comfort herself. After all, she was a woman. She could marry all three if she wanted to. Or none at all, if that was her preference. Remembering how well her mother and father had loved one another before their lives were cut down so abruptly, Lilith felt the pang of bittersweet emotion, then, tucking it aside, set her mind to the task at hand.

After focusing on the horse’s head banner of the Eros Clan, Lilith’s intent gaze dropped to the man holding the standard. She eyed him carefully. It was difficult to tell one man from another because all wore the dester—the burlap, black-hooded robe that covered all of a man’s body and face except for his mouth and chin. Since it was so difficult to tell one from another, each groom-choice carried a banner that flew his clan emblem, making it easier for the brides to identify their possible husbands.

Even without the horse’s head banner, Lilith would have been able to recognize the angular, square jaw and broad shoulders of her first groom-choice, Paul. At the nomination ceremony, some had chattered about how good he was with horses—that he’d bring two dozen steeds with him as a dowry, that he was skilled at ploughing, planting, harvesting, breeding, and all of the other skills a man needed to be able to do to maintain a wife’s lands. Even among men, he was respected and liked. Lilith bit her lip. She imagined what it would be like to have the other women’s admiring eyes follow her as Paul walked the requisite ten steps behind her through the village market.

Next to the bucking standard of the Eros clan spun the swirling banners of the Spiral Sun Clan. Benjamin’s clan. She smiled. Years ago, when they were still considered to be children, she had met Benjamin at a solstice ceremony just like this one. They had had so much in common. Both grew up like wildflowers, only half cared for by distant relations. As orphans, they had been extended a combination of pity and dismissive inattention that had made it possible for a gangly girl with hair made of fire to play with a wide-eyed, imaginative, and introverted boy. Even the witches had looked the other way when they had come tearing through the crowds. The two of them had continued like this solstice after solstice. Then, one year, an old crone had caught Benjamin scavenging for firewood. When the crone spat at him, asking him what he was up to, little Benjamin, without blinking, replied, “My wife bade me to make her a fire against the cold, so I—” The crone had snatched his ear and brought him before a red witch before he could finish. And when the witches had finished with him, he couldn’t sit down for the rest of the days-long celebration. After that day, he had never looked at, spoken to, or touched Lilith since.

Still, she wondered how well his painted pots would be able to keep food on the table for a future family. Not that she would need his help to start a family, in the most literal sense. For that, they would need to take a pilgrimage to the City of Life, where she would pray the Prayer of Seven Days among the white witches. Afterward, God willing, she would be with child.

Beside Benjamin, Lilith’s eyes stumbled upon the slithering snake banner of the Clan of Vipers. Lilith blushed as she located John, her third groom-choice. He was a jokester and a trickster. A troublemaker, if you asked some. However, she could not deny that her heart beat faster when she considered how light and carefree her life would be with him—and how pleasurable, too, if the gossip was true.

She considered her groom-choices again, weighing each one carefully. The time was approaching. She wondered if she had the courage to go through with what she had planned. Her nails dug half-moon shapes into her palms.

The High Red Witch tossed her arms toward the stars, releasing the women to make their choices. All around her, brides were stepping forward, clasping the hands of groom-choices, and uttering the words “I thee wed.” The sentence sounded like a staccato drum beat from every angle. Some brides had two or three groom-choices gathered about, speaking the solemn words to each in turn. Lilith wobbled and stumbled forward. After righting herself for a moment, she tottered, and then she plunged and fell. A hand grasped her wrist, preventing her from falling flat out on her face. Hearing a collective gasp from the nearby women, Lilith looked up to see that the hand that held her wrist was Benjamin’s. Her face burned. Lilith hoped it was crimson enough. Men were forbidden to touch women, especially in public, and especially without permission—no matter what the circumstances.

Within a second, Lilith slipped out of Benjamin’s hold while simultaneously snatching his wrist in her hand. Gracefully standing to full height, she said, smiling, “Benjamin… I thee wed.” Relieved to feel the crowd of women around her let out a collective groan of sudden understanding while those closest to her offered half-embraces, Lilith let out a slow, almost imperceptible sigh. At last, she glanced at the visible lower half of Benjamin’s face. He was unable to hide the upward curls in the corner of his mouth.

Her gamble had worked. She imagined the happiness that would have been on her mother’s face… but she dared not look up at the central sarsen. She swore she could feel the eyes of the red witch boring into her back.

*****

The first few months of marriage passed pleasantly and happily for Lilith and Benjamin. His pots sold better than she had expected. He had proven to be a tenacious, if not naturally gifted, farmer. In the quiet hours of the evening, he proved to be much more open and loquacious than the shy, introspective boy she had first met all those solstice’s ago. At night, he was passionate and gentle, satisfying Lilith’s needs more often than not. In short, Benjamin exceeded her expectations in every way possible.

And… she almost laughed to herself at times… he chose me as much as I chose him.

Her mother would have been so proud.

Her life was happiness.

The shadow of the past was fading.

She was starting a new life.

The day of her cycle came and nothing happened.

She shrugged it off initially, trying desperately to avoid the thought, bending her mind to discussing the daily business at hand with the other women in the market. Still, the feeling that somehow, someway, life was growing inside of her haunted her every step. Another day passed. Nothing. And then another. Nothing again. It isn’t possible! She screamed to herself… but her body wasn’t lying.

As she wandered the streets of the village, her head was swimming with thoughts of what might be. Soon, she found that she was lost. When she looked up to get her bearings, there was the house. A shiver shot down her spine. Nothing was left but charred timbers. Weeds and wildflowers had taken over. A young sapling wound its way through the black cage of what had once been her home. She sank to her knees. There was the low stone wall where she had hidden. In an instant, she was there again. It was all happening again. She could see and hear it all, standing on tiptoes, her eyes peeking over the low wall. Tears splattered the dust. Screams echoed in her mind.

*****

That night, she needed Benjamin more than ever. She took him into her as if he were life itself. She hungered for a reminder that she was alive, that they were alive. Afterward, they lay together peacefully intertwined in one another’s arms. Staring into his eyes, she relished the opportunity to indulge in this intimate moment with her beloved husband. A moment that would have been absolutely forbidden in public. With a rush, the charred remains of the house sprang forward, burning away all other thoughts.

“Lilith… what troubles you?”

The charred home blew away into ashes. She saw Benjamin’s wide eyes in the firelight.

“Benjamin.” She raised herself up onto an elbow. “There’s something we’ve never talked about.”

“Something? There are quite a few things.”

He was right. She wondered where to start. Everything was interconnected and entangled. Huffing, she decided to start at the first point that came to mind. “We’ve never talked about how we knew each other when we were children.”

He didn’t respond.

“I don’t blame you for… for never speaking to me after what happened. But, I hope you don’t blame me for what happened either.”

“Of course I don’t. It wasn’t your fault.”

She hesitated. “You blame the witches.”

His lips were pursed tight, but she could see the flame behind the eyes. He said, “I went berry picking with my cousins one day.”

She listened.

“It was one of the best days of my life. We ditched our baskets and spent most of the day splashing in the creek. On the way home, I was worried my parents would scold me for how few berries were rolling around in my basket, but… it turns out I didn’t have to worry about that. They were gone. They’d disappeared. No one ever spoke of them again. Red witches had come to town that day. They left with the morning sun.”

A long pause stretched itself out as she gazed into the fire.

“My parents,” she croaked, “They… I only remember it in images. Pictures. In little snippets, like leaves in the wind. There are parts I remember. Parts that are so clear. I remember Mother had sent me to the well… on my way back, I heard the witches coming down the road. They had my father in this… this cage. All of the adults from the village were following them. At the house… my mother. I just remember her face. She never cried. She never begged for mercy. It was almost as if she knew I was watching her. As if she wanted my last memory of her to be her as a strong woman. The smell of the fire. The smoke stinging my eyes. I remember them holding hands as the flames licked upward. Then… the screaming.

“Later… when I asked questions… my relatives always shooed me away, but… I could piece it together, after a few years. My father, he wasn’t… sane. Everyone knew this, but… he got worse with each passing year. He had claimed to be a priest. I remember my uncle saying, ‘Next, he’ll claim he’s a unicorn!’ The laughter wasn’t joyful. It was filled with fear. Then, he started claiming that the Flash wasn’t the beginning, that it was an end. You see, my mother had told this to us for years, as parts of stories from the Broken Mountain Clan. Eventually, they lashed him. Time after time they lashed him, and time and again he would begin preaching again in the village square. After a while, something broke inside of him. At that point, I think he had truly lost his mind. Then, one beautiful spring day, he stood in the center of the village square and shouted with all his might that he was John Doe, Come Again. He shouted that I was his daughter by nature, not by the power of the Lady God or the white witches Prayer of Seven Days in the City of Life. In the end, the witches did what they do. I can still hear him screaming my name in my dreams. Telling me to be strong, to never forget… right up until the very end.”

She finished speaking and he held her until she was still again.

After a time, he asked her, “Why are you telling me this now? What has brought this memory back into your mind so sharply?”

She clasped his hand.

“What is it?”

“It’s been nearly two months since you have had to sleep away from me. Have you not noticed?”

He lowered his eyes, unsure of what to say. “I noticed, but… I didn’t know what to say or do. I assumed it wasn’t out of the ordinary for a little variation to occur.”

“It’s not normal. There’s a chance… a strong chance that I am…”

“With child?”

Lilith could not understand why the corners of Ben’s mouth were curling upward, just as they had on their wedding day.

“Aren’t you afraid?”

“Yes. Very. But… come what may… we will have a made a life together. It’s a miracle.”

She squeezed him tightly, then held him at arm’s length and said, “We have only one choice.”

He thought for a moment and said, “Go to the City of Life.”

“Yes. We must pretend that the white witches and their Prayer of Seven Days is what has blessed us with a child.”

“It’s our only hope.”

*****

Through the desert sands, Lilith hobbled up to the intercom posted near the gate of the City of Life. Her lips were cracked and stung when she spoke, “Lilith and Benjamin of the Broken Mountain Clan have arrived. We have come in the hopes that the white witches will join me in the Prayer of Seven Days and that Our Lady God will bless us with a child.”

A crackle of static.

“May Our Lady God bless your arrival,” came the nasal response. “Two witches will be out to assist you, greet you, and escort you into the City.”

Metallic clangs and the grinding of gears rumbled as the enormous inner workings of the gate unlocked. Once open, a gush of cool air caressed the weary travelers. Two witches strode out to greet them, one in flowing red, the other in unrevealing white. The white witch, whose black hair was cropped, extended a hand to Lilith, as she said, “My name is Alexandra, the High White Witch of the City of Life. I will be your companion, Lilith, as we pray together for God to bless you with a child. You must be tired after your long journey through the desert.”

Lilith nodded, and said meekly, “Thank the Lady God, for she has willed us to survive the passage.”

“And I am Iva, the Red High Witch of the City of Life,” said as she proffered her hand. “Welcome.”

Taking her hand, Lilith averted her eyes quickly, hoping that the red witch did not place her. She was the very same witch that had presided at the wedding ceremony. Despite the coolness inside the City’s high, thick walls, beads of persperation began to form on Lilith’s forehead.

She was thankful when a eunuch strode up, gruffly wiping sweat away with a burned hand. “Man!” He jabbed at Benjamin. “Come here. No men inside. Only women.” He stabbed at the row of straw huts hiding in the shade of the high white wall that ringed the City. “You stay here.”

While keeping his eyes on the sand at his feet, Benjamin gave a formal bow to Lilith. There was so much more he wanted to say, to show, to express, but with the witches present, he merely bowed and followed the eunuch toward his new lodgings.Returning Benjamin’s bow with the slightest of nods, Lilith turned to follow in the wake of the witches as they led her into the Inner Sanctum of the City of Life. Cut deep into the desert sand, the Inner Sanctum primarily consisted of an inverted tower that delved ever downward via a marble spiral staircase that plunged the three women into more and more comforting coolness as they circled around. It was a welcomed respite from the unforgiving desert sun.

At first, they descended in silence, but the silence didn’t last long. As the circle of blue sky above them grew smaller and smaller, white witches joined them one by one—each carrying a candle and chanting a solemn hymn. After several dozen had joined them, Lilith’s spirits rose. It was very comforting to be around so many calm, serene women. They stepped away from the staircase and went through a small archway. Inside the room, an oval of candles illuminated a white bed, propped up at an angle. The volume of the chanting rose as more and more joined in. With gentle hands, they positioned her on the bed, spread her legs, and removed her clothes. With practiced efficiency, they sponged away the sand, dirt, salt, and grime that had accumulated on her body during the long journey. Now, it all melted away like butter under the witches’ delicate touch. Lilith felt her eyes relax and close as the dozens of hands massaged her muscles with fragrant oils. She let out a giggle as she felt a squirt of a cool substance tickle her belly. Hands were gently rubbing it around.

The soft chanting continued, but now many of the white witches seemed to be speaking in a completely new kind of cadence, as if they were speaking in a new hymn, or code—or an entirely different language altogether.

As if from the other end of a long tunnel, she heard the High White Witch Alexandra say, “Initial sonogram imaging displaying a perfectly healthy uterus. Prepare insemination tubes.” The sound of an underwater heartbeat flooded the chamber. “We’ve… we’ve got a pre-positive!” Alexandra’s voice was shrill in disbelief. Lilith heard a collective gasp followed by a flurry of activity. Blinking, she opened her eyes. White pain stunned her, forcing her to wince her eyes shut. Blinking again, she made out the white witches, bathed in blinding white light; white masks were covering their faces. Strange glass covered each eye, making each one large and sharp and stabbing. They were all staring down at her, unblinking.

“We’ve got to get her in isolation. Sedated. Immediately.” It was Alexandra again, though Lilith couldn’t see her.

“Find the husband!” Desperate fear struck Lilith. The voice that had shouted for Benjamin belonged to Iva, the red witch. There was no mistaking it. As she felt her vision blur and become fuzzy, she moaned, “Noooooo…” As the penetrating eyes swirled around her, she slammed into oblivion.

*****

Benjamin awoke. His head ached as he tried to make sense of where he was. Groggily, he realized that he was lying flat near a low fire in a small room. Benjamin tensed his muscles as he tried to sit up, but he felt six taut straps cut into his skin as he struggled. He writhed and squirmed, but the bonds only seemed to tighten. After he had worked himself into a flushed sweat, he rested his head back on the small, low table that he found himself confined to. He felt throbbing pain where the six straps had burned and cut into his bare skin. Why am I naked? He fought off the panic that flooded his mind and he tried to think.

What’s the last thing I remember? Playing cards with the eunuch. Letting him win, just to keep him happy. So happy, in fact, that he had come back from the kitchen toting a steaming kettle of tea, tea he’d generously offered to me. Tea I drank sparingly, watching the eunuch smile at me for the first time. His grimy teeth making the hairs on my neck stand up. And then… Then, I woke up here.

Benjamin swallowed. He had a vague sense that there was something more. More than what had happened between the eunuch’s tea and the present moment. Something terribly wrong and unnatural had happened. He swallowed again, trying to erase the dreadful feeling.

He tried to tally the facts. The fact that he was here probably meant the worst. Somehow, the witches must have discovered that Lilith was already with child. But still, this wasn’t what he and Lilith had been afraid of. Capture? Confinement? Surely, they would have immediately prepared a public pyre. The licking flames nearby sent a ripple of sweat over him. In vain, he struggled against his bonds once again.

He heard the locks on the door clicking open one by one. He lay still. He heard the door groan open. The High Red Witch, Iva was standing over him. She seemed strange. Her robes were not flowing in the wind and her flowing hair was hanging down on either side of her face, as still as death.

“So…” she said, “You’re the great John Doe, Come Again.” She licked her lips. “Not nearly as impressive physically as we were expecting. Then again, expectations tend to get exaggerated after hundreds of years of waiting for a prophecy to be fulfilled.”

“Where’s Lilith? Where’s my wife?” he asked, closing his eyes, trying not to think of heat or flame or burning.

She bent to tussle his hair. “Ah, yes. I remember presiding over the wedding ceremony that made the two of you wife and husband. That wasn’t so long ago. You must be an especially fertile little priest!”

“I’m not a priest!” The words came without thinking. “I’m a simple potter who wants to be left alone!” Even as the words were spilling out, Benjamin couldn’t believe that he had spoken like that, not to the High Red Witch herself. He opened his eyes. He was puzzled to see that she wasn’t even looking at the fire.

A milky white leg slithered out of her robes. Her foot found purchase near his hip. He remembered that he was naked. Bending lower, she whispered in his ear, “The white witches have been helping themselves to you with their tubes and their viles. You’ve been in this room for nearly a week, did you know that?”

The shadowy memories of swirling white-robed women came rushing back to him. “I want to see my wife.” All of the moisture was gone from his mouth.

“Red witches are different,” Iva mused. “We don’t believe in tubes and viles. We take what we want, when we want it, directly. Just like I’m going to do with you, John Doe.”

“That’s not my name,” he rasped. “Where’s my wife? Where’s Lilith?”

“Her? Yes, you can think of her if it helps you.” She edged closer, her spiced breath hot in his face, her hair cascading onto his face.

As she began, he screamed. There was little else he could do.

*****

Lilith awoke in a room bathed in warm light that seemed to emanate from the stucco walls. She lay in a warm, comfortable bed. Iva and Alexandra sat on opposite ends of her. Her eyelids fluttered, adjusting to the light. “Where’s Benjamin?” she asked. She’d had horrible nightmares.

“Don’t worry, my dear,” said Iva, grasping her hand compassionately. “We’re all tending to him.” When she smiled, the skin around her eyes crinkled merrily.

“Where’s Benjamin?”

Lilith was amazed to see that Iva looked puzzled, if just for a moment. “Tell me something, Lilith, isn’t it? Yes. Of course it is. Tell me. If my memory serves me correctly, I served at your wedding ceremony to this… this Benjamin, am I correct? Yes. I remember you. I remember something odd about that ceremony. The two of you sort of stumbled together, didn’t you?” She gazed deeply into Lilith’s eyes, as if searching for some hidden answer. She stood. “Now, I’m going to leave the two of you alone for a while.”

After a nod at the door, she left.

“How long have you and your husband been married?” asked Alexandra, seeming to be just as puzzled as Lilith at Iva’s quick departure.

“Since the solstice.”

“Not even a year and you’re pregnant!” Alexandra looked up from scribbling her notes. “Really?”

Lilith ignored the question. “What’s going to happen to him?

Setting her notes aside, Alexandra came closer. “Well… for the time being, he’ll need to remain in our care.”

“When can I see him?”

“Do you think that’s really necessary? If there’s anything you need… food, comfort, mood enhancers, exercise, entertainment of any kind—we can provide it here.”

“And if I wanted to go back to my village?”

“Why would you want to do that? What place could be safer, more welcoming, than here, in the City of Life?”

Lilith turned away from the High White Witch.

“Lilith, I’m sure you can understand the position we are in. Your husband has been blessed by Our Lady with a great power—a power we must all work to ensure benefits all of womankind. In time, you may visit him. In time, the two of you may return to your village.”

“When?”

“When we say it’s safe.”

Lilith cringed. “You’re not having our baby.”

Alexandra pounced. “Our baby?! So, you admit it, then?”

Lilith flared.

“Don’t worry, my dear. In time, you will be proud of the place you’ve earned for yourself and your husband in the annals of the Reading.”

Lilith didn’t respond.

“For now, dear child…” she said as she stood, “May the Grace of Our Lady be with you always.”

Lilith heard her walk to the door, pause, and leave.

Once she was gone, Lilith sat up and examined the room carefully. It seemed to be the same one she had been in before she had lost consciousness. Cool white walls curved all around her. There were no windows. The one opening was an archway. It was unbarred, but there was a man cloaked in black with the ram’s head insignia emblazoned on the back of his cloak. He clasped a spear and a sword was lashed to his back. Lilith trembled. She was a prisoner in a pillowed palace.

*****

Benjamin cringed as he saw the High Red Witch crouch over him yet again. How long had he suffered in this god-forsaken room? It seemed like an eternity.

“Don’t worry, Mr. Doe. I’m not here to take another seed,” she teased. “I’ve just got one question for you.”

“I want to see my wife.” It had been his mantra, his only defense against the insanity invading his mind. The white witches were no longer bothering with anesthesia during their procedures.

Iva smiled, ignoring his plea. “The night of your wedding—when Lilith chose you. You caught her, didn’t you? You stopped her from falling. You touched an unmarried woman.”

Benjamin gulped. “Yes. Yes, I did.” All he had left was the truth, and he clung to it like a drowning man.

“And she flipped your grasp, to make it look as if she had intended it—intended to chose you as her husband?”

“Yes.”

“Hmmmm.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Benjamin saw Iva’s forehead wrinkle. She rose and stepped out of his sight. He felt her press a cold metal object into his hand, and then she was gone.

*****

Lilith sensed that it was night. She noticed a lessening of the ambient wall light. Yet, she also sensed something deeper, more primal. She felt the pull of the stars, the rolling of the earth. Now. It was her only chance.

From the corridor outside her room, she thought she could hear the soft whispering of her Ram guard and another feminine voice, but she couldn’t be sure. When the hushed conversation was over, he returned to his post. He stood stolidly, as he did every night. She called to him: “Guard! Could you come, quickly! There’s something wrong with my monitor. I’m worried!”

He padded in quickly, his mouth set in a straight line. After checking all of the equipment, he said, “There’s nothing wrong here. Everything seems to be in order, My Lady.”

“I know,” she said, touching his arm tenderly. She felt goose bumps perk up at her touch. “You’ll have to forgive me. I lied.” She made herself flush, made her eyes grow wet. “The truth is, I’m just lonely. So lonely. How long has it been? Days? Weeks?” She motioned for him to sit on the bed near her.

His expression didn’t change. Slowly, he set his spear against the wall, near enough to get to in less than a second. He sat. “It’s been two months,” he said, not looking at her.

“Thank you. Thank you for telling me that.” She caressed his arm. “It must be so tiresome to stand guard at my door day after day.”

“I do what the witches ask of me.”

“Just the witches, or any woman?” She asked as she pulled back his hood. He was young, and handsome enough. He was shaking slightly. For a moment, Lilith pitied him, but she quickly focused on hiding the fear and loathing and dread of doing what she knew she had to do. It was the only way. If this young guard noticed any of her own true feelings… her hope of freedom, of seeing Benjamin again, all would be lost.

“It is the duty of any man to obey a woman. But… you are married… and with child.”

She put a finger to his lips. “Shhhh. Don’t be silly. Do you think I’m really married anymore? You know his fate—what they’ll do to him. I’ve been stuck in this room for months, I need to live again.” Slowly, she unbuckled his sword belt and silently rested it on the floor. Pulling him close, she thought of Benjamin and did what she knew she had to do.

*****

After the Ram guard had been snoring for an hour, Lilith slipped out of her bed, gathered her few things, delicately picked up the spear and the sword, and tiptoed through the archway and made toward the spiral staircase. Her bare feet felt wonderful on the cool marble steps. She could smell the scent of the desert, calling from high above.

Hearing the patter of footsteps coming down the stairs, she froze. She ducked into a niche, hiding behind a massive statue of The Lady. From here, Lilith peered out from under the black dester that was far too big for her.

The footsteps continued downward. Another destered figure appeared, working its way down the spiral stair, step by step. Whoever it was had a spear. There was something familiar in the manner of the destered figure that she couldn’t quite place. Lilith’s spear slid and clattered on the floor. The stranger’s head snapped in her direction.

“Who—who goes there?” He half-shouted, half whispered. Lilith’s heart was hammering in her breast; her breath was caught in her throat. Hesitatingly, the figure drew nearer to her hiding spot, spear raised, ready to strike. As the figure entered the shadows, it became harder to distinguish from the surrounding blackness. Yet, Lilith managed to see that the hooded head seemed to be focused upward, at the Lady, not downward, where Lilith was hiding. The figure seemed to stand transfixed, in awe of the statue. Then, it ducked its spear under its arm and darted onward down the stair. As Lilith watched the figure go, she realized why he seemed familiar.

“Benjamin!” she called.

Benjamin froze.

“It’s me!” she whispered, worried about how loud her first call had been.

Benjamin turned, gazing wonderingly up at the statue.

“No! Not there!” she admonished. “Down here. It’s Lilith.”

In the darkness behind the statue of Our Lady God, they found each other.

“I thought I’d never see you again,” she exhaled with a relief that physically hurt.

“Me too.” He tried to wipe the tears from her eyes, but ended up awkwardly poking her in the face.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

She laughed. “It’s okay. It’s dark.”

A silence passed.

“How did you escape?” she asked.

“The High Red Witch… she… gave me a key.”

“Why would she…?”

“Lilith.” He touched her gently. “There’s something I have to tell you.”

“What?”

It was difficult to look at her. Her face was soft in the shadows.

“They took what they needed from me. In every way you can imagine.”

He broke down and she held him close.

“I… I tried to escape, but there was no way… I’m sorry.”

“There’s nothing to forgive. Not for you. But for me… there is. I had a choice.”

“A choice?”

“There was only one guard. A man. Sworn to protect me and do anything that I asked… There was only one way to get him out of the way and to get to you, and I chose to do it. I chose to be with him. To escape. To get to you.”

The pain registering on his face was nearly too much for Lilith.

“I understand,” he said. “It was the only way… These witches… It’s in the past… Only we can heal ourselves. Only we can do that.”

Despite his words, Lilith felt the gulf between them widen. They stared into one another’s eyes in the shadows, as if watching the world open up between them. Then, with a sigh, the abyss closed and the two waves crashed together again and became one ocean. The moment had passed. They were safe again. Together. Whole.

“Come on,” he said. “Let’s get out of here.”

They scrambled up the winding staircase. The disk of overhead stars grew with each step. They managed to reach the gate without encountering a single witch. Two camels were tethered near the men’s huts, munching on straw, unguarded. Moving less than an inch a second, Benjamin saddled the camels, helped Lilith up to her mount, scrambled up his, and together, they slid through the open gate.

Thankful for their incredible luck, they urged their camels onward in stifled whispers, voyaging out across the desert sands.

*****

“You’re sure their tracking tags were inserted properly?” asked Iva as she followed Lilith and Benjamin’s progress through the desert on nearby monitors.

“No doubt. I chipped them myself,” said Alexandra. “The devices are working properly now, as you can see here.” She gestured to the bank of monitors. She shook her head and pinched her nose. “Why you thought it would be wise to let them go is beyond me.”

“I have my reasons.”

“He was the John Doe, Come Again. It’s been over a hundred years. We only took a limited amount of samples from him. If we lose contact with him, we’ll have taken a major step backward in our repopulation efforts.”

“You seem confident in your tracking abilities,” Iva sniffed. “Besides, a free-ranging cow bears more milk.”

“A strained metaphor.” Alexandra looked away from the monitors. “I think you have other reasons you’re not telling me, Iva.”

“Of course I do.”

“Well?” she whirled.

Iva sighed. “As a white witch, you believe in progress… moving forward?”

“What else is there?”

“Well, in a word… power. In two words… my power. It’s what keeps our fledgling civilization in order. What good does it do us if we have restored humanity’s numbers, but not eliminated the chaos that came to be synonymous with the end of the last age, the age of men, before the Flash cleansed the world?”

“Cleansed?”

“Certainly. It tore down man from his seat on high. Clearly, we women have already done a superior job at the helm of humanity. Eventually, word would have spread about the true John Doe, Come Again. We would have had to prop these two up as some sort of figureheads. It would have undermined our power, and therefore destabilized our society.”

“You mean, destabilized your society.”

“Yes. Is that so dark, so evil? I keep the world enlightened, strong, and orderly.”

“Perhaps you’re right. If we had accepted them, even indoctrinated them wholly, our psychologists tell us that they never would have given up fighting us. Our sociologists and futurists believe that, in the end, they would have most likely created a splinter civilization, a group of rebels inspired by their martyrdom.”

“Yes. In the end, they would have eventually been successful at wrenching away a small, yet important part of the people, and therefore, our power.”

“But what if the rebels would be right in the end? Surely, the Readings are filled with similar examples.”

“Do you realize what drivel, what craven ideology such a horde would have adopted?” Iva scoffed. “They would believe in equality—the kind of nonsense those two demonstrated during their time here: a complete fantasy based on openness, honesty, forgiveness, mutual understanding… working together toward common goals…” She shook her head, too disgusted to finish her thought.

“And what, tell me, is problematic about that?”

“Alexandra, really.” The red witch bristled. “There can be no growth of power, and therefore none of your pretty progress, so long as the daydream of equality exists.”

Alexandra tapped at her controls distractedly. “So, what will you do with them now?” Alexandra wanted to get on with it. She had plenty of work to do. Unlike Iva, she believed in what she did—plainly and simply, without cynicism.

“I’ll turn them over to you, for now. You can toy with them as you might toy with one of your little experiments.” Her eyes flicked to the monitors, then back to Alexandra. “Don’t let them stray too far. We may need them again.”

“Yes, I will. But what about repopulation? Surely, we’ll need to continue our efforts if we’re serious about re-establishing civilization. We only collected enough samples to supplement our current stock for fifteen to twenty more years.”

“We will be ready,” she said as her eyes dropped and she caressed her stomach. “Still… keep an eye on them. I may need to pay another visit to Mr. Doe.” With that, the red witch left.

Sighing, Alexandra set to work on analyzing the unique gene sequence that had re-established a genetic line of fertility in Benjamin. She toyed with the strand on her screen, marveling at it. Out of the corner of her eye, she continued to monitor the progress of the two destered figures as they fled through the desert. To her dismay, Alexandra’s hopes pushed them onward, wishing them safe passage beneath the stars.