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American Atheist: #5

by  Nelly

Posted: Sunday, March 6, 2005
Word Count: 5793

By late afternoon, Unita had left the Nonchurch behind. Stood beneath the shelter of the woods, she watched through a curtain of rain, as the sun set in the west and the sky became a bloodless purple spread, dipping into a colourless night.

The clouds remained laboured and black. Thunder rumbled overhead and a low wind moaned through the sodden trees. The rain fell as tiny needles of ice, soaking through Unita’s skin, leaving her frozen to the bone and shivering in the cold. It was darker than before, what light there was seemed trapped by shadow, refined to just simple bursts, scattered throughout the trees.

Unita followed her earlier route, first along the embankment, up to the place where Bobby had crouched, thinking he was unseen, then retracing her steps along the small trail. Slipping from tree to tree, head dipped to the rain, Unita made her way up a steep embankment, until the trail split into four different directions. Bobby had definitely been here; the problem was in which direction?

Two of the paths turned east, running alongside the Old Mill, on the edge of the village. Unita discounted both; believing Bobby would not intentionally have gone back towards the Nonchurch. The other two led to the quarry and the swamps. Bobby hadn’t wanted to be seen. If he went to the quarry it would have left him in the open, with a chance the workers might find him when they returned. This left the swamp, a couple of miles of trackless rotting vegetation. Nobody ever went there, it was a desolate place.

Custom made for Bobby’s mood.

The more she thought about it, the more it seemed obvious that was exactly where he would be. Unita took the swamp path hoping she was right.


The stagnant stench of the swamp was pervasive and overpowering. All mould and decay. Involuntary she brought a hand to stifle the smell, but it didn’t work. The rank odour slid past flesh, like maggots through dead skin.

From its outskirts, she looked out over water the colour and texture of treacle. She searched the gloom for any sign of Bobby, but there was none.

Traversing the edge she soon found mounds of spongy earth, allowing a trail to work back through the perished thickets. This Unita took, moving aside olive coloured slime and the cracked branches of blighted trees to find her way.

Every time a sound emerged from the oppressive landscape she stopped. Listening, feeling like an animal might if it were being hunted. The sounds of the swamp were strange, with low-throated croaks from the grassy banks, a sudden suggestion of movement in the waters, the murmur of the wind. A single shriek from an unknown bird made her start, she struggled with her fear, wanting to run back, but only the memory of the Nonfather made her stay.

The fens pressed in and the waters of the bog rose, until with each step brackish liquid rushed to fill the impression left. Broken branches snagged at her dress like hands trying to slow her passage. She began to doubt Bobby would have come here at all. The smell became worse. Its odour she could taste upon the back of her mouth, it filled her nostrils, hinting of dead things, of a place where life’s grip had slipped, and the forces of entropy held sway.

When she came upon a black feathered bird sinking slowly into the scum-covered waters, Unita decided this was enough. She turned and a soft flash of light caught her attention, it shone through the trees like a beacon, flickering as if caught in a wind.

A campfire?

Feeling her hope rekindle, Unita carried on. She held her sleeve to her mouth, and tried not to retch. She slipped, and felt the cold waters slide into her boots, things filling between her toes, squirming and alive. She wanted to cry, but stubbornly refused. Pushing on instead, and felt rewarded by the touch of firmer ground.

The campfire crackled in a pit, near to the edge of the trees, and Unita cautiously approached .


The fire had been stacked high, over it a dirty pan bubbled over with froth, and she caught the scent of boiling meat. The campsite seemed well used, the ground trodden into sticky mud, with a pile of greenish wood nearby. Thick marsh reeds had been lashed together, placed upon two stunted logs to form a covering of sorts. Metal objects about the size of her fist, were placed near the entrance.

Unita walked over and bent down low to examine the pieces, they resembled cogs and pipes, like one might expect to find in an engine block. Further inside she could make out a bed also made from reeds, and a small black book. Unita ducked low and crawled inside. The book was made of leather and looked old, she ran her hands across its cracked spine and read the cover.


Unita had never heard of it. She turned the first page and read an inscription on the inside cover.

‘audiens sapiens sapientior erit et intellegens gubernacula possidebit’

It might have been Latin. School only touched upon the dead language, referenced with the occasional comment, but nothing more. She was none the wiser to what it might mean.

A noise like the shifting of metal upon metal caused Unita to drop the strange book and scramble out of the opening backwards. The sound stopped, replaced by the starting crack of an engine, which beat twice and failed. It came from the west, where the ground rose and the swamps thinned.

Unita thought she caught the sound of Bobby’s voice yelling on the wind. As she walked, the trees gave way and the cold rain fell unhindered. She pushed aside sickly limbs of half-dead bushes and stopped, scarcely believing her eyes.

A Vatican Nightime Flyer stood perched upon the hill, like some monstrous bird of prey. It faced south, down towards a clearing of no more than a hundred yards, before the swamp reclaimed the land.

Bobby stood nearby, intently watching the plane; its powerful engines shuddered, but didn’t catch. “Try again,” he shouted. Unita followed his gaze and felt the colour drain from her face.

A Cardinal sat hunched over the controls. Its purple robes trailing from the cockpit, tattered and stained with the mud of the swamps, its long withered black hands were clenched tightly upon the wheel, but its face remained hidden. With each false start of the engine, the Cardinal forced the wheel over and gradually the plane rolled to the edge of the hill.

A jagged bolt of lightning thrust down into the swamps. Its blast illuminating the land in a sterile white glow. Bobby stopped and looked up. “Unita?” he said in amazement.

The Cardinal snapped its head around, and Unita looked upon a blank face, with wide silver eyes, and a long trunk like nose.

She screamed.

The Cardinal rose out of the plane as if it could fly. Its hands opened, so Unita could plainly see metal claws, clicking together and glistening silver in the rain.

She ran back towards the campsite, stumbling on hidden roots, gaining the foot of the hill and turning towards the swamps.

The Cardinal stood before her, shimmering as if caught in a heat haze, appearing so suddenly that Unita doubted her own senses.

Without pausing to think Unita veered off towards the camp. She raced past the fire, making it to the trees beyond.

The Cardinal stepped out from within.

Gasping in shock, Unita fell backwards. She landed in the mud and with a low hiss the Cardinal swept forwards, purple robes unfolding behind it like wings. Unita attempted to scream, but its thick leather hands clamped tight over her mouth. Its hideous face pressed in close, rasping with each breath and she abruptly knew no more.


Unita woke to a pounding of her head, reminding her of the time she had stolen three glasses of her mother’s Sherry and had been sick, but this felt worse. Her stomach cramped and she felt nauseous. Slowly the vague memories of the swamp began to return: The dead bird, the campsite, Bobby’s shocked face and the blank face of the…

Unita’s eyes snapped open.

The Cardinal sat hunched over the boiling pot, slowly stirring the broth. Its claws were gone, perhaps sank back into its hands. Its odd breathing, like an exhausted man, carried across the campsite.

Attempting to stand, Unita discovered she was tied to the base of a tree, with thick plastic wire. She struggled to break free, but with each move the cable became tighter. Eventually she had to stop, pain lancing up her arms. She tried her feet, but with the same results. The cable shrank, wrapping itself tighter around her legs, until it bit into her calves and she groaned out loud.

The Cardinal turned to face her. Unita stopped her struggling instantly, watching petrified as the creature approached, holding onto a soupspoon.

“Please don’t eat me,” Unita cried out.

The Cardinal stopped in its tracks, looked down at the soupspoon and back to Unita.

“Please,” she begged, “I’ll be good.”

The Cardinal knelt down, so its face was inches from her own. Unita tried to shy away but couldn’t move any further. This close to its silver eyes, they looked like large full moons, devoid of expression and utterly inhuman. With the spoon, it rapped her hard on the head and in a muffled voice, heavy with a curious accent it said, “Don’t blaspheme.”

Unita just stared. “What? I don’t…” Her words trailed off, as it stood up and stalked back over to the fire. A surge of relief followed, as the creature set about pouring the soup into three bowls.

Her mind turned to escape. If she couldn’t slide out of the cables, perhaps she could cut her way out. Unita looked desperately for any rocks, but there was none, she searched for anything sharp, but the only thing around her was mud. There was nothing that could help her in any way. She felt trapped.

Eventually her mother would become worried, but she wouldn’t come to the swamps. It would be the last place she would look. In fact, Unita doubted her mother knew the swamps existed at all.

Nonfather Fletcher would start to search, for both her and Bobby. He would know about the swamps. She felt certain he would find her here, but how long before he came. It might be hours, maybe the next morning. She looked to the sky and through the thick closeted branches saw just darkness, either from the storm or from the night. There was no way for her to know how much time had passed.

Panic set in and Unita started to thrash, desperate to remove the bonds that dug down deeper with every move. Still she struggled, the pain becoming intense and sharp, the bonds cutting into her skin, blood running from the wounds. The Cardinal watched her dispassionately as she writhed. Exhausted, Unita was forced to stop, the pain was too strong, her head swam with different colours and Unita started to lose consciousness, lost in a blur of spinning lights, she passed out.


When she awoke Bobby knelt by her side, in his hands he held onto a bowl of soup.

“Try and eat this, it will make you feel better.”

The cuts in Unita’s arms and legs were still sore, but the cords had been slackened back to their original place.

“Don’t try to struggle, otherwise it’ll happen again,” Bobby said in an apologetic manner.

“Help me,” Unita whispered.

“I cant. But don’t worry, nothing bad is going to happen, the Cardinal will let you go, when it’s time to leave. Now eat this and get your strength up.”

He pushed the bowl towards her, but Unita turned her head to one side.

“Suit yourself,” Bobby said, placing the bowl on the ground. “If you change your mind, it’s just here for you.”

He stood up and walked over to where the Cardinal sat. In its hands it held a bowl of soup, its trunk like nose wavered over the contents, slowly it lowered the proboscis into the liquid and with a terrible sucking sound, the soup was drained.

Unita kicked her own bowl over, watching satisfied as the soup leaked away into the earth. Bobby drank from his own bowl and started to talk in a whisper to the Cardinal. She couldn’t hear what was being said, but it would shake its head, or nod, as if being asked questions.

When Bobby was finished, he walked over to Unita and sat back down.

“Look, we think there are some things you ought to know.”

Unita cut him off, trying to keep her voice level she said. “You have to let me go, it’s going to kill us.”

Bobby shook his head. “The Cardinal would never do that, it’s against the word of God.”

“You’re not listening, whatever it’s told you is a lie, whatever the two of you are doing, it’s just using you. When that usefulness is over it will kill you.”

“That’s not true.”

“Please Bobby it is. You have to let me go.”

“I cant.”

“Then get help, find the Nonfather, bring him and the men of the village back here.”

“I’m not going to Unita, they wouldn’t understand, just like you don’t understand.”

“Please,” she begged, “let me go.” Tears of frustration welled within her eyes, but Bobby just shook his head.

“I have to explain something. Then you’ll see you’re not in any trouble and everything is going to be all right.”

Unita said nothing.

“Last night when the Vatican bombed New York, the Cardinal was shot down. That’s what the commotion was all about in the next village, that’s what the Nonfather went to investigate. It seemed the Janson twins were taking shots on the roof of their ma’s house and got lucky. They managed to put a couple of nine millimetres through the engine of the Cardinal’s plane and he took a dive into the swamps. God was on his side though, he managed to steer it into the hill and got out with little injury.”

As if to empathise the point, the Cardinal rubbed its arms.

“This morning, real early, I couldn’t sleep. What happened between the two of us was still strong in my mind. I felt ashamed when I think about what I tried to do and how I acted. It was wrong and I want you to know that. Maybe one day you’ll be able to forgive me?” He asked hopefully.

Bobby searched her face for any sign of forgiveness, but Unita felt only contempt for the boy, she couldn’t forgive Bobby now, it was far too late for that.

Finding nothing, Bobby sighed and continued. “I came here to the swamps, I wasn’t sure at the time why, my feet just took me here. Now I understand. Something else was guiding my footsteps.”

He leant in closer and whispered. “Something divine.”

“Of course the Cardinal found me.” He smiled and his gaze shifted into the rain. “I would have blundered onto the plane, but he came upon me near to the campsite. I was easily caught and that’s when it happened.” His eyes snapped back to find Unita’s. “That’s when I found God.”

“God doesn’t exist Bobby.” Unita said slowly, in the hope he may begin to understand. “It’s a made up concept, to keep people like that,” she nodded towards the Cardinal, “in check and working for the Vatican.”

“No you’re wrong,” Bobby said, “God does exist. I know he does, because I’ve met him.”

The absurdity of Bobby’s comment made Unita give a short derisive laugh.

“Listen to yourself,” Unita tried a different approach. “It’s infected you somehow with its lies, maybe in the soup, perhaps some kind of mind control, but you’re not talking any sense.”

“I’m afraid it’s you who has been lied to all these years Unita. You, me, in fact all of us, even the Nonfathers. I have met God and it happened right over there.”

Bobby pointed down to just past the campfire, towards a rough piece of ground slightly uplifted from the swampland. Thin blades of grass and a small sapling, no more than a foot, pushed its way tentatively through the sodden earth.

A small piece of life, in the realm of death.

“When the Cardinal caught me, held me in its great clawed hands, I thought I was done for. That it would be the end. No more Bobby Fletcher, so I cried out. I shouted the only thing I had left in my heart. Do you know what that was?"

He didn’t wait for a reply.

“I shouted God help me. And he did. I felt a brief pain like an insect sting and the clouds parted, like we would open curtains in the morning to let in the light. I saw him standing over us both, crying tears of happiness that we had met, as was intended, as was his will. He was a giant, far taller than any man, and his face was ancient, but yet young, somehow he was both at the same time.” He stopped, his gaze drifting over the swamp.

“I was drawn to his eyes, I don’t think I could have looked away even if I wanted to.” Bobby looked back to Unita and a single tear ran down his freckled face. “In his eyes I saw creation, intelligence far greater than my own, bigger than me, but yet at the same time I was part of it. Where each tear fell, life grew, in the muck, in the filth. Before it was just black old mud, like the rest of this horrible place, but with the joy of God, life sprang from death and the tree began to grow. It was a miracle, it was a sign, he had a plan for us both.”

“Your insane!” Unita shouted, frustration reddening her face. “It was an hallucination, you’re not in the most stable of ways right now.”

“The tree wasn’t there, then it burst from the earth, growing to its height in seconds. I didn’t imagine that, and I didn’t make it up. It really happened. I saw it and the Cardinal saw it too. How could both of us be wrong?”

“Who knows what goes through that creatures mind?” Unita snapped. “It may not even have a mind like we know it. It’s not human, just look at it. Created no doubt in the black pits of the Vatican.”

“Now who’s talking like they’re mad.” Bobby actually laughed. “You’re so stepped in deceit, you can’t even see past the simplistic of illusions.” The old familiar sneer curled the edge of his lips. “I wanted you to understand this. I hoped you would agree, so you might even come with me, but I can see I was wrong. At least you will act as a witness and be able to tell the others.”

“Tell the others what? Where are you going?” Unita asked suddenly suspicious.

“I’m going back with him. I’m going to Rome.”


Bobby didn’t try to speak to Unita again. Unita decided like her, he probably didn’t see the point, he was under the sway of the Cardinal, its unwitting slave and there could be no getting through to him. She wondered why the Cardinal had not tried to do the same with her, but guessed her faith in Atheism was too strong to be shaken. Nonfather Fletcher had said Bobby was having doubts about life, his uncertainty must have made easy pickings for the Cardinal.

The storm grew steadily worse, blasts of lightning exploded across the heavens and the wind increased, threatening to rip out the trees of their well-protected den.

Rainwater from the hill began to slide down into the encampment, pooling around Unita’s feet and rising to her knees. A virtual mudslide threatening to overwhelm, if not for the Cardinal stepping over and dragging her clear.

“We can’t stay here.” Bobby shouted over the wind. “The swamp waters will rise into the campsite in the next hour, we need to find shelter.”

The Cardinal nodded, “The plane will house us all for now.” With one arm it grasped hold of Unita’s bonds, hoisting her effortlessly over its shoulder, and started to climb the hill, clawing its way to the top.

Unita had never known the wind to be so fierce; it ripped at her cloths, slapped at her face and drew the breath from her lungs.

Bobby was shouting, but his words were swept away. The Cardinal turned and Bobby pointed down towards the swamps. Unita looked in the same direction and saw at least a couple of dozen lights flickering wildly through the trees, all converging on the hill.

The villagers must have found them!

The Cardinal let out a shrill cry and scuttled towards the plane like an insect, forcing open the cockpit door and dragging Unita inside. It thrust her hard against the wall, “Stay here.” It said and let go. Unita fell into a corner and lay still, her breath coming in ragged gulps. Apparently satisfied, the Cardinal disappeared from view.

Her body ached and sharp pain tore across her back from where she had hit the wall. She needed to move, get up and try to escape, but Unita was on the point of collapse.

This would be the only chance she had, her mind screamed. At any moment it would come back and that would be the end, she needed to act now, if she didn’t, she would die. Forcing her head up, Unita glanced around the plane, searching for something -anything- to help her escape. In the shadows near to where she lay, a small bag rested against the wall.

Bobby’s rucksack!

She shuffled over and felt around the top. The first thing she found was long and heavy, a hammer perhaps; she dropped it one side and reached deeper. Her hands touched something thin and sharp. Trying to keep her nerves calm, she took it out and felt along its side. It was a blade, possibly a saw. With deliberate care, careful not to drop the blade with her wet hands, she managed to turn it over and awkwardly began to saw at the cords. They started to loosen, the plastic cord splitting.

Come on, come on.

The Cardinal reappeared and Unita froze. It looked towards her, its alien face betraying nothing of any emotion and extended its leather hands. Ever so slowly, two silver claws slid out from the tips of its long fingers. Closer than before, Unita could see that both were hooked with odd indents running along their inside, more like strange shaped keys than weapons. The Cardinal bent low to fit through the doorway and stepped inside.

Unita held tightly onto the blade. It wouldn’t do much to the Cardinal, but it was the only weapon she had in her possession. She tensed and tried to get her feet back under her, let it try to harm her now; it would have scars to show for it.

As the creature advanced, something heavy struck the side of the plane. It stopped and hissed as several small holes, in the rough shape of a circle, punched through the metal.

The villagers were shooting at them!

Unita dropped over sideways, lying flat to the floor, trying to present a small a target as possible for the gunmen. The Cardinal hovered indecisively, before rushing into the cockpit, ignoring her for now.

Unita worked frantically at the bonds, as more shots were fired, each one drilling a small hole into the plane.

Suddenly the engine kicked in but shuddered once then failed to catch.

The cord split all the way and Unita went to work quickly on those around her legs. From her better position, she could now cut through the plastic in a much shorter time.

The engine was tried again and Unita worked harder. It shook, almost catching, but Unita was nearly done.

The engine started with a savage roar that sent powerful vibrations down through the length of the Vatican Nightime Flyer. Lights flashed on overhead, illuminating the insides of the plane. Suddenly Unita could see a clear path out. It was now or never.

Unita made her bid for freedom; she broke for the open doors. The Cardinal shrieked and made a lunge for her, its claws raking down the back of her dress, drawing blood, but it missed and Unita jumped free, leaping out into the gloom.

She landed onto the ground in a roll, but came up into a sprint, running for all she was worth, down the hill and towards the lights. Her route took her past Bobby, who looked stunned, then made to grab her. His fingers trailed across her neck, but she twisted and ran on. Bobby gave chase, bigger and stronger than she was, he piled into her back and the two went down in a tumble. Bobby came out on top, pinning her arms beneath his.

“You’re not going anywhere. We’re going to need you now. A hostage to stop them from shooting us out of the sky.”

Unita spat in his face.

“Besides,” he whispered. “I want to make a believer out of you.”

Bobby’s head was wrenched back. Nonfather Fletcher stood over him, a handful of red hair in his fist. “She’s already a believer.” He shouted and punched Bobby, hard in the face.

His nose shattered and Bobby was thrown back from Unita, landing on the ground, clutching at his face. “Dad no!” He cried, his eyes ablaze with hate.

Nonfather Fletcher helped Unita to stand and looked at his son. “You’ve done some terrible things. I may have had a hand in this but no more.” He shielded her with his body and his voice dropped low. “You will account for your crimes against this poor girl.”

“It’s all lies! “ Bobby screamed. “You are deceived, the Nonchurch isn’t real, it just keeps us in check, it doesn’t set us free, it controls us. The Cardinal told me.”

The Nonfather looked at Bobby not with rage but a look rather of infinite sadness. “You think the church will offer you something different?”

Bobby didn’t answer; the rain beat upon his face smearing blood across his mouth so it dripped from his chin. Father and son watched each other and Unita sensed the widening gulf between them, of which there was no return.

“I’m sorry I’ve failed you.” Nonfather Fletcher said, walking towards the boy.

Bobby’s look of anguish changed into a vicious smile. “I’m not,” he spat.

Nonfather Fletcher stopped, surprised by the sudden change of expression. Emerging from the darkness, seemingly out of nowhere, the Cardinal appeared racing towards the Nonfather. Tall and shadowed, it darted forwards from the plane. Across the muddied hill the creature raced, a twisted, hunched over figure, impossibly fast. It sprang from the earth, a purple blur, and tore at the Nonfather. It missed. Nonfather Fletcher had side-stepped and the Cardinal flew by, landing heavily into the ground near to Bobby. In an instant it launched itself to the attack again, faster than Unita could follow, it was upon the Nonfather in a heartbeat. The Nonfather dropped low as the two collided and then kicked back, thrusting with his arms, sending the Cardinal up into the air backwards, where it crashed heavily into the ground.

The Cardinal came back to its feet more slowly this time and eyed the Nonfather warily. The two faced each other, gauging what each might do. A terrible moment of silence before the Cardinal ran forward a few feet and stopped. Nonfather Fletcher tensed for the attack that didn’t come and the Cardinal ran sideways like a crab, coming out to the Nonfather’s right. As Nonfather Fletcher twisted around in the mud to better view the monster, it attacked. Dodging low under the Nonfather’s arms, the Cardinal slashed upward with its claws and scarlet blood spilt out into the night. Despite his injury, Nonfather Fletcher grasped hold of its arms and the two struggled back and forth across the hill, each trying to gain an advantage over the other. The mud was treacherous beneath their feet and the Cardinal slipped, dragging the Nonfather down with him. The Cardinal’s robes made it difficult for Unita to see what was happening, just a jumbled mass of purple as the two fought. Then the Cardinal roared out and jumped back, near to Bobby, one of its strange eyes cracked as if made from glass.

The Nonfather scrambled to his feet, a look of fierce determination set upon his hard features. In his hands appeared a gun. A long thin barrel aimed directly at the Cardinals heart. “You’ve forced me to use this. I would have you surrender before you die,” he snarled. Blood ran from a loose flap of skin across his forehead and Unita could plainly see his legs shaking from exhaustion. She didn’t think he would last much longer.

The Cardinal paused as if in consideration and extended its arms out wide, calling a challenge.

“Filthy beast, have it your way.” Nonfather Fletcher said in disgust.

“No, Dad wait,” Bobby screamed.

Nonfather Fletcher pulled the trigger, but Bobby leapt before the Cardinal. The tip of the barrel flared a vivid orange and Bobby’s head snapped back, a single dot of red blossoming between his eyes. He fell backwards onto the Cardinal sliding to the floor; his eyes blank and his mouth wide open .


The Cardinal jumped forward, as Nonfather Fletcher stood staring down at the body and grabbed him by the arms. To late, the Nonfather tried to struggle free, but he was firmly caught. Effortlessly, the Cardinal lifted the Nonfather clear off the ground and up over his head. The Nonfather cried out, and fired another shot.

The bullet sliced through the Cardinal’s leg, it howled in pain, but still kept its hold on the Nonfather. With sudden brutality, it threw him to the ground; Unita heard the sickening crack of bone as the Nonfather landed. His body arced and he lay at a strange angle, blood leaking from the side of his head.

The Cardinal leant over intent to finish his murderous job, but a third gunshot caused it to stagger back, clutching at its shoulder. The villagers were now advancing up the hill. Unita caught sight of her mother amongst the men.

“Run Unita,” she shouted, “run!”

Unita tried to, but an arm shot out of the darkness, encircling her waist. A hand closed across her mouth and she was forced back into the shadows.

She struggled to free herself, hitting at the Cardinal, biting, clawing and kicking, whatever it would take to get free, but nothing worked.

The Cardinal started to back towards the plane, favouring one side, limping from its injuries. The men advanced, a couple of the braver ones ran towards Bobby and the Nonfather. She lost sight of them as they rounded the side of the plane and the Cardinal dragged her inside. He took her to the cockpit forcing her into the seat next to his. Its strange, elephant like face lowered towards her own, one eye splintered and bloody. “You may yet live through this, be quiet and we shall all get to see another day,” it whispered.

Unita didn’t respond.

“Good girl.”

It lifted one hand up, showing her the silver claws now caked in blood. Unita tensed, fearing the worse, but the Cardinal thrust the claws into two holes, built into the front of the cockpit. They slotted in with a click and he half turned his hand. A bewildering display of screens, dials and switches lit up the front. A small black lever slid smoothly out from the floor and started to flash red. A gunshot rocked the plane, followed instantly by a second. The Cardinal grasped hold of the lever, slowly lowered it down; the plane gave a lurch and started to roll forwards.

Unita could hear muffled shouts and men were running alongside. A couple of the younger ones were grabbing the wings, attempting to climb aboard. The Cardinal let out a faint snicker, and pushed down on two glowing triggers. A flash of brilliant white from both wingtips and the men were gone, sucked back into the night as if they had never been.

The plane dipped, started to roll down the hill, picking up speed as it went. Unita caught sight of her mother, running through the dark, before the plane burst forward, thrusting her back into the seat.

The plane bounced and slid, working for traction in the mud. The Cardinal pulled back, muttering feverishly to itself and the nose of the plane began to rise.

The trees formed a solid barrier; steadily growing larger, and the wheels of the plane left the ground with a jolt. The trees rushed closer, Unita doubted they would make it, she lifted her hands to her face, waiting for the inevitable to happen.

With a sharp crack, the plane cleared the tops of the trees.

She glanced back down and saw parts of the plane snagged in the branches, a brief glimpse of what looked like wheels, before the swamp passed by beneath.

The storm clouds buffeted the plane; it shook in the fierce winds, cast back and forth as a child might play with a toy. The Cardinal forced the plane to rise higher, pushing through into its dark heart. A single bolt of lightning struck one of the wings, its engines flared and died. They veered sharply to the right, until the Cardinal flicked three switches and the flames flickered twice before going out.

The plane continued to climb, breaking free of the storm in one final surge of speed. The silver edge of the moon cut a line in the night and the stars had never seemed so bright to Unita as they did then. She peered through the glass, but saw nothing save her own shadowed reflection. Unita realised she would never see home again, her future had never looked so bleak.

She turned to look at the monster, in turn it looked at her. What would it do now, kill her? Perhaps it might even eat her, boil her bones, sucking the marrow from them, as it did the soup.

What the Cardinal did next was utterly unexpected. It grasped hold of its rubbery neck and removed its face.