Jonas had found a very different home from the one he had left behind. The Burning Cliff mission now looked like an imposing fortress, with fires burning at all times on its reinforced walls, lookouts in every tower and several barricades set up in the path leading to its huge doors. The Tex’co symbol, the five-pointed star with an upside-down T inside, which was displayed in his chest allowed him to elude the guards at the entrance with little fuss, but even inside the walls he didn’t quite feel at home. Something had changed, and it was not only the western part of the settlement, which seemed to have been wiped out by an earthquake and now was under hasty reconstruction and reinforcement with concrete blocks and steel sheets. Eyes were hostile. Faces were stern. Conversations were scarce. There was a lot of now people, Jonas noticed, young, tough-looking faces with bald heads and scarified bodies covered in Tex’co images, tattoos of flames engulfing their bodies, even horrid metal implants under their skins. That was not the same mission he had left many moons ago to wander across the Wasteland looking for wisdom and enlightenment. Where was Jeremiah, their calm and benevolent leader? Where was his guiding hand?
After wandering for a while across the courtyard, under the shadow of the colossal round tanks with the symbols of Tex’co painted red on their walls, at last he recognized a familiar face among the.
– ¡Eh, Claudia! ¡Claudia! Do you remember me?
The woman lifted her eyes and took a while to recognize the one speaking to her, but finally her eyes widened a little and a faint smile showed on her face. She had changed a lot too, thought Jonas. Thinner, sinewy body… and more tired.
– Jonas. You are back.
– There is not much joy in your voice, my friend – said Jonas coming closer to hug her.
– Not much joy around here these days, Jonas. Everything changed.
– I noticed just as I arrived. This seems like a fortress, an army camp. And all those new recruits? They are scary!
– We have been attacked, Jonas. Haven’t you heard?
– Attacked? By the Flame, no! I have been in remote lands for too long.
– Venerable Jeremiah is dead. A bomba from the sky fell on our settlement, with no warning or provocation whatsoever. Our enemies have attacked us with treachery and great cowardice. The Black Blood demands payback.
– What are you saying? Listen to yourself! “The Black Blood demands payback”… Against whom? What are you going to do?
– Against everyone if need be. Its a question of survival. We were vulnerable and we learnt it the hard way, with the loss of our beloved master Jeremiah and many of our fellow mates. But Cunnilingus will not let that happen again, he will make us strong and we will defeat anyone who wants to eradicate us.
Claudia’s look had grown harsh while she spoke. She was no longer looking at Jonas, but at a remote point in the horizon. She seemed to be reciting a prayer, but not at all a pious, benevolent one, but more like a fanatical promise of violence. Jonas shivered. That was not right. That was not what Jeremiah would have wanted. That was not his faith.
– ¿Cunnilingus? – was the only thing he managed to say.
– Cunnilingus Igni, our new leader. Burning Cliff needed a strong chief who could respond the the new threat. We were lucky that he showed up when he did, to lead us in these dark hours and bring new blood to the Flame.
– Can I see him?
– Up in the temple. Under the Eternal Flame.
Jonas raised his eyes to where she was pointing, to see a new construction perched over the great tanks of the courtyard, overlooking the whole settlement. It was well protected with concrete and steel, although it had a viewing platform from which all activity at Burning Cliff could be monitored. On its roof there was a massive column with a kind of a bowl on top, all made of blackened steel. The bowl was burning with a fiery roar that could be heard even at that distance; the Eternal Flame, forever fed with the Black Blood from the Earth, which will burn to the end of times.
Saying good bye to his friend, Jonas started climbing up the steps which will lead him to this “temple” to see the new leader of his order. He had many questions to ask and a feeling eagerness took hold of him. When he arrived to the closed doors, two young guards stood in his way. Shaved heads, once more. Harsh voices. Forbidding faces. One of them had these gruesome skin burn scars from the waist up to the right side of his face. The maces hanging from their belts were a reminder of who was in charge. It took him some time and eloquence, but finally he managed to persuade them that the matters he had to discuss with Cunnilingus were important enough for an immediate audience. “Audience”. He snorted. Jeremiah never hid behind closed doors or had armed guards preventing his followers from speaking with him.
He entered the great hall hanging over the Tex’co sanctuary, lit to the farthest corner by huge censers which produced a black smoke which remained in the throat with an oily taste. In the center of the room, sat in a blackened iron seat with a back shaped in the form of a bonfire’s flames, there was a big man, wide of shoulders and with a thick black beard. He stared at him severely as he entered, but Jonas resisted the urge to look away and kept his eyes forward while he walked up to the black seat.
– So? I see in your marks that you are a follower of the faith, but I don’t know you.
– My name is Jonas, and I have been wandering the Wasteland for long. I just came back today.
– Have you learnt of what happened in your absence?
– Yes, Cunnilingus. I have been told of the sad death of Jeremiah.
– Sad indeed, but it will be rightfully avenged. You have come to join my army which will bring fire and death to the pagans, then.
– What?! No! That’s exactly what I wanted to talk about! That’s madness! Lashing out at everyone randomly, without really knowing who was responsible of the attack? Abandon our neutrality? Make ourselves a target for everyone else?
– We will answer with the Black Blood of Tex’co to any act of aggression! We will repay the dead of our kin with blood and crispy flesh! Madness, you say? Madness would be allowing it without doing a thing!
Cunnilingus’ fit of anger made him take a couple of steps back. All his alarm bells ran off. That was escalating too fast. That was not his faith anymore. It had been kidnapped by a bunch of fanatics who only wanted to raze the Wasteland supposedly in the name Tex’co. He had to get out of there quickly and warn someone, maybe at Scrapbridge. They would listen to him there, they had a Council and any faction could enter the city and speak freely to help keep the peace in the area. That he would do. He had to go there and alert them.
– So you aren’t here to join me? To support your faith kin in these dire moments? – said Cunnilingus in a calmed voice tone which was even more frightening than the raging one.
– It does not matter if you came here willingly or not, as long as you are here. You bear the mark of Tex’co and the god thanks you for your loyalty. I, for my part, thank you for your future service whether it is willing or not.
He couldn’t end the phrase. One of the guards’ maces hit the back of his head and everything faded into black.
* * *
Hunger was bearable. The beatings, in a way, also were endurable. The brutal rituals in which they branded with fire the markings of the Flame all over his body… that was a whole different thing. That did hurt. Flames licking his feet, his nipples, his crotch… Maybe with a stronger faith in Tex’co he could have been able to endure it all, even when they made him drink gasoline just for fun. But what really broke his will was the fact that the people doing all those things to him, his torturers, were his former friends and partners at the mission. Claudia. With those cold eyes, without any emotion, chanting in a plain voice and pressing a red hot iron against his belly. The tears he shed that day were not the result of any physical pain. And something inside him snapped, died forever and left him as an empty shell who looked like him just on the outside.
* * *
– For the Black Blood! – yelled an unrecognizable Jonas, his head shaved, his body fully covered in scars and burns, the mark of the Flame branded in many places of his flesh. He lit a flare and leaped forward towards the surprised group of Junkers who defended the water well they had stopped by to rest. When one of them saw what he was carrying in his other hand, it was already too late. The blast teared the night and then there was only the crackling flames.