Fire consumed the boat. Tiny cracks and pops sounded until the flame caught the canister of gas. The explosion lit up the sky for a brief moment before water consumed the sinking ship. Lilith wanted our tracks covered, no proof that we ever made it to shore. She worried about those following us; I worried about those that lay ahead of us. No matter what direction we looked, we were being chased.
We walked until morning, sticking to the side of the road. I watched the stars as we walked. My father had insisted on teaching me to use his telescope, a family heirloom handed down through the generations. Thanks to him, I could name most of the constellations and a hundred different stars. As I learned the name of a new constellation, he’d share the lore from Greek legends. I wished for the might of Orion as we followed the road.
“The sun will be up soon.”
I had maintained my speed, but more often than not, Lilith had to pause and wait for me to catch up. For a woman my size, she moved with a purpose and a speed I couldn’t match. If I wasn’t there to slow her down, would she be jogging down the road, trying to put as much distance between her and the boat?
“If I wasn’t here, would you already be in Detroit?”
She stopped, her feet rustling in the gravel next to the road. I didn’t expect an actual answer, not one that stopped her dead in her tracks. I was about to press the button on my light when she grabbed me by the straps and dragged me into the weeds. She pulled me down, lying flat in the tall grass.
An engine. In the distance I could hear an old car or truck, the motor rattling as it drew closer. The bend in the road made it almost impossible to see the light, but I could feel the vibration through my hands on the ground. Lilith covered my head, forcing it down as she dipped her face against the grass.
For a moment I could swear the truck slowed, and I thought my heart jumped from my chest. I had faith that any person foolish enough to stop and get out would face the wrath of Lilith. For their sake, I hoped they continued on their merry way, speeding toward whatever job had them out before daybreak.
The truck passed, moving at a brisk pace. I could barely see the headlights with my face pressed against the ground. We waited for more than a minute before lifting our heads. She remained quiet, and I could only assume she allowed her auditory enhancements to follow the vehicle, making sure it had left. She stood, offering a hand and pulling me up as if I weighed nothing.
“If you weren’t here, I’d still be in Chicago, running errands for the Valentine.”
I hadn’t thought about it before. If she had never taken this assignment, she’d still be in Chicago, a slave to the church. It wasn’t exactly my doing, but I took a bit of pride in being able to pull her away from the Valentine. I only feared that I dragged her into a conspiracy never meant for her. Thanking her seemed minuscule, far too small for how much I owed her already.
“Tell me about the Valentine.” I couldn’t continue walking in silence. Perhaps if she was busy speaking, I’d be able to keep up with her.
“The Chicago Valentine? Or the Valentine in general?”
I hadn’t thought about it before. Living in Chicago, we treated our Valentine as if he was the one and only. There were four in the Free Republic, Chicago, the Flatlands, the Southeast States, and San Francisco. I knew about his role from Visionary School, but I suspected that they fed us half truths.
“Whatever is more interesting.”
Lilith slowed, letting me catch up enough that we almost walked side by side. The woman confused me, and just when I thought I might have her figured out, she switched gears. If I didn’t know better, I might start believing she did it to keep me guessing. She couldn’t be that sinister, could she?
“The rumor is that all the Valentine are mentalists. However, nobody can confirm that, not even within the Network. Some believe their abilities are a myth perpetuated by the church to help elevate them in the eyes of the priests. I suspect they all have abilities of some sort, but I know for a fact our Valentine does.”
“I saw that. He can see memories by touching an object.”
“Psychometry. Every object carries memories, psychic echoes. He can see those echoes. Sometimes they’re faint and he can barely see pictures, but other times, it’s almost as if he’s lived through the memories. It’s not flashy, but you can imagine that touching something that belongs to you can give him plenty of information to convert the staunchest unbeliever.”
“Well, that doesn’t sound holy at all.”
Lilith gave a slight laugh. “It’s not. The Church of Nostradamus wasn’t always the religion of the masses. Even now it competes with a growing atheistic population. The Valentine will turn up the showmanship if necessary. Other religions anointed saints for the miracles they performed before their death. The Church of Nostradamus? They perform miracles on cue.”
“They left this out of Visionary School.”
I reached into my bag and pulled out a piece of dehydrated meat. I tore it in half and handed Lilith a piece. She held up her hand in protest and I shoved it into her palm. We walked quietly as we sucked on the hard bits of nourishment. It tasted of salt and little else. The thin strips wouldn’t fill either of our stomachs, but it’d stop them rumbling for the evening. Hopefully, at some point along this trek, we’d be able to stop and buy something with more substance.
“His name is William,” she said between gnawing on the jerky.
“William? You mean the Valentine?”
“It’s impossible to snoop in his chambers. There are cameras, I’m sure. But even if I possessed tech capable of sidestepping them, there is no way to hide from his abilities. He summoned me to his chambers for another of his errands. I only got a brief glance, but I believed his journal was open. He signed the passage with his name. William.”
“It seems mundane if I’m being honest.”
“One of the most powerful men in the world, the leader of a church filled with devout followers, and his name is William. Bill.”
I snorted at the thought. It was the closest Lilith had come to making a joke. Was I the first person she told? Something some important, so close to the heart of the church, did she dare share it with anybody else? I wanted to believe that it was a secret we shared between only the two of us.
“And there is no record of who he was before becoming a Valentine?”
“None,” she said. “There are no records of him as a man before he found Nostradamus. There are no records of his time as a priest or a member of the parishioners. It’s as if one day he simply appeared.”
“I’m sure that helps support the miracles.”
“I see you,” she jested. I had said that exact phrase more times than I could count. My father and I had been devout followers of Nostradamus. Now, as the mystery behind the church came unraveled, I found it did little to affect my faith. I did not worship the Valentine or hold them on a pedestal as many did. I believed that at one point there was a man, a prophet, and he foresaw the future where man and gods coexisted.
“I still believe,” I admitted.
“In the church?”
I shook my head despite her not being able to see it. “No, not the church. I believe in Nostradamus. I still believe that he foresaw the rise of the Children.”
“And his daughter?”
“Nostradamus had six children.”
“Not his children by blood. Eleanor, the great daughter of Nostradamus.”
Since Nostradamus, there had only been one other person with the ability to see the future. Eleanor, the patron saint of hardship and lost causes. There were entire sects of the Church of Nostradamus dedicated to her worship.
“I suppose. But I’ll be honest, Visionary School never mentioned her.”
“Your futures will be a struggle to illuminate a darkness that will fall on future days.”
“What is that from?”
“Eleanor’s scripture. She wrote it to her chosen.”
“Her chosen?” Either I had spent far too much of Visionary School ignoring my elders, or Lilith had insight to bestow on the common worshipper. When this was over, perhaps I’d dedicate myself to studying the origins of the Church and those who founded it. There was solace in knowing I belonged to something greater than myself. The historian in me wanted to know how that belonging came into existence.
“Eleanor saw an impending evil, so she gathered her chosen,” Lilith said. “Children of Nostradamus capable of stopping this darkness, her Nighthawks.”
Nighthawks? The information on the drive grew more important.