Darryl didn’t expect to find it when he went out that morning. At first, he thought it was just a rock, but when he moved his grunting pole, he kept hitting something. When he got it halfway unearthed, he grabbed the rusty iron handles and yanked. Out came a wooden chest the size of the Igloo cooler he had in his truck. Clumps of dirt and insects clung to the wet, slightly rotted wood and rusty metal. He heaved it through the trees and onto the open tailgate of his old Ford. He thumped away the thick mud and uncovered seven latches on the front. The center latch was a large, antique gold-looking thing with a keyhole in the center he could almost slide his entire pinky into. The other latches were simple iron, so worn and rusted they looked older than the dirt he’d pulled it from. Each had cheap, old padlocks holding them closed. But when he tried to pry them off, expecting them to easily snap off, they held tight. Darryl looked them over, then dug through the toolbox on his backseat. He took the thin metal lockpicking tools and started to fiddle in the keyholes.
The six padlocks came off easily with a few wiggles and clicks. But the seventh, center one didn’t budge. When Darryl thought the last tumbler was down, his hands slipped and the tools fell to the dirt road. After about twenty minutes of trying, he gave up and put his tools back. He pushed the chest back and shut the tailgate, then went back to his grunting equipment to find a better spot to work.
Darryl was loading his groceries into his truck when a man approached. Not noticing him come up, Darryl just kept piling the plastic Wal-Mart bags in.
“Excuse me,” said the stranger in a British accent. Darryl paused and looked over his shoulder. The man was dressed in a neat, black suit. His black hair was neat. Darryl grunted and started to stack the cases of Diet Coke into the trunk.
“I don’t need insurance, a new vacuum, or a god. Thank you for your concern, but kindly leave.” He loaded the last case and was closing the tailgate when the young man quickly replied.
“No, please. I’m not here for any of that. It’s actually that chest you have.” He pointed at the dirty chest sitting far back in the truck bed.
“What about it?” Darryl said, slamming the tailgate shut and pushing his empty cart to the cart corral a few spots over. The young man walked beside him, talking fast.
“Well, my name is Ahmed Peters. I’m a professor of theology and archeology at Harvard. I’ve actually come to this area looking for that chest. I believe it is valuable and of great importance to history and mankind’s future. If you could be so kind, I’d like to take it off your hands. I’d pay for it, of course.” The two returned to the truck and Darryl opened the driver’s side door.
“Sorry, kid. Not interested. Go back to Harvard or Iraq or wherever you came from and leave me be.” He climbed into his truck and shut the door as the brown-skinned man began to protest. He started the truck and stared at the man, who promptly stepped back, and pulled away.
Darryl’s house was on an old family farm at the base of the Appalachian Mountains. His family settled there after the Civil War and took to raising horses. While they kept the farm running and tended to around a dozen horses at a time, times grew hard when his grandfather ran it. The mining industry had taken over the region and with less and less business for the farm, Darryl’s father and grandfather went into the mines. Until about a decade ago, so did he. And when his lungs were more coal dust than tissue, he got his early pension and eventually Social Security once he turned 65 last year. The pension was enough to maintain the farm and the four horses and his expenses. And every second Wednesday of the month, that government check goes with him to Jim’s Bar.
Darryl shut the tailgate with his shoulder and started carrying the three cases of soda to his garage when a Voltzwagon Bug pulled into the driveway. He glared as the young man in the suit got out.
“Get off my property,” Darryl yelled over his shoulder. The professor followed him.
“Please, sir,” said the man in his English accent. “If you’d please listen. I can offer you a handsome amount. I have 300 dollars in cash right now and I can write a check for any amount you want. It is of great urgency and importance. Pl-,” The man stopped short when Darryl stood up from the garage fridge where he’d loaded the soda and pointed a shotgun at him.
“I told you twice to leave, and I ain’t asking a third time. I don’t want your money, or your story. So get your faggoty ass back in that car or I’ll stuff you in that chest you love so much.” When the young man opened his mouth, Darryl aimed the shotgun. Ahmed backed away with his hands up. Darryl kept the gun aimed until the young man got in the car. A minute later, the red Bug backed out and sped away. Darryl finished putting away his groceries and went back to his truck. He pulled the chest out of the bed and brought it into the kitchen. Now that the day had dried the mud and neutralized the wet earth smell, he caught a faint, sour smell from the chest. It reminded him of roadkill or a freshly dressed deer. He shrugged it off, guessing the wood was rotten and maybe some animal blood had soaked in it.
He grabbed a can of Diet Coke from the fridge and took the chest into the small living room, putting it on the coffee table. He sat down in his recliner and pulled the coffee table closer. Looking at it, he was intrigued with how rusty the metal lock was, but more with how it held when he tried to pry it off with his hands. Darryl grunted and sat back, sipping his drink. He thought of maybe getting his tools and trying to pick it again, but decided against it. Instead, he picked up the chest and brought it back to the kitchen and set it next to the door to the garage. Joe, his friend at the body shop, might be able to cut into it. He’d take it in tomorrow. The clock on the wall chimed 4PM. The mail should be here by now, Darryl thought, and he went out to check.
“Mack,” Darryl said with a craggy smile, “Bottle of Jack! Drinks are on Uncle Sam tonight.” He cheerily slapped the cash from his Social Security check on the bar. The middle aged, bald bartender smiled as he took the money.
“If you want that, you know the drill,” Mack said and held out a hand. Darryl grunted and passed his keys over. Mack put them on the plate behind the counter and grabbed a large bottle of black-labeled Jack Daniels whiskey. He twisted off the top and poured a generous amount into a glass and put both the bottle and glass in front of Darryl. The retired miner took a big swig of the amber colored whiskey and sighed.
“I’ll tell you what, Mack,” Darryl said with another sip, “Kids these days are so goddamned entitled. Today, I had this kid - college aged, british faggot - stalk me to try and take this trunk I found. Wouldn’t take no for an answer. Just thought he could take it for himself. Came right on my property even.”
“What’d you do?” asked the bartender. Darryl chuckled.
“Pointed a .45 at him. Scared the brat off and he drove off in this sissy piece of shit car.” He took another sip, finishing the drink, and poured another himself. “Some kind of illegal too. Even in the suit he looked like a fucking towel head.”
“Here on a visa, actually,” said a British voice behind Darryl. “I’m from South Africa originally.” Darryl grimaced and gulped down the entire glass of whiskey. The last swallow caught in his throat and went down the wrong pipe. The alcohol burned as it hit his lungs; making them feel like they were filled with napalm. He wheezed and choked with wet, heaving retches. Ahmed sat next to him.
“Shit, uh...do you need…?” Ahmed tried putting a hand on Darryl’s shoulder, but the old man jerked out of the way with a growl. Mack put a tall glass of water in front of Darryl, who nodded his thanks and forced himself to drink. The water stung at first, but eventually it soothed his coughing. When he put the half empty glass down, small clouds of blood floated in the water, turning it faintly pink. He wiped away the spit and blood on his lips with his sleeve.
“Why don’t you leave me be? Haven’t I made it clear to fuck off from wherever you came from?”
“Yes, you have,” said Ahmed. “And I’m sorry for my insistence. - Um, sir? Can I get a vodka-cranberry? Thanks. - But, as I’ve said, I’m a professor of theology and archeology. And my colleagues and I have been looking for that reliquary for some time. In fact, we believe it may be the most significant reliquary of all. So, I am willing to offer whatever you want for it. Just please consider it.” Ahemd thanked Mack as he took his drink. Taking a sip, he asked Darryl, “You haven’t broken any of the seals on it, have you?” Darryl shrugged and poured more whiskey.
“What’s it to ya if I have?” he asked and took a sip. “They’re just a bunch of cheap padlocks. Does it decrease the value of it?” He snorted derisively. He looked over at Ahmed, who was staring at him with wide, fearful eyes. “What’s got you shitting yourself?” Ahmed cleared his throat.
“D...d...did you open it?” Darryl snorted again.
“Jesus, man. It’s a moldy chest. Smells like shit.” Darryl got up, tired of the conversation and barely buzzed from the whiskey. All it did was make him need to piss.
“Did you open it?” Ahmed said, a little more demandingly.
“Mack, keys please.” Darryl didn’t look at the young professor. The bartender held out the keys.
“Gotta leave the bottle. Want your change for it?” Darryl took the keys and shook his head.
“Nah. Save it for next time. Might be back tomorrow for it.” Mack shrugged and put the bottle aside behind him and returned to wiping the beer pulls. Darryl turned and left, not once looking at Ahmed, who was frozen on the barstool.
The little buzz he’d gotten from the whiskey was gone when Darryl got home. He stomped through the garage and into the kitchen. He looked down at the chest in disgust and kicked it, hoping the wood was so rotten that his foot would go through. It didn’t, but his foot made a thick thump against it. So the chest was full, he figured. He rolled his eyes and went into the living room. He thought of watching some TV, but with it being so late, all there was to watch was the news. And there was only so much bitching and moaning he could take in a day. His one night at the bar this month was ruined, he didn’t want to ruin the rest of his night. Instead, he shuffled over to the fireplace. He eyed the old M-1 Garand rifle that hung on a couple rusty nails above the mantle. It was his father’s from World War II. His father gave it to Darryl when Vietnam was raging and the draft was announced. With it came the expectation that he’d serve. But when his birthday was the 249th to be drawn on the lottery, he passed on enlisting. His father stopped speaking to him then. And three days before Vietnam was declared over, his dad’s mine collapsed. He and his mom barely had anything to bury.
Darryl looked away and picked up the guitar leaning against the brick of the fireplace. He went over to the recliner and sat it on his lap. Its old wood was scuffed on the edges. The pale patch of worn wood from decades of strumming had a cracked hole in the middle a few inches below the actual sound hole. Now, it was barely touched. Maybe once a month he’d pick it up to play. Most times he barely got past retuning the old strings before his arthritis throbbed too much in his fingers and wrists. One memorable occasion, he’d played through “Hey Jude” and the third string snapped. It was three months before he replaced the string. It was now the only shiny string on it.
He tested the strings. They all sounded in tune, and the A-chord he played rang out more or less right. He switched to a D, then E-minor, and back to A. Happy with how it all sounded, he switched to a G and started gently strumming the beat to Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire”. As his muscle memory clicked in, he started to sing. His voice was old, dry, and sounded more like Miles Davis than the man in black. But, he went on and worked through a couple more Cash songs before pausing. His arthritis was flaring, but he figured he had one more song in him. So he started to tune down for a Paul Simon song. As he was tuning the shiny third string, there was a thud outside. Darryl stopped, but when he heard nothing else, he went back to tuning. When he finished the next string and was going to the fifth, there was a loud smash of glass from the kitchen. He jumped into action, throwing down the guitar. It made an ugly thud and all the strings snapped at once. Swearing, Darryl lumbered over and grabbed the shotgun and loaded a couple buckshot shells from the box on the mantle. Then, he quickly stepped over to the kitchen door, hesitated for a breath, and kicked the door in.
The crash of the door made Ahmed stumble backwards. He fell back into the counter. The window above the sink only had a few shards of glass still in the frame. Darryl glared and raised the gun. He thumbed the hammers back. CLICK CLICK.
“Boy. You don’t fucking listen. Now you’re -.”
“WHAT HAVE YOU DONE??” Ahmed shouted, staring at the chest by the door to the garage. “You fucking, brainless inbred! Where are they?” Darryl held the gun steady and put his finger on the trigger. Ahmed glanced at him then darted to the chest. Darryl fired and the sink and counter Ahmed had been leaning on blasted apart. Splinters of wood and metal flew everywhere. Darryl swerved and aimed at Ahmed, who was grabbing the chest with fumbling, drunk hands. Darryl squeezed the trigger and Ahmed’s body exploded open, becoming a gaping maw of splintered bone and shredded red flesh. Darryl lowered the gun, slightly stunned at the carnage. All of this, he thought, over a fucking chest. As he thought to call 9-1-1, the chest’s lid sprang open, sending Ahmed’s body backwards crashing into the mess of the broken counter cabinets.
The stench of raw sewage and decay filled the kitchen, making Darryl vomit. He groaned and dropped his shotgun. Putting his arm over his nose, he stumbled forward. Despite his fear of what could cause that smell, he peered in. And he was dumbfounded at what he saw.
Inside the chest was a large pillow of the darkest satin. Placed carefully in the middle were four objects spaced evenly apart: a red ruby the size of a man’s fist, a large, bronze arrowhead with a splintered piece of wooden shaft, a glass vial of black liquid with the top dipped in a blood-red wax, and a large molar with long roots covered in black rot and deep cavities. The ruby had patches of dark reddish-brown stuff that looked oddly like scabs. The spearhead was chipped and battle worn. When Darryl looked at them, his stomach nearly gave way again.
He only had a few moments to look at them before he was thrown back by an enormous shock wave as the objects exploded. Up from the open chest came a spinning tornado of horror. A geyser of dark blood, a twisting flume of raging orange fire, a thick swarm of black flies, and a pillar of black sludge all mixed and swirled together, as if the four elements were fighting. Darryl screamed as he stared at the swirling cyclone of substances filling the room above him. When the mass stretched across the entirety of the ceiling, it all gathered up and shot down like an attacking snake to the body of Ahmed. It undulated and twisted for a few moments, fully engulfing the body, then collected again and shot out of the window above him. The bones were picked clean and charred black. Darryl just stared at the skeleton as it crumbled into ash. He got up, wanting to run and hide, but against his instincts, his feet carried him over to the window.
The cloud of fire, blood, flies, and sludge swirled in a massive cloud over the front lawn. Then, it descended to the ground in four distinct columns. They shrank and concentrated into masses the height of a large man, then refined further into the shapes of four men. The fire became a large, muscled man with a thick beard and bald head. He was dressed in furred leather from the waist down and his torso and arms were covered in thick scars and tattoos that glowed like embers on his skin. Beside him, the swarm of flies became a thin, impossibly thin, emaciated man. His skin was as black and clung to him as if he had no muscles at all. He had thin rags around his waist and thick, cracked war paint created the image of a skeleton. Out of the black tar formed a pale man dressed in rags of brown and tan. He would have looked at home at a renaissance festival. But his face and hands were covered in yellow and purpling cysts and pustules - some of which were oozing red and black pus. And finally, the column of blood became a thin, copper skinned man. He had a tall white crown from ancient times with a scabbed red ruby in the middle of the forehead. His robes were white and gold, the outfit of a pharaoh ready for battle. All four faces were hard and grim, but his was the most gaunt and grim of them all.
Darry stood in the ashes that used to be Ahmed, staring out the window. He watched the four massive beings form. As the four stood, looking around, an immense cacophony erupted. If mountains could scream, it would have sounded like this. The very air vibrated and tore like fabric. But Darryl only heard the reality shattering explosion for a few moments. The world for him went silent with a harsh POP and he felt hot liquid fill his ears and ooze down his neck. When he lowered his hands from his ears, he saw them covered in blood. He felt dizzy and fell against the broken sink.
“We gather,” said the man covered in plagued flesh. “As one. Four to complete the final task.”
“The final stage,” said the bearded man in a low voice. “To finish the plan.”
“The plan,” continued the emaciated man. “That was foretold by Yaweh and paved by Destiny.”
“A destiny,” concluded the crowned being, “which Four shall ride upon sixteen to fulfill.” Though the world was filled with the deafening blasts, the Four spoke to each other in reverent, low tones that only they could hear.
“Shall we ride?” asked Famine, his eyes a red glow against his black skin and white war paint.
“Yes,” said the other three and all four raised their right hands high. From the stables behind the farmhouse galloped four brown stallions. They ran to the Four like all the powers of Hell were behind them. The Four didn’t flinch or move when the horses reared up and came to a halt in front of each of them. When the horses steadied themselves, they stood looking into the eyes of their new masters.
“Bloodshed,” said War as he touched the snout of his horse. And the horse became a bear sized wolf with fur the color of rusty, disused weaponry. Slung on his back was a leather saddle with weapons of bronze, silver, and iron from every age of man. War climbed onto Bloodshed’s back and took a sword the size of a man from a sheath at his waist. He turned it in his hand, and with each movement, it changed into a different weapon: a sword, a spear, an axe, a warhammer, and a firearm.
“Conquest,” croaked Pestilence. He placed a diseased hand on the neck of his ride, which became a half rotted Clydesdale. Adorning the horse were aged and torn sheets of white with crimson crosses at their centers. Pestilence mounted the horse and held a bow made of polished bone at his side.
“Justice,” said Famine, placing his hand on the flank of his horse. The animal’s flesh melted away to nothing and its hide became a pattern of black and white stripes clinging tightly to the skeleton. Flies and locusts buzzed around the zebra as Famine climbed up to its bony back. He took a set of tarnished brass scales that hung off the worn cloth saddle. They balanced perfectly. Ready for judgement.
Death said nothing as he touched the chin of his steed. The horse transformed into a crocodile the size of a truck. Its hide was the pale green of bloated corpses and old bruises. Death took a long handled scythe from his back before climbing up and kneeling on the pale scales. His white eyes surveyed the sky.
Above the Four, the night sky was a swirling vortex of crimson clouds, raging fire, and flashing thunderbolts. Without another word, the Four nodded at one another and took off - their beasts running into the sky as if climbing an invisible mountain. All except Death, who looked to the farmhouse, and the man staring out of the shattered window.
Darryl was frozen, scared stiff, as he watched the three riders climb into the sky. Then, the last figure on the crocodile looked at him. He shut his eyes, hoping this was a dream he could wake from. But when he opened them again, he screamed as the face of crowned Death stared at him - suddenly right in front of him. Darryl’s bleeding ears were still deaf to all the world, but in his head he heard the voice of Death.
“For your actions in releasing us,” the voice echoed, although Death’s cracked lips did not move, “you shall be spared the fate you have brought upon humanity.” The voice paused and became a low guttural growl and Death’s solid white eyes narrowed. “Though I can not save you from the wrath you will endure for your actions.” The ruby that sat high on the crown glowed a bright red. Darryl screamed in violent agony as blood gushed from his eyes and into the ruby. The jewel absorbed it all and the bloodless body of the retired miner slumped to the floor.
Without anything else, Death turned and rode into the sky - joining his brothers to begin the Final Days.