The streets had been cleared, schools and businesses had opened, and Death and the shade were still looking for their first recruit. The shade had found that one of the advantages of being dead was that he didn't need time to thaw. As soon as he stepped into a warm place he was warm again, with no discomfort as feeling returned. It was a welcome change from life, but it didn't change the fact that it was cold outside.
The temperature refused to breach zero, with freezing but a distant memory, and the wind persisted in its refusal to cease to be. Death offered to take him elsewhere, but he'd spent his whole life in the area, and didn't feel like leaving now that he was dead. Instead she created warmer clothing for the shade to wear, and the went looking for recruits to their cause.
This day took them to a school. Once inside the shade tied his coat around his waist. He wasn't quite sure how that worked. It wasn't really a coat, he didn't really have a waist. He asked something that had been on his mind outside. The frigid weather had brought a poem to his mind, about how some thought the world would end in ice. So he asked, “How do you know that it hasn't started yet?”
Death pointed to a child, “You see that eight year old?”
The young girl was wearing a heavy coat and snow pants, and it looked like there were many layers under those to the point it restricted her range of motion. She had what looked like a hand knit hat on her head, large brown eyes, and she was adorable. The shade smiled and said, “Yes.”
“It hasn't happened yet.” For a moment the shade thought that that would be the only explanation he got, but then Death added, “The very first thing will be the Rapture, when God will take all of his chosen people into Heaven so that they don't need to suffer through the Tribulation. He'll take all the children with them.”
“Because he doesn't want the children to suffer?”
“Nothing so logical.”
In Georgia an angel comfortably ensconced in human form lay on his back on a park bench, repeatedly throwing and catching a 14 ball while he rehearsed a speech he never seriously expected to give to anyone. “It's not quite the Second Coming. It's not the final release at any rate. It's more of a closed beta of the Second Coming. Invitation only. But if you think that this is a voluntary thing you've got another thing coming. Relatively few children will volunteer, all will be taken.
“It's not because of any fondness for children. It's just a part of the sorting algorithm. The Saved get taken, the Unsaved old enough to be held accountable for their actions don't, the children aren't a part of either group. So the get treated as Saved as a sort of benefit of the doubt.
“It's definitely not because of any desire to spare children the suffering of the Tribulation because when new children are born they will not be whisked straight up into Heaven. Not Even Close.”
The shade found the angel disconcerting. It was largely human, if you discounted the wings, and the three extra heads, and the inhuman feet. It was the ox head that disturbed him the most for some reason. The eagle, lion and human heads would have been fine if not for the fact that they were all connected to the same body. (And of course there was the fact that the body completely failed to match two of them.) But something about the ox head, and the way it looked at him, was disconcerting.
Death tried to convince the angel, whom she called a cherub, to join their side, but the angel was happy where she was.
“When the Rapture happens-” Death started again.
“God's going to take all of the children into Heaven,” the Cherub said.
“You say that like it's a good thing.”
“It is a good thing,” the Cherub said with enthusiasm.
“I could, right here right now, send every child in this building straight to Heaven,” Death said. “How would that make you feel?”
The cherub recoiled in horror, “That... that's-”
“What? Evil? Unthinkable? Mass murder? Something you would be morally obligated to oppose tooth and nail?” The Cherub didn't respond. “It's something to think about.” Death motioned to the shade that they were finished and both started to walk towards the door. Before she left, Death looked back at the Cherub, who hadn't moved or uttered a sound, “The difference between me and Him is that I know it's wrong and He thinks its right. If you change your mind, say so and I'll know.”
Two angels invisibly watched over a stretch of highway.
“I'm telling you because I want you to be ready to mitigate the damages if it happens,” the older angel said.
“I thought you said I wasn't allowed to use miracles to stop accidents.”
“I did. If the Rapture happens the existence of miracles will be undeniable. So in that case, and only in that case, I am saying that I will be willing to look the other way. Just so you- You would do the same thing anyway, wouldn't you?”
The younger angel smiled, “If the world were ending, who would notice a few miracles more or less?”
The older angel nodded and ascended to Heaven, but both new that a few angels breaking the rules would do little to stem the destruction if the Rapture took place, and both hoped that it wouldn't happen any time soon.
The wheel had located an old friend, who had in turn promptly slammed the door in front of the wheel. When the wheel offered to share sensitive information about the end of the world, the door reopened, but only with reservations. The first thing the wheel's outcast friend did was ask him to bring one of his friends up to speed, which which proved more difficult than the wheel had expected.
“Then God begins the Tribulation where He visits judgments upon the world,” the wheel said with enthusiasm, pausing for effect as he prepared to describe the judgments in detail.
“Why?” the stranger asked.
The wheel was confused, “What do you mean, 'Why?'?”
“Why does God do that? He's already taken his own into Heaven at that point, why not leave the world alone?”
“Because... how do you not know this?”
“Because he's Hellborn,” the outcast said.
“He's a demon?” The wheel shouted.
“Three things,” the outcast said. “First, don't shout questions at me. I'm standing right here. A normal volume will do just fine. Second, yes, he was born a demon. Third: You Came To Me. You came crawling to me, begging me to take you in. You're in no position to judge the company I keep.” He turned to the demon, “You'll have to excuse my old friend, he still believes the party line that no angel born in Hell can break Satan's spell.”
“Why-” the wheel stopped himself and then started again more quietly, “Why are your rhyming?”
The outcast added, “He's also apparently spent the past few decades locked in a soundproof box.” He turned back to the wheel and said, “Now then, my friend asked you a question.”
The wheel resumed, “God doesn't want anyone to go to Hell-”
“Then why doesn't he stop sending them there?” the demon asked.
“Because it doesn't work that way. The Tribulation is to wake people up. To jolt them out of their complacency. It's so that everyone will have a chance at Heaven.”
“What about the people who died in the chaos caused by the Rapture?” the demon asked.
“I- tha- i-” the wheel sputtered.
The outcast smiled and then said, “Let's get back to the Tribulation, tell my friend how it starts.”
The angel on the bench held the pool ball above his head and looked at it intently. “Around this time the Antichrist rises to power. It doesn't make sense to assume that his rise only starts after the Rapture, so presumably he's been preparing for this for this in advance, rising up through the ranks and laying the groundwork for his one world government.
“This, to me, suggests a certain amount of collusion between the forces of Heaven and Hell. How else could Hell know when to get their Antichrist ready, if Heaven had not told them?
“This possibility is disturbing and unexpected, but it may also be necessary for the prophecies to be fulfilled. Why else would the Antichrist go along with the divine plan? It also raises the possibility that the fate of the universe will be determined by who stabs who in the back first. The worst outcome of all might be if no backs are stabbed and this alliance is maintained throughout.
A watcher in St. Mark's square told her companion, “At this point God starts hitting the world with a big stick,” miming the action and frightening pigeons.
“The rider on the red horse represents War!” the preacher shouted. “A World War! Revelations is telling us that World War Three will come. As so often happens, Death follows War and that is the Pale rider on the pale horse.”
A man in the pews turned to his neighbor and said, “He left out Famine.”
“Everybody does,” Famine responded.
“Wouldn't Death be going throughout the world at the same time as War and Famine?” the shade asked.
Death replied, “Oh I'm always there, but I only get on my horse for special occasions.”
In a small empty church an angel told his half human niece, “Then there's a big old earthquake that covers the whole globe”
“Does plate tectonics even allow for that?” she asked.
“Just go with it.”
The angel started throwing and catching the ball again. “Then we're into the Trumpets. First up is fire and hail and blood. Or bloody hail fire, or something. The next two are all about space debris which will vaporize oceans and poison waters. Then all of the light from space - the sun, the moon, the stars - is darkened so it's only one third as bright as it once was. So I figure it's like a mild smog.
“After that it gets interesting. First demon locusts, then demon horsemen. After that there will be lightening earthquakes and hailstorms on earth, but at this point who cares? Don't get me wrong, they'll be painful and bad and tragic, but after demon locust horses they've lost some of their narrative punch.”
Ignored by all around him an outcast Seraph preached future history from a street corner while gesturing wildly, “Then God realizes that there's still this Antichrist guy down on earth, so he has him killed, but then he gets bored and wanders off and three days later, well after God's lost interest, Satan resurrects the Antichrist cohabiting in his body in the process.”
The watcher punctuated her description of each judgment by pretending to hit something in front of her with a stick, “Horrible sores. Salt water turns to blood. Fresh water turns to blood. The sun scorches people to death. Darkness on the capital of the world. The Euphrates dries up.”
“And it's Jesus' Coming 2.0! He's back! He's pissed off! He kills an army with a word for he is the kwisatz haderach. The valley fills with blood to the height of a horse's bridle because kids these days won't go to see a movie unless it's got lots of gore.” He put the 14 ball in his pocket, sat up, hung his head, and closed his eyes. “The second to last judgment is at hand.”
“The biggest earthquake the world has ever seen!” the watcher shouted while miming a particularly large whack with a stick.
“And all of this is in the bible?” the shade asked.
“Yes. Well... sort of. It's complicated.” Death said. “So, in summary...”
In a small diner a guardian angel was eating with his charge. “Then Jesus comes back, the unsaved are dumped in Hell and for a thousand years everyone lives as immortals on earth. But aging is slowed down to something like one fifth of its normal rate to prevent everyone from getting really old,” the guardian told her.
“But that would still mean that someone born at the dawn of the millennium would be 200 of our years by the time the thing was over,” The human said.
The angel held up his hand in a gesture the human knew meant that clarification was coming, but somehow always made her imagine he was trying to push an elevator button without using his fingers. She waited for one of the detailed explanations he usually gave at such times, but all he said was, “Don't examine this too closely.”
After a pause he returned to his story, “After a thousand years Satan will challenge God, it will be the most one sided boxing match in all of history. God will smack Satan right back into Hell, and all of his followers will be swallowed up with him. At that point the whole hullabaloo is over and everyone not damned goes to Heaven. And that. Is how. The world. Will end.” For a moment there was silence and the he added, “Spoiler alert.”
“Are you supposed to be telling me this?”
“You're not even supposed to know I exist. I'm supposed to watch you unheard and unseen. A perfect little stalker, occasionally beating up temptations before they have a chance to get to you. I'm not supposed to be telling you anything.”
“But that's been true for years, and you've been talking to me the whole time. You never said any of this stuff before, why tell me now?”
“Because it all starts with the Rapture and everything I'm hearing says that that will happen soon.”
“It could be any moment. It could be now.”
“If it could be any moment," she said, "then it could be a thousand years from now. What does 'soon' mean?”
“I don't know exactly, no one does. I can't get more specific than soon.”
“'Soon' doesn't mean anything unless there's some kind of parameters. This period is more likely that period is less likely. If you don't know that then you can't know 'soon'.”
“What? You want a probability breakdown?”
He looked at the table for a moment as if the answer was to be found there. He rested his head in his hands, then closed his eyes. For a short time he thought. Then he looked up and said, “Ok, figure a ninety-nine percent chance it happens in the next hundred years, an eighty percent chance it happens in the next ten. But it really could be any-” He turned his head before the tray crashed to the ground. The waitress's clothes took longer as they fluttered through the air. The sounds of a low speed car crash came from the street outside, but he didn't take his eyes off the empty space where the waitress had been. The the silence built for a few more moments, then he said, “It happened five seconds ago.”