Yuri tried to walk with his usual imposing and forthright attitude, but this was proving more challenging in this new terrain. The path leading away from the house led into a land the like of which he had never seen before. Huge trees stood proud across the undulating hills. They had thick trunks and dense branch systems. An assortment of sounds could be heard, emanating from all sorts of animal life, hidden from view by lush green leaves. Gulag pricked up his ears, alert to his surroundings but not afraid.
Looking up, Yuri noticed the sky was awash with the most vivid hues, in a sweeping gradient. Purple, pink, peach, orange, red – it was breathtaking. Yuri was a little unsettled by what seemed to be three suns in the sky. There was one that seemed to be the sun as he knew it, but two other bright orbs illuminated the cosmos, too big to be stars, too bright to be planets, yet there they were.
There were no signs of human activity, as far as he could see, just trees, grass and a sky that felt like it was dancing with colours.
Yuri and Gulag walked for a long time, and he began to feel a sense of desperation creep up inside him. For most of his existence, he had been surrounded by people who listened to everything he said. They feared him and he thrived off it. Every day he had all his wants taken care of. To be without human company in a strange land was a nightmare come true. He felt robbed of power, and it was making him angry.
Eventually, Yuri decided to sit down. Gulag nuzzled up beside him. The grass at the side of the path was comfortable enough for Yuri to lie down. The only sounds were the animals in the trees and a gentle breeze rippling through the long grass and leaves. Yuri looked at the sky and took in all the colours. For the briefest of moments, he forgot his anger and thought about how good the colours looked.
After this brief rest his anxiety returned. He stood up and looked back in the direction from which he’d come. He’d lost sight of the house a long time ago.
Scanning the horizon in the other direction, Yuri’s heart jumped when he saw two figures on the crest of a hill. They were a good way off but close enough for him to see that they were dressed in white. One was clearly a big man, and the other also tall but more slender.
Without much thought, Yuri calculated how he’d rob them. Surely travellers had money, and maybe some food and water? To his intense irritation, it seemed they weren’t coming towards him. It then dawned on him that they seemed to be watching him. This drew his ire further.
Puffing his chest out and making sure he looked as big as possible, Yuri began marching up the hill. The two in white simply watched him approach.
Yuri detested being looked down upon. He was regretting not finding high ground to rest on earlier. Approaching from beneath made him feel like a child and by now he was raging.
“Yuri!” one of the figures called out.
‘Of course,’ thought Yuri. ‘This place can’t get any weirder. Of course, they know my name.’
He stopped a good hundred metres away from the two people.
“Who the fuck are you?” he demanded.
“Are you hungry?” asked one of them.
Yuri didn’t know what to say so remained silent.
Instead of saying any more, the men turned around and began walking.
This perplexed Yuri, as he felt both curiosity and incredulity at being one-upped by these strangers.
He kept his distance and followed, his curiosity overruling his pride.
As they came over the top of the hill, a forest lay out before them. As far as the eye could see, the thick green canopy was teeming with life. Many birds were swooping to and fro and colourful apes could be seen swinging through the branches on the tree line.
Yuri took it in but soon realised that the strangers had not paused for the view and had disappeared into the trees.
“Hey!” he shouted and let gravity lead him heavy footed down the incline and into the cover of the forest.
The two men were peeling bark off a tree next to the path. Vapour rose from the trunk as they each pulled strips off it. Laying them on a large leaf, they handed Yuri a small stack of bark peelings as he approached.
“What is this?” he asked dismissively. The light steam coming off the bark strips smelt amazing; the portions looked juicy and inviting. Yuri’s mouth watered, but he couldn’t shake off his paranoia.
“What are you giving me?” he asked again, looking at one of the men directly.
“I’m not sure it has a name as such,” said the man calmly. “Try it?” he invited.
By now Yuri could not ignore his hunger. Unable to resist, he picked up a strip between his thumb and forefinger and, not wanting to look weak, dangled the whole thing into his mouth. The morsel began to melt like butter and had a savoury flavour.
“Tastes like a steak!” Yuri exclaimed. “What tree is this, to get bark that tastes like that?” he asked, taking another strip in his fingers. “It’s hot as well!”
“See those orbs in the sky?” asked one of the men, glancing up at them.
“Yeah, what are they?” asked Yuri.
“New suns. Well, they’re between planets and suns. They’re close enough to bring a new kind of light and energy to the earth,” replied the man.
“New energy, new plants,” added the other man.
“There’s new things in space?” asked Yuri, trying to understand.
“Yes,” said the man. “It’s a new earth, and there are new heavens.”
Yuri had helped himself to the rest of the bark strips and shared them with Gulag. Feeling much better, he decided he needed more information.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“This is Thomas, and my name is Bull. Come, let’s walk and talk. We have a long journey ahead of us.”
“No.” Yuri wasn’t finished with his interrogation. “What do you mean? Tell me who you are and where we are going. I don’t know you!”
“There’s a place for you,” said Thomas.
“You’ll see. It’s made just for you, and your community.”
Yuri liked the sound of that. Surely this meant that he would be with people he already knew, in which case he would be able to dominate them and ascend to the top again. If there was one thing Yuri knew he could do, it was finding people’s weaknesses and exploiting them.
The sound of cracking ribs always gave Yuri a distinct feeling – a sickly satisfaction. He had crafted his punching ability to be such that he could strike a body blow and break ribs, leaving his victim choking for breath in agony.
The city at night was his kingdom. He knew how to use gang culture to lure young people into a twisted family. He was the head of the household and ruled with good cop, bad cop psychology. It was a tried and tested technique, used alongside drugs, to bring people into servitude within Yuri’s organisation. Providing a devastating pathway of heavy drugs, Yuri could keep these young addicts under his dark influence for years of their lives.
Helena was fourteen when she appeared on the edge of Yuri’s circle. Young, fatherless and eager to please, she was easy prey. Yuri had several men in their twenties trained to groom young girls for the sex trade. They knew how to lure them into a sense of belonging and hook them on drugs.
Helena accepted all that she was offered and soon developed a dependency on heroin. Her handlers only gave her what she so craved if she serviced the men who came to their brothels. Pimping young women and selling drugs gave Yuri and his most loyal men a lavish lifestyle. It was easy to pay the police to turn a blind eye and avoid their quarters of the city.
Helena was ambitious. By the time she was seventeen she was regularly having sex with Yuri. He pulled her off the brothel work and had her installed in his penthouse as his personal sex slave. At first, Helena couldn’t imagine a better life. She was able to wash whenever she liked and even had her own wardrobe for the clothes that Yuri enjoyed seeing her wear. For the first time in her life, she felt like she had something of her own. Yuri kept the best heroin for her.
One evening, the heroin she took was unusually strong. She fell unconscious on the bed. When Yuri came to her for sex, he found she was unresponsive. The only thing she was meant to do was service him, and that night she was unable to fulfil her function.
Helena’s ribs were easy to break. She had weak bones from years of malnutrition. Yuri’s fist smashed through her rib cage. Helena wasn’t even conscious; she was unable to resist or express pain, but her body began to convulse. Her shattered ribs had punctured her lungs and now she was drowning in her own blood.
Yuri held her by the neck against the wall while blood poured out of her mouth and nose. It ran down the back of his hand. Repulsed, he let go of Helena’s throat and she dropped to the floor. A soft gurgling sound came from her mouth as her weakened body gave in and she died.
Yuri wasn’t sure why thoughts of Helena had come to him now, walking through a forest following two strangers. She was neither the first nor the last person he had killed in his life. Her face seemed to float in his mind, eyes sunken deep into her skull, her blue lips pursed and her hair greasy and scraped back.
Suddenly Yuri felt sick. He stopped walking, turned to the side of the road and readied himself to vomit. Gulag had been following Yuri closely, and he stopped to remain near him. He let out a little wince, upset at seeing his master unwell.
Sensing Yuri had stopped walking, Bull and Thomas turned.
Their eyes on him felt like fire. Yuri felt panic rise inside him. He desperately wanted to disappear, to be well and truly dead.
Breathing deeply to quell his nausea, Yuri glanced up at Bull and Thomas. There was something deeply disturbing about the way they were looking at him. He closed his eyes, but all he could see was Helena’s ghostly face.
Yuri felt exposed, but there was nowhere to hide.
Thomas turned to Bull. “Bad memories,” he said softly. Bull nodded but didn’t take his eyes off Yuri. Yuri locked his eyes back on Bull, trying desperately not to give any ground.
“You… you can fuck off now,” he snarled.
Bull had learned well by now that threatening behaviour and even violence went hand in hand with the task of trying to help people. Bull looked back into Yuri’s eyes and stood his ground. Thomas stood with him, shoulder to shoulder.
“Yuri,” Thomas said quietly but with resolve, “what have we done to wrong you?”
There was nothing aggressive about how Bull and Thomas were communicating, but it still felt to Yuri as though he was being taunted. For as long as he could remember, he had been able to exert power over other people.
“Where is this community?” he said curtly.
“It’s some way yet,” answered Bull. “We will show you.”
Bull didn’t wait for an answer. He and Thomas turned away and began walking. Yuri could tell they weren’t looking to talk to him at this point, so he followed at a distance with Gulag trotting alongside him.
Yuri only interacted with Bull and Thomas when they stopped to eat. He was surprised to discover they treated him with no malice or hatred. They served him food and drink at various stops. At night they climbed into certain trees that had hammock-style branches.
Now and then, Bull and Thomas would greet various people on the road, sometimes with a newly resurrected person walking with them. The terrain changed periodically, all familiar and yet new. The New Earth clearly had many of the same natural attributes as the old, with mountains, lakes, rivers, forests, meadows and heathland. Yuri grew curious as to why there were so few other people, and no cities to be seen.
After many days of walking, Bull and Thomas had led Yuri to a stark landscape. Bleached rock formations jutted up from the ground, shrouded by thick dark trees.
They came to a cliff edge and sprawled out beneath was a mass of grey stone huts. Yuri could make out various figures walking about. A river could be seen on the far side of the camp.
“This is your new home,” said Bull.
“This is one of many communities across the New Earth,” Thomas explained. “I am sure you will quickly identify with many of its members.”
A thudding sound behind Yuri distracted him from the scene below. He turned and saw a huge creature, with wings like an eagle but a body like a lion.
“Cedric!” cried Thomas and ran to embrace the creature.
Bull turned to Yuri. “Cedric is a seraph. He’s the guardian of the community.”
Yuri tried not to look worried, but this strange creature was four times bigger than him.
“Come, young man,” Cedric said to Yuri with a voice deeper than any he’d ever heard.
Before Yuri could protest, Cedric was approaching him. Yuri hoped Gulag would defend him, but instead he was sitting calmly.
Breathless with anxiety, Yuri turned to Thomas.
“I suppose you will be keeping my dog?”
“No,” said Thomas. “Gulag is a gift from Jesus. Let him be a reminder that he loves you.”
Yuri was thankful but didn’t voice it.
“Come!” said Cedric in a voice like thunder. He opened his huge wings and began to beat them.
Gulag jumped to Yuri’s side, and Yuri gathered him in his arms just as the seraph took a hold of Yuri’s waist and leapt over the side of the cliff. For a few seconds Cedric was in flight with Yuri and Gulag tucked close against his stomach. He landed, sending up a cloud of dust, and released Yuri and Gulag, who jumped down and began sniffing the ground.
Yuri could see Thomas and Bull observing from the cliff top, and in a final desperate act of defiance, he lifted both hands, fists balled, and slowly erected his middle fingers.
“Fuck you!” Yuri mouthed before turning away.
“I wonder how many Jubilees it’ll be before he finally learns the way of love,” mused Thomas.
“A fair few I reckon,” said Bull. “He’s a proud soul in a community of proud souls.”
“We’ll be back soon to settle in,” said Thomas. Thomas and Bull knew their task was to live alongside these difficult men. Though it was one of the toughest assignments, there was much reward in the challenge.
Cedric had flown back up to the cliff top and had resumed his usual position watching over the camp from a comfortable nest. Bull and Thomas waved goodbye, and Cedric lifted a huge paw to his head in a salute.
“We must return for the team meeting,” Thomas reminded Bull as they set off back down the road.