The Ides of March arrived. Half a world away Jacob lay on a hospital bed in Escondido. Meanwhile, in Russia, the southern Ural Mountains were still blanketed in snow as leonine storms pounded the Mt. Yamantau complex near the restricted town of Mezhgorye. It was several weeks before Malachi was well enough to leave the Kaspiysk hospital on the Russian shores of the Caspian Sea. The doctors had scoped both of his shoulders to repair the damaged tendons and rotator cuffs. He had undergone multiple skin grafts on his back during his first week in the hospital to repair the areas where his skin was torn away during his scourging at Evin. Vigor was slowly returning to his body and mind. Malachi was always a resilient man, never tolerating any ailment that threatened the feverish pace with which he lived his life. By the time he had reached the second week of his stay at the hospital, he took great pleasure in terrorizing the medical staff, insisting that he be allowed to push his physical limitations as far as his mind could tolerate.
Malachi had spent three weeks in the vast underground base that dwarfed the size of Washington, DC’s beltway without seeing the sun. The bunker complex was a not-so-closely held secret by the Russian government, housing ballistic and nuclear missiles, numerous living quarters, strategic command rooms, and areas for food storage and production. He had been holed up in the bunker complex since arriving from Kaspiysk. Three weeks with no sunlight was driving Malachi out of his mind; as a native of Southern California, he needed sunlight like a car needs gasoline. As his strength of mind and body returned, so did his restlessness. The fluorescent lighting would transform him into a stark raving madman if he couldn’t get outside for a little while. Making this happen was no easy task; even though Malachi had Zyryanov’s full confidence, most of the Russian and Chinese military brass involved in Operation Fulcrum were hesitant to let Malachi lose. He was finally able to convince his co-conspirators that a brief hike up the mountain would allow him the ability to clear his head and sharpen his mind. He agreed to have a pair of armed escorts accompany him on his ascent to the summit of Yamantau.
Malachi and his guards exited the complex at the base of the mountain on the first clear day in over a week dressed like they were embarking on a trans-Antarctic quest. They all carried radios and 2500 cubic inch packs loaded with snowshoes, compact vestibule tents, burners, and two days’ worth of food and water in case a storm blew in and trapped them on the slopes longer than the day and night they planned for the ascent and descent. Along with this, they carried the climbing equipment they would need to make the summit. The dual-peaked mountain rose over 5,000 feet into the air that hovered around -25o Celsius; a thin layer of altocumulus clouds lit with the fiery red light of dawn covered the horizon like a knit blanket, receding into the unclouded sky that was the blazing pale ochre of a crucible recently scraped of dross. Malachi’s eagerness to get going was matched with an equal amount of hesitation on the part of his guards, who saw trouble on the horizon. Yamantau was known locally as ‘the evil mountain’, a summit that stretched forth into the heavens with all of the inchoate chaos of nature that stretched from the mountain’s root to its peak.
They needed to go around the base of the mountain in order to make their way to the best climbing point, so in order to make the early portion of the trip faster, they strapped on cross-country skis. They left the compound entrance on the southwest side of the main peak on the more level ground at the base of the mountain. For the first two hours of their trek, they skated atop recently fallen snow as they circled the base toward the north side of Yamantau. They made their way through a grove of Siberian spruce, snow-laden branches bowing to the earth, mixed with leafless birch that stretched toward heaven like arthritic bones. Along the way they collected small branches and twigs that the lashed to their packs for building fire as the day stretched into night.
The three men strapped their skis onto the sides of their backpacks into open-ended slots made just for that purpose, and changed into their snowshoes. Their ski poles doubled for climbing sticks as they made their initial approach on the north side of the mountain upon the gently rising saddle between the eastern and western peaks. Malachi’s pack caused some discomfort to his surgically repaired shoulders but seemed to present no real challenge as he doggedly set the pace south by southwest up the shallow incline. It only took an hour to reach the steep southwestern ridge that led to the summit. They were all hungry, so they took a break to rest their legs and take in a late morning snack before tackling the steep rise to the peak. The frozen ribbon of Maly Inser River could be seen below them as they sat upon the swale that connected the twin peaks. The air, still frigid, bit at their throats with each breath.
After the brief rest Malachi led the way up the peak, navigating atop the snowy surface in a criss-crossing pattern up the steep slope; he avoided the steeper rock and ice ledges during the ascent. The guards followed meters behind him. As the sun shone through the midday clouds, gusts of wind blew in from the east as snow pelted the climbers from behind. By early afternoon they had reached the summit of Yamantau. The panoramic vista stretched unencumbered from the peak, which was covered with snow-encrusted patches of broken rock. Exposed green lichen covered the broken boulders with its drab hues. Fir forests blanketed the undulating lands beneath them; frozen lakes and streams began to glow as the afternoon light waned into evening. There is something about being atop a mountain that gives one a paradoxical sensation of god-like expansiveness and incredible smallness.
The men conversed as they enjoyed a late lunch together on the summit. The Russian guards sang the praises of the beauty of rural Russia. As Malachi took in their tales of endless tundra, volcanic mountains on the Pacific, and the frigid waters of Lake Baikal that filled a gash in the earth with more fresh water than all the Great Lakes combined, he found himself not only appreciating the beauty of this foreign land, but also longing for his own American vistas. The dying light of evening grew thick with brooding storm clouds. They decided to ski down the east side of the western peak to shelter themselves in the western cover of the eastern peak where a patch of snow-stunted firs rose in the shadow of the eastern ridgeline. Ascending the peak took hours; descending on skis, a matter of minutes. Malachi was an adequate skier, but his skills were no match for the guards who raced ahead of him. They reached their destination as daylight let out its final sigh as the storm clouds began spitting snow, taking on a deeper, more threatening shade of gray. Upon arriving, they went to work setting up camp as they dug in and assembled their tents, and found a rock outcropping that they cleared of snow to build their fire upon.
For the most part, dinner was a silent affair, the two Russians pulled out flasks of Sagomon, the Russian equivalent of moonshine, a high-octane liquor that could double as rocket fuel in a pinch. This batch had been infused with honey, which only slightly eased the sense that one’s palate was being assaulted with a 180 proof blowtorch with each draw. Malachi, usually game for late night revelry with his Eurasian comrades, refused their offers to drink. He hoped he hadn’t offended his guards in the refusal, but he felt like something was aloof that night, something seemed to brood over him and within him. Unsure of what, he planned on leaving camp for as long as it took to find out. When the guards were sufficiently soused, they made their way to their tents, as did Malachi. He remained in his tent for thirty minutes after the last guard had turned off his flashlight, spending his time in the tent in silent prayer, probing into the mystery that was calling out to him with a singular voice.
Malachi pulled his thermal scarf over his bearded cheeks, skull cap over his ears, secured a headlamp on his head, pulled his jacket hood tightly over his head, and strapped on his snowshoes before heading into the howling, winter night. The halo from his headlamp illuminated the white-out conditions of the snowstorm; visibility was a couple of meters. He headed toward the base of the west peak with a stabbing wind at his back. The night snow flew through the air like stars fleeing an unseen terror in the blackness of space. Something on the peak was calling him upward like a moth is drawn to flame. It was as if his feet were carrying him onward in spite of his inward trepidation.
He struggled in the darkness as he slowly ascended the peak of the evil mountain, feeling with every stride its untamed wildness, suspecting that at any moment the storm or the Yamantau itself would swallow him whole. He had left the base camp shortly after 22:00 hours, and it took him the better part of four hours to struggle up to the summit. After taking a few moments to catch his breath, he found one of the snow covered rocks that littered the peak and sat down. As soon as he sat, his ears popped with a change in atmospheric pressure; the storm raged all about him, but there was a radius of about three meters that encircled him where the storm abated. It was as if the storm was held at bay by an invisible force as the snow fell lightly like silent angels upon his circle. He could not hear the winds whipping outside the circle when a beam of white fire encircled him, filling his bones with immeasurable weight and star-like heat, though the flames did not harm him. As the fire descended upon him, he fell into a waking trance. Without knowing it, he rose to his feet, turning around to see several visionary scenes unfold like a production room filled with television screens within the circle that repulsed the storm. He struggled to make sense of the cacophony of visual images that poured into his mind all at once. He stood still, peering at one image after another, lingering upon each for some time.
Malachi looked and saw the first image unfold before him. There were two vast, towering olive trees that stood astride the earth which had been flattened from a globe to the level plane men once assumed it was. Oil flowed from the trees, feeding two golden menorahs lighting the earth with the fire that issued from the seven sconces that lit the lampstands. The image misted as the trees and lampstands morphed into two grizzled, sackcloth-clad figures that stood above the earth; the same golden light that lit the lampstands now descended on these Colossus-like figures from heaven and proceeded from their mouths, eyes, and hands. He looked and saw their faces and began to tremble. He saw Jacob’s face, and as he turned, he saw his own; both older and scored with wrinkles forged by wrath and mercy.
As the first scene faded Malachi turned; as he looked he saw a bright light that cast its shadow over a daunting desert mountain range, with rows of peaks scraping the heavens like so many teeth. The range spanned thousands of kilometers, obscuring the light that was dawning behind it; portents of death lingering in their shaded valleys. As he surveyed the wilderness range, a voice whispered in his ears and echoed in his head and heart, “In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the LORD will be revealed.”
As the voice resounded within him, a hundred kilometer section of the jagged range began to undulate. As the mountains quaked, the valleys were raised up and the peaks leveled. The light, formerly obscured by the peaks, poured down the level path in the desert with resplendent glory. He peered further down the path where a cross stood; instead of casting a shadow, it blazed like a pillar of fire to light the way; equal to, if not surpassing, the glory that lay behind. As he looked further down the pat, he saw it ascending upward on a broad plain, where the City of God was descending to a renewed earth. People from every tongue, tribe, and nation streamed up the path lit by the Cross and the City, reconstituted as the true Israel of God journeying to their heavenly home.
The vision shifted again; he looked and he saw a vast oak tree with its branches reaching far into the heavens. The ancient tree had been growing upon the earth since the days of Abraham, and in the ecology of its branches, life flourished. The tree was still growing; certain branches, old and new, had clearly been grafted into the holy root. As the tree extended upward he saw dead branches being broken, soughing off the tree like dead bones, but at the same time, new branches were grafted where the old had died. Abraham’s tree was growing toward completion. Sons of Jacob, old and forgotten, lying at the base of the tree ascended upward as their branches were added, embraced by the Promised Son whom they had pierced. Sons of Ishmael and new tribes from every corner of the globe were being added as the primeval tree stretched upward in praise. Faithful Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Protestants, Pentecostals, and every other Christian branch springing forth from the tree were strengthened, finding their common root in Christ while retaining their own unique position upon that tree. But there were also dead branches in the church being broken off because there was no life in them. Through this process, the company of the redeemed was rising to completion.
Each vision cascaded into the one that followed. He looked and he saw his hometown, Escondido. The valley was brightened by noonday light as he seemed to hover above it, and again, a voice resounded within him, “I hid you in my hand, shaping you to be my messenger at the end of the age. I have set you apart to speak my words to my people and those not yet my people. Your message is one of wrath and redemption. You will speak to my family in the power of my Son, filled with my Spirit, to bring reconciliation to my divided house, turning ‘the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to the fathers,’ I am using you to cast down the shepherds who devour my sheep, and to build up those that feed them, that they might bear witness to my Son on the great and terrible day of the LORD.
“Behold, I am coming soon. I will purify my house with my own hand as I bring them home. You wear the mantle of Elijah, a voice crying in the wilderness, until the earth is broken and remade at the appearance of my glorious Son. ‘Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify my priesthood and refine them like gold and silver.’”
Again, he looked and saw his lifeless body, along with Jacob’s, lying, bloody and marred, on the streets of Sodom, slain by the Beast that arose out of the Abyss. They had faithfully borne Witness to the Lord of the heavens and the earth and paid dearly for it. Yet they, along with all the saints who bore witness to Christ in the tribulation, “overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.” Their unburied bodies were rejoiced over by the unrepentant inhabitants of earth, because they had stopped rain from falling on the earth, turned its waters to blood, and called fire from heaven to consume the enemies of God, bringing down the innumerable plagues to earth that God had wrought in heaven. However, God vindicated their Witness after three and a half days, when he said to them “come up here.” The Divine breath that first gave man life filled their lungs again, as they rose to their feet in glorified new bodies robed in dazzling white. A whirlwind of angels with fiery wings and flaming chariots descended with a bright white flame and took Malachi and Jacob up to heaven as a sign of what was soon to take place for the whole household of God.
Malachi began trembling in the circle where the visions had transpired; the white flames that had descended upon him had turned to smoke when he heard the voice, now louder ask, “Will you go for Us?”
“Lord, I am unworthy. All I have is the filthy and tattered garments of the life I have lived. How can I begin to speak your words with lips that are so unclean?”
“Your garments have been washed clean by the blood of the Lamb. Your sins as scarlet are now whiter than freshly driven snow. Will you go for Us?”
“This task is too much; it requires more from me than I have to give. If you strengthen me, I will go,” answered Malachi.
As soon as Malachi said, “I will go,” the smoke dissipated and he fell out of the trance. He blinked to reorient his eyes to his surroundings. The vision seemed to take place in a matter of moments, but as he looked around him, the storm had ceased, and the pale yellow light of dawn rose on the eastern horizon. He sat for several minutes on the snow-covered rock he rested upon in the night to gather himself, still shaken by what had transpired.
“Brandt,” a Russian voice chimed in on his radio, “Brandt, do you copy?”
“Yes, I copy.”
“Where are you?” the guard asked.
“I am back on the peak, heading down in just a moment.”
“Are you all right? We saw fire on the mountain last night.”
“I am fine, I should be down in an hour or so,” replied Malachi.
“Are you sure? We can come get you.”
“Thanks, but that will not be necessary,” he answered, “I’ll be back to the camp shortly.”
Malachi approached the guards, the shock clearly written on their faces. They were looking at him the way someone might after seeing the abominable snowman on a white-blanketed mountain.
“What’s wrong, gentlemen?” asked Malachi.
“Your hair, and your beard, Mr. Brandt,” said one of the guards, “They’re white like glowing silver.”
Malachi had his skull cap off since the temperature was a balmy -10oC, and his scarf was no longer pulled up over his face. Before his experience on the mountain, his long hair was brown, streaked with a dingy gray, and similarly drab gray beard. He responded with a flippant, “Oh, really?”
“We saw the fire on the mountain last night, there were thunder and lightning, and in the end, clouds that looked like smoke. Were you there?”
Malachi grinned deviously. Clearly, the experience did not diminish his twisted sense of humor, “Just trying to do my best Charlton Heston impersonation, that’s all.”
The reference clearly went over their heads, “Who is this Carlton Heston?”
“Charlton, Charlton Heston.” he responded with exasperation through his smile, “What kind of movies to you Ruskies watch?”
“No Heston, Mr. Brandt,” one of the guards nodded sternly, still taken aback by Brandt’s appearance.
They had a quick breakfast, as the cloudless sunrise turned from muted saffron to a gleaming champagne, then broke camp. They decided to ski down the south side of the saddle that separated the peaks to make a quick return to the Yamantau complex. For Malachi, skiing down the mountain was a welcomed visceral interruption to the spiritual experience that seemed to beggar belief. Even though Malachi had always preferred snowboarding, he put all his artful effort into making his way down the gentle slope. He felt morning’s vigor as he made long arcing turns down the freshly powdered mountain. A broader pair of skis would probably have worked better, but his cross-country pair was more than sufficient to lose himself in the exhilarating glide down toward the base of the mountain.
A cadre of Russian troops was waiting at the entrance of the complex for Malachi, having overheard the guards’ radio communication that they were returning. The trio skated to the entrance on their skis. The guards were bemused by what had transpired, and Malachi was struggling to grasp the magnitude of the previous night’s experience. However dislocated he felt from his own sanity, the world had snapped into focus. The purpose and thrust of the violence and chaos that humanity had endured over the past several years was becoming clear; the war was a prelude to the end of all things and the beginning of something entirely new.