“A Sentinel’s Twenty-One Steps”

by Devin Vandriel


Hail the size of peas poured down and pelted Caleb.

Around him, the silent crowd scattered. Their hurried steps mingled with the clicking of ice bouncing off concrete. When they reached the shelter of the nearby building, they shook the white lumps of ice off their clothes and turned to watch him, waiting for the storm to pass, watching to see if he would abandon his post.

His damp gloves helped keep a firm grip on his rifle as he walked the black rubber mat. His breath misted as the hail grew to the size of mothballs. Grinding his molars together was the only way he could keep from flinching at every frozen impact. He couldn’t let his emotions show on his face as it would be unprofessional. He couldn’t hunch his shoulders to protect his neck and head from the small projectiles as that would go against regulation. He most assuredly could not change the gait of his pacing as that would send the Sergeant of the Guard into a red rage.

His fingers went numb.

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the crowd watching him, and he knew they were waiting for him to break and head for the shelter of the green box – not twenty feet from him.

Caleb had to take a deep breath through his nose to keep from grinning as he made his turn and walked the twenty-one steps to the turnaround point. This hail meant bragging rights. He would get to lord it over the other Sentinels. And Stevens would finally shut up about his rotation during the last drizzle. Okay, so it had been a hurricane… But there had hardly been any wind and rain.

He stopped. Waited twenty-one seconds. The hard ice didn’t ease, and the seconds were long. He turned and walked another twenty-one steps. The slow gait felt slower than normal, but he trusted his muscles to remember the way.

Hot lightning ripped across the sky, giving him a momentary view of the icy diamonds and dark, low-hanging clouds. Thunder chased the firebolt, drowning out the beating of the hail.

The rifle in his hands felt like a lightning rod.

He stopped – beginning the slow count.

He couldn’t see the box, but he knew it was there. Safety. A little warmth, and it would be dry. No one would blame him if he went to the box. His fellow Sentinels would understand. But, he would never forgive himself if he allowed a little hard ice and some electrical discharges to chase him off. Caleb gripped his weapon until his numb fingers hurt.

More lightning.

Caleb understood why more primitive humans had worshiped nature. Offered sacrifices to her. Her power reached inside him and yanked at something he vaguely recognized as fear. Primal fear. The fear told him to drop the metal conductor and head for safety; it told him that if he didn’t do it right now, he would die.

Caleb reached twenty-one in his head and turned.

Restless energy burned through his legs as he made the methodical, painful twenty-one steps. Again, he began his count.

Lightning cracked. He felt thunder reverberate through his shoes. In his chest.

The Sentinels had been guarding the Tomb of the Unknowns for the last eighty-three years. He would be damned if he was the one to break the tradition.

Caleb reached twenty-one in his head and turned.