The cracking whips tore their flesh, making fresh blood pour from the laceration refreshing the dulling shades of scarlet from the crisscrossing wounds leaving behind a trail of blood that painted the bottom of the marchers' bare feet and stamped the street with crimson footprints.
Millions of people around the world drawn in by morbid curiosity watched the macabre spectacle from their computer screens. Popular live feeds were accompanied by a stream of comments from viewers in real-time, creating an eclectic running commentary. Innumerable yellow cartoon faces expressed disgust, sorrow, and disdainful mockery.
The modern Flagellants were a sign of the soul-swallowing darkness enveloping the world. The same despair that disfigured and deformed the people who lived in its endless depths. They began as a fringe cult, with only seven members quickly swelled into a growing faith with enough adherents to make a national stir with a ritual of public self-mutilation. The bloody act of penance was abhorrent to most, but still alluring to an ever-growing number abandoned to the torments and deprivations of those deemed superfluous. When the world turned a deaf ear to them, they could only hope to appeal to a higher power. For many, the self-proclaimed and self-loathing harbingers of the apocalypse were the only place to find anything resembling the protection of a group.
Even though they had made it a point to migrate to D.C. and to carry their procession to the gates of the white house, they made no specific demands of any politician. They didn't hope to influence policy, and they professed no concern for any particular social cause. These were all concerns of the secular world, a world they knew was fast approaching its final hours. This was the citadel of power for the black-hearted and corrupt who ruled in the disintegrating kingdom of man. Their display was one of active penance. They took on the burden of punishment to atone for the inherently sinful flesh. They ravaged their physical bodies to demonstrate to an angry God planning to unleash a series of nightmarish revenge on his abominable creations that they were ready to shed any connection to the world God surely loathed as much as they.
Their children marched with them, although a court order banned them from actively participating. It was the unspoken consensus of the law to let what may happen behind closed doors, but if polite society witnessed it, then the authorities would be forced to act. See no evil hear no evil. The makeup and layered clothing that concealed the wounds on the children's bodies was a concession to their worldly enemies.
Organized groups came out to protest the very existence of their holy order, all the more proof of the world's desire to destroy them. The protesters surged against the police lines to heckle the pilgrims. They waved signs with slogans that detested the very idea of the hated religious zealots being allowed to care for their children. They implored people through megaphones not to turn their backs on the innocent children held hostage by fanatic parents all the while. They pelted them with insults along with bottles and rocks, but the marchers were unfazed.
Mary walked closely behind her mother. For the seven-year-old girl, her mother was a shield from the jeering crowds and faceless riot police. A glass bottle exploded on the ground in front of her mother in a cloud of gleaming glass dust that spread across the street. Mary tugged at her mother's leg so she'd avoid the flesh-shredding shards, but she stepped right through not missing a word of the prayer as the glass lodged itself into the bottoms of her feet.
Mary watched her mother quietly absorb the pain of the hateful blow and continue forward. A child's mind is shaped far more by what it sees than by the abstraction of concepts. Mary was moved by her mother's bravery, and at that moment, it became clear there was only one thing she could do to repay not just her mother's sacrifice but of the pain endured by the group that raised her.
When they reached the fence around the White House lawn, they dropped to their knees and continued to strike the deepening fissures in their flesh with the worn leather whips. Helicopters circled overhead, so the producers commanding the control rooms could have an aerial shot to use for their production.
The mass chant stopped, and the ritual devolved from a rigid display into numerous person showings of self-punishment and debasement. They held up their bloodied hands and pleaded for the lord's forgiveness to the dreary sky. The counter-demonstrators were emboldened and tried to drown out the prayers. They hissed profanity-laced insults at the worshipers who seemingly unmoved by their venomous words begged an immovable God to forgive their tormentors.
Mary gripped a shard of glass from the bottle lobbed at her mother. She felt the warmth of running blood in her palm, but she hadn't felt the pain of the cut. She looked out at the rows of police standing behind their shields and at the rabid mob trying to get through to them. Their threats grew more violent, and their insults became nastier:
Mary exhaled deeply and felt all the fear leave her body in one breath. She confidently walked up to the front of the flock. Thousands of electronic eyes turned to her as she stood defiantly in front of the police and held out her arm. Even in the roiling crowd, she could hear the individual muttering.
"What is she doing?"
"She's fuckin crazy!"
And "Quick grab her!"
She took the piece of glass and drove the point into her wrist. Blood seeped from the wound, and her eyes welled up with the hot sting of tears. She bit down on her lips and pulled the sharp edge through her skin. A few officers jumped from the line to grab her, and the hostile torrent of humanity they were holding back broke free.
The life drained from her small body quickly. In a matter of seconds, she was on the ground, staring up at the cloud indifferent to the cold rain on her numbing pale face. Her mother appeared over her hysterical. She cradled the little girl's limp body in her arms.
"Oh my sweet little, oh my little gift from God, my sweet baby girl," her mother sobbed while the mortal wound drenched her in her daughter's blood.
"It's ok, mommy. God will know I did it for all of us," Marry said faintly as the color washed out of her flesh, and her sky blue eyes hardened into stone.