44 - Baghdad
SEVERAL YEARS AGO I felt lightheaded. I couldn’t have said if it was the strange goings on or the lack of blood, but either way the world seemed to be glowing around the edges. That couldn’t be natural.
“Did you see–” I started to say, but my words seemed to make the glowing even worse.
The Private that had been working on my needle looked over to my face, a distracted look on his face. “Did I see what?”
“The…” I couldn’t finish. Each word felt significantly harder than it should have been.
He looked at me, a patient expression on his face. That was something at least.
“Shard? What shard?” Patience had given was to confusion now.
He looked down at my hands and I followed his gaze. Nothing out of the ordinary. Too much of nothing in fact. The tiny globe of blood that I’d seen previously was gone now, leaving not even so much as a scar.
I stared at my finger; the Private did as well. “It looks perfectly fine to me.”
I just couldn’t find the words.
It was just as well then that the medic choose that instant to come over a tired yet triumphant look on his face. “She’s going to be all right.”
He looked down at me, his smile fading somewhat. “Although you look a bit worse for the wear. What happened?”
The Private standing over me answered for him. “I’m not sure sir, he just started babbling about his finger and some shard.” He took hold of my hand, lifting my finger up into the medic’s field of view. “But so far as I can tell, there’s nothing wrong with him.”
The medic looked at my hand, but didn’t seem particularly perplexed by this development. Instead, he said, “Perhaps we’ve taken enough of his blood then.” He kinked the tube attached to the need in my arm, preparing to remove it.
“What happened?” I managed.
His hands stopped in mid motion and he looked over at me. “What do you mean?”
“With that breeze, just a bit ago.” He just looked at me blankly. “While you were stitching her up.” Nothing.
“What breeze?” the Private standing over me said. Both of them were focusing rather intently on me now.
I shook my head. I know what I’d felt. I know that there’d been a breeze. But if the two of them were set with carrying on this falsehood, there wasn’t much that I was going to be able to do to change their minds. “Never mind,” I said. “I must have just imagined it.”
The Private nodded, although the medic looked at me for a few more seconds before going back to what he’d been doing with the blood line. No more than a minute later though, he was finished, removing it from my arm and giving me a cotton ball to hold in place to staunch the bleeding. It just felt like any other time giving blood.
At least the white halo around my field of vision was starting to clear up somewhat. Perhaps I had just been running low on blood.
“She’s not bleeding any more, right?” My words were coming easier now as well.
The medic nodded. “It was the strangest thing. One moment, I was doing my best to stay ahead of the bleeding, cleaning and suturing as best I could. The next, it was almost as if the blood was flowing back into her veins, the torn flesh starting to knit itself back together of its own accord.”
The Private shrugged. “Weird.”
“It was. I guess I’m just tired or something.”
I was about to offer an alternate explanation, that perhaps some sort of miracle had taken place. After all, sometimes prayers actually were answered.
And then the door burst open, swinging inwards with entirely unnecessary force.
The scent of wet leather.
And Private Jackson standing in the doorway.
45 - Rome
PRESENT DAY My first thought was that the whole thing sounded kind of ridiculous. Admittedly, there seemed to be as many descriptions of angels as there were men and women to see them–from faces like the sun with pillars of fire for legs to the more well thought of beautiful beings with wings and halos.
Never though had I heard about angels that appeared as you expected them to appear, with a side effect of toying with your memory, all so that faith might remain a mystery.
You’d think that would be something that would have been covered in the seminary…
“All right then,” I said. “Assume you’re right…”
“It’s not just me,” Father Antonio said. “A lot of men much smarter than me have been studying this problem for a very long time.”
“Be that as it may, I’m still not sure what all this has to do with me.”
Father Antonio smiled. It was a sympathetic smile at least this time. Perhaps he too had gone through this same thing once upon a time and was remembering just how strange of a situation it was.
“Well,” he said, “it was your question. Do you regret asking?”
I had to think about it for a moment. No. I don’t think that I did regret it. I wasn’t entirely sure that I believed it, but I didn’t regret it. Either way I was glad to get Father Antonio’s point of view out in the open.
“So the man who showed up and sent me to you is an angel. And not any angel, but the Archangel Michael in particular? The leader of the Army of God? The guardian of souls? That Michael?”
Father Antonio smiled. “So at least you know a little bit about him.”
“Of course I knew a little bit about him, I grew up in a Catholic town. For a little boy growing up, the leader of the Army of God is one of the coolest things ever. It’s one of the reason that I joined the army myself…” I stopped, realizing that I’d perhaps said more than I’d intended. I’d never told anyone that particular story.
Father Antonio looked nonplussed, but Amira was looking at me as if seeing me anew. “You never mentioned that,” she said in a quiet voice.
“It never came up.” Which, strictly speaking was true. Although I couldn’t have said whether I would have mentioned it to her even if she had asked why I’d joined the army. Most likely I would have told her the same reason that I gave everyone else: there were souls worth saving fighting in the army, dying in the army. The least I could do was to try to fight for them in the next life the way they were fighting for all of us in this one.
She seemed to accept the reason though, nodding, looking only ever so slightly doubtful.
“But the important part is that’s the same Michael that sent me to you? Really?”
Father Antonio just nodded. Amira said, “It certainly looks that way.”
Great. Just great.
46 - Rome
PRESENT DAY We proceeded to talk long into the night, well past midnight. My body was already screaming at me, telling me that I was halfway around the world–as if I didn’t already know that–and that I should have been asleep hours ago.
Of course I just told my body to shut it and kept pushing onwards. The Italian coffee helped somewhat, but even that might not have been enough under more ordinary circumstances.
But these were far from ordinary circumstances and this was far from ordinary conversation.
We talked about other artifacts, other things that either Amira had found in her travels or that had been sent to Father Antonio much as I had been. Michael came up, again and again, along with those I assumed had to have been other angels, although I didn’t recognize many of the names.
There were only three angels named in the Bible after all: Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael. After that, all bets were off.
It seemed that both of them had ended up in an absolutely fascinating line of work and that both of them enjoyed their jobs. Truth be told, I was envious of them. I still believed that I had been and still was called to be a priest but it wasn’t precisely the most thrilling of jobs. Even now more so than ever, now that my eyes were just beginning to be opened to the possibility of even more that lay beyond the world we know.
And then for a while, the conversation grew dark. It seemed that collecting artifacts such as the Cup of Lazarus was not always an easy job and was often fraught with peril.
There were those in the world that were aware of the more interesting bits of the world, yet did not follow the Church’s authority. Wealthy businessmen or other powerful figures that knew such things as the Cup existed, but wanted them for themselves. And who could blame them?
An object with apparent powers over death? It was a wealthy man’s wildest dream. Why bother forcing a camel through the eye of a needle when you never needed die in the first place.
And then there were others still, fallen angels, demons and devils. The more Father Antonio described of such beings, the more I began to feel that perhaps this was all a colossal practical joke after all. Perhaps there were actually angels in the world, perhaps they did have a hand in the day to day affairs of man. But demons and devils and things that went bump in the night? Surely not.
But no. Apparently if angels were real, their less benevolent kin were real as well. And they most certainly didn’t want artifacts as powerful as the Cup of Lazarus to remain in the hands of the Church, they wanted to twist them for their own ends. So not only did Father Antonio and Amira have ordinary men and women to contend with in their daily lives, but they also had the potential for run ins with all sorts of supernatural baddies. Granted, neither had actually had such an experience, but both seemed to believe that it was only a matter of time.
So of course, it was right when the three of us were all talking about all of the darkest corners of the stories we’d heard in Sunday school and seminary that there came a knock on the door.
Three quick raps, then a pause, then three more, all before any of us so much as got up. Someone wanted to get our attention and they wanted it now.
I looked down at my watch, but it was useless since I’d never actually set it to the local time. It was 10 in the evening back home, which would make it … either really late or really early here, depending on how you looked at it.
The three of us just looked at each other.
“It’s your apartment,” I finally said to Amira.
“I’m not expecting anyone,” she replied, clearly not wanting to get up and go answer the door. Perhaps she was having the same feeling that I was after our last topic of conversation.
“Father?” I said, not wanting to get up any more than Amira did.
Another three knocks came at the door, harder this time, quicker.
He was just looking over at the door, not getting up.
“Fine.” I said. It was probably just a neighbor or something anyways.
I got up and walked over to the door.
As I was about halfway there, three things happened one right on top of the other, from one to the next all in the span of a handful of seconds.
A sudden deep hum, so low I could feel my teeth rattling in my skull.
The smell of tar, like a freshly paved road in the middle of the summer.
And with all almighty roar, the door blew inwards.