118 - Baghdad
SEVERAL YEARS AGO The sounds of gunfire started just as we were getting into position. that wasn’t supposed to happen–we were supposed to be among the first in. Had we already lost the element of surprise? That didn’t bode well. Not at all.
But our Sergent was adamant that the mission go on as scheduled. I knew that he’d been hard, but the way he was acting, someone had put the fear of God into him. He seemed even more driven than normal.
When we got into position, I was only barely surprised that it was across the same courtyard from the main entrance that I’d been shot at what felt just like yesterday. So we were going in with a frontal assault? That didn’t sound particularly pleasant. Not my call though.
“Father,” the Sergent said, motioning me to come forward. I walked up to right beside him. He was studying the courtyard, looking in particular at the large lights on several buildings that were keeping the entire place lit up nearly as brightly as day. If we went across that now, it was a suicide mission. I hoped whatever plan he had going on involved getting rid of those lights somehow. But I doubted that was what he had called me up here for.
“If you don’t mind,” he said. “Would you pray for us?”
I blinked at him. Certainly I hadn’t heard him correctly. Pray for them? It wasn’t unusual for individual soldiers to come to me and ask me to pray for them. Even officers occasionally. But I’d never before had such a request in the middle of a field mission. Particularly not a mission that i was in the middle of at the time.
And to my knowledge, the Sergent wasn’t a particularly religious man. I’d never noticed him at any of the Sunday services, nor really had an opportunity to talk to him about such things. Really, I hadn’t had much opportunity at all to talk to him–not before being forced to do so recently.
So why was asking this now?
Best not to pass up such an opportunity though.
“Bless us Father, in our hour of need…”
I kept my voice down. After all, God was everywhere and would be able to hear me no matter what. The enemy snipers that I was sure were on the roof of the museum on the other hand–I needed to make sure that they didn’t hear me.
But still, my voice carried enough to the men. Several of the men came over and I saw a few crossing themselves or bowing their heads. I knew specifically that I few of them weren’t even Catholic–and in one case actually a young Hindu I’d spoken with about our respective faiths a few times. They may say that there are no atheists in foxholes, but whether or not that was true, I at least knew that the men were looking for a little something extra this evening.
“Amen,” I finished, echoed by a number of the men, the Sergent included.
“Thank you,” he said and appeared to genuinely mean it. But a moment later, his attention was another man, an obvious sniper with his weapon of choice already out and ready to go. The Sergent made a series of gestures towards the lights around the square which was all the sniper needed.
Getting down on one knee and extending a set of legs to rest his rifle on, he started firing.
POP POP POP POP
Less than thirty seconds after he’d started and the square was almost completely dark, lit only by faint ambient lights coming from the surrounding buildings and by a rectangle of light around the main door. If the enemy had any snipers on the roof, they were going to have a hard time getting a bead on us.
“Ready?” the Sergent asked. We all already knew the plan. Move quick and move low, get to the door without getting shot.
Seeing the nods all around, the Sergent nodded once himself before uttering the only word that was needed.
119 - Rome
PRESENT DAY The way Michael and Gabriel talked to one another was civil enough, almost overly so. But there was definitely tension there, thick enough to cut. After a moment, they’d cut off to the side so that the two of them could talk alone and shifted into another language that I couldn’t even recognize. Probably angelic or some such.
While they talked, I finished filling Father Antonio and Amira in on all that had happened to me after they’d left and they did the same. It seemed that I’d had the brunt of the excitement–neither of them had recognized Cerberus as what she was, but both had recognized the danger and fallen into well laid plans to get out of the way.
They both assured me that it hadn’t been their idea to leave me there all alone. Father Antonio claimed that he’d tried to pull me away–which I vaguely remembered–and Amira said she’d called after me–which I didn’t remember at all–but I assured the both of them that I didn’t mind. Everything had worked out all right in the end. Perhaps it had been God’s plan that I meet with Lazarus as I had. After all, how else would I have known just who we were dealing with.
Although come to think of it, I still didn’t know exactly what Lazarus was or what he was capable of. At some point, my mind had shifted to the point that I actually believed his story. After everything else that I’d been forced to confront, why not this to? But what did that mean? In my mind, there wasn’t a long list of people who hadn’t died. All of those had been those special cases, mostly Old Testament, of being taken body and soul directly up into Heaven. I couldn’t think of any cases of someone just a man having been granted immortality no Earth.
And it still bothered me to think that this was an oversight on the part of Jesus. He was supposed to be all knowing, so surely he would have known the effects of his actions, even if they were as obscure as a random potter happening to catch His words. So if he’d known, surely there was more to the story than that. What I wanted was to hear the rest of Lazarus’ story, straight from the horse’s mouth as it was. But I had a feeling that I wasn’t going to get an opportunity like that, at least not anytime soon.
Neither Amira nor Father Antonio particularly seemed to share my point of view though. I mentioned that perhaps Lazarus really wasn’t the problem in this situation, that perhaps we all just wanted to the same thing. But all they’d seen of Lazarus was him chasing them down with Cerberus at his side and Michael deal with the dog. Come to think of it, Cerberus was a bit of a sticking point in any thoughts I had redeeming Lazarus. He may still have had the innate grace and worth that every human being was born with, but Cerberus just didn’t fit into my world view. I didn’t know what she was or how I should deal with her if it came down to it.
Abruptly I realized that a man in a hooded cloak had joined the rest of us while we’d been talking. The way he moved was smooth and non-descriptor enough that I hadn’t even noticed him until he was already there and couldn’t have put a time on when he’d joined us. He seemed to be waiting for just such a lull in the conversation. Seeing that I’d noticed him, he straightened his head, allowing his hood to fall back slightly.
It was Lazarus.
120 - Rome
PRESENT DAY “shh”, he whispered, putting a finger to his lips. I realized that neither Father Antonio nor Amira were actually looking at him, at least not yet. My first thought was how could they miss him? Of course then I realized that I’d done just the same thing not so very long ago.
I looked over at Michael and Gabriel. They were both faced away about ten paces away from the four of us, facing towards St. Peter’s. Neither of them appeared to have noticed him either.
Cerberus was nowhere to be seen, either as woman or as giant dog. We were far enough into the plaza that she was at least a few seconds away, even if she were watching. That reassured me more than I would have expected.
Lazarus was watching me, having lowered his hand. I could feel him weighing me, trying to decided just as I was if I was going to turn him in or if I was going to give him another chance. Honestly, I didn’t know. I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. I didn’t believe that it was even possible for someone tot be so far lost that they couldn’t be saved. That even included a two thousand year old contemporary of Jesus’ who was nevertheless trying to break one of His greatest commandments.
One more chance, I thought. What’s the worse that could happen.
I nodded slightly to Lazarus, hoping that he would get the idea.
He nodded back, turning and walking off at an angle, at the same time away from Michael and Gabriel, but also further away from any possible hiding place of Cerberus'.
As I followed after, Amira was the first to notice. “What’s up?” she asked.
“Not much,” I said. It wasn’t strictly speaking a lie, was it? More of delaying with the hope of more information. Mentally, I sighed though. that probably didn’t matter. Yet another thing to ask forgiveness for. “I just thought I’d walk a bit. Get some fresh air. Maybe it’ll wake me up a bit.” Which definitely wasn’t a lie. Arriving and finding that our mysterious contact had been Gabriel had given me a second–third–fourth?–wind, but that was already starting to fade. It had been a really long day.
She nodded and turned back to Father Antonio. Just as much as I disliked lying in general, I really didn’t like lying to Amira. Hopefully it wouldn’t be necessary for long.
I walked over to Lazarus. “You aren’t going to try to kill me, are you?” Being direct never hurt anyone.
He looked at me out of the side of his hood, surprise registering on his face. “No… Why would you think that?”
I blinked at him. “Because you’ve been chasing us all night. Your… hound was trying to skewer me.”
He shook his head. “You were never in any danger. All I want to do is to complete the cup once again.”
I wanted to ask him why, but we’d already had that conversation. I still couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of wanting to commit suicide at all, let alone knowing all that he did about the life and times of Jesus the Christ. Instead, I asked him, “so then why is Michael trying to stop you?”
“Michael? The Michael?” His head jerked upwards and from side to side, scanning the surroundings. After a moment, his gaze fell on Michael and Gabriel standing a dozen paces from the two of us, nearly as far as Father Antonio and Amira were now.
I followed his gaze, only to find Michael and Gabriel staring right back at the two of us.
With identical motions, the two of them dropped their right hands, a flaming sword falling into existence in each. Without a word, they ran at Lazarus, curving outwards slightly in order to try to cut him off.
They didn’t look like they wanted to talk, they looked like they wanted blood.
And there I was, standing right at his side.