Chapter 1: When It Rains…
– Jude –
My palms were pressed together, cold and clammy from the mist that enshrouded me. Moisture clung to my bare scalp, beading into droplets that trickled down the back of my neck. The chill of the morning reached up through the earth and clawed at knees too old to do much else but ache. I wanted to shut it all out. I wanted to find an inner peace and make the connection. I wanted to clear away all the emotion, so that this time He would hear me. It was the reason I came here.
But I felt like an imposter. Trying not to be angry, or bitter, or even resentful at this point was like trying to stop the earth from spinning. Pretending I wasn’t every one of these hateful things only intensified all the negative impulses churning inside me. I wanted to yell at Him, rebuke Him for putting me through this. He knew it too – it’s what He does.
Does this make you happy?
I was shaking – slighted, cast-off, and then quite abruptly… not alone.
I sensed his presence before I saw Him, which is how it usually worked. That single moment of perfect stillness before the rain comes.
It had rained a lot this year.
I didn’t bother to turn around. “Let’s just get this over with. I got shit to do today.” I sighed and shook my head as I climbed from where I was kneeling at the headstone.
He chuckled, the deep baritone rolling through the empty churchyard like distant thunder. “Such hubris from one who is about to die! May it be your epitaph: ‘Here Lies Jude – he had shit to do today.’ Most of the humans I’ve slain had enough sense to save their final words for a more fitting plea.”
“Yeah, well, we both know I’m not most humans.” I turned to face my would-be assassin and, despite my earlier bravado, I must admit I was slightly taken aback.
When most folks picture a demon, they tend to think of some hideous thing that makes you want to lose control of your bodily fluids, or perhaps a shadowy form that stalks and torments you in the night. Sometimes they do appear as such; but more often than not, evil is more deceptive than we care to admit. The really scary demons are every bit as beautiful as people imagine angels to be – they are angels, fallen angels, cast out by their Master centuries ago, but angels nonetheless.
This particular specimen standing before me was no exception. His physique was that of a Greek god, resplendent in white robes. All around him the air crackled and his skin shone with a brilliant yellow hue that made me want to shield my eyes from the glare. Here was an idealized warrior-angel, appearing as though he’d just emerged from a sixteenth-century fresco and brought with him a hateful malice millennia older than that. Rancor radiated from him in waves, pulsating through the graveyard in my direction, battering me with invisible blows. Staring into the crimson crescents of his eyes, I suddenly found a long-dormant part of myself wishing it had been one of those hideous, shadowy demons. A small nugget of fear gripped my gut as I beheld one of the Enemy’s top assassins.
This was The Executioner.
I snorted. “Alastor. Your boss must be gettin’ nervous if he sent someone like you after me.”
His feral grin was anything but warm as he drew his sword, its white blade singing as it parted from the scabbard at his side. I noted with a degree of satisfaction that he set his feet securely before casually waving his weapon towards the nearby chapel. He was expecting a fight.
“No one sent me. Only lost little sheep like you need a shepherd.” His grin became a smirk. “I guess Father never told you – you stray from the flock and you’ll welcome the wolves. Or maybe you’re just a poor instrument he’s cut from the fold.”
He was getting a fight.
I pasted on a smug smile and concentrated for a brief moment, begrudgingly allowing that familiar warmth of presence to flow over me. Like a hot drink on a cold day, I could feel it ooze down through my being. It spread down through my fingertips and, as it did, I felt my own fiery sword spring to life in my right hand. “If it ain’t the wolf callin’ the sheep black…”
He snarled and lunged. His body was a blur as he moved at what I could only call the ‘speed of thought’. If I were a normal man, his sword would have pinned my carcass to the turf before my eyes could even register the movement. Instead I snapped my blade up in time to knock aside his strike, our swords exploding in a shower of light as they collided. I went with the momentum of the swing, spinning around and backhanding him across the cheek. The impact echoed like a thunderclap and Alastor tumbled end over end, landing in a heap ten meters away.
He slowly got to his feet and massaged his jaw. “Very good. I was afraid that this would be ea–” His monologue halted with an unexpected click as my heel collided squarely with his jaw and sent him crashing through a granite rendering of an angel.
My sword flared and I beckoned him on. “For someone they call ‘The Executioner’, I’m not impressed.”
Ashamed of my initial fear, I chided him for not being able to kill me today. Even if life was the bitter pill I’d grown tired of swallowing, I knew on some level that taking the easy way out wasn’t the solution I was waiting for. Alastor can’t kill me, so I can’t die yet.
Bad for me…worse for him.
Circling cautiously, his blade always between us, I could feel him mentally revising his strategy, testing the possibilities of different cuts and thrusts. He had underestimated me before and likely thought to make sure he would not again.
But caution wouldn’t save him. He came in with a strike at my left, but instead of blocking it, I jumped and the sword swept underneath me. Kicking out, I caught him once again in the jaw, knocking him on his back and jarring the ivory weapon from his grip. As his hand desperately searched for the hilt I claimed it at the wrist; the charred scent of cauterized flesh filled my nostrils. His mouth was moving now – spitting invective or begging for mercy, I really couldn’t tell which with my boot planted firmly on his throat. He squirmed for a few futile moments as the flames from my sword licked at his flesh. I rolled my wrist, dropped to one knee as my sword plunged into his chest.
In an instant the fire from my blade engulfed his entire body. He convulsed in agony as a black chasm opened to suck him into the Void, the great emptiness where fallen spirits are sent until the day of final judgment. His screams faded as the portal closed, and I simply stared at the space where the vacuum had been. I sighed, realizing that I was once again alone in the churchyard as though the entire thing had never taken place.
No, not alone.
When it rains, it pours.
“Was that really necessary? Your speed and efficiency in dispatching one of the Enemy’s better assassins speaks well of your skill, certainly, but wrath is a deadly sin, boy.”
“Not for me, apparently.” I was already scowling as I glanced out of the corner of my eye to acknowledge the man emerging from the morning mist. He wore robes of white with golden sandals, but not the glowing kind like those of angels. This was no angel – this was another breed of hideous demon.
I stood and my sword disappeared in a puff of smoke, as though someone had thrown a bucket of water on it and quenched the flame – which wasn’t too far from the truth. “Spare me the sermon, Enoch. He came after me, not the other way around. If Father didn’t approve He wouldn’t have supplied the juice.” He opened his mouth to object, but I cut him off by stabbing at the center of his chest with my right index finger. “And don’t try and twist self-defense into some sort of altruistic rebirth for me. It wasn’t my choice to fight this one… or the dozen before that.”
The man nodded as he ran his right hand over his white bearded jaw, but his brow remained furrowed dubiously. There was always something condescending about him that made me feel childish and small. I guess, compared to him, I was. “Yes, I am sure. You’ve made your desires perfectly clear, which is why I’m here.”
“Oh really?” I didn’t try to hide the surprise on my face as I sank down onto the old stone bench next to me, a little more drained than I’d expected. “I didn’t think He was listenin’ to me anymore.”
“You know better than that.”
I shrugged. “Maybe I did, once. So, you here to take me home, then? I’m not much good to Him here anymore.” I nodded towards where Alastor had fallen moments before. “It’s been two hundred years of putting up with crap like that. I think I’ve earned my pension.”
Enoch shook his head. He must’ve read the annoyance in my expression because the muscles at the corners of his jaw bunched beneath his beard. “I am not here to take you home. At least, not yet.” He held up a hand and my protest died on my lips. I exhaled heavily through my nose, but remained silent. “He is well aware of your… present state, Jude, and whether you believe it or not, He does sympathize with you. He wants you to come home, as He does all of His children, but there are concerns greater than your own that must be attended. You will be granted your retreat, but first, you must prepare your replacement.”
Enoch nodded gravely. “His name is Paul. He is ready. He has grown strong and has already begun to question things, which is good. Given your current feelings on the subject, you will be able to relate to him the best.”
I laughed openly – and then twice as hard when I saw his confused expression. “That’s funny. I figured that given my ‘current feelings’ I would be the worst person for the job. I’m just as liable to scare him off.”
Enoch smiled – that self-righteous, knowing smile that always made me want to deck him. “It is the Lord’s will that you be the one to train him.” He shrugged. “Despite your current state, I’m sure that He has His reasons.”
“Heh, no doubt.” I waved absently. “Well, ‘the Lord’s will be done’ and all that.” I rose from the cold stone and glanced around the dank churchyard. “Anything, if it’ll get me out of this hellhole once and for all.”
Enoch’s voice was laced with sarcasm. “I’m glad to see that you have such a positive attitude. However, there is more you should know.” His tone hardened again. “There is evidence that the demon who came here for you this morning was actually part of a contingent whose mission was to find your successor before you did.”
I felt my insides freeze and the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Hunts for Potentials were not unheard of, but hardly standard operating procedure for the demon hordes. I may have thought Alastor was a chump, but against a Potential he would’ve been overkill. If he was only one of a group, though…
Enoch nodded as though he’d read my expression. “Luckily, the fool you banished to the Void this morning was lured by the bigger target. His compatriots have been linked by the Faithful to a cult operating outside of the city. Find them… before they find Paul.” His eyes went wide for a moment and he seemed to look at something in the distance that I couldn’t see, then looked back at me. He was always doing that, which annoyed me even more than his damn smile. “You’d best be going. It looks as though your new pupil may need your help very soon.”
– Paul –
“I’m going to kill him.”
I was trying unsuccessfully to get my tie even, but the smaller part kept ending up longer and sticking out from the back.
Mary laughed and turned me toward her. “Here, let me.” She undid the tie and started over fresh, glancing up to meet my eyes as she did so. “And you know you shouldn’t be talking that way, Paul. He is the Pastor, and you did agree to serve under him when you came here. Besides, you were miserable before he swooped in and gave you this opportunity.”
I rolled my eyes. “I know. But that’s just it. It’s not like I had much of a choice. I felt like God was telling me something, pushing me to come here and serve under him, so I did. What was I going to say? ‘But God, this idiot is paddling in circles while I – a genius, mind you – am wasting my skills’? I know I’m capable of so much more, but He tells me not to rely on my past accomplishments with the Pastor…” I sighed and realized I was starting to rant, so I shrugged my shoulders. “So this is where He wants me to be? I’m stuck as this under-qualified jerk’s lackey, and I don’t know why.”
“I know why.” She made a show of rubbing her stomach and I felt some of the fight bleed out of me.
“I think that God felt it was time you started acting like a big boy. You are going to be a daddy soon and I don’t think I have the energy to baby-sit two kids.” I made a face and Mary gave me one of those knowing smiles that always bugged me. She tightened the tie a notch below excruciating before patting me on the chest. “But seriously, honey, maybe God just guided you here to humble you.”
“Gee, thanks.” I turned away, went to the sink, and started battling with my unruly black hair. The brush kept getting tangled and the frustration from that found a perfect mate in the sarcasm of my voice. “I appreciate the support, darling.”
Mary followed and wrapped her arms around my waist from behind. “Honey, all I’m saying is you’re such a talented person and, because things have come so easy for you, especially in your ministry work, maybe you’ve been coasting on your own steam. You got your first degree at what – like, ten, for crying out loud?”
“Actually, it was sixteen.”
“Well, soor-rryy Doogie. My point is that you’ve accomplished so much already that maybe the only way God can teach you some of the things He needs you to learn is to put you in a place where He can break you. Maybe God wants more of you than you want for yourself.”
I put down the brush and turned, taking Mary up in my arms. I smiled down at her and kissed her fully on the lips. As I ran my hands through her blonde hair, I relished the smooth sensation between my fingers and I felt all the tension in my soul subside. I kept my forehead pressed against hers and whispered, “Maybe you’re right.”
She bit her lower lip, then returned my smile with a dazzling grin that sent a jolt through me from head to toe. I could only pray that God blessed our child with her looks and good sense. “That’s what I’m here for, honey. I know this hasn’t been easy for you, but you’ve got to have faith. I have a feeling that something big is about to happen, and God is going to do something great for all our lives.”
© 2009-2012 J.R. Broadwater & Mark Ruelius