Special Preview: The First 4 Chapters of The Chosen: Rebirthing!

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4 Chapter Preview

By J.R. Broadwater & Mark Ruelius

Cover By Shawn Skvarna

Edited by Cathy Holder

Copyright © J.R. Broadwater & Mark Ruelius 2002-2012

All rights reserved

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.”

“What?”

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.”

Chapter 2: …It Pours

– Jude –

“Great,” I sighed. “Just friggin’ great.”

Thousand-yard stares and cryptic prophesies aside, Enoch had provided me with precious little information on my successor-to-be. For instance, I knew that his name was Paul Thomas, that he was in his twenties, worked as a minister, and that he lived outside the Memphis area. What I didn’t know was where he was at the moment – or if I’d even be able to find him in time.

God may be omniscient and Enoch may be his go-to guy, but I’m just a temp in the office that is Heaven, meaning I basically just pass notes and sometimes hear the gossip that leaks out from the boardroom. If Enoch didn’t tell me specifics it meant the guy upstairs didn’t want me to know, or had something else in mind. That usually translates to tedious and frustrating work for me with an all-too-often obscure purpose… ‘mysterious ways’ and all.

I have a love/hate relationship with this Sherlock Holmes aspect of the ‘Lord’s work’ – by which I mean I used to love it and now I hate it. In the old days, when I still had a fire in my belly, I would’ve gone through the phonebook, narrowed a list, hunted down every lead, and played the detective thing to the hilt. When you perform most any task long enough, I guess it’s human nature to turn it into a game. But if anything in life is a game, we’re the players, not the masters of it. We’re subject to the rules and the consequences are tragically real. At least they were for me. That’s when I stopped playing. I guess that’s what this ‘need-to-know’ crap is all about; Heavenly Father has anted up and He wants to know if I’m ready to play again.

Regardless of my ‘state’ – as Enoch put it – the stakes were too big to pass up. So here I am, standing over the bodies of eight members of the local Faithful cell Enoch had mentioned, with an unshakable feeling of dread settling over me and sinking into my bones. The blood trail on the stairs and the splatter pattern on the walls gives me a good idea of what I’ll find in the rest of this suburban split-level home.

All around me, bullet holes were scattered like pores on skin. Pock-marks riddled the floors, ceilings, furniture and bodies, but there were no shells to be found. Some of the cadavers bore large lacerations and wounds from blades both large and small. It wasn’t until I reached the far side of the living room that I realized the carpets were naturally white and that it was the volumes of blood that had given them the rich burgundy color I had first noticed. It was mostly dried. They’d lain like this for some time.

The computers in the house appeared mostly damaged or destroyed, but no more so than any of the other electronic devices. Further, none of the bodies suggested more than futile struggle – they were caught unaware and weren’t expecting trouble, judging by the obvious lack of return fire or dropped weaponry. Nothing pointed to this as being anything more than a random act of violence – nothing except the truth of who I knew these people to be, and the fact that this carnage hadn’t been reported to the authorities.

These nice dead folks here were Faithful, and not in the sense of ‘they go to church every Sunday and always say grace before dinner’, though that was probably true enough here in Germantown, Tennessee – the Bible Belt-buckle.

The Faithful are, in reality, a globe-spanning organization of people from all walks of life who know ‘the truth.’ They know about people like me and what we do; they’ve been clued in to the reality of war between Heaven and Hell, and they perform a number of vital roles in support of ‘the cause.’ They reach as high as governments and celebrities, and as low as back alleys and street corners. To put it simply, if those like me are the sword, then the Faithful are the shield.

What the Faithful lack in power, they make up for in access and information. Unfortunately for these poor bastards, information can get you killed. And, in this case, really killed. Whoever did this job murdered these folks because of something they knew or had access to, but everything at this scene suggests it goes well above a simple hit – whoever did this enjoyed it. It was a crime of passion, of hate. All of this smacks of Cultists, extremist little punks with a hard-on for the dark side. They are the unfaithful – they do for the Enemy what the Faithful do for us. They’re not as numerous or well-organized, at least as far as I know, but they are a bloodthirsty bunch.

I tossed aside a broken piece of a computer hard drive. “Well, this helps explain the lack of detailed info…”

I walk next door. It’s disturbingly nice outside after being in that house. The plastic slide and the little basketball hoop flanking the ubiquitous mini-van in the driveway suggest a nice young family for this nice expensive house with its nice beige siding. I don’t take it personally when my rings of the doorbell are ignored. I even allow myself a snicker when I see the curtains rustle in the far window. It tells me enough.

Luckily, on the other side of the slaughterhouse I find another fresh-faced young couple exiting their SUV. The blonde woman is attractive in a stuffy sort of way, but everything about her significant other tells me that they’re the type of people who know the ‘right’ people. They’re appropriately cordial until I start asking about the people next door – nothing direct; I spin a story about being a business client paying a casual visit. Then I see it. Everything abruptly turns cold and I suddenly feel like a cop questioning a suspect who doesn’t know what they’re being accused of; they stiffen up, stare straight ahead, and start handing me short ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ answers in hopes that I’ll move on. I oblige, and they flee for their door like roaches scattering from a light.

I return to the crime scene. The people in this neighborhood saw enough, or were forcibly compelled into thinking that it would be unwise to pay any attention to, talk about, or acknowledge what had happened in this house. Definitely a Cultist’ touch. Demons wouldn’t bother scaring the neighbors into silence.

Not like solving that particular riddle lessens the pain in my ass at this point. With these Faithful dead, I’m no closer to tracking down Paul, and the fact that they are dead means I need to get to him quick. Something stinks about all this Enemy activity around one friggin’ Potential.

This doesn’t add up.

A contingent of demons, one of whom goes out of his way to put me down this morning before I even get my orders from Enoch. A Cultist hit on the local Faithful with nothing but information on this Potential, my replacement, to connect them. Enoch seemed to think that Alastor had come for me because I was a ripe target, but for him to come to that churchyard, on today of all days, stinks to high Hell. I’m running behind the action here. Everyone is two steps ahead of me. Someone or something is hemorrhaging vital information. If I can trace the bleeding back to the source I’ll stand a better chance of finding Paul in time to prevent him from ending up like these stiffs.

I leave the scene as I found it. I’m no human hunter – that’s a job for the Faithful. Someone will be along to clean up the mess in their cloak and dagger way that won’t lead the authorities anywhere, if or when they decide to look. I spat in disgust and frustration, as though it would remove the bad taste that was setting in my mouth.

Once I find Paul I’ll be that much closer to my reward and that much further from this shit.

– Paul –

“I have a feeling that something big is about to happen, and God is going to do something great for all our lives.”

Mary’s words before we left that morning still rolled around in my head two hours later as I sat on a church pew, half-listening to what the pastor was saying and slipping in and out between thought and prayer.

What do you want from me?

“It says in the Word: ‘Ask and ye shall receive. Seek and ye shall find. Knock and the door will be opened!’”  Pastor took a deep breath and I was almost blinded by the reflection of the bright overhead lights off of the bald spot smack in the middle of his head, flanked by thinning red hair.

“We all do the asking! That’s all we do! We ask, ask, ask-ask-ask, and then sit there and wait – for God to just bring it on a silver platter! But how many of us seek? Huh? How many of us are persistent enough to not just ask, but to keep seeking until we receive an answer? How many of us have enough tenacity to keep knocking… to keep pounding, until the door is opened?” He slammed his fist against the wooden podium to emphasize his point and I saw spittle from his mouth splat an old lady with a frilly purple hat in the front row. She was so caught up with what the pastor was saying that she didn’t even seem to notice.

I snorted as I glanced around the sanctuary. Everyone was dressed in their Sunday best and sitting on the pretty maroon upholstered pews that took three “church meetings” and five votes to decide. I knew that most of them were only pretending to pay attention because I could see it in their expressions – slack jawed, eyes unfocused; one guy off to the side was actually nodding off. I felt dirty just being there.

Sheep. That’s all these people are. They blindly follow because it’s easier than seeking the truth for themselves. They come here week after week, more because it’s expected than because they actually get anything out of it. What’s the point, Father? What do You want from me? Why did You send me to this desolate place? They don’t want to listen to what I have to say. They’re too content with being sheep.

In truth, I felt like my compass was off. It wasn’t God that I doubted; it was my perception of Him. I didn’t feel like I could trust my own judgment anymore. And since interpreting this area of life was my job, the problems just compounded.

Maybe I’m not supposed to be a minister. Maybe I was never called at all.

I felt Mary squeeze my hand and looked over to see her smiling up at me, the yellow dress she wore to Sunday services highlighting the softness of her blue eyes. I was reminded of our conversation earlier. She always seemed to have a sixth sense for when I got into one of these self-defeating moods. I know some of what she’d said was stroking my ego, but maybe she was right about some things. It always fell to her to remind me of how much I had to be thankful for when I hit bottom and sometimes I took for granted how well she could read me. I squeezed back and gave her a warm smile.

No. I’m sorry, Father. She’s right. I shouldn’t be thinking this way. Please, Father, forgive me, and help me to see as you see. Help me to love these people.

My reverie was interrupted when I realized Pastor was looking down at me with his cold gray eyes. His flaccid form, wrapped in its clammy, wrinkled and pale skin combined with his generally bemused countenance made the man almost a dead-ringer for a zombie. “And now, I’d like to ask Minister Thomas to come and lead us in the closing prayer.”

I tried to push away the mental image of the pastor moaning “braaains” as I climbed the few stairs up to the stage. He gave me a wink and a smile, then patted me on the back as he sidled past. It took an extreme act of willpower to not roll my eyes.

I forced a smile as I looked over the congregation, but that faltered when my eyes locked with a lone man in the back. Looming behind the assembly like some dark specter, the man wore solid black from head to foot. The shadow cast across his face by the wide brim of a black hat obscured all but the glint of his eyes. They seemed to burn through me. I could feel the heat of the man’s stare radiating across the room. I gaped for a moment, dumbstruck, but forced myself to look away as a chill crawled up my spine.

With a deliberate effort, I forced myself to ignore it and focus on the job at hand. Luckily the congregation, already out the door in their minds, seemed as blissfully unaware of me as they were of the dark man. “Uh… thank you. Could you all – uh, bow your heads, please?”

I did so as well, and began. “Father, we thank you for this time that we have had together in worship.” The five of us that actually were worshiping. “We thank you for the message that Pastor has just delivered to us.” Which I wrote. “And I ask that you please just speak to our hearts and reveal the truth to us.” Because that’s the only way most of these people are going to get it. “Please be with us and protect us this week, and let everything we do glorify and honor you.” Yeah, right. “It is in Jesus’ name that we pray. Amen.”

I opened my eyes and wasn’t surprised to see that most of the congregation was already standing and making their way to the doors. Thanks for coming, everybody. I’m sure your Creator is honored by your heartfelt rush from His house. The only one who lingered was the man in the black. When he saw that I was looking, he gave a tight smile and nod, then stood up and walked out.

Well, that was really weird.

I shook my head and made my way down from the stage to where Mary waited. She looked up at me with a frown. “You okay?”

I did my best to muster a nonchalant smile, but my voice came out flat and probably gave me away. “Yeah, yeah, I’m fine. Just that there was this guy in the back… he gave me the creeps.”

I turned toward the door, but the man was long gone. Mary had followed my gaze, and when she looked back at me, her face was painted with concern. “Maybe we should go.”

“Nah, I’m sure it was nothing. You go on ahead and I’ll meet you at home. I’m sure Pastor is going to have a whole bunch of junk for me to get done before he’ll let me leave.”

“You sure you don’t want me to stay and help?”

“No, it’s all right. I think I’m going to try and spend some time in prayer as well. You look a little flushed, though, is something the matter?”

She was shifting her shoulders uncomfortably. “No… well… yeah… it’s just that… I don’t think I got enough sleep last night. I had another dream. It was really… creepy…”

“Lemme guess – was the ‘faceless man’ chasing you down the alley with the knife? Or was it the one where aliens abducted me?” I snickered as I raised her chin with my thumb and forefinger.

She laughed lightly, but her eyes were still kind of glassy. It had become something of an old refrain between us these past few months, talk of vibrant dreams since she’d found out about the baby. “I just don’t feel right – like we shouldn’t be apart right now or something.”

I cupped her face in my hands. “Listen, I promise nothing’s going to happen. Not to me, not to you, not to anybody. I’m gonna go and do some really boring crap for Pastor, you’re gonna drive home, I’m gonna pray for a bit, and then when I get home we’re gonna fool around. Right?”

“I wouldn’t bet on that last part there, Minister Thomas.” She brushed my cheek with her left hand and sighed. “I guess you’re right, though.”

“I won’t let it go to my head.”

She kissed me on the cheek and pulled her purse back up onto her shoulder. “All right, sweetie. I’ll see you at home, then.” She glanced over to where Pastor was shaking hands with the last of the folks leaving and saying goodbye, then gave me a wink. “Make sure to play nice with the other kids.”

I laughed and gave her another kiss. “I’ll try.”

I waited until Mary had left and intercepted Pastor as he was making his way to the back office. “Pastor, could I speak with you for a moment?”

Pastor nodded but continued to walk. “Make it quick, son. Betty’s waiting on me and I hear Mrs. Mattie’s fried chicken calling my name.”

“Well sir, I was wondering if you had given any thought to letting me give the message next Sunday?”

Pastor stopped and gave me a weak smile. “I don’t think you’re quite ready for that yet, Paul. Don’t get me wrong, the message you wrote this week was very good, and I can hardly wait to see what you come up with for next week, but I just don’t think you’re ready for the pulpit.” He patted me on the back with a thick, sweaty hand and continued making his way to the office. “Ask me again in a few weeks and we’ll see. Now, do me a favor and count over the offering and put it in the safe for deposit before you leave.” Pastor grabbed his hat and jacket from the stand and walked through the door. He shouted over his shoulder. “And don’t forget to lock up!”

“Right.”

Not ready for the pulpit? I’ve been doing this since I was eight years old, you hack.

I took a deep breath and almost forgot to exhale as I made my way over to the desk and the junk that was waiting for me. I rushed over the offering, not really caring if I made a mistake. The pastor’s words kept bouncing around in my head, festering with the wound of my already shaken faith. I did my best to remember what Mary had said this morning, and while it didn’t do much for my bruised ego, it dulled the edge of my mood. By the time I had secured the safe and confirmed that everything was in order, I felt composed enough to talk to my boss.

Chapter 3: Welcome to the Party

– Jude –

“You know my ways ain’t all that mysterious.” His neck felt so thin, so fragile in my hand. I let his feet dangle off the ground, lengthening the journey of the blood rolling lazily down his arm and falling from his fingertips to the cracked back-alley pavement.

He squirmed against wet brick and mortar, either to escape or to ease the pressure on his throat so he could talk. It didn’t really matter which, since he wasn’t particularly successful at either. “Oh I know how you do, my nigga,” he half-croaked, “Don’t come at The Stilted One wit yo’ Shaft on. You changed, Money, you changed! Now, The Stilted One keeps it rea–ack!” My grip tightened seemingly of its own accord, choking off his diatribe.

The ‘Stilted One’ here was merely the latest incarnation of a low-level demon with a penchant for possession. Every so often when the heat got too hot or the ‘role’ got too old, this method actor would jump to a new body and create a new ‘character’. In the decades I’d know him, he’d been a woman, a child, a Wall Street tycoon, and apparently now he was a hustler with a cane and an offensively gaudy jacket. I hate pop culture.

Any mortal body with a burden of sin or in a suggestible state was open for these kinds of possession. At times this could become quite a hassle, since one must remain aware that any damage done to the body would remain after the demon departed. Not to mention that if the vessel died you’d lose the demon too– meaning an overzealous interrogation could send your source back to Hell and make you a murderer.

Luckily, two things aided me in this situation. First, I was in a hurry, so I didn’t really care. Second, I’d known this particular demon long enough to know he didn’t want to go to Hell any more than this two-bit pimp he’d decided to slum in. I consciously eased my grip and let blood return to his brain. I didn’t want ‘The Stilted One’ getting any dumber on my account – as if that were possible. He already had a stupid street name, was possessed by a demon, and walked with a cane without an obvious need

Hacking and coughing, he cut back into the jive routine almost immediately, so I zeroed in on his demon better half. Its name lacked importance, if for no other reason than that he’d had so damned many of them. He was The Rumplestiltskin, The Great Gazoo, the very Genie-in-the-Lamp; the one who always has what you need – for a price you’d never imagine. But to me, when I wasn’t yelling expletives at him like I was now, he would always be known as…

Snots!” I forced twelve packs of gravel and a steel edge into my voice. “I swear I am this close to tearing the rest of your limbs off. You won’t die, but you’ll slither on your belly for my delight, until I decide to call down fire and brimstone on your ass so hot it’ll make the sun seem like a popsicle. I am hanging by a very thin thread here. You don’t want to see me snap.” I clipped off that last sentence with a flaming sword exclamation point; the blade burst from my right hand and leapt up to tickle The Stilted One’s nostrils.

We’d done this routine so many times over the years and I was always impressed by my ability to conjure new and inventive threats. It had become such a practiced game between he and me that it had degenerated to casual conversation between friends the last few times we’d met. I actually couldn’t remember the last time I’d drawn the sword on him. Having to use this kind of force on him scared the hell out of me on some levels. Seeing my refection in the dark eyes of The Stilted One as they widened with genuine terror, I had to admit the truth in some of Enoch’s appraisal of me. But as I thought of what was at stake, I decided that if this ‘state’ brought the results I wanted I’d still be just as satisfied.

Almost as if to validate my reasoning, the presence within Stilts began to stir. Not so much a physical reaction as it was a spiritual implication; I perceived the essence of Snots pulling away from my blade, inching like a child from the pain and fear held in a nurse’s needle. The motley denizens of this misbegotten ghetto would notice no change to look at him, but for me it was plain as day to see the ‘snot’ leaking out of Stilts – green tendrils blurring the lines between the man and the parasite within. If a demon could ever be personified as claustrophobic, this was it. Snots wanted desperately to abandon his meat-sack and leave him to face my weapon alone.

It was an irrational response and exactly the kind of thing I’d been waiting for. I felt a predatory smile crack my face in half. Snots knew on some level that he couldn’t escape me. The people in this neighborhood had seen enough of trouble to know how not to see it, graciously leaving us alone and undisturbed in the alley. Even if Snots could jump from this body, he wouldn’t get far from me. He’d broken character now; and I knew if he was ready to fly like a bird, I could make him sing like a canary.

“I’ll repeat myself just this once.” I spoke the last three words slowly and deliberately, as if they were the tolling of a great and ominous bell. I exhaled heavily through my nostrils and he flinched as though it were scalding steam coming from my lungs. “Where are–”

“You needn’t bother.” The words emanated from the man, but it was clear that I spoke to the demon now. The cadence and tonal quality had changed and the lingering of a second, raspier voice became apparent, like a sound with a shadow. “It is not my memory, but your demands of it, that command my silence, old man.” The words came tensely, but nonetheless precise. A low-down pimp barking with an English gentleman’s pedigree. “You do not last to my vintage, in my profession, without the wits to listen with both ears, and mind which side of the mouth you speak from at all times.”

“Which side of your mouth were you usin’ on Alastor when you rolled over on me?” I snarled.

“You’re mad!”

“Oh, I’m way past ‘mad’ after this morning.” I heard a hiss, like a match plunged into water, and only then realized that my sword arm was trembling and the blade had bitten into Snots.

He released a few choice curses, some of which I’d bet were older than Enoch. “Bugger! Are you POSSESSED?! What would I gain from selling you to The Executioner? Aside from pissing people off? Hell, I made up half the bloody stories about that wanker!” His face twisted. “I guess he’s dead now. Good for you – even with your head up your arse, you’re still a bloody tank.”

I could feel my teeth grinding. Snots could act, but this felt a little too much like genuine surprise. I set my jaw and decided to press. I had to be sure. “Don’t con me, Snots. You’re on a short list of people who’d know where I’d be today. What’s your angle?”

“Well, surely you’ve uncovered my master plan for angering my dwindling allies, pitting them against one another, and getting myself sent back to the pits.” He oozed the words sarcastically, but abruptly turned very grave. “You are out of your depth here, old man. You have fallen so far that even I can’t throw you a rope. When you fell off the map, you cast a stone in the lake and the ripples have touched every shore. Interests have organized, powers were consolidated, and plans set in motion. What comes next falls on you.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean? What aren’t you saying?”

“Check your ‘short list’ again. You don’t think he forgot about today, do you? Your unhappy anniversary?”

I felt my face go slack, and apparently that answered for me. Snots nodded, his dark eyes suddenly feeling uncomfortably heavy as they fixed on mine. “That’s right, old man, the big wave is crashing. If you’re part of all this, it means someone decided it was time you either got out of the way or got back in the play. And a messy business that, with the Faithful and now this bo–”

THRAK-KOOM!

Snots’ final words were not so much cut off as drowned out when a bolt of lightning descended like the Finger of God to snuff out his life and any knowledge he might have shared. At least that’s how it seemed from my front-row seat. Processing at what felt like half-speed, I realized as Stilts’s body fell limp in my hands that the smoking hole in his chest was no lightning strike – and that the rolling ‘thunder’ in the concrete canyons of the city were the echoes of a high-caliber rifle’s report.

With ferocity reserved only for those who’ve lost as I have, I threw myself into the air, screaming like the Devil in an intelligible howl of rage. My leap had carried me some distance, out of the alley and above the main street to a roof across the way. I was moving on instinct and spiritual inference at what felt like Mach 2. This must have terrified the two gunmen who’d just found their nurtured hopes of escape dashed.

“You missed, jackass.” My voice came hoarser than I’d have thought myself capable. I thumped my chest aggressively. “Shoot me now.”

They were young – younger than I would’ve thought possible, but their ink marked them as Cultists. “We weren’t aiming for you, man, fo’ real,” the de facto leader stammered as he threw the gun to the rooftop and held up his hands in surrender. He was all skin and bones and a shock of greasy black hair, yet taller than his counter-part, who could have been his brother. Apparently he’d thought offering that revelation would make it better. In fact, it made it much, much worse.

Seizing him by his over-sized ‘Death of Superman’ t-shirt, I heaved him into the air. Little Brother watched in horror as Superman took a direct flight through the high window of the factory building next door. I was pretty sure he’d live; a suspicion confirmed when the high-pitched squeal of agony was followed by subsequent whimpers of pain.

But Junior here didn’t need to know that.

Enoch had called it my state. Snots said I was mad. Whatever I was, it must’ve given all kinds of credibility to my ‘bad cop’ reputation, because Little Brother promptly soiled himself.

He was about to turn and run, but because I’d anticipated it his turn brought him headlong into my chest. He squealed as he rebounded off me and I seized his wrist as he fell. Rotating his arm slightly in my grip, I pulled it through a bullwhip motion that dislocated his shoulder in a fairly traumatic fashion. I dangled him over the street by that arm for a few moments, after which I believe he would’ve told me I could have his firstborn if I’d make the pain stop. I made it readily apparent I had no intention of stopping.

Snots’ “death” ate at me. It wasn’t the fact that I had once considered him a friend so much as I found the Enemy’s willingness to banish him back to Hell disturbing. Snots was a pain in the ass and a bit of a ham, but he served a very real purpose to both sides in terms of information sharing. He was one of a precious few talking points between opposing sides of a very bitter war. His relative neutrality was an asset and had enabled both sides to spread and gain information, at times even misinformation. That they would so casually discard such an asset spoke to the ‘consolidation of power’ Snots had warned me about. Talking between sides was over.

What comes next falls on you.

I decided to beat myself up about that later. For now, it was essential to find Paul and close ranks on our side. Luckily, Junior here was more than willing to discuss at length the hit carried out on the Faithful, the details of the demon contingent he worked for, and the plan for the assassination of the ‘Potential’, a.k.a. Paul Thomas. I didn’t even have to twist his arm.

– Paul –

There was something I found very overwhelming every time I walked into the sanctuary when the lights were off and no one else was around. It just seemed to have a sense of reverence and I imagine that was how the temple priests felt whenever they walked into the holy of holies. It felt like God was there, close, in ways that it never did when other people were around. I would often go in there to pray because it was one of the few places that I felt that I could really touch the face of God.

I kneeled at the altar in front of the stage, closed my eyes, and just let all my frustrations come out in a rush. Father, please help me. Help me to see clearly what You would have me do. When I look around, all I see is the dark. Complacency, falseness, professions of love followed by hateful attacks, division, all in Your name. I’m sick of it all, Father. I’m so tired and I don’t know what’s real and what’s not anymore. I’m overwhelmed. It’s too much.

I took a deep breath and wiped at the tears that managed to squeeze past my tightly clinched eyelids. My consciousness was caught up in the stream, becoming a blur of emotions, half-prayers and half-formed questions, imaginings, and fears. Turmoil consumed my mind and soul like a virulent cancer, manifesting itself physically when I felt my fists clench. Pounding the altar with each unspoken recrimination, I battled the disillusioned demons of my own nature, railing at them like the dark shadow of the pastor from this morning as I thunderously emphasized my points.

I’m just so scared, Father. I feel so lost.

Pound.

I know this is where You want me to be. I know You’ve provided for me, it’s a steady job, making more than enough money to support my family. My family. My family.My God, I’m going to be a father. I’m bringing a new life into this world… this dark, depressing world.

Pound.

Why do I think that way? I shouldn’t be thinking that way. I can’t think that way. Mary was right. Thank you so much for her. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry… Gah! What’s wrong with me?!

Pound. Pound.

 Why did You send me here? What do You want from me? Nothing I do is what I need to be doing! Is there something more for me? Is it wrong now to ask for more? I know there is something more than this. I just don’t know what it is. What is it? Please… PLEASE… help me.

Suddenly that sense of unease and malice from earlier seemed to return one thousandfold, swirling around me, sucking the wind from my lungs; all my senses screamed in unison for me to run, to not stop running. I panicked and opened my eyes. Before me, sitting in the pastor’s chair on top of the stage and staring down at me with gleaming eyes and an icy smile, was the dark stranger from the back of the congregation.

I jumped up from the altar, fighting the feeling of dread that had my stomach in an iron grip. Briefly I wondered how much of my display he’d witnessed. “Uh, sir – I’m sorry, but the church is closed right now,” I stammered, “I’m going to have to ask you to leave. If you’d like to speak with the pastor, he’ll be here in his office tomorrow at noon.”

The man chuckled slightly as he stood up from the chair and started to walk towards me. “I’m not here to see the pastor, boy. I’m here to see you.”

The man was closer now and the feeling in my gut grew worse. It took all that I had just to stand my ground as the man approached. I tried to keep the nervousness from my voice. “Oh, really? What is it that you think I can help you with?”

“Why, I’m the answer to your prayers.”

With a suddenness that defied all logic, I found myself flying backwards through the air. I slammed into a pew, which flipped over from the impact and spilled me to the floor. Groaning as I wiped blood away from my lips, I tried to sit up. My head felt as though I had been hit with a sledgehammer.

I could hear the man chuckle as he slowly stepped down from the stage and approached. My eyes couldn’t seem to focus and my head was swimming. When his blurry profile came within view he threw his head back, conjuring a cackle that would have given Dr. Frankenstein a chill. I felt the blood in my veins freeze. “Stand up, Chosen! Fight! I’ve been looking forward to this for a long while, so don’t ruin it for me by acting the coward.”

For some reason, I complied, slowly dragging myself up using the pew behind me for leverage. I kept hold of it – the room was still spinning, and I knew that if I let go I would fall to the floor again. “Chosen for what?” I managed to say through the blood pooling in my mouth. “What… what do you want?”

The man’s eyes, growing dark and red, widened in surprise. “I’m here to kill you, of course. What did you think?”

I almost stumbled as I stepped out from between the pews and groggily backed my way toward the set of double doors behind me. “B… but why? What did I do?”

The man stopped. “You mean you don’t know?” He threw his head back and roared laughter like a demented Santa Claus. “Well, this is a surprise.” The leer on the man’s face made me want to vomit. “It appears I’m going to have fun tonight after all.”

He slammed his fist into the pew beside him as he stalked passed, flipping it end-over-end and sending it crashing through the wall on the opposite side of the room. I felt my jaw drop – along with my bladder. “I might just have to take my time with you. Make it last. Savor it.”

Then, without further prelude, he exploded. The light was so bright that it stung through my clenched eyelids and forced me to throw my arms over my face. I stumbled backwards and fell hard on my backside; when I looked up again, the light had resolved into the shape of a man wrapped in glowing white robes, rippling in a wind that I couldn’t feel. I was paralyzed with a mix of fear and wonder as my mind raced to process all that I saw. A single word resolved in my head, springing unbidden from the torrent of unconscious perceptions and emotions – angel.

Angel? An angel? Why would an angel want to kill me? Father, what have I done?

His hand moved deliberately to the hilt of a sword that dangled from a golden belt. He slowly revealed its blade; as I watched, it seemed to take on a glow from within. He pointed it at me, and his leer grew beyond human proportions. “Let’s begin, shall we?”

With that, a bout of fire exploded from his chest. Every muscle I had tensed, as I braced for the heat and pain of an attack that never came. Instead, those red eyes widened in sudden shock and the flames engulfed him, only diminishing when a black void surrounded and consumed his entire being. A lone flame remained, but I could see the source now – another man, tall and of dark complexion, his bald head inset with fiery emerald eyes. He wore a beard that was lightly streaked with gray. He, too, was garbed all in black, but held in his hand a sword that seemed to be made of fire itself. The blade extinguished in a puff of smoke and the older man smiled.

“Welcome to the party, kid. My name’s Jude, and I’ll be your host.”

Chapter 4: Lucky Charms

– Jude –

I felt a wave of relief wash over me – or maybe it was satisfaction.

“I think I’m going to be sick.”

I tried not to laugh as I hoisted my replacement to his feet. “Well kid, now’s the time, but you’d better make it quick because we’ve really gotta go.”

He pushed away from me and fell back on his butt again. “Wait. Wait a minute. Just wait just a darned minute!”

Darned?”

He sat for a moment, shoving the heels of his hands into his eyes and rubbing them in circles. A bit shorter than me, he looked positively small sitting on the floor, cradling his bruised forehead. “I don’t understand… I don’t…” His eyes locked on me accusingly. He was coming around. “Who are you? What… who… what was that? W–was it an angel? Are you an angel? Am – am I going to die? WHAT IN THE HECK IS HAPPENING TO ME?!

I offered him my hand and smirked. “Kid, we gotta work on your use of harsh language if you’re going to be hangin’ around me.”

Staring blankly up at me from the floor, his feet out in front of him, it struck me that he really was just a kid. With the tousled dark hair, the faintest hint of stubble on his chin, he was all white bread with that look of sheer confusion on his face. The images of Potentials I’d recruited in the past flashed before me. They’d all had that look.

They always had that look.

He batted aside the hand I’d offered him and tried to scoot away from me as far as he could go, until his back bumped into another pew and he scrambled to get to his feet. “Hang around you? Who are you?! All I know is you just killed that guy – that thing… you’re a killer. Y–you killed that thing that looked like a freaking angel with fire that came out of your freaking hand!

In the past, I had always tried to introduce the flashier stuff to Potentials slowly. This time, there wasn’t much of a choice. I dropped the smirk and did my best to keep in mind that – even though I had been through this process over a dozen times – this was all very new for him, and that he was the important thing here. I held up my hands in an attempt to calm him down a bit, which admittedly was probably not the best idea in the world because he jumped back like a rabbit from a hungry fox.

I moved my hands very slowly out to my sides and shook my head. “I’m no killer. At least not in the way you suspect. I know you’re trying to add things up and it ain’t working out, but I just saved your ass from the frying pan, whether the details make sense or not. I know how confusing and weird this all is, trust me, but–”

He backed away from me another few steps and held up his hands as if that were going to ward me away or something. “Weird? Weird? The man with the flaming hand wants me to trust his definition of weird. Perfect. I’ve had a stroke. I’m lying on the floor drooling right now…”

His eyes seemed to lose focus and his voice shrank, speaking more to himself than to me. “I mean, a platypus is weird. A guy who can shoot milk from his eyes? That’s pretty weird. Some… thing kills another thing with… fire? THAT’S INSANE!” He was breathing heavily and I thought he might pass out, but he simply put his hands on the sides of his head and collapsed to his knees. His eyes went really wide – he probably had a concussion, or worse. “I’m insane… I’m going insane. This is all some sort of dream or hallucination. It has to be…”

We were wasting time. Understanding his perspective was one thing, but indulging his neuroses could get us killed here. I decided to lay my cards on the table and play it straight up. “Listen, kid – in war, information determines outcomes. So here’s what you know,” I counted off my points with my hand as I spoke. “That thing tried to kill you. He didn’t, because I stopped him. If I could kill him, I could kill you too – but I haven’t. With me so far?”

He swallowed hard, but nodded before responding meekly. “But… this isn’t war.”

I laughed. “Oh, yes it is. You’ve been chosen, Paul – drafted into the Holy War.”

He was incredulous. “A holy war?! Mister, I don’t know how you know me, but I’m not a soldier. I don’t want to fight anybody.” His voice cracked, so he cleared his throat. Suddenly his eyes widened with realization. “Wait, Chosen? That’s what that thing said, what it called me…”

“Right. That was no angel. Well, not really. It was a fallen angel named Chamos – part of a group sent to kill you.”

He cocked his head to the side and looked back up at me, his shock replaced momentarily with confused interest. “Fallen? You mean… demons?”

I nodded solemnly. “Yeah. There are crap ton just like himoutside and they ain’t happy, which is why I’m here. I’m not an angel either. I’m a Chosen, like you will be.”

He slid from his knees to fall backwards onto his rear and ran his hands through his hair.

I followed up with a little more urgency. “You’re not hallucinating and this isn’t a dream. It’s real – and they,” I gestured behind me to where the demon had been just minutes before, “are most certainly real. I promise to explain everything and this’ll all make a hell of a lot more sense, but we’ve gotta move.”

Another thing all those Potentials had in common: they inevitably came around when it was implied that they were special. Their curiosity overwhelmed their fear and they followed.

They always followed.

I used that to my advantage. “You have to understand. It’s not a Holy War; it’s The Holy War. God versus the Enemy. This isn’t some scuffle over land or natural resources or taxes.” I made my tone as grave as possible. “I’m talking about the battle for the world and every single soul on it. You’re in the middle of it now. I know a safe place where we can talk, I can get us there, but we have to go. Now. Will you come with me?”

He was on his feet now. There was a moment of hesitation, a heartbeat. But I could feel it. I had him. “Okay. Okay, I’ll come. What do I need to do?”

I couldn’t stop myself from grinning. “Ya get motion sickness?”

“Uh, no. Well, there was this–”

The church doors exploded into wood pulp as I reached out and seized him by his suit collar. “Good enough.”

“Hey–” His protest was cut off as the spirit flowed over us, light flared, and we were gone.

– Paul –

I remember whirling in time to see the doors splintering, the pieces exploding towards us. I remember feeling that man’s – Jude’s – hand grasp the back of my neck, but I was distracted by the doors as they flew inward – I’d expected them to hit us. They never did.

Large chunks of oak slowed in mid-air until they stopped completely, frozen in time. The things – the demons – that had destroyed the door loomed in the hallway, similarly frozen. There was a flash of light and then the world went dark. I felt like my whole body was being turned inside out. Then, almost as soon as it had happened, it was over.

I found myself staring at what had to be my own vomit, coating my shoes and an unfamiliar carpet.

“Oh, that’s nice,” An unknown voice declared. “You did have to hit the clean spot. And you… what in Hell – you can’t call ahead? Over 200 years old and you’ve never heard of a damn cell phone?”

I shook my head and blinked hard to try and make my eyes focus. As they did, I realized that the church had apparently been replaced with a small apartment. I wondered briefly if I’d blacked out.

Then I heard Jude’s voice. “Sorry about that, kid, but you’ll want to keep your eyes closed when we jump from now on.”

I coughed and tasted bile. “Where are we? What just happened?”

“You’re in my apartment,” the unfamiliar voice declared, “and… I AM THE GREAT AND POWERFUL OZ!” I spun towards the voice and slipped in my breakfast, landing unceremoniously on my rear. I slid backwards, moisture seeping into my slacks. There, towering over me, was another angel. At least, I thought he was an angel.

He leaned forward. “Careful, Slick – I’m just screwing with you. But seriously, you’re cleaning my carpet.”

His eyes were a light shade of blue and he didn’t have that sense of malice that the other had, but his robes were similar. They looked worn though, bearing tears in places and what looked like stains from meals new and old spread out like a collage. He also looked to be thickening in the middle compared to the chiseled body of the demon who’d just attacked me.

“You’re an angel.” I looked to Jude for confirmation, pointing at the stranger that was standing before me, a bowl dwarfed in the palm of his hand. “He’s an angel?”

“Very perceptive, kid.”

The angel smiled. “Can’t get anything past him, can ya?”

He cocked his head at Jude and held up the bowl in his hands, half-splashing its contents onto his robes and the floor. “So what the hell is going on, man? One minute I’m enjoying a bowl of Lucky Charms, the next I got you and Puke Skywalker standing in the middle of my living room.” He regarded me with almost exaggerated annoyance. “Stop looking at me like that, kid, it’s freaking me out…”

I heard Jude chuckle and the angel’s eyes oriented back on the man. “Seriously, can I get through one damn bowl of cereal without you showing up with some noob?” He arched an eyebrow at Jude and held the bowl close to his chest, mock revelation apparent on his face. “Wait… are the Chosen… after me Lucky Charms?”

This was all too much. My jaw dropped and I held up a hand. “No, now wait a minute!” I said, shaking my head vehemently. “You can’t say that!”

“Say what? Lucky can bill my ass.”

“You did it again! You just cursed. You’re an angel – a Holy Messenger of God.” I stood up, eyeing Jude and the angel as I did so. “You’re not supposed to curse. Neither of you.”

The angel stared at me in disbelief for a second, then rolled his eyes. “Wow, he really is green.”

Jude nodded. “As a lime. Uptight too.”

“Bleagh.”

I took a step forward and scowled. “Hey! Don’t dismiss me like some idiot.”

The angel chuckled. “All right, all right, sorry. A few quick things: first off, my name is Asael. Second, I’m not technically a ‘Messenger of God’ anymore. I haven’t been for a long, long time.” He shoved a spoonful of cereal into his mouth, talking around it as he continued. “Third, even if I were, it still wouldn’t matter. They’re just words, kid. What’s the difference which ones you use when they mean the same thing?”

Jude imposed himself between us, effectively cutting off any retort. “Enough. There’ll be plenty of time for theological debates later.” He looked me hard in the eyes. “You’ve been through a hell of a lot this morning, in case you forgot. Have any interest in finding out why?”

I’m a talker, always have been, even when I was little. Philosophy, ministry, they’re interactive things – dialogues and arguments. The shock of all that had just happened let me momentarily forget where I was, but now it all came back in a rush.

I almost died. I almost diedand I’m arguing with an angel about cursing

“I think I need to sit down.”

“Over here, or wherever there’s isn’t vomit.” Asael motioned me over to a white couch, which looked as though it had been patched up numerous times. When I flopped on it a small cloud of dust kicked up and found its way into my lungs. I started to gag and cough, clearing the air with my hand.

Asael snorted. “Yeah, sorry about that. It’s the maid’s year off.”

When I could breathe, I just laid my head in my hands, closed my eyes, and sighed, all energy spent. “Okay. Alright. I need someone to tell me why the hell this is happening to me.”

Asael slapped my knee as he dropped into a large recliner across from the couch. “Now he’s got the idea! Much better.”

Jude shook his head and lowered himself slowly onto the couch. He scratched his bare scalp and took a deep breath. “Okay, I guess I’ll start from the beginning.”

Asael groaned dramatically. “Why do you always have to bring the newbies here? I’ve heard this whole spiel a hundred times already, and Jeopardy is on in five minutes…”

I looked up as Jude’s voice grew stern. “Shut up.”

“But–”

“Shut up!”

“Fine.” Asael lumbered to his feet and stomped towards the kitchen. “I’m getting another bowl of cereal. Maybe this time I can finish it without some other jerk and a spewing tightwad bursting in…”

There was a sound of cupboard doors opening and closing punctuated by an exclamation. “Five minutes!”

This is a dream. A really, really linear dream. I’m going to wake up and I’m going to laugh about how absolutely ridiculous this all was…

“It’s not a dream, kid,” Jude said softly. “You might as well deal with reality.”

I looked up, eyes wide in shock. “How did you–”

He chuckled. “Please. I’ve been doing this for a long time. It’s a lot to accept, which is why, sometimes, I bring new recruits here. Asael in there helps to break the tension a little.”

Asael stuck his head in from the kitchen with an over-exaggerated grin on his face and waved.

I dropped my head back into my hands. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Asael crept back in, flopping into his recliner as milk splashed on the front of his robes. He seemed blissfully unaware as he nodded towards Jude. “Is that the face of a man who jokes about his work, kiddo?”

I looked from Jude to Asael and back and shook my head. My stomach was folding in on itself. “Ok, so let me see if I have this straight.” I leveled a shaky finger at Jude, hardly believing each word coming from my own mouth. “You’re some sort of special demon hunter from Heaven, and I was attacked because somebody thinks I’m one too?”

Jude barked out a quick laugh and rubbed at his beard. “Uh, something like that… see, I’m a Chosen. I guess a better way of putting it is that we are Adamic men.”

“Adamic men?”

The dark-skinned man nodded as he leaned forward. “Lemme explain. See, there is definitely a war going on between Heaven and Hell. It’s been raging since Lucifer and his lackeys got the boot. But God has a plan for everything. Everything is balanced out and working towards a goal.”

Asael piped up. “What is ‘Judgment Day?’” he asked, drawing a glare from Jude. “Sorry, just warming up for Trebek.”

Jude sighed and shrugged, but continued. “The problem comes with man. See, when God made man, He made the most spiritually powerful being in the universe – next to Himself, of course. He has given believers His power and authority to help keep things in check, but unfortunately the flip side is that we have free will – and we don’t always do what we’re told.”

“What is ‘Cleaning Up Our Own Vomit’?”

Clearing his throat, Jude pressed on. “Over the years we humans haven’t been doing our part. The Enemy has been gainin’ ground faster than they were supposed to. The balance has tipped to their favor, with the Church as a whole allowing itself to become so blinded and divided that most don’t see it. Lucifer likes it that way and tries to help it along whenever possible. If things continue to go the way they have, Hell will actually have a chance at overthrowin’ Heaven.”

This time I was the one to interrupt, holding up a hand to cut him off. “Assuming for a second that all this crap you’re telling me is real, how is that even possible? God could just make it stop whenever He wants. He’s God.”

Jude shook his head. “It doesn’t work that way. When God gave us free will He essentially tied His own hands. He already gave us an out once by sending Jesus as a sacrifice, but if He changes things every time we choose the wrong path just to make things work perfectly, then how is that free will?”

I had my doubts, but decided to hear more before I came to any conclusions. “I see what you’re saying, I guess. So how does this Chosen or Adamic thing come into play?”

Asael began slurping milk loudly from his spoon and Jude shot him an annoyed look. Asael shrugged. “What? They’re magically delicious.”

Once again Jude told him to “knock it off”, glared, and continued. “Okay, here’s the thing: God needed something to help fill in the gap left by the church. Balance had to be brought back without sacrificing free will, so he made us. We’re Adamic, which means we were made the same way Adam was – perfect.”

“Perfect? Like ‘Adam was’? You mean from the dust of the ground, like Genesis?”

“Kid, you’ll have to learn to stop taking everything so literally. But yeah, we were created as Adam was, without the taint of generations of sin. Over time there was degradation in humanity both physically and spiritually. Not only do we live a lot shorter lives but also, as a direct result of our sinful nature, we’ve lost our connection spiritually.”

He looked down, his tone becoming more somber. “The more we’ve sinned – the larger the taint passed down from generation to generation – the further we’ve fallen. There are parts of a normal human brain that help to connect to the spiritual realm. Most normal people only catch glimpses, but that’s only when the Holy Spirit acts as a conductor to those parts. The rest of the time those parts lie dormant.”

He reached up and tapped his right temple. “With us, those parts of the brain are always active, but the Holy Spirit still acts as our energy source. While we may have been born without the taint of sin, we still have that nature, and the more we sin, the further we get from God and the weaker we’ll be spiritually.”

I could do nothing but shake my head. It wasn’t possible. I had been in the ministry all my life. My father was a minister, and his father before that. Never had I heard or even imagined such a thing. Yet even as I formed the words, I could find no holes in his logic.

It wasn’t possible for this to have been there all my life. I would have seen it.

Had I seen it? The world I’d known, the God I’d known, suddenly seemed more vast and terrifying than I could comprehend and I found myself saying as much. “There’s no way… it just isn’t possible…”

The weight of Jude’s hand felt like an anchor as he rested it on my shoulder. “Sure it is, Paul. I told you, information determines outcomes. Now, you were adopted, right?” I nodded and his emerald eyes practically glowed as he smiled. “Here’s your life, stop me if it sounds familiar. Your parents were a minister and his wife. They were never able to have kids, so they took you in and raised you as their own. You were a very intelligent boy and you flew through school. You followed in your family’s tradition and went into the ministry.

“But you were different, restless, but so very spiritually in tune. You could always sense when something wasn’t right. Sometimes you even thought you could see things, right? You knew when people were struggling, when they had done something wrong, when they were in trouble. You knew. And you tried to fix it, didn’t you?”

I realized my mouth was hanging open, so I forced myself to swallow. My throat felt like pieces of burnt toast rubbing together.

Still his smile held and he continued. “But it consumed you, didn’t it? Until all you could see around you were the problems- a great yawning emptiness inside you, calling to be filled. There’s a reason you hate your job, kid. A reason you move from place to place looking for something that doesn’t exist, all the time wondering what your calling really is.”

He looked me square in the eye. “This is your calling, Paul. This is your purpose. We are all born with gifts and talents in this world. As a minister, you know better than most about the amazing things that God has done. What makes this so hard to imagine?”

I was surprised to find that my eyes had grown wet. I inhaled deeply through my nostrils, since my mouth didn’t seem to be working, then coughed to clear my throat. I could feel Jude still watching me and wanted to respond, but every time I tried I just ended up shaking my head. I was actually grateful when Asael provided a distraction.

He was still sipping milk from his bowl, trying to act like he wasn’t paying attention. He stopped in mid-slurp and brought the bowl down from his mouth, his milk mustache escaping his upper lip and becoming a milk goatee. “Man, that’s your life story? I’ll get Hallmark on the phone.”

Jude’s head lolled back and I thought I heard him say “here we go.”

“Aw, c’mon – I think young Paul here is ready for ‘The Secret Origin of Asael’, the story too hot for the bible.” The angel sat forward energetically. “You see… I’m a Watcher.”

I laughed immediately and looked from Jude to Asael, waiting for the punchline, but both of their faces seemed to fall a little bit. In college I’d written a paper on the apocryphal Book of Enoch, a popular piece of scripture that was nonetheless left out of the Bible because of its controversial content. According to that book, the Watchers were angels who’d decided to live among humans as teachers and rulers. Among other things, they’d supposedly taken wives, taught men about medicines, and instructed them in the building of weapons and armor. Their offspring were said to be the giants of the Bible mentioned in Genesis.

In Enoch, it said that God was angered by what the angels had done. He sent the archangels, led by Michael, to bind all the Watchers until the Day of Judgment. It was a romantic bedtime story. Of course, I never believed a word of it. I shook my head. “Now you’re just messing with me, right? I mean, as far as I know those were just stories…”

He chuckled. “So, what – you have no problem sitting next to black Adam here, but I can’t be a Watcher?” He paused for a moment. “Most people think we were just a story. But like most stories, there is some foundation in truth here. In this case, a lot of it was true.”

“It just doesn’t make much sense.”

Jude snorted. “Yeah, you’d think God would have learned his lesson with Lucifer.”

Asael pointed at Jude with his spoon, slinging droplets of milk as he did so. Jude had to wipe some off his face. “Hey, don’t even go there. What we did, we did out of love for those people. Yeah, we made some big mistakes, but we were nothing like that egomaniac.”

Jude held his hands up in mock surrender and I took the opportunity to interject, looking from one to the other and back. “So… it’s real?” The angel nodded and I continued. “Then what about you? I thought the Watchers were all bound up as punishment.”

Asael’s face dropped and he seemed to look off into the distance just past me. “My brothers were, but I begged Michael for the chance of redemption. Because of my sin, I can’t enter the gates of Heaven, but Michael allowed me to live here on the condition that I help. So I’ve been here since the beginning, doing what I can to help the Chosen with their mission…among other things.”

Jude nodded. “Yeah. Seems even then God knew what would be needed. He could see the forces already shifting, so He paved a way for us.”

I reached up and rubbed my own temples. “Wow. Wow. Demons, Chosen, now a Watcher… my head hurts.”

Jude laughed. “It’s a lot to take in, I know. I’m sorry you had to take the crash course, I am, but you’ll have plenty of time to sort things out. You’ll learn.”

I shook my head. “Time… Holy crap! Time!” I suddenly became aware of my watch – the watch my wife had bought me. “I need to get home! I’ve been so wrapped up in all of this! I’ve got to get home, maybe have some time to absorb all this with–”

Now it was Jude’s turn to shake his head. His voice was hard. “I understand, kid, I do. But I’m afraid I can’t let you go home. The Enemy knows who you are and by now they know you’re not dead. They’ll be working hard to fix that.”

I felt like my heart had jumped into my throat, beating so fast it made my hands and voice tremble. It was a feeling I’d almost grown accustomed to given the day I’d been having, but that didn’t matter anymore. Nothing else mattered. “A–are you telling me, are you saying, they’ll – they’ll go to my home?”

Jude’s silence hit me like a sucker punch to the gut.

“No. Oh, God no. Mary!”

If you liked this free preview of The Chosen: Rebirthing please purchase a digital or paperback copy.

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