“Almighty God, Eternal Father, Lord of Lords, have mercy upon me, a sinner. Forget not Thy servant in his trials; enable me, I beseech Thee, to perfect my belief so that my faith in Thy sight may never be reproved;
“Now may the God of grace and power attend his people’s humble cry; Defend them in the needful hour, and send deliverance from on high.
“Almighty God, I pray that Thy Will be done in all things, both great and small. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
“O God, our refuge and our strength, mercifully regard Thy people who cry to Thee, and turn away the scourges of Thy anger, which we justly deserve for our sins. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
“From all dangers, deliver us, O Lord.
“O God, Who knowest us to be set in the midst of so great dangers, that, by reason of the frailty of our nature, we cannot stand upright, grant us such health of mind and body, that those evils which we suffer for our sins we may overcome through Thine assistance. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
His prayer complete for the moment, the Priest stood from where he had knelt before the altar. Behind him, the small crossroads chapel was full. Fuller than ever it had been in the long years he had been here. He had thought that time had moved past this little church, and him. In his sixties, the role of priest had taken over his appearance. He looked the part. Dark hair gone grey, a certain gravity imparted by long decades of discipline and prayer. A kindly face, though not a jovial one.
He turned. The little grey ladies in the front pew looked up. Dressed in black, as always. He smiled gently at them, as he always did. Theirs was the faith of tradition; and habit to be sure. But a habit of devotion and faith is better than most habits.
Behind them, the new faces. Saying the Mass, remembering the saints, keeping the feasts and fasts. For forty years this little church had offered him much time for contemplation. His pastoral duties had been scant even at their worst. At times he felt guilt for that, that he should have done more. But he had peaceful contemplation of God; a life of prayer and repose. These suited him.
That was gone now, of a certainty. He walked down the aisle, not really meeting the eyes of his new flock. They had no where else to go. He would talk to them shortly, but first, he must know what is happening in the world outside.
In the tiny office at the front of the little church, Sam Kovacs listened to the shortwave radio. Sam was near 80, his head covered by a wispy halo of grey hair. “Any new word, Sam?” he asked as he stepped in and closed the door behind him.
“The sheriff was on all the local stations about a half hour ago. The invaders have moved up on both 70 and 77. Cambridge will fall within the hour. The sheriff said, too, that most of the back roads are still open. Only problem is crossing those interstates. The overpasses are mostly guarded now, he says. “Claysville’s burning, Father. The radio said that Chandlersville was, too. “
“We’re in a pocket, surrounded.”
“That’s about it, father. Most of those who could get out, have. Those as didn’t, either they’re too stubborn or too slow. Me, I’m both and old on top of it.”
Father Brian smiled. “We’re close enough to the highway. It probably won’t be long. Leave the radio for now, Sam.”
He walked back into the chapel. The eyes looked at him, wanting guidance, reassurance. The people were for the most part the elderly, whose families had left long before for jobs in the city. A few were younger. His flock, regardless.
“Sheriff Campbell says that Cambridge will fall, and soon.” A loud, worried murmur swept through the parishioners.
“Damn them to hell!” Someone shouted. More shouted, “Why?” Most just looked shell-shocked. Their long peaceful idyll was ended, the Father thought. War is the way of life throughout history, he knew. The last time war visited these lands was over a century and a half ago, a sideshow to the Civil War when confederate raiders made a run.
He raised his voice. “St. Thomas tells us to be cautious of wishing evil on others.” The crowd stirred, but before they could object, he continued, “To call down moral evil upon a rational creature is always illicit, and the same holds good of physical evil.”
“Unless! Unless the aim is not evil. If the aim is good, but only in so far as it is good; for punishment of misdeeds, or a means to amendment, or an obstacle to commission of sin. God cursed many things in the bible. In Genesis alone, God cursed the serpent, the Earth and Cain.”
“We are right to curse these invaders, who wage war against us, sowing fire and destruction and death among us.”
“But come, join me in prayer. God will provide.”
A grey pickup truck pulled into the church’s gravel parking lot, hissing to a sudden stop. Young Thomas Greene, a great-grandson of one of his grey ladies, stepped out and ran to the church steps.
“Right here, my son,” the Father said as he stepped through the church door.
“They’re coming down the road from the junction. Right behind me.” He held up his left hand holding an arrow, of all things.
“Bastards shot an arrow at me, Father! Sorry, father.” He looked embarrassed for even cursing so mildly in front of the priest.
“It’s all right. Let me see.” The young man handed it over. He’d stayed with his family rather than run. A loyal man.
Father Brian examined the arrow. It looked like an arrow alright, there really wasn’t anything else it could be. About a yardstick long, fletching at the back looked like feathers. Metal arrowhead, curiously engraved. He handed it back. “Hold on to that, Thomas.”
Father Brian looked up, to the East. Smoke hovered on the horizon. That would be Claysville. The black smoke seemed to him an affront to the gorgeous, verdant spring that surrounded him. The little, white clapboard church had an austere beauty that had always touched him. The oak-shaded cemetery off to the right had graves dating back to the 1700s. The grass, the flowers, the trees; all turning green and bright colors. A renewal of life.
In the distance, he heard drums.
The invaders marched in good order down State Route 303 from the Interstate. They weren’t many in number. He couldn’t easily estimate, but maybe a couple hundred. The only thing at the crossroads was his little church, and a red barn from the farm across the street.
A small car pulled out of a driveway in a mad careen, turning south and away from the invaders. A harsh-sounding command drifted across the meadows, and the front rank raised bows and loosed at the fleeing car. It had not yet accelerated up to speed. The arrows plunged down and pierced the car through the trunk, the passenger compartment, the engine. The engine died along with the driver and the car crashed into the ditch.
The invaders marched by without stopping.
Father Brian recited the beginning of Psalm 27, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? the Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? When the wicked, even mine enemies and my foes, came upon me to eat up my flesh, they stumbled and fell. Though a host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear: though war should rise against me, in this will I be confident.”
He turned to his flock, and said, “God will provide. Draw strength from the Lord and from His mighty power. The Lord says, ‘Be strong and of a good courage, fear not, nor be afraid of them: for the Lord thy God, he it is that doth go before thee; he will be with thee, he will not fail thee, neither forsake thee: fear not, neither be dismayed.'”
He recited to himself, almost silently,
“Sancte Michael Archangele,
defende nos in proelio;
contra nequitiam et insidias diaboli esto praesidium.
Imperet illi Deus, supplices deprecamur:
tuque, Princeps militiae Caelestis,
satanam aliosque spiritus malignos,
qui ad perditionem animarum pervagantur in mundo,
divina virtute in infernum detrude.
As the invaders drew nearer, a presence drew near as well. One he had felt before but never so strongly. He felt the spirit in him, coursing through him. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up.
“Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts, Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory!” he said in clear voice.
“Defend us in the battle, that we may not perish in the dreadful judgment!”
“Glorious Prince of the Heavenly hosts and victor over rebellious spirits, be mindful of me who am so weak and sinful and yet so prone to pride and ambition. Lend me, I pray, thy powerful aid in every temptation and difficulty, and above all do not forsake me in my last struggle with the powers of evil. Amen. Protect these, your servants.”
The crowd behind him hushed as the words rang out. There was a silence, a pressure, that ceased the birds from singing and the crickets from chirping. The only noise was the growing beat of the drums of the invaders.
Father Brian stepped down to the grass.
Damn them to Hell, he thought. Anger filled him, a righteous anger so unlike ordinary anger that it seemed wrong to use the same word. To come with slaughter and the sword among my peaceful flock. To kill and burn the children of God.
I am close to God. I have prayed my whole life, and now at the moment of my death I feel he is with me.
With a great voice, one that hardly seemed to come from his body, he cried out as the invaders approached and stopped, still on the road.
“Hear, O Lord, when I cry with my voice: have mercy also upon me, and answer me. I Will love Thee, O Lord, my strength: The Lord is my firmament, my refuge, and my deliverer. God grant me courage, and strength and above all, faith.”
The invaders drew bows once again, preparing to put away the insult to their authority. Their black armor clattered as long arms raised and drew back the strings. Father Brian could see, so clearly, the feathers of the fletching; even the thick hair on the fingers that held the strings.
“From all dangers, deliver us, O Lord!”
At a shout, the arrows released. Father Brian raised his right hand and the arrows stopped in their flight. For an impossible moment, they stayed still in the air, unmoving.
“God is with us!” shouted someone behind him. The arrows dropped to the ground.
The invaders, as one, drew their swords. They looked to each other, and back to the black-robed old priest who confronted them from the lawn of his little church. They stepped forward.
Father Brian again raised his hand. He had never thought to curse anyone in his long life. But the words seemed written in fire before him.
“Blessed be the Lord my God who teacheth my hands to fight! Judge, Thou, O Lord, them that wrong me: overthrow them that fight against me!”
The words poured out in a rush, “And I will break the pride of your power; and I will make your heaven as iron, and your earth as brass. You come with swords, I will bring fire upon you; and ye shall be delivered into the hand of the enemy;”
His right hand smoked. The invaders paused, uncertain. The sun shone through a gap in the clouds, limning the invaders in golden light. Electricity flowed in his veins, his heart sung at the presence within him.
He shouted, “Bow thy heavens, O LORD, and come down: touch the mountains, and they shall smoke. Cast forth lightning, and scatter them: shoot out thine arrows, and destroy them. Send thine hand from above; rid me, and deliver me out of great waters, from the hand of strange children;
His hand, his arm burst into blue flame, but he felt no pain, no heat from it. He exulted. He felt joy, and fear. He would protect his people, he would cast into fire the enemies of God:
“Then he shall say unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels!”
Lightning erupted from the asphalt pavement below the invaders. They cried out in shock and pain, their guttural cries piteous to hear. Fat blue sparks jumped from one to another, hitting their armor with audible cracks.
“Depart from me into everlasting fire!” he cried once more. The black tarry pavement burst into flame. Tongues of fire, blue and white, licked up the legs of the invaders, consuming them. White smoke shot in jets from the joints of their armor as their flesh was consumed from within.
The smell of burnt wool and skin filled the spring air, overwhelming the pleasant but subtle odors of cut grass and flowers that had lingered around the little church. All along the column of invaders, hungry fire raged; its fuel was their bones.
The horrific screams reached a crescendo of pain and agony, and cut off all at once; sound and life extinguished together. The silence was painful.
The power still flowed in Father Brian. Without an outlet, it coiled inside, tighter and tighter. “What now, Lord?” he asked.
Father Brian looked around, but no one had spoken. The people behind him still stared raptly at the fiery destruction before them. The road had melted, streams of molten asphalt flowed like lava into the weed-filled gully, raising steam from the stagnant water at the bottom.
His hand still burned, still he felt nothing. He made to lower his hand, but the hand would not move. Dear God, what is happening?
His consciousness receded, compressed to a tiny point. Memories flashed for a moment before him and were consumed. The joy he had felt seconds ago was gone. He felt fear, and it too was consumed. A vast thalamic wave of emotions rushed through the tight confines of his awareness. Each sensation possessed him for a fleeting instant, and was gone.
He felt despair last of all. And then that, too, was gone. The light from the fire on his hand burned.
“Father Brian?” Sam asked.
“I am not Father Brian. You may call me…Michael.”
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