Mars Rising 6-11
by Sophia
Part 6

Days go by.  Only the movement of sunlight across the carpet marks their passing.

I lie as if in a stupor, unable to muster the will to get up and live my life except to relieve myself.  In the background, the television drones on from the other room.  It’s set to a news channel and I listen to the headlines repeat over and over.  The phone has been ringing off the hook, messages are piling up in my answering machine, but I don’t answer it or return my calls.  Finally, I take the phone off the hook and fall back into bed to sleep the day through once again.  The rumble in my stomach signifies I’ve not eaten since that night, but it’s only a sound – there’s no sensation of hunger to accompany it.

I wait each night for him to return to me, to entice me to do his bidding, to act as his depraved sexual toy, but nothing.  It’s as if he, too, has abandoned me -- having destroyed me and ruined my career, he has no further use or interest in me.  I curse both him and my God, but both are meaningless.  My heart aches just as much for the loss of one as the other.

“Please come back,” I cry wordlessly, tears absent due to my increasing dehydration.  I cry to either of them, to anyone, but no one comes for me, neither God nor the devil.  Not until late the next day when, from what I was told later, I was almost dead.

The door crashes open, and two burly police officers come flying in, a small metal battering ram held between the two of them.  They stop in their tracks when they see me, and stand to the side to let the rest of the entourage enter and attend to me – it’s Velasquez and Frances with a couple of paramedics in tow.

“Oh, Michael,” she gasps as she sees me fully for the first time, my face gaunt, eyes circled with shadows from lack of sleep and fluid.

“Michael!”  Velasquez says as he leans down near to my face.  “We had to break in, couldn’t find the building superintendent to let us in, I’m afraid.”  As if I care at a time like this.  I wave at him and turn my face away, unable to look him in the eye.

“Let me die.”

“Nonsense, you’ve got important work to do.  People need you, there’ll be a parish for you and lives to tend, souls to care for.  You know the Church’s stand on suicide, Michael.  No matter how upset you are, there is no excuse for this.”

The paramedics check me out, start an IV line and I feel the cool rush of liquid into my arm.  I seem to float in and out of consciousness during the trip to the hospital.  When we arrive, I’m wheeled into the ward where a team of medical personnel tends to my body.  I’m crying as they work on me, and finally someone gives me some kind of powerful sedative, for the masked faces of the emergency room doctors are the last things I see until much later.

***

Frances has been such a comfort to me during this time in the hospital.  She spends most of her free time with me despite her numerous involvements outside of our work.  I feel both relieved that someone visits me, but at the same time, I know she must rearrange her life to be here and apologize.

“Oh, Michael, don’t even mention it.  You’re like a brother to me.  How could I stay away?”

We’re sitting in the solarium enjoying the moist air, the greenery and the bright white Mediterranean sunlight.  I have one of the Vatican’s internal reports in hand that Frances brought with her and have been reading about the investigation into Verccino in Montana.  Two weeks have passed since I last saw him, and I’m surprised at how quickly the Vatican has moved in to engage him and his cult.  They aren’t getting too far, from the look of the report.

“Not much luck,” I comment and she nods her head and sips at the tepid tea in the Styrofoam cup.

“I’m afraid not,” she says thoughtfully as she puts down the cup.  A look of concern crosses her face and it’s as if she’s debating whether to talk.

“Velasquez… it’s as if he’s being deliberately obtuse,” she continues as she stands up and walks to the large picture window.  “I don’t understand his strategy on this.  He’s cooperated with the Bureau of Tobacco and Firearms in an effort to indict Verccino on charges relating to arms smuggling, as if that will do anything.  They had an informer who was supposed to lead them to the arms cache in the compound, but they came up empty when they raided the site.  Nothing but legitimate stuff in the compound.”

“Someone tipped Verccino off.”

She nods in reply and checks her watch.  I know she spends her Sunday afternoons with her grandchildren and today is no different.  She missed last week – I told her not to miss another.

“I’ve got to go.  Michael,” she says and I’m surprised to hear a note of grief in her voice.  “Velasquez says you’re almost ready to be reassigned.  I don’t agree and told him so.  You need a lot more counseling and time to test out the levels of your medications before you should be send to a parish.  He claims it’s merely a collegial disagreement but I don’t think so.”

She comes back and pulls her chair close to mine.  When she takes my hand and looks deep into my eyes, I feel a shiver go down my back.  A wave of dizziness hits me and I think for a moment about what Verccino had said about my vertigo.

“What is it?”

“He’s sending me off to South America to start investigating another cult,” she replies.  “I’ll be out of touch for weeks at a time.  My cover is as a member of a religious order who administer to the locals who have AIDS.  There’s some healer who claims to have the power of the ancient gods doing miracles.  Curing AIDS.  Cancer.  People are flocking there to be healed.”

“When will you go?”

She closes her eyes, and squeezes my hand.

“I’m sorry.  I wanted to tell you sooner, but he said no.  He said I had to wait until today, that if I told you sooner, you’d despair.”  She stifles a sob.  “I’m leaving tomorrow.”

I feel as if the ground is going to drop out from underneath me and my stomach lurches.  Frances taken from me as well?  Me sent off to some far-flung parish so soon?  What was he trying to do?  Save me from death and then push me to the brink once again?

“Why is he doing this to me?”

She shakes her head and stands up to leave.

“Keep the faith, Michael,” she says, but her voice is weak and it’s as if even she doesn’t believe anymore.

We hug, it seems, forever.  I know that it will be months before I’ll see her again.

“What will I do without you?”

She can’t respond.  There are tears in those warm brown eyes as she turns and walks away.

***

The apartment has been thoroughly cleaned and the fridge stocked with a couple of day’s worth of food.  Frances’ work, no doubt, I think, as I survey the contents of the small fridge.  Fruit, milk, some scones, a chicken breast, fresh rosemary.  There are cut flowers in a vase and a note with a wax seal.  It’s from Frances.

Dearest Michael,

I wish I could be here to welcome you home, but he insisted that I leave you to go through the last part of your recovery on your own.  He claims you depend on me far too much.  Has he no heart?  I’ll send you a letter when I can get one to the post, but they are few and far between where I’m going.  Take care of yourself, and remember, you have been chosen for God’s own work.

Frances

I sit and look at the note, at Frances’ neat handwriting, and smell the scent of the Freesia and Gardenias.  Velasquez comes in with my bags and looks over my shoulder at the note in my hand, and I fold it up quickly, and place it in the pocket of my jacket.  He smiles and then pulls out a chair and sits facing me.

“She and I had a disagreement over your treatment, Michael,” he says as he removes his glasses and wipes them off with a kerchief extracted from some inner pocket in his vestments.  “I sent her away because, well, for one, I felt you must stand on your own two feet, without her to mother you, as pleasant as that prospect might be.  And, mostly, I sent her away because I need you to get back in shape quickly, for I have to send you back to Montana.  I knew she would never approve.”

Montana!

“But, I… my cover’s been blown with Verccino.  He knows who I am and who we are.  He… we were intimate.  There is nothing I can do any longer.”

“Michael!  If you’ve not guessed already, then I must tell you flat out.”

He pauses, and I know what he is going to say before he says it.

“You are the bait with which I hope to catch and kill the biggest fish any of us have ever seen, let alone imagined.  He, Verccino, claims to be a god reborn, but I know differently.  I know he is one of the fallen, come to earth to signal the beginning of the end.  We must stop him, for it is through his acts on earth that the dark one will be unleashed.”

My mind reels at his admission.  The dark one?  I almost laugh out loud.  Here, in the safety and silence of the hospital, it all seems too absurd.  I haven’t heard such talk since The Exorcist.  Then Verccino wasn’t the Anti-Christ, but one of his minions.

“It’s been prophesized, revealed to God’s chosen one at St. Anne de Beaupres, that in the final days, false gods would announce themselves and draw the unsuspecting in to their grasp, building up followers who would fight against our Lord and Savior.  These gods would be from the Old World, the gods of those who slew our Lord, the Romans.”

St. Anne de Beaupres?  I’d never heard of this revelation.

“Michael – he favours you among all the others we have sent, and has let you live while he has killed the others.  He wants you, of that I have no doubt, for he never even engaged the others.”

Velasquez was speaking very rapidly and his face was red, small beads of perspiration covered his upper lip and forehead.  His hands clasped and unclasped into fists.

“What others?”

He hesitates, and it is then that I think of the young Lieutenant electrocuted in Montana, and the Demers woman at the gas station.

“The deaths in Montana.  Both of them were our agents.  We didn’t inform you… the less you knew…”

He smiles at me, and raises his arms in a gesture that is supposed to indicate helplessness, but I see guilt instead.

“Michael,” he says as he leans forward.  “He wants you as his own.  He must believe you want him as well.  When he finally believes he really and truly has you.  Then…THEN you must kill him, weaken the power of the Anti-Christ, so that when he comes back to the world, our Lord will easily defeat him.  With Verccino and the others in power, the end, while certain of course, will come at a very great price.”

I shake my head.  It all sounds like a second rate Hollywood movie.  But still… dread creeps over me and settles into the pit of my stomach.

“All this was in the Prophecy of St. Anne?”

“Michael, she named names.  She gave us the details of those who would claim to be the Roman gods reborn.”

The image of Verccino in the Roman military garb comes to mind and I gasp in spite of my disbelief.

“He came to me in a dream,” I say, unable to hide the wonder in my voice at the connection between my dream and what Velasquez reveals.  “He was dressed in a red leather breastplate with a golden eagle on the crest, a plumed helmet, and a shield and sword.”

“Mars, the God of War.”

War.  Frances said that wherever there was a war, there you’d find Verccino.  She’d been right all along, had identified him and we hadn’t understood it.  Here was proof that Verccino was who Velasquez claimed.  As tired as I am, I feel adrenaline course through me, I feel as if time speeds up, and as if events are overtaking me.  I feel as if I was being sucked up into a vortex, helpless to escape.  A renewed sense of purpose starts to build inside of me.

Here is my calling.  Here is what I was called to do -- to fight the Dark One, to prevent His dominion.

“When do I go?”

“I knew I could count on you, Michael.”

********
 

She’s been calling me for days, trying to get back in touch, her soft voice requests a meeting to see how I am and talk about what happened.  I listen to her voice on the answering machine and finally decide to pick up when she calls.  I owe her at least that much.

“I don’t have time to see you before I go,” I protest as I stuff some shirts into my duffel bag.  “I’m leaving within the hour…  I’m running late, and if I don’t leave now, I’ll miss my flight.”

I hear Christine sigh on the other end of the line and I shrug mentally.

“I have some interesting information about the tomb seal.  I thought at least you’d want to hear it before you go.”

“Thanks, but I already know who Verccino is, who he claims to be.  That was a plant to try to convince me he’s someone he isn’t.  I know his game now.  Let me guess: it’s a Roman tomb seal.  The inscription claims that he’s the Roman God of War, or something similar.”

There’s a long pause on the other end of the telephone line.

“Where did you get that idea?”

“That’s not what you were going to tell me?”

“No, actually, well, it does relate to that period archaeologically, but a lot earlier.  It’s the tomb seal from an ancient burial site.  Only, the tomb in question was lost to antiquity – only a legend, never excavated.”  She paused for a moment and I could tell she was puzzled by her findings.  “According to legend, inside the tomb was a vase, a large metal vase in which Ares, the God of War, was entombed when he was a young god.  He almost died, and would have if Hermes hadn’t found the tomb, broken the seal and released Ares.  According to legend, Ares kept the tomb seal as a token of his friendship and debt to Hermes.  He kept it as a reminder of how near to death he was.  It’s even portrayed in some ancient frescoes in Greece, but we’ve never had actual physical proof of it.”

“Weren’t Ares and Mars the same god?  When the Romans adopted the Greek pantheon, they gave Ares the name Mars, their god of war?”

“Yes, but, as I said, we had no proof of the existence of this tomb. It’s just a legend, written down by one of the historians of Rome, Tacitus.  If I hadn’t recognized the script on the seal, I wouldn’t have been able to help you. Ares had been entombed in the vase in an ancient burial site.  The writing was not Greek: it was cuneiform.  Ares had been trapped in the vase and hidden in a closed tomb from a much earlier period.”

“What – you’re claiming he really IS Mars, the god of war? Mars?”

There’s silence on the other end.  I hear her begin to speak and then stop.  She tries once more.

“I…” she stops once again, as if unable to say the words.  “No, well, yes… I don’t know what to think. I don’t, I’m not a religious type.  You know me.”

“Christine,” I say with a chiding voice.  “I know who he is, and it’s not some Roman god.  He’s not Mars.  He’s a demon sent down to earth to prepare the way, claiming to be one of the Roman gods. It’s all been prophesized, the prophecy kept secret for several centuries.”  It sounds convincing even to me, her story, but my mind is working hard, trying to keep everything in place.  I realize I’m trying to explain this tomb seal to myself as much as to her.

“Listen.  What better way is there to convince two archaeologists of something than to give them a piece of ancient pottery?  Think of it!”

She’s quiet, but I know my argument is sound.

“He knows us both, Christine.  He knows our weaknesses.  He knows our prejudices.  The tomb seal – it’s the equivalent of a burning bush to the faithful.”

“When will you be back?” she says, her voice quiet, resigned to my decision.

“When it’s over.”

***

The phone rings as I’m pulling on my coat and preparing to leave my apartment.  A taxi is waiting outside and I wave to the driver to let him know I’ll be right out.  He nods.  Back inside, I lift the receiver and answer.  It’s my physician calling back with the results of my MRI scan.

“I don’t know what to say, Michael.  I’m so sorry.  You were right to ask me to recheck the images.  You must come right down to my office.  We need to do more… tests.”

“It’s ok,” I say, a shiver making goose flesh appear on my back and forearms.  “Let me guess.  You rechecked the images as I asked and found a tumor in my brain.”

“Yes,” he says,  “how did you know?”

“It’s ok, Doctor.  I had it checked out in Denver when I was over in the US.”  I figure I might as well lie, and let the Doctor think that I was getting treatment.  “They found the tumor after I fainted on the street and was admitted to the emergency department.  I’m going back now to have it removed.”

“Well, please accept my apologies.”  He’s silent for a moment, understandably shocked at what has happened.  “ I don’t know how we could have missed it.  We read it quite carefully, and according to my notes and that of my colleagues, there was no tumor.  But now… after you asked me to recheck it, there it is…”

There it is indeed. As I slam the door shut to my small pension and enter the taxi, I suspect that Verccino might have falsified the images just to convince me of his power. As we drive off to the airport, I feel as if there is just too much going on to really take it all in.  I need time to sit and think of what’s happened, what it all means.  The tomb seal, the MRI, the prophecy, Velasquez’s plans, the bombing in Amman.  There’s just too much for me to digest but there is no time.

***

Velasquez meets me at the airport.   I’m not expecting him and am shocked when he takes me by the elbow and escorts me to a couple of chairs in a secluded alcove.  My plane is called for boarding, but he holds me back.

“Michael,” he says, his grip on my arm so tight it starts to hurt.  “Michael, I knew I could count on you.”

“I have to go,” I protest, and try to pull my arm away from him, but he only grips me more tightly.

“I have something for you,” he whispers and reaches into his vestments, never taking his eyes off of me.  He seems strange, as if he’s drunk or high on something.

He pulls out a velvet box.   Inside is a long thin chain with a silver crucifix.  I take it in my hand and see that it’s ornately carved.  I look more closely – it’s almost imperceptible, but I note that the vertical beam is in the shape of a sword blade, the crossbeam is shaped like a hilt. It's a cross, but it is deftly shaped like a sword or dagger.

“When he is … close to you,” Velasquez says conspiratorially, moving just a bit closer to me and glancing around.  “When he is at his ease, when he least expects it…” He pauses and looks straight into my eye; as if he fears that I don’t quite understand what he intends.  I wait.  Then Velasquez says it – he gives voice to the other sin I am permitted to commit.  “When you are in his embrace, you must use the end of this crucifix.  Take it, break his skin with it, even just a tiny amount of pressure, just enough to make him bleed.  It’s the only way to stop him, to rid the world of his kind and the menace he poses.”

I look more closely at the small crucifix.

“Is it poisoned?  How could such a small scrape harm him?”

Velasquez nods and there is a manic look in his eyes.

“Yes, yes.  There is a specific poison, using the latest in genetic technology -- engineered to kill only him.  You could scratch yourself or anyone else and there would be nothing other than a scratch, but to him, just the slightest amount will be lethal.”

“You really want me to kill him.”  It’s a statement, not a question.

“He’s not human, Michael.  He’s inhuman, a demon.  The devil’s own.  You will not really be killing him, you will destroy him.”

He smiles and stands up, watching with such pleasure as I put the chain around my neck and tuck it into my vestments.  I feel its smooth coldness against the bare skin between my pectoral muscles.  The dagger comes to rest just over my heart.

We embrace and Velasquez pushes me towards the boarding gate.

“You better hurry.  God go with you.”

I turn and look back for a moment.

“Go!” he insists.  “He will be there with you, Michael, be assured.  God will be with you.”

For a crazy moment, I wonder to myself -- which god?  Nausea washes over me, but I take a deep breath and board the plane bound for New York and what lies in wait for me beyond.

***

Part 7

My return to Montana is unremarkable.  I don’t know what I expected, but it’s not what I find.  Father Brian Dunn, an older priest with a white fringe of hair around his balding head and a dimpled smile, meets me at the airport in Helena, and drives me to the residence in which I will live for my time here.  I’m to replace him while he goes on a pilgrimage to Rome -- a leave of absence he requested years ago, but only now has it been approved. He’s spent almost his entire life in Montana, and other than a few trips to Washington and abroad for conferences, he’s not traveled far nor does he have much ambition.  He loves it here.

He chats with me as we drive, talking about the parish, about the regulars to mass, about the schedule of sermons he’s planned and the notes he’s already made.  I barely listen – my mind is occupied, wondering how I’m supposed to get Verccino’s attention.

“He’ll come to you, Michael, trust me,” Velasquez assured me.  “You are far too tempting a bait for him to ignore.”  He patted my shoulder affectionately when we discussed the plan.  “He’ll bite.”

I think of those words now as we drive through the Montana countryside.  The rough grid roads here are all the same – on either side of the highway are miles and miles of ranchland covered in snow.  Besides short scrub brush and a few groves of leafless trees, the telephone poles are all that mark the passing miles.   Here and there, off the road a half a mile or so are buildings surrounding small farmhouses.  It’s so quiet out here and the horizon is almost endless.  I can see why they call it “Big Sky Country.”

“He’ll bite,” I think to myself, wondering just how much of this I can take, when I’ll have the opportunity to inflict the wound, end his existence.  I can’t think beyond that.  All else seems irrelevant.

“Of course, don’t feel obliged to follow my plans or use my notes,” Father Dunn says as we pull into the parking spot outside the small church.  I’m startled out of my reverie, if you can call it that, and am dragged back to the present.  Dunn is sitting looking at me with that smile on his face; those apple cheeks are good enough for Saint Nick.  I imagine how much his flock must love him, he so genial and … fatherly.  What on earth will they think of his replacement -- a distracted, tired looking priest who can’t focus, who hasn’t said a decent mass or given communion for more than a decade?

We haul my duffel bags and briefcase into the small residence.  As I look at the single bed in the spare room on the second floor, I wonder what corruption it will see now that I’ve come to stay.

********

We sit at the old mahogany table that evening in the dining room and eat the roast pork dinner Miss Anita Dunn, Father Dunn’s spinster sister, prepared for us.  She putters around the room, pleased to have someone else to feed and fuss over. Except for the ample white hair piled on top of her head, she is Father Dunn’s double.  The rosy cheeks and round body are the same.  Her smile is only slightly less wide for she has a lot of details to worry over – the smoothness of the gravy, if I like carrots or peas, and will I have whipped cream on my apple tart or plain?

“This is the best meal I’ve eaten in months.”

Finally, I’m rewarded with that smile, and there is an identical one on Father Dunn’s face.

“Anita will make sure you have at least one good meal a day, and will do the shopping and tidying up.  She’s been a blessing to me.”

Miss Dunn places a plate of apple tart in front of me and watches as I take and savor the first bite.  She leaves us to talk, taking some of the dishes with her.  Father Dunn pours me a snifter of brandy, and we talk of the parish and its more colorful characters.  I hesitate to ask about the Militia yet, and listen instead as he regales me with tales of the locals.  He raises his eyebrows when he tells me of the womanizer who has bastard children in three separate houses.  He tells me of the widow who confesses the most heinous sexual secrets; all of them imaginary and a vain attempt to seduce him, and of the recent wake held for the town drunk who finally succeeded in killing himself off on a very slippery patch of highway.

“I hear there’s a military base around.  What about them?”

Father Dunn sits back and nods, making the sign of the cross as he does.  So he, too, has heard stories of the cult connected to the group.

“Not a military base, its militia, and they’re a bunch of nutcases.  Cultists who claim the leader is a healer and can perform miracles. A few of the members come to mass, but they don’t take communion or confess.  Don’t know why they come each week, probably guilt, but there it is.”

“The leader, have you met him?”

Father Dunn gets up and takes out a cigar from a box on the antique server against the wall.  He offers me one, but I decline and watch as he snips off the end and lights it.  He puffs away for a moment and a cloud of cigar smoke wreaths his balding head.

“He’s a caution, that one.  Yes, I met him at a local meeting when the militia first applied to use the lands they leased from the town. The people around here are law and order types, so they didn’t mind. This was before we knew of their craziness, of course.”

We move into the study and sit in the leather wing chairs in front of the fireplace.

“He came up to me after the meeting and seemed to be assessing me, to see what kind of priest I was.  Asked me questions about where I studied, that sort of thing.  Didn’t seem too impressed with what I said,” Father Dunn laughs.  “He never spoke to me after that.  I can tell you that I was just as happy that he didn’t.  His eyes, they gave me the most … eerie feeling, as if he could read my mind.”

The talk moves on to other things, and I almost forget about my mission, about the reason I’ve been transferred to this place.  It’s not until much later when I undress and prepare to get into the hot bath that it all comes back to me.  As I bend over to step in the tub, the crucifix dangles and reflects the light from the ornate sconce on the wall.  It reminds me of my real purpose here, and the good feelings I had dissipate.

I creep into the spare bed, and the sheets are cool against my bare skin.  I lay with my eyes open, blinded by the darkness, and finger the crucifix.  I run the sharp edge against my own skin and wonder if he knows I’m here.  In my secret heart of hearts, just for the briefest second, I hope he does.

********

Small towns in Montana are alike – they probably are similar everywhere across the prairies.  A few main streets make up the centre of town.  They’re lined with a shops: a grocery store, a Laundromat, a bank or two, hardware store, a Chinese food restaurant, and even a fast food outlet claiming to have sold a billion hamburgers or more.  The train tracks go through this town, and every now and then, the freight train’s whistle punctuates the silence.  This town also has a used bookstore – a rarity in small town America, and I am drawn to it the first time I venture out.

It’s a combination of antique store, tobacconist, and bookstore.  There’s a counter where the proprietor sells cigars, pipe tobacco and accessories, a collection of old chairs, tables and chests of drawers with small white tags bearing the price, and shelves of books, hundreds of volumes of fiction and nonfiction.  It smells of my father – some sweet blend of tobacco, old leather and dust from the books.

Against one wall is an old upright piano; its keys yellowing with age.  The ornate carving in the golden brown oak is dusty and greasy but I can see that it was once a beautiful piece of work.  I touch the keys, then play a scale, and find that the piano is in remarkably good tune.  I can’t resist and play a few bars from memory -- a Chopin etude, one of my favorites.  I’m amazed that my memory for music is still intact and I play the entire piece without thinking, lost in the music, the first time I’ve touched an instrument for years.

The owner comes by and listens to me as I play.  He smiles, nodding to encourage me to continue.  When I’m done, he introduces himself.

“Joe Fielding,” he says as he shakes my hand. He gestures with his head to my collar.  “You must be the new priest here to replace Father Dunn while he’s away to Rome.”

“Michael McGuigan,” I reply, and run my hands over the old piano.  “I hope you don’t mind me playing, or mind my playing,” I laugh, “but I haven’t touched a piano for over a decade.  Couldn’t resist.”

“Not at all,” he says.  “My granddaughter comes in to play sometimes, so I keep the old girl in tune.  Would you like to play anything else while you’re here?  You’re quite skilled.”

I shake my head.  I play by ear -- it’s a talent I inherited from my grandmother, and although I can read music and I studied for years, I stopped playing when I joined the group.  My music dropped, like everything else in my life outside of the Church.

“I think I’ll just look around, see if there are any old books I might like to read.”

“Be my guest. Piano’s for sale, if you’ve an interest.  And if you see any antiques you fancy, make me an offer.”

I nod and make my way down the aisles of books.  He’s labeled the sections quite well, and I examine a few texts on history and then pull out a biography of Churchill and flip through the pages.  Fielding is obviously a book lover – the volumes are carefully stacked and in order according to the Library of Congress catalogue system.  I wonder if he was a librarian in his younger days.

I round the corner and make my way to the back of the store.  There’s a large picture window looking out onto the prairie, and the sunlight is warm on the old Persian carpet.  There are a few ancient armchairs around a table and I sit and look down at the biography of Churchill.  My father admired the man and had this identical volume on his own shelves.  Sitting here in the warmth, in this comfy old chair with this book in hand sends me back to my youth, when I lived with my father -- back to happier days when life was secure and I was full of optimism.

I notice movement out of the corner of my eye, and realize there’s another patron in the store.  When I look up, a shock goes through me, for there is no doubt about the identity of the man I see standing reading a book.  Verccino.

The blood rushes from my head and I feel faint – such a familiar sensation when I’ve been around him.  I don’t know what to do, so I do nothing.  He doesn’t seem to have noticed me, so I keep my head down, my book open.  I can see him out of the corner of my eye, and now I see that Fielding has joined him. They talk quietly, but I can hear every word.

“You do have it after all,” Verccino says as Fielding offers him a volume off the shelf.

“Oh, I have a large collection of the classics.  I knew I had this when you called.  It’s in great shape.”

“Good,” he replies in that soft baritone.  “There’s a section on the decline of the Greek pantheon I wanted for a friend.  Do you mind if I sit and read it for a while?”

“Not at all,” Fielding replies, and he points to the chair beside me and actually escorts Verccino to it.  I look up and am almost in a panic, but I keep my cool and smile as Fielding points to me.

“Have you met the new priest who’s replacing Father Dunn while he’s away?  Father McGuigan, this is Colonel Verccino.”

I stand and offer my hand.  We shake, and Verccino’s hand is dry and warm, firm in its grip.

“We’ve had the pleasure,” Verccino says, and I look into his eyes to see the mock in them, but there is none, only a calm coolness, and a self-assured look that is so familiar and so damn daunting.

Verccino points to the book in my hand.  I hold it up and he smiles.

“Churchill.  Brilliant tactician.  Wasn’t given the credit he was due.”

I don’t know what to say other than to nod in agreement.

“Well, I’ll leave you to your books, then,” Fielding says, and goes to the front of the store.

We sit and Verccino says nothing for a moment, merely opens the book in his lap.  He's so damn cool!  I check out the title – its Bullfinch, Mythology.  Damn him!  Everything is so carefully staged.  I know it’s meant for me.

“You play very well,” he says as he flips through the pages.  Then he closes the book and looks into my eyes.  Those eyes, so dark and warm and penetrating.  I remember what Father Dunn said about those eyes.  Adrenaline flows through me and goes right to my groin in spite of my mission, in spite of my resolve.  “I didn’t know how talented you are.”

I still don’t know what to say.

“I got this for you.  There’s a good section on…”

“I’ve read it.”

“Oh, yes, that’s right.  You were schooled in the humanities.  You know all about Greek and Roman history, about antiquity.”

I look down at my own book.

“Tell me, Michael.  Why on earth did you join the church?  You should really have spent your life digging up ancient Mesopotamia rather than doing the Vatican’s dirty work.”

“You seem to already know everything about me, so why bother with the questions?”

“I didn’t know you could play so beautifully.”

My face reddens at his praise. DAMN!  I feel like a schoolboy with a crush.

“Well, I suppose we wouldn’t have met if you hadn’t joined the church.”  He watches me for a moment and then sighs.  “What am I going to do with you, Michael?  What do you really think you can accomplish here?”

“I’m here as a priest, to replace Father Dunn while he’s away on sabbatical.”

“Do you really think I don’t know why you’re here?”

It’s then I see the mock on his face, and its now mixed with a touch of anger.  I should fear him, I should feel hatred towards him, but for some reason I only want his approval.  As if he reads my heart, he shakes his head and looks down at the book in his hand.

“What have they told you about me?  Did they tell you I was Beelzebub himself?  Or am I the Anti-Christ’s right hand man?”

He laughs, and rubs his eyes.  I look him over – he’s so damn so attractive.  He’s dressed in “civvies” – civilian clothes.  Jeans, a black leather trench coat over a thick black turtleneck made of some rich wool, black leather boots, and a thick black belt with an eagle crest on the buckle.  His dark hair curls around his ears and down the back of his neck.  The goatee is trimmed carefully and there are a few gray hairs shot through it.

“The prophecy of St. Anne…”

“Michael,” he chides.  “Didn’t you ever wonder about prophecy? It’s so convenient, so lacking in specifics, so general it could refer to anything in any historical period.  It’s like your daily horoscope, isn’t it?”

“The prophecy named names.”

“Oh, yes, this one named names.  Prophecy,” he muses, folding his hands as if in prayer.  “Why would your god plant ideas in the mind of the faithful?  Perhaps to blind them to truth?  To prepare them, to prejudice them, to prevent them from using their own faculty of reason? Your god, Michael, has been particularly good at keeping the faithful from thinking.  That’s why there are priests.”

I look up and he smiles when he sees anger on my face.

“Thought is dangerous,” he continues.  “Knowledge is power.  Your god didn’t want the faithful to have any.”

I can barely take it all in.

“Well, this is all very interesting, but let’s get back to the main point.  What’s the plan?”

“What do you mean?” I reply but my voice is weak.

“You were sent here to spy on me, to tempt me into making a mistake, to make me let down my guard.  I know the routine.”

“If you already know, why don’t you just ignore me?”

He closes his eyes for a moment.

“Because you’re too interesting to ignore. Besides,” he says, and stands up so that he is directly in front of my own chair.  I stare at his belt buckle.  The eagle crest reminds me of the tomb seal and the prophecy that he’s a demon claiming to be the Roman God of War.

“Besides, eternal life gets pretty boring after a while.  I need something to distract me.”

I look up, and for some reason, he seems to have grown more than a foot in height.  He seems huge to me, immense.  I tell myself it’s just an optical illusion, a trick of the lighting.  A projection in my mind.

“I guess you won’t be needing this,” he says, and throws the Bullfinch volume into my lap.  I pick it up and turn it over.

“I imagine I’ll be seeing you later.”

He leaves me sitting there, the book in my hand, more confused than ever.

********

Father Dunn has said his last mass and heard his last confession and I’m scheduled to take over this week.  The Dunn’s have hosted a tea to welcome me, and all the faithful have come to greet me.  After it’s all over, I’m exhausted from keeping a smile on my face as the “flock” tell me of their lives, preparing me to be their confessor, no doubt.  They check me out to see if I’m stern and cold, or warm and welcoming.  I don’t know what kind of impression I’ve made, but as we say our goodnights, Dunn says it went well.  I only hope I don’t make too bad a priest.  I’ve never really been tested, not this way.

As I walk down the hallway to the stairs, I pass the old oak piano.  We’ve not had time to find a proper place for it during the day because of the preparations for the tea, so there it stands in the vestibule.  I’m still rattled by its appearance, and didn’t know what to think when it was delivered earlier in the day.

The note attached to the tuning board was anonymous.

“Enjoy,” was all it said.

I had a hard time explaining to Father Dunn that it was probably one of the locals who wanted to be generous.  He frowns at my attempt to appear nonchalant.

“Not many would give a gift like this,” he replies, and looks at the shipping invoice.

I heard him later on the phone talking to Fielding.

“Oh, he did?  He can play well, you say?  An anonymous benefactor?  Who was in the store when he played?”

There was a silence, and then Dunn sighed.

“Oh, well. It’s a mystery, I suppose.  If it pleases him, it’s no bother to us.”

I played during the tea, a few tunes to loosen up the faithful, break the ice.  An well-heeled gray haired woman, the widow of a wealthy rancher who left quite a sum to the church, requests an old war song, and I play it from memory.  Her old voice wavers as she sings, but she is sweet, and there are tears in her eyes at the lyrics.

<<We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when, but I know we’ll meet again, some sunny day…>>

That tune is still playing in my mind as I’m standing in the bathroom, looking at my reflection in the mirror after my nightly bath.  My eyes are bloodshot from the cigar and cigarette smoke, and I’m exhausted.  I’ve a towel wrapped around my waist and I see the crucifix around my neck and look down at it.  So innocuous, but at the same time, so lethal.  I remember the last time I was in his arms and worry that I’ll not have the strength to use it when the time comes.

When I look up, I see him standing behind me.  It’s his more youthful version dressed all in leather: his hair is longer, and he still has the goatee, but his skin is smooth, younger and taut over well-developed muscles.  His arms snake around my chest and he buries his face in my neck.

Dear God…

His hand rests over my heart, over top of the crucifix, and his fingers brush it.  I tense, stiffen in spite of myself, worrying that he’ll cut himself, and this distracts him.  As if he senses my fear, he looks up and into my eyes in the mirror.

“Come on, Michael.  Did I mention I love saying your name?”

I’m speechless.  He smiles and sucks on the skin on the back of my neck.

“You must have expected I’d show up.  Don’t be too afraid,” he whispers in my ear as he nibbles on it.  “I’ve got a lot to show you.”

The next thing I know, we’re standing together, his arms still tightly clasped around my chest and we’re in a darkened room, underground – the stone is cool and damp, and I hear the drip drip drip of water.  In the dim light, I can see it’s a cave of some kind.  All around us are large boulders, and up above, far off in the distance, I can see a speck of light.

“Fifteen hundred years is a long time to be imprisoned, even for an immortal.”

I look around.  I remember him saying he’d been imprisoned for that long.

“Is this where you were…”

“Yes,” he replies quickly.  “Trapped here by the servants of the upstart god.  Who’d have thought after all those countless years that I’d be defeated?”

I see the skeletal remains of a couple of bodies leaning against one wall.  Their clothing looks like that of the Sherpas, the guides who take people on trips in Tibet or the Himalayas.

“Who are they?”

“My saviors.”

My breath is taken away by the next setting – St. Paul’s Basilica in Rome.  I know this place so well.  We’re up high in an alcove, and I can smell the plaster on the walls, the incense from the altar below, the burning wax from the tables filled with candles. The murmur of the Priest as he says the mass filters up to us.  His voice is mournful, grave, and monotone.

The setting changes before I can think of how I got here, and when my eyes adjust, I see that we’re in a strip of desert in the hills bordering a coast.  The salt air is hot and the sun so bright my eyes almost water.

“This is the land of your god, Michael.  A desolate land, hot and dry and harsh.  It’s empty, vacant.  Abandoned.  Just as you’ve been.”

The next scene is inside an old stone ruin.  A temple somewhere in Britain, I assume, from the foliage and the dampness of the air.

“See this temple?  It’s been empty for almost two thousand years.  It used to be filled with worshippers.  There were festivals on a regular basis, and the people felt, when they came here to worship their gods, that they were really present.  They were.”  We then see the temple as it must have been so long ago when the people used it.  I can see outside the stone door onto a courtyard where people have gathered to dance.  It’s warm and the trees are newly in bud.  I imagine they’re celebrating the coming of spring.  There’s laughter, music, gaily-coloured flags flap in the breeze.

My head spins as the scene changes yet again, only now we’re standing in the coolness of a building lit by hundreds of candles and a few torches.  There is a large stone altar, and on top of it, platters of food and vases with flowers, coins and even a few gemstones glitter in the candlelight.  Several supplicants are present and they lay their offerings on the altar and look at the massive fresco on the wall.  I examine it more closely.  It portrays an image of a Greek soldier, clad in armor with a sword and shield.  The profile of the man is familiar – dark curling hair, dark trimmed goatee, and dark eyes.

“This is more like it,” he says.  “Look at them, the worshippers.  They come here to pay homage to their god, pray to him, utter his name in the hopes that he’ll be present and hear their prayers.  And you know what?  Most of the time, he was there. And he did hear.”  He squeezes me.  “The gods used to intervene in the affairs of mortals, Michael.”

The next thing I see is my own face, back in the mirror in the small bathroom, and Verccino is looking in my eyes.  His hand runs across my chest once again and fingers the crucifix.  He touches it for a moment, lets it fall, and then his fingertip moves to trace around my nipple.  I watch as it hardens to a point under his touch and feel a stab of lust right to my cock.  He smiles and presses his groin against me.

My mind is a blur – I don’t know what to think of everything I’ve seen.  Were those images real?  I smelled, and saw, and heard and felt the sensations.  Did he transport me back in time?  Were those projections – is he trying to maintain his façade by manipulating my mind?

“Your god is gone, Michael,” he says, his voice is thick and deep.  “He tired of existence here and his role as distant detached God of Everything.  When he left, his power over us died.  We’re all you have left.”

He turns me around and pulls me tightly into an embrace.  I feel the soft leather and the hard points of the metal studs on his vest press against my bare chest.  I feel his muscular thighs strain against me, feel the smooth skin of his hands slide over my back, down to my ass as he rips off my towel and pulls me closer.

“In my time, Michael,” he whispers, his breath hot on my neck, “the gods did intervene in the lives of mortals.”

When I feel his tongue slip inside my open mouth, I blank out everything and give in.

***
Part 8

How can hell feel like so much heaven?

I gave in, completely.  There was no more fight in me, and I don't know why. In the back of my mind, and in the pit of my stomach, I knew the time would come when I'd have to make a decision to use the poison and end his existence.  I wasn't even sure if I could when that time came.  But right now, I couldn't find it in me to deny what I felt -- that whoever or whatever he was, he felt far more like a god than the one I worshipped all my life.  I couldn't deny that my sexual relationship with him filled me with more of a sense of worship and transcendence than what I felt in prayer in my own god=s temple.  This realization hurt, but instead of dwelling on my disillusionment, I just let happen what would.  I stopped thinking.  I just did.  I'd make my choice when the time was right.

In the meantime, my life was fairly routine, if you can call a priest's sexual relationship with a demon/god routine.  I said mass, I gave communion, I heard confession, and I even baptised a new-born. Nothing changed except my encounters with Verccino which were daily and could occur at any time or place.

On Sunday, early mass was over and I was taking some time to prepare my thoughts for the noon session.  The church was deserted, the altar boys off to their homes to eat.  It was a sunny day in the deepest part of the Montana winter -- the bright white light filtered in through stained glass and cast a multicoloured shadow on the marble floor of the small church.  It was extremely quiet and I could hear my own breathing because of the acoustics of the church architecture.  Overhead, a clear glass dome allowed a shaft of white light to fall strategically on the altar, where I stood polishing the relics and vessels for the next mass.

"Pretty nice for a small-town church."

I turned, startled out of my trance-like cleaning of the chalice used for the Eucharist, and saw him seated on a pew mid-way towards the rear of the church.  Verccino. I stood silent, frozen, as I saw him rise and walk towards the altar.

He shouldn't be here.

I felt the abomination his presence represented -- the denial of the sanctity of my Christian god's refuge.  He seemed unconcerned and walked around the altar, his hand stroking the smooth marble surface.

"I'll be saying mass in a short time," I protested, wanting him to leave.

"Not for another hour or so."

"Still, someone might come in for confession."

He smiled at the nervous tone to my voice.

"The doors are locked.  No one will even be interested in coming in for at least an hour.  I can promise you that."

He was incredibly beautiful, his long hair falling softly on his shoulders, the trim goatee framing those full ripe lips.  He was dressed in a long white tunic, and I could see bare feet from beneath the hem of his gown. Around his neck on a thin black leather strap was a heavy silver pendant ornately carved and shaped like a sword. He came to stand in front of the altar, next to me.

"So, tell me Priest, investigator of demons and one true champion of the Church, why it is that you haven=t asked me to explain who I am?"

I shook my head, unable to speak.  He'd told me once he was a god -- he even demanded I worship him, but he hadn't volunteered more than those words, and I hadn't asked.

I looked at him -- he was leaning against the altar, the sunlight flooding around him, catching the shiny flecks of silver in his hair and goatee.  His arms were outspread on either side of him, and his hands slowly stroked the altar, fingering the sharp edge.

"Come here."

"I...I'm in my vestments..." I said quietly, holding my hands out as if that exempted me from obeying him.

"I want you in them, here," he replied, "on the altar."

"I can't do this," I said, horror in my voice.

"You can and will."

I closed my eyes, and felt dread go through me even as the thought of having sex with him here, in the church, on the altar, aroused me almost beyond belief.  My heart rate rose and I said a silent prayer, asking my God to give me a sign, to show me what I was to do, to let me know He was on my side.

Verccino grabbed me by my vestments and pulled me close as he leaned back against the altar.

"Kiss me."

I looked into his eyes -- they were dark and unreadable.

"Kiss me, Michael," he whispered and reached down to run his hand over the thickening bulge beneath my robes.  "You know you want to."

I did.  I closed my eyes and leaned forward, letting my lips find his blindly.  When they touched his, I couldn't stop the sharp intake of my breath as I felt a jolt of desire stab through me.  He remained strangely passive -- he merely responded to my own explorations of his mouth with my tongue.  I could feel the hardness of his body, the stab of his massive cock against me.  My hands reached out to him in spite of myself, but he stopped me.

"Wait," he said and raised himself up so that he was seated length-wise on the altar, his tunic hiked up and his legs spread wide.  "On the altar, Michael.  Come up here, kiss me."

Obedient to his demands, I pulled myself up and knelt between his knees, leaning forward as he lay back, knocking the sacramental vessels onto the floor with a crash in the process.  He lay back fully on the altar now, and I moved on top of him, lost to the lust I felt as he gave himself to me completely.  I kissed him, and my hand explored his body hungrily, gripping his thick cock and running my fingers along its length to the head.  I felt his wetness through the material and couldn't stop myself.  I moved down and lifted his tunic, impatient to taste him, to run my tongue along the length of his cock to his heavy balls.  He was naked underneath and groaned as I licked him.  He ran his fingers through my hair, pulling me gently onto his cock which felt hot and thick in my mouth, his pungent fluid anointing my tongue.

There was nothing, no sign, and no bolt of lightning to tell me my God disapproved of what was happening on His altar in His church.  There was only the muffled sound of my breathing as I struggled to suck him, to pull more than the thick head in my mouth and then his low groan of pleasure when I was successful.

He pushed me off his cock and sat up, wrapping his arms around me and kissing me now with force. Then, he grabbed hold of his tunic and ripped it from the hem to the neck as if it was paper.  As he did, he leaned back and spread his thighs, offering his body to me.

"Fuck me."

I lay on top of him once more and kissed him, and then propped myself up so I could look in his face. He was lying beneath me with his arms outstretched, his eyes closed and back arched up towards me.  The crucifix Velasquez gave me dangled above Verccino's bare chest and as I moved down to lick his nipples, I knew I could do it now, I could end his existence now, if I chose.  Killing him here, on the altar of my God -- how more fitting a death for a demon could there be?

As I raised my body up and watched his face, preparing to kiss him, I saw my crucifix dangle over his chest.  It swayed back and forth, catching the light from the sunbeam.  The sharp point at the bottom of the centre beam was directly over his heart and I knew that if I was to hold it between my finger and thumb in a certain way, and then lean down to kiss him, the point would certainly puncture his skin.  I contemplated this for a moment, and as I stayed there, suspended above him, I saw Velasquez's face in my mind's eye and heard his excited voice as he told me about the poison on the end of the crucifix.  I knew it would kill Verccino almost immediately, it was so powerful.

It's as simple as that.  Hold the crucifix in place, then lean down and one last kiss...

"Do it,' he said.  His eyes opened and seemed to bore right into me.  I remained there, unable to think, my heart pounding, my breath held.

"Do it," he said again.  "Kiss me now."

I did.

The crucifix fell softly against his chest as I lowered myself to his mouth and slipped my tongue between his lips.  The poisoned dagger lay harmlessly between our bodies.  When I kissed him, his arms went around me and he pulled me so close...  Our kiss felt incredibly deep, so passionate that I felt tears well up in my eyes from the intimacy.  At the same time, I felt a scream building inside of me in protest that I should betray my God and my mission.  I hated myself for being so weak that I gave in to this... this demon.

He *had* to be a demon to have been able to pull me, a priest, so easily into his perversion.

My chest heaving, my body shaking with emotion and desire, I lifted his legs and positioned him so that his ass rested against my thighs.  I pulled aside my vestments, ripped down my pants and pulled my rigid cock out.  He handed me a flask of oil from nowhere, and I didn't even stop to think for a moment about its appearance. The thick liquid dripped down the crack of his ass and I rubbed my own cock against him as I stroked oil over its length.

Pushing my finger inside him, I started to stretch him in preparation, but he stopped me.

"Just fuck me, now," he groaned, impatience and need filling his voice.

I did, and he was so tight, his ass so hot, that I couldn't stop the moan that built inside me.

"Oh, God..."

Blinded by the sensations, I could think of nothing, I saw nothing, only his eyes, and knew nothing in the world except the pleasure his body gave mine.

"Touch me!' he commanded, and I could barely force myself to grab his cock and pump my hand in time with my thrusts.  I was shaking, looking up at the dome above me, feeling the warmth of the sun flooding down over me, the heat of his body gripping my cock, and the incredible unearthly pleasure as I came while thrusting deep inside of him.  I watched, looking down on him as he came as well, his beautiful face in a grimace of pleasure, his cock spurting his thick white seed over his chest and off on the side of the altar.

There was no sign, no indication of my God's anger, no bolt out of the blue to decide for me.  I had to decide for myself.  As he lay, panting beneath me, his chest rising and falling as he recovered, he reached out to me, reached his arms up to pull me down to him.

*****

It was later in the evening.  He appeared in my room and I wasn't prepared to be transported anywhere and could hardly stand for a moment when we arrived.

"Where are we?"

He didn't reply. Instead, he grabbed my arm and pulled me along behind him, through thick brush and between towering trees that blocked the night sky. I could see ahead of me for only a metre or two it was so dark in the thick forest, but we soon broke through the trees and emerged into a clearing. Overhead the clouds parted and the full moon was displayed, brightening the landscape.  In the middle of the small glade was a clearing.

"What is this place?" I asked, sure that it must have some significance for him to bring me here so late at night.  The air was cool and moist -- we were no longer in Montana.

"It was called Kalkriese," he replied in a low voice.  'This is the Teutoburg forest in northern Gaul.  In this place Rome suffered one of its most crushing blows.  The beginning of the end, actually.  Almost 20 thousand Roman soldiers were massacred by the Cherusci tribe led by Arminius."

I'd never heard of it.

"I'd always thought Rome had fallen from internal corruption."

"What else would a Christian historian conclude?"

He grabbed my hand once again and we were transported to another place, but the air felt the same and I knew we were still in Gaul, although I had no idea if it was contemporary Germany or some time in the past.

We emerged out of a similar small forest into a clearing.  In the middle stood the remains of a ruin.

"Where are we now?"

I looked at the ruin.  Thick slabs of stone fell in every direction, but it was clear this was some kind of ancient building.

"Avaricum," he said finally as he led me into the ruin's interior.  "The place where, if I'd been more prescient, I might have prevented the end of Rome and my own imprisonment."

Avaricum.  It sounded familiar.  My father was a history buff, and had always talked of the fall of Rome and the end of the ancient world.

"Avaricum," I repeated.  "Is this still Gaul?

"Yes. We're a distance away from Kalkriese, but the two sites are linked. The massacre at Kalkriese happened in A.D. 9.  61 years earlier, on this spot, Caesar built a temple for me to mark his 'triumph' over the local barbarians.  A short distance away, if you dig down deep enough," he said, and raised his arm, pointing to the north east,  "you'll find the bones of the 40,000 Biturigans he slaughtered to teach them a lesson about Rome's power. This is really where it all started."

"Caesar was a great general and statesman," I replied.  "That's what I was told in my history lessons in boarding school.  Are you claiming that this massacre was the cause of Rome's decline?"

"Only one small part, but a start.  We'd met the gods of the Celts before, of course, when they first challenged Greece and Rome centuries before, but none of us on Olympus credited them with the capacity to really fight us. You see," he said, and sat down on a stone slab that must have once been an altar.  "Gods are only as powerful as the people to whom they belong.  The Celts, while warlike, were backwards."

'So you're saying that the gods are real, they exist." I asked, unable to hide the disbelief in my voice.  He smiled at my reluctance to believe in his godhood, but didn=t answer.  "The gods of the Celts defeated ... the Roman gods?"  I was going to say, 'you' but couldn't bring myself to do so.

"No, it was the alliance between the Celtic gods and your own God that did. But Caesar's carelessness, and ultimately Rome's policy towards the Celts, led their gods to ally with your Yahweh."

He looked around him at the fallen ruin and sighed.

"The locals never forgot Caesar's atrocities.  Their armies defeated the Roman legions in Kalkriese and Augustus -- all of Rome -- was so horrified, Rome retreated and changed tactics.  Instead of advancing and claiming the territory, maintaining the expansionist policy I advocated, Augustus took a defensive stance. Ultimately, your Yahweh overtook the Celtic gods and defeated us both."

He patted the stone slab beside him but I hesitated, and instead, walked the perimeter, examining the remains of the temple.

"So, you claim to be who?  The Roman God of War? Mars is it?"

He laughed and shook his head.

"You still don't want to believe me.  Tell me, Michael,' he said, crossing his arms and watching me as I circled the altar, taking care to keep a metre's distance between us.  "How did we get here if I'm not a god?"

I passed the options over in my mind.

"You're a psychic or a demon with mental powers. This is a projection. None of this is real.  Either that or I'm mad."

He grabbed me.

"This is real.  I'm real, Michael."

He pulled me against his body and only then did I notice his clothing.  He was wearing battledress similar to the images in the book on Roman Warfare I'd seen in the small used book store in town. An ornate metal breastplate was fastened over a black leather tunic tied at the waist by a thick silver studded belt. A huge sword hung at his side.  His hair was long, the longest I'd yet seen, and he looked young and vibrant, his skin taut over the bulging muscles in his arms.

"You're Mars, God of War?"

"Or Ares, God of War to the Greeks, although they weren=t as partial to me as the Romans."

"What should I call you?"

I honestly didn=t know what to call him.  He was the 'Colonel' or 'Verccino' to me.  Even Alex didn't sound right to me somehow.

He shrugged.

"I was born Ares, and was first worshipped by the Greeks in Thrace, so it's the name I'm most familiar with.  Since you're a Christian, you can call me 'God' if you're partial to that."

I could hear the smile in his voice rather than see it for his back was to the full moon and his face was darkened by shadow.  I couldn't stop my own smile.

"Ah, a smile from the petulant priest.  I wondered if I'd ever see one."

"I hope you don't take too much offence if I don't call you God.  I can't think of that way.  If anything, I thought you were a demon, a servant of the Anti-Christ."

"I know what you thought of me, Michael.  The devil incarnate at one point."

I nodded.  How strange that it was easier to believe in a devil than a god. I'd seen enough evil.  Believing in the devil wasn't a problem.

"Just because I'm here in the flesh, involved in your lives doesn't mean I'm not a god.  You Christians -- you're too used to a distant and uncaring deity."

He squeezed me and kissed my neck.

"Just because I don't smite people down with heavenly fire doesn't mean I'm not a god."

"You did, though, didn't you?"  I said and looked for his response.  "Judy Veners and the young Lieutenant.  Murphy."

He let go of me and leaned back on the altar, but I still couldn't read his face.

"They tried to tempt me, first with Judy and then, when I rejected her, they sent in Gerald."  I heard him heave a deep sigh.  Was it regret?  "He was brave and loyal, but he wasn't what I was looking for, he wasn't what I need."

"What are you looking for?"

"Someone I can trust.  Someone who *needs*  to believe and who won't betray me.  A priest. *My* Priest.  You see this?" he said and patted the stone beneath him.  "It was once an altar.  This was once a temple, with worshippers who came to make offerings, ask for my favour."

He grabbed me and pulled me against him once again.

"I don't need a wife.  I don't need a warlord -- I have plenty of them now. I've picked the best warriors money can buy from around the world to lead my army.

"What army?  Who are you going to fight?"

"The others, the ones released when your Christian god withdrew and moved to a higher plane, devoid of the distractions of the flesh and desire," he replied with a note of sarcasm in his voice.  "I've many battles ahead.  In this world, there can be only one God of War."

He kissed my throat and his arms went around my waist.  My body responded in an instant to his touch, but my mind couldn't stop playing with what he'd revealed.

"My god left, went somewhere else?"

Ares sighed and laid his head on my shoulder.

"Not really anywhere, just a state of existence, or non-existence, to be technically correct."

"Nirvana?"

"Priest," he said, his voice unable to hide exasperation. "I don't feel like talking metaphysics right now."  He pulled me more tightly against him and kissed me. "I want you, here, in my temple, on my altar."

I didn't fight him.  I let him kiss me and felt my body respond to his passion.  Ignited by it, I kissed him back and pressed myself against him, hungry to feel his naked body next to mine. I tried to pull off his breastplate, but he pushed my hands away.

"No," he said, and lifted me onto the altar and lay me down so that I was on my back.  "I'm taking you as a war god takes his priest."

My own clothes disappeared and I felt the coolness of the night air on my bare skin.  The touch of his hand on my belly as it traced its way up to my nipples and down to my groin drew a groan of pleasure from me.  He took off his sword pendant and laid it on my chest, then removed my crucifix and placed it around his own neck.  It clinked against the metal of his breastplate so he tucked it beneath his tunic.

"No," I protested, worried that he might accidentally scrape himself with it. "Don't.  Not that."

"Don't worry, he replied. "I've got one to replace it." He placed the sword pendant around my neck.  "You'll now wear the symbol of my domain."

I wanted to do something to warn him of the danger.  Here I was, trying to save his life -- the demon/god, whatever he was, who only a week ago I was ready to kill.

I lay back on the altar, not knowing what to do, wanting to warn him, but ashamed at what I=d been willing to do.  The night sky above me was littered with stars.  Out in the middle of the forest, there are no lights to dim them and they burned so brightly, it seemed that I could reach out and touch them.  I felt his hot breath on my chest, and the warm wetness of his tongue against one nipple and arched my back, pressing it against his mouth, greedy for the sensation.

"Your god, Michael, so hated the flesh, he so despised desire, that he left this plane for nothingness."

I groaned as I felt his mouth move down my belly to my swollen cock, which ached for his tongue. When it stroked me the first time, I felt I could cum from his licking alone.  Long, slow laps of my entire cock had me thrusting my hips at his mouth.  Then his lips encircled the head and sucked.  I could barely breathe.

"I don't hate the flesh, Michael," he whispered, his lips against my groin, his curls falling softly on my thighs.  "I don't despise desire."

I was shaking as he lifted my legs and positioned his cock so that it pressed against my ass.  I felt the warmth of some oil flow over me and he stroked me and thrust two fingers into my body to prepare me for his size. I grunted with pleasure when his fingers stroked me and then gasped as his cock pushed inside.  The pressure was intense, almost painful as he penetrated me completely.

He leaned down over me as he remained deep inside my body, and just looked at me as I lay panting below him.  I saw the crucifix -- somehow in his movements, it had come loose and was wedged between the breastplate and his skin.  Too much pressure and it would wound him.

"Stop,' I whispered.  'The crucifix, it..."

"It what?" he said and thrust his cock in and out of my ass in a maddeningly slow pace.

"Take it off."

He leaned down on top of me and kissed me hard.  When he pulled back, I stiffened as I saw that it had injured him.  A drop of blood was dark where the dagger end had punctured his skin.  I looked up at him, into his eyes, panicked at the thought that I'd killed him after all.

"Be my Priest, Michael," he said, his voice deep and soft even as his thrusts became more insistent, more rapid.  "I have all the warlords I need. I need a Priest to bring my temple alive once again."

I watched in horror as he grimaced and arched his back.

"Oh fuck!" he cried out, and leaned down against me, shuddering.

He lay still for a moment, and I honestly didn't know if he was dead or alive.  Then his lips pressed against my neck and I felt his tongue move in a lazy circle on my skin.

"Are you all right?"

He chuckled. "That was so fucking good."

"Oh, were you worried about this?" he asked and sat up, pulling the crucifix out from the tunic.  I could see the small trickle of blood from where it had wounded him.  "Velasquez can be very convincing."

He smiled at the look on my face -- disbelief mixed with horror that I had been fooled and had betrayed my own beliefs so totally for him.  Leaning back down to me, he kissed me again even harder than before.

"You passed the test."

*** Part 9

I passed his test and failed another -- my own.

My faith had been all I’d lived on most of my adult life.  Now, it was gone, my belief in a supreme God, creator of the universe, a deity embodied in the person of Jesus Christ -- all of it gone.  My god, if I believed Verccino, was just one among many who defeated the rest and claimed supremacy but then tired of the earthly plane and went on to a higher level of existence.  The ‘One God’ of my religion was a lie.

Instead there was this being who claimed to be a god.  Mars, Ares, Verccino -- whatever his name was --despite his obvious powers, I resisted believing he was a god.  He wasn’t ‘God’ in the same sense as the One God I’d worshipped all my life.

I moved as if in a daze, performing my role as the local Parish Priest by rote.  The smile of welcome on my face, the somber face for sad occasions were there just for show.  When he came to me, I lost myself in the flesh.  I didn’t fight it, but neither did I feel completely fulfilled. I felt a hole in my being and had no idea what was required to fill it.

“I like this church,” he said as we sat in my office after mass.  “So many interesting places to fuck.  But you just wait until we go to Rome. St. Peter’s must have a million cubby holes and forgotten passages that need to be christened.

He’d taken to attending a few services, to watch me ‘perform’, as he called it, and then delighted in our fucking after the parishioners had gone and left me alone.  I’d spend the entire mass distracted by the erection beneath my robes as I anticipated our encounter.

His cell phone rang and he picked it up and listened.

“We’ll be right there,” he replied, and then closed up the phone.  He stood and stretched and then pulled on the heavy parka and motioned to me to put on my own coat.

“Colonel Bauer is in from Gaza,” he said as I locked the doors and we made our way to the black GMC that was parked in the lot outside the church.  “Plane just touched down.  He’s got a young Major with him I want you to meet.  He’s a bright young star.  I expect him to be a strong leader.”

“You’re letting me into the inner sanctum, are you?”

He laughed and we sped off down the snow-covered streets, the tires spinning as he pressed the gas with a heavy foot.  I gripped the armrest and gritted my teeth.

“Calm down, Michael, do you really think I’d let you die in a car crash? We’re safe.”

He seemed to enjoy driving the truck -- why I don’t know.  He could transport himself where ever he wanted.

“Why do you drive when you could be where you want in an instant?”

“I was... out of commission for 15 centuries, Michael.  I’m glad to be back.  Besides, I love vehicles of all kinds.  Get a kick driving them.” We sped through the snow covered streets, spinning the tires at icy corners, sliding sideways at one point as the tires hit some deep ridges in the ice.  We were driving  too fast for my comfort regardless of his powers.

“For someone who’s supposed to believe in an afterlife, you’re far too afraid of death.”

I said nothing in reply, having faced that contradiction and been unable to explain it.  Who can explain the irrational?

We drove out to the base and arrived at the small building where I’d first seen him shape-shift as he fucked the secretary.  Nothing much had changed, except many of the surplus military vehicles I’d seen there before were gone.  A huge plane, a ‘Hercules,’ was on the longer runway, and they were loading  vehicles onto it.

“What’s happening?”

He stopped the truck and we got out and stood to watch as another vehicle was driven through the cargo doors and into the belly of the great plane.

“We’re shipping out, moving our base to the Middle East.”

“Where?”

“Gaza.”

“You’re allied with the Israelis?”

“Not allied, I am the Israelis.”

A shock went through me.  The Israeli military in his control?

“I don’t understand.  You’re their leader?  You’re not a Jew.”

“Well,” he grinned. “Let’s just say the top brass are mine.  They recognize me as their Commander in Chief… and more.”

“Do they think you’re a god?” I asked, stunned.  “What about their religion?”

“I think it’s fitting, don’t you?  I mean, their god defeated me.  He’s gone, so I just step in and fill the void.  I’m fulfilling a role, Michael,” he said as he came around the truck to stand with me.  “The Jews have been waiting for their liberator for thousands of years.  They didn’t believe in the prophet because he didn’t come armed with military might to win them a homeland.  Well, here I am.”

“You’re not their messiah.”

He waved his hand in dismissal.  I followed him reluctantly into the building and a young corporal met us and took our coats.

“Regardless of who I am, I’m here.  They have the very best army, the brightest and most skilled military minds in the world.  I’m going to give them what they want, and in return, I get to lead them, be their war god and use them to get what I want.  It’s a fair exchange.”

“What about the Palestinians?”  I asked incredulous.

“What about them?”

“So, you give the Israelis Palestine. What is it you want?”

“Power,” he replied and opened the door to his briefing room.

Inside were several of his officers dressed in military fatigues.  They all stood at attention as he entered the room and saluted.  Seated at the centre of the table were the two Israelis -- I recognized the uniforms. They stood and saluted Verccino and when he returned the salute and then went around the table to shake their hands, they both fell onto their knees, and lowered their eyes.

The older of the two, I assumed he was Colonel Bauer, spoke, but he wouldn’t look at Verccino’s face.

“Lord Mars, I’ve brought along Major Stern, as you wished.”

Verccino turned to the others present and dismissed them with a wave of his hand.  They left and when the last officer closed the door behind him, Verccino turned back to the two Israelis.

“You can look at me.  I’m not going to turn you into pillars of salt.”

The two looked up at him slowly, and the look of reverence, the absolute belief in his godhood, was so apparent on their faces, it shook me.

“Be seated, gentlemen, please.”  Verccino said, and motioned graciously to the chairs. He took one at the head of the table, and the two officers returned to their own places.  He said nothing to me, so I remained standing where I was, unable to hide the disbelief on my face.  When the two men turned to me expectantly, Verccino looked over  and then almost as an aside, he spoke.

“Oh, this is my High-Priest, soon-to-be Cardinal, Michael McGuigan.”

The two looked at me and nodded, almost bowing in their chairs.  I turned to Verccino, my mouth agape, but he shook his head in warning, and I held my tongue.

“Pleased to meet you,” I said lamely.

“The Cardinal isn’t up to speed on my military plans,” Verccino said to the two officers.  “He’ll be in charge of the transfer of power in Rome. I’ve invited him along so he’ll be briefed when I am on the progress of our move to Gaza.”

Transfer of power in Rome? I wanted to go to him, grab him and make him explain, but I held back, not wanting to embarrass myself.

“Michael, if you promise not to fall asleep at the boring details of this move, you can take a seat, and listen.  We’ll get the business out of the way, and then later, I have a ceremony planned to welcome Major Stern into the fold.”

I nodded and listened as they talked of all the details of the move. Major Stern took the lead and outlined where the base would be located, what kind of security would be provided for Verccino’s private quarters, the number of vehicles being transported, the weapons being shipped in from the Philippines, and a number of details too minor for me to even remember.

I looked at Stern -- he was large, well-muscled under the military uniform, and had smooth golden skin covering a fine bone structure. Auburn hair, cut short, and dark eyes and thick dark eyelashes gave him a feminine beauty that contrasted to the very masculine lines of his bulk. I watched Verccino as he listened to the briefing, and the thought struck me that he found this young man desirable.  A feeling of jealousy went through me like the thrill one gets at the scary scenes of a horror movie -- a brief shock and then a few minutes of shakiness from the adrenaline.

The Israeli Colonel turned in his chair and watched the young Major give his briefing as well.  He was older than us all, getting a bit portly and probably past 50. He had gray hair cut in a very short style, and the brightest blue eyes I’d seen in a long while, perhaps even lighter than my own.

Here we all were, the three of us, watching this young man as he performed.  I was certain we all felt the same attraction to him, to his good looks and articulate presentation.  The lilt of an Israeli accent in his voice as he spoke in English made him all the more attractive and exotic.

Stern showed a series of slides with diagrams, photographs and text on the base in Gaza.  All the while Verccino asked questions, prompted the young Major for information and listened as he replied.

“You’ve done a first-rate job organizing this move, Ariel,” Verccino commented as the officer finished the briefing.  I watched as a blush spread over his cheeks, highlighting his good looks.

“I told you he was skilled and loyal, Lord,” the Colonel commented as the young officer closed the laptop in front of him.

“He’s skilled, but loyalty must be proven.  It can’t be assumed.”

“I’ll be loyal to you, Lord,” the Major insisted and I could hear the pride in his voice, the commitment.

“Leaders have to earn loyalty.  Tell me, Ariel, why would you be loyal to me?”

The young man shook his head as if he didn’t understand.

“You are the messiah come to lead us to defeat the enemies of Zion.”

“What makes you think I’m the messiah?”

“All our leaders tell us…”

“Your leaders could tell you anything.  There must be something more concrete than what your leaders tell you.”

“I saw you raise the dead,” the young officer protested, upset that his loyalty was being challenged.  “You brought Colonel Bauer back after he’d died in the battle.”

I looked over at Bauer.  He was nodding thoughtfully as he listened to Stern talk.

“I saw you kill a dozen Palestinians with a bolt of lightning,” Stern continued.  “You’ll lead us to victory over our enemies.  No one else in history has had your power.”

“You believe I’m a god?”

“You are my god.”

Verccino smiled and steepled his hands.

“The fact that I’m taking over the Catholic Church, that I’ll be using it as my religious base -- this doesn’t bother you as a Jew?”

“I won’t question your decisions.”

“But you were selected for service to me because of your intelligence.  I want and need your counsel.  You’ll have to get over your reluctance to speak your mind with me or I’ll have little use for you.  If I wanted blind obedience, I’d pick schoolboys for my soldiers, not warriors.”

Stern lowered his eyes.

“Then, I’d say that you are merely claiming what is rightfully yours, and in doing so, you’ll give us back what is rightfully ours.” Stern replied, “I don’t personally care if you’re a Jew or not. That question appears to me moot, given the reasons for your return.”

Verccino only nodded.  No doubt, in his mind, he felt the power he was seeking was rightfully his.  Our god, the Judeo-Christian god, denied him existence for all those centuries.  Now he was back and was going to reclaim his old power  -- and, I suspected,  more.

“Well,” Verccino said, rubbing his hands together.  “I’m glad that’s over.  Let’s go look at that Hercules out there on the tarmac.  I just love those hulking beasts.  So big and useful.”

The two Israelis smiled at his enthusiasm and stood when he did.  I remained seated, not quite adept yet at military protocol.  Verccino turned to me.

“Michael, if this bores you, you can always leave, go back to town.”

I shook my head and stood quickly, apologizing for my lack of attention.

“I’m sorry,” I said, unable to add ‘Lord’ as the others had.  “I was just trying to take it all in.”

Verccino turned to the two Israelis.

“You two go ahead, take a look around.  We’ll join you in a moment.”

They left us alone and I stood mute, waiting for him to do something, say something, for I was at a loss for words.

“So, Cardinal,” he said, a smile on his lips. “How does it feel to be second in command in the Vatican?”

“What about Velasquez?”

“He’s still your superior. Until you prove yourself, that is.”

My mind reeled.  So many changes.

“What happens to him then?”

“He’ll still head the Curia, with you as Pontiff.  I want you as my Pope, Michael -- the link between the faithful and me.  You’ll be the real power behind the throne, as they say.”

“Why me?”

“I told you, I need a priest.”

“There are thousands of other priests more devout than I ever was.”

He came to me and took hold of my shoulders.

“Maybe, but there was no one who wanted to be more devout than you, Michael.  You just hadn’t found your god yet.”

He looked deep in my eyes.

“Here I am.”

He said it with such seriousness that I stifled my initial response, which was to laugh in his face.

“I believe in you, Michael,” he said, and then leaned down to kiss my neck, nuzzling me, his beard tickling the skin on my throat.  “Even if you don’t believe in me -- yet.”

*****

Later that evening we had a dinner in the small mess hall and I attended although I felt completely out of place.  Verccino was letting me in, letting me see his operation, and I felt a strange sense of privilege but found it hard not to analyze everything as if I were still working for the Vatican, investigating him and his group.

Verccino didn’t seem any different from other high-ranking military officers I’d met in my work, except there was an unusual level of deference from his men, and a higher degree of attention to his every move, gesture and word that spoke of his power over them.

After the meal, and long after we’d had our brandies and the few who smoked withdrew to the smoking room, Verccino ushered us into a makeshift gym used for sports and weight training. Nautilus equipment and free weights lined the mirrored walls and there were shelves of basketballs, volleyballs, mats and other miscellaneous items found in a gym.

“I understand you’re an expert swordsman, Ariel,” Verccino said, taking a fine rapier out of a case and examining its length.  He flashed the blade around a few times and then lunged forward in a fighting stance so that the tip of the rapier was just an inch away from the young Israeli officer’s nose.

“I was trained in sword fighting, Lord” Stern replied.

“Care to try the real thing?” Verccino replied as he stood and replaced the rapier into its case.  “It’s quite different.  The sword’s heavier and you face real danger because the blade is razor-sharp.  But in my opinion, it’s the only real test of a swordsman’s skill.”

“I’d be honoured,” the young man said and bowed.

“I just happen to have a couple of old swords hanging around.”

Verccino’s officers laughed and Verccino nodded to one young officer, who left as if on cue.  In a few moments, the officer returned with the swords and a suit of battledress for Stern.

Before our eyes, Verccino changed his appearance, and went from his military officer guise, late forties, short hair, graying temples, to the younger war god who fucked me in his temple in Gaul.  He was dressed in the metal breastplate, black leather tunic and split leather skirt, knee high leather boots and leather arm bands adorned with metal spikes.  He drew his immense sword and examined it while the other officers helped the young Israeli into his own costume.  Verccino’s men seemed unperturbed at his transformation, and I realized they accepted it as proof of his godhood.  Verccino’s face was flushed, he was smiling, and obviously enjoying this game we were all about to witness.

Once Stern was ready, the two met at the centre of the gym and bowed formally.

“Since you’re new to this, swing the blade around a few times to get used to its weight.”

Stern complied and he looked marvelous in the Roman battledress.

“I’ve been doing this for a few thousand years, so I’ll cut you some slack.  You can make the first move.”

The young officer was off, lunging at Verccino almost before the words were out of his mouth.  Verccino smiled -- he was pleased with Stern’s display of aggression and the two clashed swords and chased each other around the room,  putting on quite a display for the viewers.

I watched intently, noting the sweat built up on the young man’s face as he struggled with the heavy sword and from the effort he expended. Verccino looked unwinded, as if it were nothing to him.  I realized he was just playing with the young Israeli -- however skilled the young man was, he was no match for Verccino.

Finally, after several thrusts and parries, Verccino knocked the sword right out of Stern’s hand and pinned him against the wall.

The other officers clapped and Verccino smiled as he looked into the face of his defeated opponent.

“You did well, for a first fight.  I’ll have to give you some pointers -- not that you’ll be facing much hand to hand combat in any war we fight, but you’ll need them to fight me.  I’ve been looking for a sparring partner.  I think I’ve just found one.”

How can I explain the wave of jealousy that went through me at his words?
 

Verccino remained with his sword against Stern’s neck.

“Gentlemen, if you’ll excuse us.”

Silence fell over the room and the officers left the gym.  I followed, with little doubt of the content of their business and a gnawing sensation in my gut.

“Michael, you stay.”

I froze.  I didn’t want to be any part of what was to happen.  Verccino pulled back from Stern and sheathed his sword.  Stern bowed to Verccino and waited, saying nothing, his eyes lowered in respect.  Verccino just stood and looked at the young officer,  half a smile on his face.

“You’ll be a very strong leader.  But no matter how high up in the hierarchy you get, you’re always my servant, do you understand?”

Stern nodded.

“Yes, Lord.”

“Good.  You’ll have to prove yourself worthy.  If I ask your opinion, I expect you to be totally honest.  Don’t think you can deceive me.  I’m very good at reading people.  But when I give an order, I expect you to follow it immediately and without question.”

“I understand.”

“On your knees.”

The young man fell to his knees in front of Verccino.  A moment passed. The air felt thick, heavy as the silence passed between us.

“Suck my cock.”

Stern looked up into Verccino’s face, I suppose to see if he was serious. He was and Stern waited only a second before he reached up and tried to find Verccino’s genitals from under the leather tunic.  He struggled with the unfamiliar clothing for a moment, then succeeded in pushing the flaps of the tunic aside, found Verccino’s rigid cock and pulled it out.

I didn’t know for certain that this was their first encounter , but I had a very good idea it was.  I can’t imagine what he thought of Verccino’s cock the first time he saw its size.  If he was shocked, if this was the first time he held another  man’s cock or put one in his mouth, it wasn’t apparent from his actions.  The very thought that he had never been with a man before made my own cock swell.

“Lick it,” Verccino commanded.  “Lick it all over, and suck on my balls.”

I swallowed hard, aroused at what I was witnessing but horrified, as well, that Verccino was making me watch, and jealous that it was someone else who was being asked to do this.

The young officer followed Verccino’s soft commands, licking and sucking the huge phallus in his hands, choking a bit as Verccino started to thrust his cock in and out of the young man’s mouth, but he didn’t protest or pull away.

“That’s it, that’s perfect,” Verccino said as he ran his fingers through Stern’s short auburn hair and pushed his cock all the way in and out of Stern’s mouth.  “Now take your own cock out and jerk off while you suck me.  I want to feel you cum with my cock in your mouth.”

Without hesitation, Stern pulled his cock out from his clothing, and I noted he was already erect.  He began pumping his erection,  stopping to spread some of his fluid over the head for lubrication. Not missing a beat, he continued to suck as Verccino thrust in his mouth.

I would have looked away, but couldn’t pull my eyes off them.  It was incredibly arousing to watch the young officer performing fellatio and jerking off at the same time.  I’d never seen two men together before and was shocked at how much it aroused me.

The submission -- it did something to me, it made this all the more erotic, the fact it was a command and that the command was obeyed without question.  I wanted to take my own swollen cock out and join Verccino, have Stern suck me as well, and hated myself, feeling some small part of me that still resisted my corruption.

It didn’t take long.  Soon Stern’s thighs tensed, and his buttocks clenched as he neared his climax and his hand pumped faster.  He moaned with Verccino’s thick cock down his throat and I knew how good that felt. I remembered the vibration on the head of my own cock as Verccino moaned while sucking me.

“Oh, yes, that’s what I like,” Verccino groaned.  “Cum for me, Ariel.”

Stern started to shake and his face was in a grimace as he did, his cum shooting out over his hand, onto Verccino’s thighs.  He was moaning loudly as Verccino thrust his cock in deep and then came as well, his head thrown back from the pleasure.

“Oh, yes… Suck me, suck me,” he gasped, and looked down at Stern.  He held his shaft just below the head and watched as Stern struggled to swallow.  The young officer’s lips were splayed around the head of Verccino’s cock as it moved slowly in and out of his mouth while Verccino ejaculated.

When he was done, he pulled his cock out of Stern’s mouth and leaned back against the wall.  The young officer sat back on his feet and panted, recovering from his own orgasm.

Verccino pulled the young officer up and kissed him roughly and Stern practically fell into his embrace.

I closed my eyes.  Seeing him kiss Stern hurt even more, I think, than watching them have sex.  I craved his kisses and felt my body tense in anger that he was forcing me to watch this…  this sexual display.

Why was he trying to hurt me? Didn’t he have any clue about how our sexual relationship affected me?

“Go, I’ll talk to you later,” he said to Stern, who turned and looked at me with a face filled with a mix of pride and embarrassment.  He obviously had been aroused at the thought of what he was doing, but probably felt shame that I had watched -- me, a religious man, supposedly asexual.

When the young officer left, when we were alone, I couldn’t restrain myself.

“Why would you make me watch you have sex with him?”

“That wasn’t sex.  What you and I have is sex.  That was worship.”

“Ha!” I laughed, anger filling my voice.  “Well, do you worship this way with all your followers?”

Verccino smiled at me, and I felt a chill go down my spine.

“Why yes, pretty much all of them, if they please me.”

I shook my head and turned away, unable to hide my jealousy or anger at him for flaunting his sexual desirability and power.

“That wasn’t worship.  That was you forcing an officer to suck your cock.”

“Yes, I used my power to get what I wanted.  He complied without question.  He did what I commanded, not because he wanted to, but because he wanted to please me.”

I shook my head.

“It was sex.  Worship is of the spirit not the flesh.”

“Maybe you worshipped your god by abstaining from pleasure, by denying your own sexuality, but that’s not my way.  My worshipper pleased me, he did what pleased me just because I wanted it.  He’s a true believer -- willing to find out what I like and do it, even if he didn’t like it himself.”

“I know what you like,” I said, disgust in my voice.

Verccino came and stood right in front of me, a mere inch away and stared me down.

“You don’t know what I like,” he replied.  “You know what you like. That’s what we’ve been doing since we met.  Finding out what you like. You have no idea what I like.”

“Are you saying you never enjoyed the sex?”

“Just because I cum doesn’t mean we did what I like.  Stern didn’t particularly want to suck my cock in front of you, he didn’t particularly want to suck my cock at all, but he did it to prove his loyalty to me, that he’d obey my every order.”

I looked away, unwilling to grant his point.  He moved around so that I had to look at him again.

“Tell me, when we had sex, what was it that you liked?”

I looked at him, frustrated because of his persistence.

“You know what I liked.”

“Yes, I do,” he replied.  “But I want to hear you tell me.”

“I liked… ” I said, and then hesitated, embarrassed to be saying it out loud.  He went to a chair against the wall and sat down.  I could see the impatience in his body as his fingers tapped the armrests and he clenched his jaw.

“I’ll tell you what I liked,” I replied, and just saying it brought out such emotion in me, for I had never, ever felt as much pleasure as I had when fucking him.  “I liked, I loved fucking you, watching you cum while I fucked you.”  I could barely speak and my voice was quiet when I continued.  “I loved it when you licked me, I loved watching you suck me.”

He was silent for a moment but nodded his head.

“You like being on top, in control.”

I hesitated.  I’d never really considered that it was the control I loved. Instead, I thought it was the pure pleasure of the acts, but he was right.  While I received pleasure when he took control, it was nothing compared with the pleasure I felt when he submitted to me.  It was nothing compared to watching him respond to my touch, seeing him cum from my actions.  I couldn’t get enough of it.

“Now, you tell me what I like.”

I thought back to our encounters and drew a blank.  Every experience only seemed to offer me the pleasure I’d craved, and even when I initially felt he was coercing me in my dreams, I did only what I really wanted after all.  Once he broke down my barriers, I started to explore my own desire.  He responded to my touch, he moaned when I sucked him, when I licked his cock, when I fucked his ass, but when I looked back, I couldn’t be sure I was doing what he wanted or what I wanted.

To me there had been no separation.

“No, I didn’t think you could,” he responded, his voice filled with derision.  “Well, let me tell you what I like, then, since you seem unable to tell me.”

He came to me, and looked me in the eye.  When I tried to look away he turned my face back to his.

“I love it when a big strong warrior gets on his knees to me in front of an audience and jerks off while sucking my cock.  That’s what I love.  I love his willingness to do what I want, even if he doesn’t submit easily. Especially if he doesn’t submit easily.”

I closed my eyes, remembering when I submitted to him and knelt down before him to suck his cock.  I had submitted, but it felt to me as if I’d given up my soul to do it.

“That’s worship, Michael,” he said finally.  “What we have is sex. You have sex very easily -- you love sex.  You find it very hard to worship, but you want it more than anything else in this world.”

He looked at me for a moment longer.

“That’s why I chose you.”

He turned to leave.

“I have some unfinished business to attend to.  You can get the Ops officer to give you a ride back to the church.  I’ll let you know when it’s time to go to Rome.”

I didn’t see him again for nearly a week.

***

I looked among the pews every day, expecting to see him appear among the faithful who came to mass, but he never showed.  I waited at night for him to come to my bed, or take me to some location that had meaning for him as he’d done before.

Nothing.

I felt abandoned, and his absence made what I did seem all the more empty and meaningless.  If my god had indeed abandoned us, why was I doing this, why did I carry on this charade?

How could I in good faith tell these people to sin no-more?  How could I give them the sacraments when I had no expectation that the god they worshipped cared if they existed or not?

Finally, after six days and nights of agony as I wondered if he’d decided I wasn’t what he wanted, I took the small car provided by the parish and drove out to the base.

The base was almost deserted. When I drove to the guard house and asked the young officer where the Colonel was, he checked my ID and then told me Verccino was at the Rec center.  I parked and made my way to the gym. Verccino and Stern were fighting.  Nearly choking on jealousy, I stepped back and hid behind the door and listened as they fought.  Verccino was giving Stern pointers as they dueled, his words punctuated by the clash of their swords.

“Watch the centre of my body, try to predict my movements by the way my muscles move then adjust in response.  Don’t watch my sword.”

Verccino praised him for success and encouraged him when he made mistakes.  He really seemed to enjoy this role of teacher.

I knew what was going to happen next, after they were finished the lesson, and felt blinded by the jealousy.  While half of me wanted to drive back to the church and wait for his call, the other half feared that if I did and he didn’t call, there would be no reason for me to live.

I had nothing left but him.

The sword fight stopped, and there was silence.  In my mind’s eye, I could see them kissing, could imagine Stern on his knees, Verccino running his hands through Stern’s hair as he fucked the officer’s mouth.
 

The ugly bile of hatred and jealousy filled me, and I felt such a need for violence, I was stunned.

I’d never felt this way before.

They left the building, not noticing me hiding in the darkness.  I followed them, feeling like a stalker, but I couldn’t stop, and looked through the window into Verccino’s office building.  Several officers worked on some computer terminals and others poured over maps and other documents.  Verccino went into his office while Stern remained outside with the others.

I pushed open the door and walked in, determined to bluff my way in, and failing that, force my way into Verccino’s office if need be.  They didn’t try to stop me.

“Cardinal McGuigan,” Stern said, nodding to me in greeting.

He didn’t look self-satisfied as I’d expected, in fact, I saw reverence on his face for my station.

“I’m going to see the Colonel.”

“He’s having a shower.”

“I know where he is.”

I entered Verccino’s office and was surprised to see Bauer there, seated in one of the chairs facing Verccino’s desk.  He rose when I entered the room.

“Cardinal,” he said, and extended his hand in greeting.  “He’s taking a shower.”

“I’ll wait.”

I sat in the chair beside him, my heart pounding and my throat constricted.  He put his reading materials down and turned to me, as if to make polite conversation while the two of us waited for Verccino.

“How have you been since we last saw you, Cardinal?”

“Lousy, actually.”

“Now, now, Michael, don’t spread your gloom.”

I turned as I heard him enter the room.  He’d just emerged out of the shower and was naked except for a white towel wrapped around his waist. In his older guise, as the  Colonel, his body was bulkier, his curls shorter and more gray, but he was still one of the most handsome men I’d ever seen.

He leaned against the desk and crossed his legs, his arms folded, the muscles in his biceps bulging.  He looked so damned relaxed, so seductive, I felt like a child in comparison -- unable to control my emotions.  I couldn't take my eyes off him -- his chest hair was wet and plastered to his skin, his abdomen was well muscled and his thighs bulged beneath the skimpy towel.  He and Bauer smiled at each other as if they shared some confidence of which I was not a part.

“So, Priest, I didn’t call you.  Why are you here?”

I knew what he wanted.

I knelt down on my knees in front of him, and an ache welled up inside of me that was so great, it felt as if I could break in half.

“I can’t go on any longer,” I said, my voice almost a whisper.  “You’ve destroyed my faith, taken away my god.  There’s no reason for me to be a priest, for me to go through the motions.  It kills me inside to do it.”

“I didn’t take away your god,” he said, and his voice was harsh.  “I took away your illusions.  Your god left of his own choosing, because he cared so little about his place on earth and those who worshipped him."

He looked at me for a moment before continuing.  I saw nothing in his eyes; no sympathy or compassion.

"And I didn’t destroy your faith, Michael,” he said, his voice a mix of anger mixed and impatience. “It was already cracking when we met.  You knew he wasn’t listening when you prayed.  You sensed the emptiness of all the rituals, the words.  I came along and gave you the excuse you needed to stop believing.”

The truth of what he said broke me.

I fought with myself after my father’s death, desperate to keep believing in a god who felt so distant and uncaring.  My father’s love, my devotion to him had been the substitute for the lack of love I felt from my own god.

When he died and left me totally alone, there was nothing, no substitute to fill me up.

I looked up at him towering above me and felt my eyes blur from tears. His face was so beautiful yet so hard right now, and I knew then that I needed to believe in him, needed to believe in his godhood so badly to fill the emptiness inside.  I didn’t know if he could be my god -- I didn’t know if he could give me what my own absent god couldn’t, but I had no where else to go, no one else to turn to.

Ares,  Mars… whoever he was,  he was right about me.  I needed to believe.  I needed to fill the hole inside of me, blot out the emptiness, fill it up with him.

When he let his towel drop and exposed himself to me, I didn’t hesitate. He didn’t need to command me.

“That’s right, Michael,” he said as my tongue stroked his hard cock, as I reached inside my own robes to pull out my stiffened member.

“You know what I like.”

***  Part 10

Submission to an absent god is easy -- submission to a living god is not.

On our flight to Rome, I sat looking out the window at the cloud formations below us, my fear of flight seeping out of me from the knowledge I had the god with me.  He and his advisors sat in a separate row of seats in first class and discussed matters of interest only to military men.  I sat alone in a window seat and thought about the difficulty of obedience and the meaning of submission.

I looked over at him seated with his advisors.  From this vantage point, although he was breathtaking, he didn’t look particularly godly.  He was dressed in a suit and tie and the crisp white shirt highlighted the sable curls that framed his face.  He must have sensed my eyes on him for he looked up and over at me, catching my eye and bringing a flush to my cheeks at being discovered studying him so intently.  I looked away, looked out at the clouds again and thought about my future.

I didn’t know what being the god’s priest would require of me or if I could do it or if it would be enough for me.  He said he asked only two things of his 'worshippers': total submission to his desires and complete honesty.  It wasn’t that I didn’t find some pleasure in my submission to him -- obviously I responded to his commands in spite of myself and even tried everything I could to please him as much as possible.  Just looking at him now, talking war with his advisors, I felt my cock stiffen, and shifted uncomfortably in my seat.

I suppose I had always felt his equal in some strange way ?? perhaps because I saw him as evil and myself as good.  I was used to a set of rules and standards with which I could judge good and evil, based on the transcendent God of my faith.  Without that set of rules, I foundered. Now there was neither good nor evil.  There were only those with power and those without it.  He had power.  Power over all those who followed him.  Of course, I could have walked away, but to what?

A stewardess came over to the small group gathered around a laptop computer and talked with the god.  He flashed his brilliant smile at her and she preened in response.  Everyone from the ticket clerk to the pilot responded in kind to his attention.  They seemed to want it, to be immediately attracted to him.

As I watched him flirt, I thought about my new position and how I resented the change in status between us.  Even our mutual sexual encounters weren’t the same anymore.  When he allowed me to take some measure of control during sex, I felt even more desperate for it, more desperate for control, and it became all the more pleasurable.  I craved it as I had never before.  Each time he submitted to me became all the more meaningful, and it made me even more his slave for I wanted more than anything to have him continue to be my lover and not just be my god.

He stood up and stretched as our flight prepared to land.  Returning to his seat beside me, he checked my own restraints and then strapped himself.

“You seem a lot more relaxed,” he said as he tightened his tie and settled back in his seat.  I nodded.  I knew he could prevent our plane from crashing.  He could zip us away in a flash if needed.  He loved to fly so we complied with the airlines’ demands and buckled up, prepared for landing.

The landing was uneventful and we disembarked at the main air terminal. The god and his entourage were off to catch a flight to Israel that would take them to the base.  I felt awkward at our separation, but he felt no hesitation and merely gave me his usual bear hug, kissing both my cheeks, and enjoyed pulling me close -- too close considering my Priestly garb. He left me with a flushed face and walked off with the officers.

I took my small rental car and drove to Vatican City, to move into my new offices and take over my new position as a member of the Curia -- the Cardinals who serve in the Vatican as counselors to the Pope.  I would be the youngest Cardinal in the Curia.  I was a curiosity to the staff, but not to those who were part of the new order.  They knew who I was and smiled, thanking me for my service to the Church.

My first day back at the Vatican was so unsettling I wasn’t sure if I could face what lay ahead of me.  After meeting with Cardinal Banda, who was part of the administration of the Vatican, I went to Velasquez’ office to meet with him and be briefed on my new role.  Bishop Velasquez was now also a Cardinal -- and the highest of all the Curia ?? the Cardinal who took power in the event the Pontiff died and during elections to name a new Pope.  He was resplendent in his scarlet robes, and looked entirely fitted to his new position.  I wasn’t sure how to receive him considering the way he’d lied to me all along.

“Michael!” he cried out as he saw me enter his office.  “Come here, it’s so good to see you.”

He embraced me, but I stiffened.  I just couldn’t pretend that his lies hadn’t hurt me and put my trust and affection for him in question.  He detected my response immediately and looked in my eyes, then shrugged as if he couldn’t help it, and ended the embrace.

“I know that almost everything I told you, from the day I met you, was a lie, Michael,” he said as he sat back down at his desk.  “But now, I swear on the god’s sword that everything I say will be the absolute truth.  If I can’t tell you something, I’ll let you know I’m holding back information.  Other than that, I’ll tell you everything.  I can tell you the truth now.”

“Why lie in the first place?”  I protested.  “Why not tell me instead of letting me go on for so long, completely in the dark?”

“What happened had to happen the way it did, or the end would have been completely different.”

I turned away and looked out the window, not even bothering to hide my frustration.

“That’s not good enough,” I said with a sigh.  “It’s impossible to prove you wrong.”

“If I’d come to you a decade ago and told you our god was gone, and that the Roman god of war was taking over the Catholic Church, would you have joined my group?  And if I came to you and asked you to be his Pope, would you have agreed?”

“I don’t know -- probably not,” I replied.

“Exactly.”

He said nothing for a moment and just waited for me to ask him questions, but I didn’t know where to begin.
 

“Come,” he said, and stood up, seeing I was at a loss for words.  He motioned me to join him.  “Let’s go for a walk in the gardens.  We can talk there, get some fresh air.”

He picked up a briefcase and I followed him out to a small garden built in an alcove outside the Royal Hall.  Greenery filled the outdoor courtyard, and a fountain with an angel pouring water into a pool gave the setting a tranquil feel.

“Why me?”

It was the one question I’d wanted to ask, the question I most needed answered.  I sat down on a bench under a tree in full bloom.  The scent was almost intoxicating -- sweet and fruity.  It calmed me, took the edge off my anger.

“I think you know in your heart why he chose you,” Velasquez replied and sat down on the bench beside me.

“I honestly don’t.”

He smiled and moved in closer to me as if what he had to say was too personal to say very loud.

“The relationship between a god and his high-priest is very special.  The god needs worshippers to have power.  Without them, he is merely immortal.  When you become Pontiff, all the millions of his followers will look to you as the figurehead for the god.  It will give him strength and the will to go on, to continue to exist.  Immortality is a heavy burden, Michael.  Its vastness can be unbearable.  Our own god couldn’t bear it.”

“Why aren’t you his high priest?”  I asked.  “You’ve known him longer than I have.”

He smiled and nodded.

“I would be honoured to be his high-priest, Michael, but I am not the one.  You are.”

“How did you know I’m ‘the one’, as you put it?”

“As I grew to know you,” he said and picked off a few stray petals that had fallen from the tree above us onto his scarlet cape, “I realized that of all those who I knew, of all the priests I’d known, you were the only one who both had the biggest crisis in faith and at the same time the greatest need to believe.”

“I didn’t know my ‘crisis in faith’ was so apparent”.

“It was, Michael.  Your need to believe drove you to deny everything else in your life.  That’s why I knew you were the one for the god.  I was right.”

“I don’t understand.”

“He responded to your need.  The others I sent to tempt him did nothing for him, but you -- he responded to you right away.”

“You sent me to tempt him?”

“Yes,” he replied and smiled.  “You see, when I knew who he was, when I finally accepted that he was who he claimed, I had to have him for our Church.  If our god was gone, I wanted the strongest one to replace what we lost.  In our god’s absence, the Church has become just a house of cards.  Empty inside and built on no foundation.  Mars is very strong as a god.  It took a lot to defeat him, and I believe he will be strong enough with our Church behind him to defeat the others.  It means the Church will once again be supreme with him as our head.”

He took a large album out of his case and opened it in his lap.  Inside were photographs of me, taken at various times in my life.  There were articles on me from local papers, and confidential clearance papers on me for my work with the Group.  I scanned the photographs -- there was one taken when I was young before my mother died.

Seeing it almost broke my heart.  I was so young, only four, when a car crash took her life.  Then another one taken later with my father, one of me as a young college student, one of me on a dig with my father in Egypt, then one taken at the seminary, when I took my vows…

“When I met you I knew you were special, but I had no idea why.  I thought we were just kindred spirits, and knew I wanted you in my unit."

We sat and looked over the photographs.

"When I first started feeling that you were the one, I went back over your life, and gathered these images and documents.  When the time was right, when I felt you were ready, I sent you to him.”

He handed the album to me and I took it and opened it back to the photo of my mother.  Her face haunted me.

“I sent several others before you, but they weren’t to his tastes or failed the test, but you ?? such a beautiful priest whose heart was broken by your lack of faith, and your need for a god...  So in need of a god to worship, you gave up a promising career to become a man of faith.”
 

“Did he know you were sending me to him?”

“Not until you arrived.  I had not yet won his favour and was still trying to woo him to our Church.  When he saw you in the police headquarters in Montana, he knew immediately who you were -- he knew that I’d sent you.  Don’t underestimate him.  He can read the emotions of mortals and could sense your response to him and to the case.  He sensed your need to believe.”

He was right.  Investigating the cases filled me with faith.  When I thought I was fighting demons, I felt more certain that our god existed and had called me to this work. I knew now it was desperation.

“He wasn’t interested in my offer of heading our Church at first,” Velasquez said and leaned back on the bench, took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes.  “He was busy amassing support for his military.  Soon, he grew to appreciate the irony.  Since it was our god who defeated him and then confined him, he thought it would be appropriate to take over all those worshippers.  When I sent you, he finally agreed.”

“I am not his high?priest, Michael.  I am the Church’s man,” Velasquez added.  “I saw that of all the gods who had returned, he was probably the one with the potential to be the greatest, and I didn’t want the Church to wither and die without a god to head it.  I needed you to bring him to me.  You were my pawn.  My bait.”

Bait -- Francesca and I had been right after all.  I thought I was bait to lure him out so we could discredit him.  Instead, I was a means to tempt him to become the head of our Church.  The immensity of it stunned me.  That we were reduced to this -- tempting a war god to lead the Roman Catholic Church made me despair.

“Miguel,” I pleaded, feeling anguish build inside of me.  “When you knew our god was gone, how could you go on?”

He folded his hands in his lap and sighed.

“I think, when I first started to suspect that these were real gods and not demons as our religion tried to portray them, it seemed so... right to me.  As if it confirmed my own lack of faith.  I thought of suicide,” he said and turned to look at me.

“Like you, I, too, need to believe.  But I found my calling.  I’m going to save the Church.  He will give me power to reform it, Michael.  To correct the flaws, to make it stronger.”
 

“The people, our faithful -- they won’t accept it.  They won’t accept a Roman War God as our head.”

“Oh, yes.  We will lose some, but many will remain, and more will come to our side.  We have the Prophecy.  And with you, Mars will have real power once again.  Soon, when he’s ready, he’ll reveal himself.”

“So do I have a choice in all this?”

“I think you’ve already made your choice, Michael.”

“There are other gods,” I said.  “How do I know Mars is the best one to follow unless I meet them?  Frances is investigating one -- a healer.”

“Yes, a Celtic god.  He’s not for our church.  He isn’t powerful, not at all,” he replied.  “Don’t fool yourself.  The god responded to your need, yes.  But you also responded to him.  It was mutual.”

“It’s not mutual now,” I replied and I couldn’t stop the bitterness from entering into my voice.

“Oh, well, all must submit to the god.  Especially the high-priest.  You have been a priest for most of your adult life.  I would have thought you understood the need to submit by now.”

“I submitted to a code of behavior -- not to an actual flesh and blood god.  It’s different.”

“Yes, but so much more fulfilling.  You’ll see.”

He was smiling, pleased at the thought that I’d come to be fulfilled in this role.  He wanted me to accept the god’s request to be his high?priest, of course, for the future of the Church.

“Well,” I protested, not wanting to give in quite yet.  “I haven’t actually said ‘yes’ to him.”

“Perhaps not in so many words...” he said and stood up. “  But in your actions, you did.  You believed that you could kill him, but you didn’t, despite many opportunities to do so.  You even tried to warn him of danger.  And you submitted to him in front of Colonel Bauer.  That sounds to me as if you accepted.”

“What -- does everyone know the content of our sexual relationship?”

Velasquez laid his hand on my arm and squeezed.

“It was a turning point, Michael.  An act of submission required by all his followers.  Don’t be ashamed of worshipping the god.  It is impossible to be in his realm and not succumb to his powers.”

He bent down and hooked his arm in mine and lifted me up.  I didn’t want to leave, I didn’t want to go back to my office, but I stood and we walked back to the Royal Hall.  He had his arm around me in a fatherly fashion.  While I resented him for all his manipulation of me, of my emotions, I was glad of his honesty and didn’t push him away.

“Go to your office.  Get settled in.  If you have any questions, of course you may ask the god but call me if you feel a need.  He’ll be very busy with preparations in Gaza and may not be too open to being your tutor.”

We parted company and he watched me walk down the hallway to my new office.

“We live in very interesting times, Michael.  Very interesting times.”

   *****
 

I spent several hours organizing my new office and going over files from old cases, looking for clues that I now understood but which had perplexed me at the time.  It took me a while to see it, but in each case, I saw how carefully Velasquez worked to discredit the gods we’d investigated, one by one, explaining away their powers as hoaxes, mass hysteria, or the acts of demons.  Frances and I, we’d been too willing to believe Velasquez, too ready to accept his authority.  Too in need of preserving our own religious beliefs to see the truth laid out in front of us.

I took the pile of documents I had to read and went to my old apartment. It was still as I’d left it, but there was a fine coat of dust over the countertops and mantle from the time I’d been away.  After I’d tided and fixed myself a bowl of soup, I sat down in my father’s chair and had a glass of wine, and then opened up the largest file from the pile.

Before I’d even had a chance to read the first page, the god appeared. He was still in his businessman’s guise, his suit wrinkled from a day of sitting in meetings and being briefed on the move to Gaza.  He loosened his tie and held out his arms to me.  Just the sight of him aroused me.

“Michael.”

I put the files on the side-table and went to him, entering his embrace. Yes, I was angered after learning the truth behind all that had happened to me but I couldn't resist.  Why should I?

Our kiss was deep, and just the touch of his mouth on mine made me weak. He slid his hand under my vestments to find my semi-hard cock, which he squeezed and stroked in an attempt to make me fully erect.  He succeeded, and I wanted his tongue there instead, crying out in my mind for him to suck me, to lick me, and to my surprise, he did.  Kneeling down, he pulled my vestments aside and pulled out my cock, licking it from the base to the tip.  His lips closed around the head just for a moment, and he sucked briefly, running his tongue over the slit to sample my juice. Then, to my dismay, he pulled off and moved back and looked into my face. When I gasped in disappointment, he smiled.

“I want to watch you make yourself cum.”

“No…”

“Do it.”

“I…  I can’t...  ”

“Michael...  ”

“How...”  I sighed.

“Just stand there and jerk off.”

I closed my eyes and felt my cheeks grow hot.  Protest built in me, but at the same time, I felt aroused that he was so close, and was watching me.  I wanted his mouth on my cock so badly I ached for him, but instead, I started to stroke myself, squeezing my cock to milk the precum out for lubrication.  Before I could pull it down over the head, he stopped me and licked it off instead.  That made my cock stiffen even more, and I began to pump with greater speed, trying to lose myself in the sensations, but unable to forget that he was there, just inches away from my groin.  He licked the precum off the head of my cock each time it built up and the feel of his tongue running over my slit, the thought that he was sampling my juice as if it was some delicacy drove me almost wild.

Finally, my whole body tensed and he held his tongue over the head as I ejaculated -- he rolled his tongue directly over my slit as my cum spurted out and the sensation was so exquisite, it blinded me with pleasure.

“Oh god, oh god,” I cried as the sensation became so intense I thought I’d pass out.  I staggered, and nearly fell against him, but he held me up and lapped my cum off the head.  I grunted with each touch of his tongue on the supersensitive skin.  When he sucked on the head, I shuddered from the sensation -- it felt as if the pleasure wouldn’t stop.
 

He turned me around and positioned me on my hands and knees and pulled aside my robes.  Saying nothing, he prepared me with his fingers, pouring oil over me and then pushing his incredible thickness inside me as if he couldn’t wait.  I knew I couldn’t get erect again, not so soon, so I merely pushed back onto him and met his every thrust, determined to increase his pleasure as much as possible.

 The pressure from his size felt so good, and he thrust in such a way that he brushed the sensitive tissue inside of me and I felt shivers of pleasure go down my spine.

“Oh, Michael,” he whispered in my ear as he thrust in me.  “Your ass is so nice and tight.  I love fucking you.”

His hand gripped my cock and stroked me, and I just let the sensations happen without thinking, without worrying.  To my shock, I came again, a dry orgasm, the pleasure so deep and intense I cried out and almost collapsed to the floor as he thrust over me.  He held me up, placed an arm around under my hips and continued to fuck me with deep hard thrusts until he too shouted and came deep inside me.

My legs gave out and he lay on top of me, his cock still inside my ass. As I lay panting beneath him, he kissed and softly bit the skin on the back of my neck.

“That’s never happened to me before,” I said, struggling to breathe with his bulk on top of me.

“What?  An orgasm with no ejaculation?  Michael, you’ve been so deprived.”

I shrugged, unable to explain, and embarrassed at my admission.

“You just have to be persistent.  Of course, being a priest, you’d not persist very long because of guilt,” he laughed.  Then he grew silent and shook his head.  “What a waste.”

He withdrew slowly from my ass and got up, pulling me up with him.

“I need a shower,” he said, and obedient to his wishes, I went to my small bathroom and started one.  He followed me in and I undressed him.

 “Come on, you too,” he said, and I complied.

We stepped into the small shower stall together, and I felt strange being so close to him, naked and washing his body.  Caring for him, washing him with my sudsy hands while he watched me, his face just inches from mine, made me feel so vulnerable.  I looked at his face, into his eyes, and the expression in them was so... unsettling, as if he were reading my very soul.

What an exquisite body.  My hands traveled over it hesitantly at first. Soon, it aroused me and I touched him greedily, washing the smooth golden skin, feeling the taut muscles beneath it, the hard curves and angles of his buttocks and hips, the rippled surface of his belly and of course, the incredible size of his cock and heavy testicles.

“I like it when you wash me,” he said, and sighed, spreading his legs so I could wash between them.  “It’s nice to have someone take care of me. I could clean myself with a thought, but this is so much more pleasurable.”

He took the soap from me and worked up lather in his own hands and started to wash me.  His hands were so large and strong, yet they were not awkward or rough.  His touch was electric, arousing me even after two orgasms.

“You’re insatiable,” he chuckled as he gripped my stiffening cock and washed it, increasing my arousal.  His hand cupped my balls and washed them as well, and then slipped around to my ass, a soapy finger sliding down my crack and pushing into me briefly.

“I like your arousal,” he said and turned me around and kissed me.  “I like the thought that when you see me, you get hard.  In fact, from now on, when you’re with me, I want to be able to reach under your robes and hold your erection whenever I feel like it.  So, don’t bother with underwear, and keep those thoughts.”

He smiled and pushed me out of the shower stall.  I took one of the towels from a hook on the back of the door and started drying him off. My cock remained hard the whole time and when I finished drying him, I saw his eyes on my erection and looked down.  A thin drop of clear lubrication hung off the head, testament to my arousal at having to touch his body, having to care for his needs in this manner.  He caught the drop with his finger and slipped it into his mouth.  Then he nodded to me.

“Taste yourself,” he said.  I looked at him to see if he was serious.  He was.  I squeezed the head of my cock and pulled out a drop and sucked it off my own finger obediently, shocked at my willingness to comply with him in this small perversion.
 

“You taste sweet -- a little like almonds.”

He was right.  My fluid tasted a mix of sweetness and salt, but clearly on the sweet side.

“You must eat a very bland diet, to taste so sweet.  Keep it that way.”

I dressed him and he kissed me and then left me alone in the small apartment ?? alone with my files and blackberry tea.  As I sat and looked at the page in my lap, unable to concentrate on it because of my preoccupation, I thought about him, about what passed between us.  He was asserting control over me -- I felt it in the small orders he gave about my behavior and manner of dress.  Part of me balked at this, his attempt to control me so closely, yet there was also a small part of me that relished it.  I quickly pushed that part out of my mind.

Closing the file, I left it, unread, and went to my chaste single bed.  I didn’t bother to say my usual prayer, and instead lay naked under the covers and ran my fingers over the silver sword amulet he’d given me as a symbol of my service to him.

I slept that night, a dreamless sleep untroubled by nightmares -- the first good sleep I’d had in years.

***

The first item on my agenda for the following day was a fitting for my new robes.  My measurements had been taken before we’d even left for Rome and so the Vatican’s tailor had a suit ready for me when I arrived.  The tailor and a young priest arrived at my office and helped me undress.  I stood naked and when the tailor asked me where my undergarment was, I hesitated and then told him I’d not be wearing any.  He said nothing, just raised his eyebrows for a moment and then pulled out the robes from the delicate tissue used to wrap them.  He and the young priest dressed me, describing each piece of clothing and how to wear it.

First, they put a white cotton tunic over my head.  It fell to the floor, and was covered by a scarlet ankle-length jacket with several dozen cloth covered buttons, and then a vest of the finest white lace topped by a short scarlet cape.  The small round cap went on next, but when the tailor tried to place the gilded rosary around my neck, the young priest stopped him.

“No, he wears the sword.”

I brought it out from under my shirt and placed it over top of my robes. When I looked in the full?length mirror, I saw a strange mixture of Catholic Cardinal and war god’s priest.  The silver sword amulet looked out of place, but I knew that one day, the god would replace the old symbols of our Church with his own.

“It fits very well,” I said, trying to think of something kind to say to the tailor.  He smiled and nodded and walked around me, examining his work.  The young priest followed.

“You look very regal in it,” the priest said and straightened my cape so that it hung correctly.  Then he leaned in close and to me alone, said, “Our seamstresses are already working on your new robes, and they should be ready when you have a need for them.  When you are Pope.”

 “Let’s hope that won’t be for a while,” I said quietly, trying to indicate my loyalty to our own Pope, but the priest shrugged and moved even closer, looking behind him to see where the tailor was.  He spoke in a low voice so that only I could hear his words.

“He’s old and ill.  It won’t be too long before he passes on to the next plane.  You’ll be the youngest Pope in memory.  With Mars as our god, we’ll be strong, stronger than every before in history.  You and Velasquez, you’ll revitalize our Church.”

He raised his eyebrows as the tailor came to me and examined the fit of the robes once more.

“Wear them for a couple of hours to see how they fit.  If there is any discomfort, let me know and we can alter them to suit your needs.”

“Thank you, I will.”

He bowed and the two left me alone in front of my full-length mirror.  I stared at the reflection in disbelief.

The god appeared behind me and ran his hands down my arms.

“You look superb.”

He turned me around to look me over from head to foot.  I flushed under his scrutiny and felt my cock harden in anticipation of his touch.

“You look good in scarlet, but you’ll look even better in white.”

“I don’t deserve to be Pope.”

“Nonsense.”

He pushed me over to a wing chair by the ornate fireplace.  I sat down with a thud and he knelt down between my knees.  My heart rate rose as his hand slipped under my robes and searched for my cock.

“You have to stop thinking in terms of the old Church structure, Michael. Remember,” he said, and grunted as he pulled my robes aside,  “the Church is mine now.  You’re my high?priest.  You will be Pope.”

He grabbed my cock and smiled when he felt how hard I was.

“Oh, yes,” he said, and squeezed.  “I don’t have much time.  I have to leave in a moment.”

Quickly, he began to unbutton my jacket and pulled aside my skirts and other clothing to expose my thighs and groin.  He bent down and licked me, starting at my balls and then moved up from the base of my cock to the head, stopping to suck on it for just a moment.  When he pulled away, I gasped in disappointment.

“Make yourself cum for me.”

Oh, god...

“Someone might come in.”

“I know, it makes it all the more exciting,” he said in a breathless voice, “Now do it, make yourself cum.  I don’t have much time and I want to watch you jerk off.”

“Why do you insist on making me do this, when you know how the Church...”
 

He stopped me, pressed his finger against my lips.

“Forget the fucking Catholic Church,” he said, exasperated.  “You haven’t spent nearly enough time masturbating, Michael.  Consider this practice.”
 

I looked in his eyes -- he wasn’t going to back down so I closed my eyes and touched myself.  I ran my hands softly over my groin and then gripped my cock with one hand while I cupped my balls with the other.  Just light touches at first as I imagined his curls falling over my cock and balls as he sucked me.  Then I spit in my palm and used the saliva to lubricate the head of my cock before moving my cupped hand over it.
 

“Look at me while you do it.  I want to watch your face.”

I opened my eyes reluctantly, embarrassed to be doing this at all, let alone while he watched me, but the desire in his voice was more than enough to encourage me.  He watched me greedily.

“I want you to jerk off every day at this time and imagine that I’m watching you while you do it.”

I licked my lips and continued to touch myself and watched his eyes move over my face, a small smile on his lips at my compliance.

“I’m having your private chapel renovated,” he said as he watched my hand move over my cock.  “I’ve commissioned an artist to paint my portrait on the ceiling over the altar.  Imagine it: me standing in my battledress in the middle of a battlefield, my sword in hand, and I’m looking at you as you jerk off, Michael.  I want you to lie on the altar each day at this time in your robes and jerk off while you look at my image.”

I shivered as adrenaline flowed through me at the thought of it.  I looked in his eyes and saw the lust in them.  I squeezed my cock, drew out some fluid, pulled it down over the head to add more lubrication, and started to move my hand over my entire cock.  Forming a circle with my thumb and index fingers, I squeezed as my hand pulled up over the ridge surrounding my cockhead and then pushed my hand back over it completely.

“Yes,” he murmured as he watched me.  “Do that -- it feels so good like that.  Imagine when you do it that you’re pushing your cock up my ass. Feel how tight it is, how good it feels as the head of your cock pushes past the tight ring of flesh just inside.”

His eyes moved hungrily from my flushed face, my red-hot cheeks, to my hand moving more rapidly over my cock.

“Poor Michael.  Denied this for so long.  I don’t know how you did it -- kept your hands off that beautiful cock of yours.”

His encouragement made me even harder and my heart pounded in my chest as my orgasm neared.  I licked my finger and thumb again and moved them slowly over the head of my cock, which was now almost ready to burst while my other hand pumped hard on the shaft.

“That’s it.  Move it slowly over the head.  Imagine it’s my mouth there, just my lips and tongue moving softly over the head like that.  Yes,” he said, his voice thick with lust.  “When you’re on the altar, I want you to imagine that I’m watching you jerk off, and every now and then I lean down and suck on the head of your cock just for a minute, just to taste your almond cum.”

That did it -- it sent me over, the image of him leaning over my cock, sucking my cum.  I felt my balls tighten and the head of my cock felt so incredible I thought I’d scream.  I couldn’t hold back the groans of pleasure as I ejaculated, my cum spurting out and up onto my new scarlet Cardinal’s robes.

“Oh, yes, Michael, fuck, that’s so good,” he said as he watched me cum. I shuddered for a moment as I recovered, and then realizing I’d soiled my new robes, I sat up abruptly and tried to wipe the cape off before it stained too much.

“No.”

He pushed my arms away from my cape.  Two streams of my cum had landed on the collar and shoulder.

“I want them to stay.  Don’t clean them off.  Each time you see them in the mirror, you’ll think of me watching you cum.”

He leaned up and kissed me hard, his own desire evident by the pressure I felt as he ground his cock against me.

“I have to go.  I’ll be gone for a couple of days.  We’ll be on maneuvers and I have to stay with the men.  I may be able to come to you briefly if I can sneak out, but don’t expect me.”

There was a knock at the door and when I heard the handle turn, I tried to tidy myself, pulling my robes straight and starting to do up the tiny buttons so that I didn’t look too disheveled.  The god didn’t move and I tried to stand up but he wouldn’t let me.

“Please…”  I pleaded, but he only smiled.

Velasquez entered the room and nodded at me, and then bowed low to the god.  My cheeks burned, shamed that Velasquez found us in this state.

“I’m glad you’re here,” he said to the god.  “I wanted you to know that the matter you asked me to take care of, it’s done.”

The god nodded and turned to look at me.

“I’m moving your residence to the Vatican, Michael.  You’ll be moving into the Royal Hall earlier than we planned.  You’re a target now, a way to get at me.”

He stood and lifted me up.

“I’ll collect my things and talk to my landlord when ever you wish.”

“No,” he said.  “You aren’t to go back to your apartment.  Velasquez has done it for you.  You can stay here tonight.”

I looked at Velasquez.

“It was nothing,” he said and shrugged.  “And don’t worry, it’s just a precaution.  You have to have bodyguards now whenever you leave the grounds.”

Velasquez handed me a cell phone and I took it and looked at it, opening it to see how it felt in my hand.

“Call me whenever you leave the grounds,” the god said.  “The phone’s been programmed.  All you have to do is press the first speed button.”

I looked at the small phone.  This was a leash, and I couldn’t help but feel resentment at yet another means of control over me.

“Michael,” the god said, and grabbed my shoulder, squeezing hard.  “I mean it.  Call if you leave the grounds.  Don’t go without your guards.”

“Don’t worry,” I put the phone in a pocket in my robes.  “I’ll call.”

“Good.”  He embraced me, kissing me and pressing his massive body against mine.  “I’m gone.”

With that, he disappeared, and left me alone with Velasquez.

“You look very good in those robes, Michael.  You make a beautiful Cardinal.  I’ll leave you alone.  I’m sure you need some time to yourself.  Call me if you need me.”

He turned to leave and then stopped.

“Later, we can go to your new apartment.  It’s quite beautiful -- it looks out over the Courtyard of St. Damascus.  Only the Pope himself has a better view.”

I smiled in encouragement, hoping to hurry him out of my office.

“Thank you, I’ll look forward to it.”

He left me alone, and I returned to the full?length mirror and looked at my image.  The robes were creased and the stain on my collar and cape were still wet and made dark marks against the cloth.  I took the scarlet clothing off and put on my usual black habit, still feeling uncomfortable in the Cardinal’s robes.  I examined the stain on the collar as I hung the cape up – I felt torn, resentment at his attempts to control me, but the thought of him wanting me to wear this stained cape aroused me.

I ran my hand over the bulge under my robes and looked at the clock.  It was 10:00 in the morning, and I wanted to cum again already.

*****

At a little past eleven in the morning, the phone rang and I picked it up, expecting a call about the move into my new residence in the Royal Hall.  Instead, it was Francesca.

“Are you alone?”

“Yes, why?  Frances!  I’m so glad to hear from you...”

“Can you meet me during your lunch break?  It’s very important.”

I sat in stunned silence for a few seconds.

“I thought you were in Sao Palo.”

“No one knows I’m here, so don’t tell Velasquez.  Michael, I can’t talk now.  Meet me at the Information Kiosk outside the historic buildings at noon.”

I knew the location well -- we used to go there for lunch when we worked together.

“Why?”

“Just meet me, Michael.”

I didn’t say anything for a moment, then my loyalty to her won over my hesitation.

“I’ll be there.”

“I have to go.”

Click.

I felt a bit unsettled by the sound of her voice, but I decided that she, too, had finally realized that our god had gone and was now going through her own crisis of faith.  Why she was in Rome, I couldn’t guess, but I would be glad to see her nonetheless.

I finished reading through the last of the files Cardinal Banda gave me about the Curia and the duties and responsibilities of all members and prepared to go to meet Francesca.  As I closed the door to my office and went out of the building, I felt the cell phone in my pocket and touched it, remembering my promise to the god to call whenever I left the Vatican.  Francesca sounded alarmed, and didn’t want Velasquez to know she was here.

I hesitated.

If I left without calling, it would by my very first deliberate act of disobedience to the god.  Part of me wanted to call, but another part of me, the part that felt too rushed by everything that had happened to me, rebelled.  I hailed a taxi and gave the driver directions, eager to discover the reason for Frances’ clandestine visit to Rome.

At mid-day, Rome can get very warm, especially on a clear day when there is no cloud cover to cool the air.  As I walked up the steps to the Visitors’ Kiosk outside one of the old Roman ruins, I wiped the fine beads of sweat off my brow and looked around in search of Francesca’s familiar face.  I didn't see her so I stood at a rail overlooking the sea and waited for her to find me.

As I did, I looked around at the tourists who were busy taking photographs of the ruins and each other.  A few metres away stood an attractive woman with long dark hair and dark eyes.  She was dressed in a beautiful jade green dress with gilded embroidery.

A little farther away stood a lone man -- he also caught my eye because of his appearance.  He was dressed in a white tunic and leggings, with leather sandals on his bare feet.  Long hair pulled back in a ponytail fell to the middle of his back and it was so light it was truly platinum. His pale skin marked him as an albino, and when he turned and looked in my direction, a chill ran down my spine.  His gaze turned my way and his eyes -- they were so light they were almost clear.  He slipped on a pair of dark sunglasses and looked away.

Albinism.  I’d only seen on person with this condition before.

The woman smiled at me and walked over to where I stood.

“Michael,” she said.  “Don’t you recognize me?”

I looked closely, and there, in her eyes, I saw it was Francesca.  A younger, more beautiful version, but it was her all the same.  The same large brown eyes, the same wide cheeks, only now, everything seemed just a bit more symmetrical.  She was voluptuous instead of broad, and her hair was luxurious instead of mannishly short and graying as I remembered it.

“My god.”

She embraced me, and it felt so strange to be hugging her -- this vibrant and attractive young woman -- instead of the homely matron of my memory. I remembered her words that day when we discussed my own seduction -- youth and beauty.  She said they would probably be enough to break down her own barriers.  Now she had both, and I knew what that meant.

“Who did this to you?”  I asked, but I knew immediately and looked up into the face of the strange man.  He came up behind her, the man with no pigment in his skin, and I knew he wasn’t mortal.

He laid his hand on my arm and the last thing I heard was the sound of Francesca’s voice.

“I’m sorry, Michael...”
___
Part 11

In some places in the world, time stands still.

We sat on a small woven mat in the quiet patio at the Ryoanii Zen temple in Kyoto, Japan.  Francesca and I sat in silence and watched the god prepare the ‘chanoyu’ or tea ceremony.  Behind him was the deserted courtyard with a tall fieldstone fence bordering the property.  Overhead was the most intense blue sky I’d ever seen.

He’d said I could call him Llyr, but he was also known as Diancecht, one of the Celtic gods of healing.  He was of the Tuatha De Danann -- ancient Gods whom the Celtic people worshipped for thousands of years before the spread of Christianity.  Sunlight enhanced the paleness of his skin and hair, and caught the fine silver embroidery in the silk of his kimono. He bent over the small jade-green teapot and swirled the hot water to clean and prepare it for the tea and boiled water.  He emptied the wash water into a bowl, and then placed the pot on an ornate mat with gilded embroidery.  To the side lay a small spoon and a bag of tea, each wrapped carefully in jade-green silk covers.

I marveled at his precision with the tiny implements.  His every move was smooth and flowing -- almost meditative, which of course, was the purpose of the ceremony.

He unwrapped the spoon and tea and measured out an amount, then poured it into the small pot.  Turning carefully, he took the kettle off the brazier and poured the steaming water over the leaves.  Francesca was watching him with rapt attention.  The look of adoration on her face made me shiver, for I wondered if that same expression was on my face when I watched my own god.

He stirred the tea several times -- and I’m certain that it was only a specific number of turns of the spoon, no more, no less -- then put on the lid.  He carefully re-wrapped the spoon and tea and then looked up at us, smiling.

“May I offer you some tea?”

Francesca bowed low and I followed suit, feeling that words were not required.

He picked up the pot and poured the amber tea into our cups, and then sat it back onto its mat.  We sipped at the fragrant liquid.  Jasmine.  The scent calmed me.

“I brought you here because Francesca wanted to see you, to talk to you about what is happening to you both,” he said, and his smooth voice caressed my ears.  “I don’t normally interfere in the affairs of other gods, but she missed you very much, Michael, so I ignored my own rules.”

I didn't really know what to say.  What do you say to a god?  I looked at him -- he was so strange with his pale skin and hair.

“You look very unusual,” I said, too curious about him to be more polite. “Why did you have this trait -- albinism?  You're a healer -- couldn't you ... fix yourself?

"Albinism is an inherited condition, leaving no pigment in the skin or hair.  People with albinism usually have visual problems.  They’re almost blind.  I can see perfectly.  In fact, I can see more clearly than you can even imagine.  I only took on this form because I think it’s very beautiful."

He was right -- he was beautiful in an ethereal way.

"When I first saw a mortal with this condition, I thought he looked exquisite, unique.  Besides,” he said as he sipped his tea.  “Mortals can’t help but notice me when I incarnate.  They can’t help but stare. It’s … psychological.  White is symbolic of purity and death.  No matter which part of the world I’m in, the people feel a special reverence for me because of it.  We gods,” he said and looked at me through half-lidded eyes,  “we need mortal attention.”

“That’s honest.”

“Your Mars is very beautiful -- terrifying and beautiful, isn’t he?  You can’t help but be attracted to him.”

He was right.  Mars was beautiful.  Everyone responded to him.

“So who are you? I know you’re the Celtic god, but what I mean is, who are the gods?  What are they?”

“I was right,” Francesca said to Llyr, and when I looked at her, I felt so strange.  Here was my dear old friend, except she no longer looked like the Francesca I knew, but was instead a beauty, her skin clear and milky, her hair dark and shining like silk against the rose and green kimono.  “Mars hasn’t told him anything.”

“He’s busy preparing for conquest.  The needs of his mortals must wait on his leisure.”

“You told me everything,” she protested.  I had a feeling they’d already had this discussion by the way he smiled when she spoke.

“Francesca,” he said, and there was a note of insistence in his voice. “The greatest gift a worshipper can give a god is obedience.”

“It’s not fair, to expect obedience without being honest about who he is, what’s happening.  I don’t like him and what he’s doing.”

“This isn’t your fight.  Unlike you, I have to choose sides.”

“What sides?” I asked, hating that I didn’t know what they were talking about.

“There can only be one war god, one pantheon,” he replied.  “Mars and the others are preparing to fight amongst themselves for that role, and the rest of us for our own position.  The losers must either be destroyed or align with the one we see as the most likely winner.”

“Why can there be only one war god, one pantheon?”

“We’ve returned to a different world,” he replied and poured more tea. “The old alliances are meaningless.  New ones are being forged.  This world is one in which there are no true boundaries any longer.  There are no isolated peoples to rule over as there once were.”

“So, you escaped your imprisonment and are back to dominate us once again?” I said, unable to hide the anger in my voice.

“We can’t help but ‘dominate’ you.”

“That’s crap. That’s like saying men can’t help but dominate women, or the rich dominate the poor, or humans dominate the other species. Besides,” I continued, angered now and on a roll.  “If you're so advanced, why don’t you have an advanced morality? ”

“Don’t make the mistake and assume that technological and physiological superiority automatically bring with them advanced morality.  As Caesar said, ‘Vini, Vidi, Vici.’  We saw your beauty, your passions, and the potential in you for art and science.  We saw your need for gods.  We filled it.”

A breeze blew through the courtyard and brought the scent of blossoms to us.  My anger seemed to dissipate as I inhaled the fragrance.  I closed my eyes and tried to imagine what they felt when they looked at us. Perhaps the way I felt when I saw a newborn baby lying in its mother’s arms, so helpless and open, so vulnerable.

“In taking on these forms,” he said and pointed to his body, “we gave up a great deal -- our powers are limited, but we were reaching a point where we had to find meaning for our existence.   As a mortal, your life is a brief flash of light in the darkness.  Your lives are ripe with meaning.  You can’t begin to comprehend the burden of eternity.”

We sat for a few moments and sipped the rest of our tea in silence.  I tried to take it all in, the things he told me, and as I did, resentment at Mars grew inside of me, resentment that he hadn’t cared enough to tell the truth.

He wanted power, power to be the only war god, and I suspected that, with my great need to worship, I was key to his ability to succeed.

“Mars needs me to gain his power back.”

“We all need mortals to give us meaning,” he said and looked at Francesca. “Not just power, but the will to continue.  Without your need, we become empty and our immortality unbearable.”

He held out his hand to Francesca and she took it and went to him, facing me as she sat on his lap.  He twined his arms around her and laid his head on hers.  I knew then that in return for youth and beauty, she gave him that worship.  She was another me, another mortal who needed to believe so much in a god.  *My* god -- Mars -- what was it he gave me? Incredible mind-altering sex?  Was that my price?

“So Mars is going to try to become the only war god,” I said.

"War is reaching a point where it's far too dangerous to have more than one god."

“It doesn’t make sense.  If there's only one war god, there won't be any wars to fight.  If his nature is to fight wars, what happens then?”

Llyr smiled as if charmed by my ignorance.

“There are other worlds to conquer.”

“We’ve barely made it to the moon,” I laughed.

“Ah, but your species is on the verge of great discoveries and soon, you’ll be able to use this knowledge to travel beyond this system.”

“So you chose to dominate us, to pass yourself off as gods, and then use us in some kind of interstellar conquest?”

“You'll do the conquests, Michael.  We're merely there enabling your meet your destiny."

He took the cup of tea and held it up for us to see.  The porcelain seemed to melt in his hands and reform into a pure white lotus blossom surrounded by green leaves.  He handed the flower to Francesca.

"We are gods, Michael, however you define them.  We understand your needs.  They were once our own.”

“So there is no God,” I said.  “No creator of the universe.”

He looked at me for a moment and said nothing.  Francesca was leaning back against him, her eyes closed  but when she heard my question, she opened them.

“Not as you’ve conceived it,” he said quietly.  “There is only life and the underlying coherence in the universe.”

I sipped at the last of my tea and felt a heavy weight of sadness descend on me.

“I wanted a god to believe in,” I replied, my voice cracking.  “I wanted God so badly.  Life seems short and painful without one.”

“It is,” he replied.  “For mortals, life is unbearably short.  Every moment is a jewel.  For us, eternity was unbearable.  We need each other.”

He reached out to me, clasping my arm in his hand.  I felt a warmth spread through me at his touch, and knew he was doing something to me with his powers.  I pulled back, not wanting anyone to take away my feelings, however bad they might be.

He quickly withdrew his hand and held both up and bowed his head.  Then he wrapped his arms around Francesca and she closed her eyes and snuggled into his embrace.

“It’s my nature to take away pain, to heal sickness,” he said, “but I suppose you must feel your pain.  We stopped feeling anything,” he said and sighed.

“Even pain is preferable.”

~~~~~~~~

We walked around the perimeter of the temple, he and I, along the high fence that surrounded the grounds.  Llyr was taller than me, larger in every way, but he wasn’t rough or overly bulky.  Everything about him seemed refined.

“What do you feel?  I mean, do you feel the same as we do?  The same emotions?”

We stopped and he picked some brown needles off an ornamental fir tree.

“Does a dog dream?”

I laughed.  He sounded like a Zen master.

“Of course,” I replied.  He raised his eyebrows as we walked on.

“Are the dreams the same as a human dream?  On the surface, the process is the same.  You both have brains and consciousness.  Your eyes move, and you sometimes make sounds.  Your brains even go into similar patterns of activity.  But the content and intensity of the dreams are vastly different.  So it is with us,” he said and looked over at Francesca sitting on the patio, watching us as we made our way around the temple. “We feel.  In fact, that's why we took these forms -- to feel once again. But our feelings are as different from yours as the dog’s dream is to that of a human.  But we still feel, Michael.  We aren’t empty inside.”

He stopped and faced me.

“You want to know what he feels for you.  You want to know if he can love you.”

Oh, god...  Yes.  Just hearing those words almost broke my heart.  Even if Mars could love me, I wasn’t sure if it could ever be the kind of love I wanted.  What I really wanted was the God of my childhood, the God the Father I knew from my catechism.  I wanted him to love me.  He was gone. In truth, He never existed.

“Michael!” he said and took hold of me, his hands on my arms.  “You are so in need of a god.  I feel it so strongly in you – we all would feel it when meeting you.  That’s what attracted him to you in the first place. Your need is so great, it’s almost overwhelming.”  He pulled me closer so that our bodies touched.  “What you feel -- we feel it a hundred, a thousand times more acutely.  I would have you as my own if he hadn’t already found you.”

“You have Francesca,” I replied guiltily, feeling as if I were somehow betraying her.

“Yes, but unlike you, she has others who satisfy her needs. You have only Francesca. Your god can be almost everything to you.”

He pulled away and we continued to walk around the temple.  I looked at the slant of the light.

“How long have I been gone? It feels like weeks.”

“Time stands still here,” he replied.  “When you return, it will be as if only a few moments passed.”

“Does he know I’m here?”

“He will," he replied.  "He had you followed.  He’s worried someone will steal you away and he’s right to fear it.  You’d be a prize for his enemies.  Hard to replace.”

He stopped again and turned to me.  “The longer you’re with him, the harder it would be for him to recover if he lost you.”

I said nothing for a moment, thinking about what he’d said.  Then he opened his hand and in it was a small book with a pure white cover and silver binding.  I took it and opened it.  A book on Buddhism.

“Here, this might be of some comfort to you.  Read it.”

“I’ve been to seminary.  I know about Buddhism.”

“Yes, but you studied it as a Catholic.  Read it now with the knowledge that there is no God the Father, as you put it.”

I looked at the first page. A phrase caught my eye.

“All life is suffering,” it read.  After a moment, Llyr spoke again.

“Of all your religions, this comes the closest to perceiving the truth about the universe, at least for mortals.”

“Buddhists don't believe in god the creator.  If you feel this way, why do you persist in masquerading as a god?  You just perpetuate the myths.”

“Mortals need gods.  You’ve even started to worship the Buddha as if he were a god because of this need, and in spite of what he taught.”

I put the small book into a pocket in my jacket.  Buddhism had never appealed to me, for it didn’t offer the kind of god I needed.

“You have two choices,” he said and took my arm as we walked.  “Surrender yourself to him, Michael.  Just accept him as your god and take what you need from him.  Do it blindly and completely.  Your life is far too short for you to spend it alone and unhappy.  There is a profound beauty in submission,” he said.  “It makes our existence bearable.”

“The other option?”

“Give up your need for a god and embrace the uncertainty and incomprehensibility of your existence.  Follow the middle path.  Most mortals aren’t ready for this option.  I don’t know if you are -- your need is so great.  But it’s there as an option, although your god won’t like me for offering it to you.”

He squeezed my arm and we returned to the temple.  Llyr said goodbye, leaving Francesca and I alone to talk.  She’d fixed us a dish of vegetables over fragrant rice.  As we ate, we talked about Mars and Llyr and what had passed between us.  I felt almost complete exhaustion and it was an effort just to talk to her.  I put down my fork and listened as she spoke.

"Mars wants to defeat Camulous, the Celtic war god, but he needs the support of the other Celtic gods to succeed.  Velasquez sent me to Llyr as bait to bring Llyr on side."

"Why you?”

“Because I’m a healer, a psychiatrist, and a devout Catholic.”

“Did you know any of this?"

She shook her head.

"Nothing.  I was as blind as you were going in.  Velasquez knew us pretty well."

I laughed ruefully.

"What -- did he search out the biggest suckers in the Church?"

She took my hand and squeezed it.

“Does he treat you well?” she asked, looking up into my eyes to gauge the truth of my response.

What could I say to her?

“Do you mean, does he treat me the way I want to be treated or am I happy when I’m with him?”

“Either.”

I shook my head.

“I don’t know if I could ever be happy with him, but now, I can’t imagine not being with him.”

“I know what you mean,” she said and pushed her unfinished plate away. “They take so much.  When I’m with him, I feel completely alive, as if every fiber of my being is fully awake for the first time.  When he leaves, I feel exhausted.  It’s like he saps me of my emotions.”

“Mars demands complete submission.”

She nodded and took a sip of water.

“Even Llyr, who is so gentle, demands absolute obedience.  He says we’re not ready yet to throw off the yoke of the gods.  We need them to restrain us, to guide us.  Otherwise we’d destroy ourselves.”

“Sounds self-serving to me.”

“Who can argue with them?” she replied.  “Llyr lets me argue, but I always feel like he’s a cat playing with a mouse.  Sooner or later, I get eaten no matter how hard I try to escape.”

She smiled at me, a devilish grin.

“Take that any way you want.”

“Francesca!”

But I laughed.  In fact, I laughed so hard, I felt tears running down my face and we put our arms around each other and rocked, comforting each other I suppose. When the laughter and tears were finished, she took my hand and led me to a small room at the back of the temple.  Against one wall was a tiny shrine with incense and flowers.  A large placid-looking Buddha, its gilded face a mask of serenity, sat in the corner overseeing the room.  She pulled a mat, blanket and small pillow out of a closet and ushered me over to it.

“Sleep.  If you’re like me, you’re so tired you could collapse right now. He does that to mortals -- he saps them of their body’s healing powers and then uses it to heal others.  He’s probably out right now curing the ill, making the blind see.”

“He wants power as well?”

“They all do, Michael.  That's why they exist.  For power.  Power gives their existence meaning.”

She kissed me -- a sisterly kiss -- and left me alone in the small room. I lay down and looked at the face of the Buddha and waited for sleep to come.  I didn’t wait long.

~~~~~~~~

“It’s time.”

I’d already said goodbye to Francesca and was standing alone with Llyr in the courtyard.  Llyr waved his hand and, in the space between us, the air seemed to waver.  An image of the place near the historic buildings where I met them – yesterday, a lifetime ago and no time at all -- appeared.  I could see through it as if it were a holograph.

Two stocky men with sunglasses and microphones in their ears stood looking around.  One of them talked into a cell phone.

“He’s not here.  They’re gone, all three of them.  Yes,” he said and listened.  “A white man, all in white, with this strange white skin.  And a young woman.  They went up to him and spoke for a moment, and then they all disappeared.”

The bodyguard looked at his phone in surprise, and then shoved it in his pocket.  Mars materialized and went to the spot where I’d been standing. He was dressed as if he was involved in military war games -- a tight black t-shirt and drab olive green pants.  His face was flushed and he spoke to the men in a barely controlled voice.

“You should have called me the moment anyone approached him.  I told you, the *moment* someone approached him.”

“We did.  They said barely anything and then were gone.”

I looked at Llyr.  He waved his finger and the scene dissipated.

“You’ll be in some trouble when you get back.  Tell him the truth.  Do what he requires of you to make things right.  Remember, he’s a god. Gods require submission.”

“Will you be in trouble?”

He shrugged.

“He’ll see my alliances as an asset he could use to defeat his enemies and I won’t be in too much trouble.  I could never defeat him, but I have a few… trump cards to play.  I can also bring many allies to his side, so I’m not worried.”

“You gods, you’re going to kill off a lot of mortals, aren’t you?”

“We’re only preparing you for your destiny,” he replied, and there wasn’t a hint of remorse in his voice.  “There can be only one pantheon -- only one course for your species from now on.  We must defeat everything that stands in its way.”

He came to me and cupped my face with his hand.  He did something to me with his healing powers -- took away my fear, my anxiety about returning. I felt emotion drain out of me and stood unconcerned as he sent me back.

“Goodbye, beautiful priest.”

That lack of concern, the absence of fear remained as I materialized in the spot from which Llyr whisked me away.  When the god saw me, his face became a mask of rage.  I felt his hand close around my throat and it meant nothing to me.  It was only pressure, and then pain.  I felt the inability to breathe as only an impediment -- there was no fear attached to the sensation.  Instead I looked at his face as if it were a painting or photograph -- something to examine.

We materialized in a tent on the fields where I assumed he was running military maneuvers.  It was hot, dusty in the tent, and the air was incredibly dry.  He let go of my neck and let me drop to the ground.

“Do I have to put a fucking leash on you?”

I coughed, unable to speak, and sat watching him as he paced around the room.  He returned and lifted me up by the shoulders, searching my face for some sign of fear and confused by its absence.  Finally, he let me go once again and went over to a table covered with maps and other gear.  He picked up a small locator and turned it around in his hand.

“You were with Llyr.”

“Yes,” I croaked and coughed again, unable to say more.  He came back to me and put his hand over my throat and soon the dryness, the choked feeling was gone, and I cleared my throat.

“Francesca was worried about me,” I said. “She convinced him to take me away so she could make sure I was all right.”

He looked in my face, in my eyes, and then nodded as if he sensed the truth in my words.

“What else?”

“What do you mean?”

He sat in a chair beside the window.

“Come here.”

I didn’t want to.  It wasn’t that I was angry.  I felt nothing.  No fear or desire.

“I said come here.”

I hesitated a moment longer, unconcerned about his anger.  I went to him. It wasn't worth the effort to disobey.  When I knelt down between his legs, he leaned forward and pulled me close and kissed me.  I felt nothing when he did, just the pressure of his lips on mine, the softness of them, the wet warmth of his tongue as it pushed between them and into my mouth.  He pulled away from me.

“What’s he done to you?”

“I don’t know for sure,” I replied.  “He did something before I left.  He was concerned that I’d be in trouble when I got back for disobeying you.”

He hit me, hard, and although I felt the impact, and a bright blazing pain in my cheek, I didn’t respond with emotion.  It just hurt.  I lay on the floor at his feet and felt the pain wash over me, gritting my teeth as it burned and my eyes watered.  Still, I felt nothing -- no anger, and no sadness that he could hurt me like that.   His violence was just a fact.

He picked me back up again and kissed me, running his hands over my body. Again, I felt the sensations, but they didn’t evoke a response.

“Fuck!”

He threw me down and stood up, his hands clenched in anger.

“LLYR!”

The god appeared and came over to me, kneeling down to touch my cheek.  I felt the pain leave, dissipating completely.  He looked in my eyes, and then turned to face Mars.

“He’s quite something,” Llyr said and helped me up.

“Don’t get any ideas.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t dream of it.”

Llyr turned me around so that I faced Mars.

“You should take better care of your valuables though,” he said and put his arms around my shoulders.  “I may not be able to fight you, but others can.  You could lose him in the blink of an eye.”

“You think I don’t know that?” the god replied, his voice almost a growl.

“I took him without any difficulty.”

“He’s not used to having his movements controlled.  Yet.”

“Your god is very angry, Michael,” Llyr said and rubbed my arms, running his hands up and down their length.  “Look at him, see the fury in his face, in the way his muscles are tensed.  He wants to hurl a bolt of lightning my way, but he knows I could vaporize you in an instant, so he holds back.”

“Give him back to me the way he was.  Release his emotions.”

“Why?  So you can terrorize him?”

The war god looked away and I saw him clench and unclench his fists as if aching to use them.

“Just give him back, Llyr, the way he was.  You still have to leave, and I’ll hunt you down.”

“You can have him back,” Llyr replied, and pushed me to the god.  “But he won’t be quite the same.  I’ve altered him so that if I feel you’re harming him, I can shut him off.”

I stumbled and fell against Mars and then went to my knees at his feet.

“You do and I’ll kill him.”

“You do and I’ll restore him,” Llyr laughed.  “Take him for myself.”

“I’ll destroy every fucking molecule in his body before that happens.”

“He deserves better than you,” Llyr hissed.  They stared at each other for a long moment.

“What do you want?” Mars asked.  “This isn’t about him.”

Llyr sat in a chair and crossed his arms.  His smile chilled me.

“An alliance would be mutually beneficial.  You need me to defeat Camulous.  He’s strong, and he’s aligning with the Norse, but I think you’re stronger.  I’m willing to give you my support and those with whom I’m aligned.   My terms:  you make me the only god of healing.  I’m very fond of the Far East, and want it as my base.  I’ll ensure my warriors are loyal to you.”

“They’re good warriors.  Fight to the death.”

“We have to destroy Hachiman, but he hasn’t developed much support,” Llyr replied and I was fascinated with their maneuvering.  “You align with me and the warriors are yours.  I have a lot of followers among them.”

“Hachiman’s nothing,” he said, and then looked down at me.  “Return his emotions.”

“I will, but remember, if you harm him, I can take them away.  Destroy him and it’s you who loses.”

Llyr waved his finger and I felt as if the air had been knocked out of my lungs.  I struggled to breathe for a moment and then I recovered and looked up at Mars.  He took my head in his hands and looked down into my face as if he was searching for something.  It almost hurt to see him like that -- his beautiful face filled with concern.  I felt emotion so powerful well up in me, my eyes filled.

“Feel free to go at any time,” he said to Llyr, his voice deep and thick.

I heard the other god chuckle softly.

“Enjoy.”

~~~~~~~~

In an instant, we were inside St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and the air was sweet from incense burned at a recent mass.  I was on my back on the altar staring up at the dome.  The white silk of my robes sliding against my naked body produced one of the most exquisitely erotic sensations I’d experienced.  My arms were stretched to the sides and were manacled in place.  Raising my head, I saw thin silver bracelets circling my wrists. They didn’t appear to be fastened to anything, but I couldn’t move my hands.

I relaxed completely and remembered what Llyr said about my options. Complete submission to the god -- Llyr said it was a thing of profound beauty.  For whom, I wondered -- for the one who submits or the one who accepts that submission?

His hands caressed my bare feet, and then touched my ankles and I felt the coolness of metal circling them.  Restraints on my ankles as well? Would I be shackled like a prisoner on a chain gang?  I tried to move my legs, and succeeded -- they weren’t there to restrain me, at least not now.  I bit back the feelings of rebellion that surged in me and tried to calm myself, lying in wait for his touch.
His hands slid up my calves to my thighs and then to my groin, where my stiffened cock lay against my belly, aching for attention.  I gasped in relief when his hand closed around it and shivered when his finger rubbed some of my fluid over the tip, flicking softly against the tender nub of skin at the base of the head.

I felt the warmth of his body as he moved up on the altar to join me, and then the soft wetness of his mouth and tongue on the head of my cock. The tug of his lips on me made my back arch in pleasure.

His mouth moved up to my nipples and his teeth played with them, nipping and sucking them until I was writhing beneath his body.  He lay fully on top of me and looked in my face, into my eyes.  By then, I was almost panting with lust, wanting him to suck me or fuck me, just wanting to drown in him.

“Don’t you *ever* disobey me again.”

I stiffened, just for a second.  Just for the briefest second, I heard Llyr’s words about my options and saw Mars in a different way -- as another being, a being far beyond me, but still, not so unlike me that there could be nothing between us.  He needed me.

Seeing him that way had a confusing effect on me.  I saw his need for me for the first time as something that gave me power over him, if only in his need for my worship and submission.  Llyr had said it himself -- that the gods depended on our need to submit to make their existence bearable. For a fraction of a second this decentred my entire being.

He blinked several times.

“What did that fucker do to you?”

I said nothing, and let the feelings pass through me, shoving the second option out of my consciousness.  I returned my focus back to the feel of his weight on my body, the hardness of his cock pressing into my hip, the memory of his mouth on my cock and felt my lust return, my arousal increase.  He was so beautiful as he lay on top of me, searching my face for the source of my fleeting distraction.  I wanted him so badly at that moment that I ached all over.  As if sensing my return to him, he sighed and kissed me and I lost myself in him.

As his cock pushed deep into me, and I arched my back as the mixture of pain and pleasure almost overwhelmed me, my wrists pulled at the silver manacles.  The bite of the cool metal into my flesh produced a moment of clarity.

I decided to just give in and let the sensations and emotions wash over me, filling me completely.

I knew that the second option would be waiting for me when I needed it.

Go here for more Mars Rising.