Illusions die hard, as the saying goes. I had many about myself and the world around me. The biggest was that of the permanence of my own faith. My faith in an all-powerful and forgiving God, the creator of the universe and all within it, kept me going for most of my adult life. As I matured and studied at seminary, I realized that much in the scriptures and in the Holy Church was the creation of man and reflected our meagre capacity to comprehend the Divine.
Still, until my father's death, I had what I thought was an unshakable faith in the existence of my God. There was room for science to reveal His wonders. It did nothing to take away my faith. In fact, science had made it all the more wonderful. Since I'd met Mars, and even more recently, since I met Llyr, my shattered illusions left me so empty inside, I wondered if anything would fill me up again.
It was almost a week since I'd returned from Japan. Mars had been gone for practically the entire week, showing up briefly to meet with Velasquez or other officials. I saw him only in passing.
Velasquez kept me so busy with bureaucratic work during that week, I'd barely had time to feel anything besides overworked. My silver manacles prevented me from leaving the Vatican. Mars told me that if I tried to leave, the shackles would physically prevent me from stepping outside the enclosure. He'd be immediately notified.
It didn't matter. I had no reason to leave and besides, there were endless meetings to familiarize me with all the tasks of the pontiff, the administration of the Vatican, protocol for visiting dignitaries and heads of state. John Paul III was gravely ill and there was a breathless feel to the place as if we were all waiting for his death.
At night, I fell into my bed exhausted, and yet, every night I waited to see if Mars would come to my bed, but he stayed away. Perhaps he considered this punishment, denying me his attention. I was almost too tired to notice, but it was there, like a bitter aftertaste.
Mars sensed something was different when I returned from Llyr. I suspected that a mortal without illusions of some kind was not the best candidate for high priest. Perhaps Llyr intended to shatter my illusions and deprive Mars of my services as his chief worshipper. Not that I'd ever really worshipped Mars. I think I was still caught in the vortex of his desirability and my physical needs, but it wasn't really worship.
Could I worship him? I didn't know. I wondered if I could ever worship him. He was all too real, all too flesh and blood and passion and lust to me. Not at all what I imagined my God to be.
"What did that bastard tell you?"
As I sat on my knees on the marble floor in front of him, I wondered what I should say. Mars looked so beautiful as he sat waiting for me to respond. He was dressed in his war god's costume and had assumed a younger body - the one I preferred with longer curls falling over his shoulders and around his face. He and his top military advisers were on manoeuvres in Gaza and he liked his men to see him as Mars, not as just another military commander.
We hadn't talked since my return from Japan and I wondered what I should tell him. Llyr advised me to tell the truth, so I did.
"I asked him if there was a Creator. He said there wasn't, at least, not the way humans have conceived it. He said that you gods, you weren't the kind of gods I wanted you to be. My god wasn't who I thought he was."
I sighed. It hurt to say these things. I felt as if I had to tear the words out of my very heart.
"That I should submit to you completely, and take from you what I need. That my life is too short to feel so much pain."
Mars raised his eyebrows as if surprised that Llyr had encouraged me to worship him.
"He also advised me to give up on my need for an all-powerful God, to give up my need for gods at all. He said I should find meaning in the beauty of existence alone. That, ultimately, if I wanted freedom from pain, I had to give up my need for gods. He said it was my choice."
Mars said nothing for a moment and looked away, but I could see anger in the set of his jaw.
"So, are you happier now?" he asked, looking back at me with a frown on his face. "Does it feel better to know there is no One God of your monotheism?"
"No," I whispered, a choked feeling in my throat preventing me from saying anything more. It didn't feel good at all. All I felt was incredible loneliness, as if I was completely alone in the universe. Most of the time I squelched it but at times it threatened to rise up and strangle me.
He reached for me, pulled me up to him. He held me as I bit back my grief and said nothing until the moment passed and I was able to breathe once again.
"I can make you forget," he said quietly. "I can away take your memory of the visit."
I hesitated. It was tempting. To lose that deep sadness would be such a relief, but it would mean losing the truth as well as the pain.
"No," I managed to reply. "I want to remember. I've been living a lie all my life. It's time to accept reality for what it is."
"Don't answer right away," he said. "Think about it for a while. You mortals need mystery. Take the mystery away and what happens? You search for someone or something bigger than yourself to worship. If that makes you happy, why give it up?"
He released me from his embrace and I sat between his knees with my arms resting on his thighs.
"You just want me to worship you so you can become more powerful."
"Well, there's that," he said and couldn't hold back a smile. That smile made me feel so small, so much like a child in the presence of a powerful parent. I felt anger well up inside me. At least it felt better than grief.
"Don't talk to me about my happiness. If that's what you wanted, you'd have left me alone."
"Oh, Michael," he sighed and leaned forward. "What happened to you was inevitable. It was going to happen to you whether you were here with me or if you were out in some lonely parish. Don't you see that?"
What he said was right. Mars and the others were back and were going to assert themselves regardless of what we mortals wanted or needed. Still, I felt bitterness inside me.
"So you think you're doing me a favour."
"Michael!" he said, exasperation in his voice. "You need to worship. I need a worshipper."
"I'm just a way for you to get more worshippers, more power."
"That's what gods do. We try to get more worshippers," he said with a laugh. "Your god did the same. When I took over the Catholic Church, I took on a billion followers, almost half a million priests and a million nuns. That's a lot of firepower. Your god wanted it all to himself. So do I."
I looked away. I was glad he was telling me the truth, but the truth hurt. I just couldn't accede to him without some kind of fight.
"Look, Michael. I'm sure Velasquez filled you in on what high priest does for a god. I need one. You need a god. It's a fair exchange."
"You talk about it like it's some kind of simple transaction. Like there's nothing personal to it."
"Zeus," he said in frustration. "Llyr really did fuck with your mind." He sat and looked at me for a moment and I could see the tension in his face and his body. "I won't forget this."
After a time that felt like an eternity, he leaned back and waved me away.
"You'll have to make your own choice about this," he said and looked away, as if he didn't even want to look at me any longer. "I can't force you to be my high priest. It wouldn't work. Just give me a bit of lead time when you decide, so I can find someone else. I have a deadline to meet."
For some reason, his words stung. After a moment, I complied and rose up from between his knees and left. As I closed the door behind me, I leaned against it and tried to catch my breath. I felt as if I were standing on the crumbling edge of a deep pit that threatened to give way at the slightest move.
Later that day, I attended a meeting of the curia to discuss strategy for the "revelation" of Mars' godhood. In attendance were a couple of public relations consultants from a big ad agency in Milan. We were waiting for news of why Mars was late returning from Gaza. In his absence, the Cardinals began to ask the consultants questions about the events planned to announce the god's return to power. They were discussing how to handle release of the prophecy of St. Anne and what kind of media event would be proper.
I could barely stand to listen to them. They saw it as just another commercial, just another staged event meant to capture a large audience and get on the news. Velasquez sat in silent contemplation as they outlined one plan for a "sermon on the mount" type of display on the Hill of Mars in Rome.
"We can discuss this all day," Velasquez said and steepled his hands. "But it's no use. It's the god's decision. We must wait for his arrival and see how he wants this to proceed."
They talked on, debating the merits of this or that strategy, but all talk stopped when a young priest rushed into the room and bent down to Velasquez. He looked flustered, and his face was red. They talked for a moment in whispers and then the young priest left the room and closed the door quietly behind him.
"I've just received word that the god was involved in a skirmish in Gaza. A bombing." He stopped speaking as the noise in the room rose as the members of the curia almost panicked. He held up his hand to the room, and in a moment, they fell silent.
"There were several casualties, but the god's wounds weren't serious." There was an audible sigh of relief from the other cardinals. "This was the reason for his delay. He'll be here as soon as possible. Perhaps a quarter of an hour longer."
The members of the curia huddled among themselves in small groups and discussed this development with clear interest. I frowned. Were they really worried?
Velasquez motioned to me to come and I went to his side and bent down so I could hear what he said.
"He's fine," he assured me and patted my hand.
"He's a god," I replied. "He can't be killed by a bomb."
"Not true," he said, a look of disapproval on his face. "His powers are limited and he's vulnerable in many ways to the assaults of his fellow gods, Michael. This next while... His ability to gain followers and amass power. Only if he succeeds will he be truly safe from those who are even now moving against him."
I shrugged, feeling numb about this whole issue. Knowledge of Mars' vulnerability meant little to me other than to remind me that there was one more thing he hadn't told me about himself and the other gods. Velasquez couldn't hide his anger at my lack of concern.
"Michael. This is our new reality. You must accept it and take it seriously. You have Mars' favour as we all do. If he loses, or is destroyed, the other gods might not be so indulgent with you or us."
"I imagine they'd be just as happy as Mars was to take us all on as worshippers. What's the difference?"
"You don't know them as I do. Not all are as uncomplicated as Mars."
"Yes. He asks for little in return for his favour. There are others who are not so indulgent."
"How can I understand all this if you don't tell me?" I said in exasperation. "You've told me nothing since this started. Nothing about Mars or the other gods or what happened to our own god. It's like you wanted me to be blind. As if I knew the truth, I wouldn't agree to be his high priest."
"You never asked and I assumed you didn't want to know. You seemed to want to just feel and get lost in the experience. Being with Llyr... The god was right. It has changed you. Michael," he said and leaned closer to me, taking my hand in his and looking at the ring on my index finger. On it was emblazoned the eagle. Mars' symbol. "Don't make this more complicated that it needs to be. Mars is a god. His destiny is to lead. He will be the most powerful god with our help."
He took his glasses off and rubbed his eyes as if tired.
"We can't escape this new reality. It was going to happen one day, the gods' return. It was foretold when our god first defeated them. All the prophecy points to the return of the old gods and of Mars' supremacy. Remember Nostradamus and Malachy."
He put his glasses back on and I frowned as I tried to remember the details about Malachy, but other than knowing he was a bishop who made predictions about the apocalypse, I drew a blank. Nostradamus I already knew, and I tried to remember what he'd foretold about Armageddon.
"Let me refresh your memory," he said and leaned close to me. "On a pilgrimage to Rome in the 12th century, Malachy prophesized that there would be one hundred and eleven popes after Innocent II. According to those who studied the texts, our own pope is number one hundred and ten. You will be one hundred and eleven. The last Pope. After that, Mars rules."
He grabbed my hand once again and squeezed. A look close to fervor was in his eyes.
"Nostradamus said that around the year 2000, the great King of Terror will come from the sky. He will bring back the great King of the Moguls. Before and after, Mars rules."
Before and after, Mars rules... I vaguely remembered that passage, having studied eschatology for my work with the Vatican group, but I was never an expert nor did I take it literally. I believed eschatology to be little more than a remnant of Mithraism brought into Christianity from Rome's pagan legacy.
For believers, however, the "great King of Terror" supposedly referred to the heavenly event that would predict and precede the final battle between good and evil. Early believers in the apocalypse thought the portent would be a comet, but more recently believers suggested it would be nuclear war. The great King of the Moguls? Another incarnation of Genghis Khan?. An Asian god?
When I read the prophecy of Nostradamus, I thought it referred to the final battle between good and evil in men's hearts, not to actual gods. As my work with the group proceeded, I started to believe in demons only because of the powers of those we were investigating. "Before and after, Mars rules"- I remembered it now. At the time I read that, I thought Nostradamus referred to the triumph of war over peace. And the "King of the Moguls" -- to me, that suggested that China, that great atheistic nation, would be a powerful force in the final war over mortal souls. I didn't for a moment think this referred to actual gods.
"You take this seriously!"
Velasquez responded despite my rhetorical intention.
"Oh, yes," he said quietly. "I believe it only because our god had limited powers to keep the others at bay. Fifteen centuries and they would return to decide among themselves who would take control over us."
"How do you know this?"
"His priests recorded the events leading to the defeat of the other gods. Most of those texts were lost along with the gods for all those centuries, but a few remained and were incorporated into our own church's consciousness, despite the best efforts of the Jesuits. These bits and pieces of revelation were a means to ensure that the faithful would fight against the gods when they returned. When confronted with such powerful beings, we faithful would believe them to be demons and their leader the Anti-Christ rather that the gods they are. We've been primed to believe that Mars was our God's enemy. The problem is that our God left us - left the other gods to fight over us without his presence."
"That I don't know. None of us know. If Mars knows, he isn't telling."
I tried to take it all in. Apocalyptic prophecy was nothing more than a way to prepare the faithful for the final battle to decide who would rule over mortals. Our own god's departure meant there'd be no thousand years of peace under the rule of Jesus Christ for those who remained faithful. In fact, if Mars had his way, we would go on to fight battles elsewhere, on other worlds. It looked as if we'd continue in our warring ways, especially if Mars was our god. Perhaps our belief that peace was possible for our species was misplaced.
"If Mars succeeds, we'll go on to fight other worlds. That's what Llyr said was our destiny."
"Who can say what our future holds? Don't listen too closely to what he says. He's a sly one and knows just how to get into your mind and use it to his advantage. Mars' success is not yet certain, but I believe it is absolutely critical. Other gods -- they are not so... generous to mortals. We must focus on ensuring Mars succeeds before we start fretting over what happens afterwards."
At that moment, the huge oak doors to the meeting room opened and the god entered. He was still dressed in his war god's costume, and I realized as I watched him enter how much it was for effect on us as it was for his soldiers. He looked godly -- a blood-red breastplate covered his brown split leather tunic, and his huge sword hung at his side. Still, he limped, and I saw a makeshift bandage on his calf and realized that he had an injury just below the knee that had bled down his calf to his foot. Something made me question the honesty of this moment. I couldn't believe that Mars could really be harmed.
He walked over to his throne and sat, favouring his injured leg.
"I apologize for being late but as you can see, we ran into a bit of a fight while on manoeuvres in Gaza."
Velasquez was on his feet and at the god's side. They talked quietly for a few moments and then Velasquez waved me over. Mars watched me and said nothing, but I felt his gaze on me -- watching, judging. .
"He needs to have his wound cleaned and dressed again," Velasquez said in a business-like tone. "Please attend to this while we discuss the agenda for the meeting."
"I'm not a medic."
"You're his high priest. This is your duty."
"Does he need stitches?" I asked and bent down to look at the wound. I had no idea what I was looking for, but pulled away the bloodied cloth and examined the cut. The two sides of the wound were pulled together and while a small bit of blood seeped from one end of the cut, it wasn't copious.
"I won't need stitches," Mars replied. "It's already starting to heal." I looked up and once again, felt those eyes on me, watching me with such intensity. "Gods do have some perks," he added with a smile. "But it'll take a while. I did what I could in the field, but it has to be cleaned and dressed again."
"I'll go get what I can from the first-aid kit in my office."
"We'll start without you, then," Velasquez added and then turned back to the curia, who were watching silently.
I left the room and went to my own office, where I kept a well-stocked first aid kit. I took a roll of gauze, some medical tape, a tube of antibiotic creme, a cloth, a towel and a bowl of warm water back with me. Feeling somewhat like a nurse, I returned to the meeting room with my supplies and knelt at the god's feet and started my ministrations. The god and the members of the curia talked as if I wasn't there, and while I tried to listen to their words, my concentration was of necessity on the god's wound and how I was supposed to clean it and dress it.
First, I took his boot off and removed the old dressing. The leather had been split by some shrapnel. I washed the area around the wound to remove any dirt and blood around it. The blood had flowed down his calf inside his boot to his foot, but I'd wait to clean that when I finished dressing the wound.
As I worked away, I shook my head mentally. Why didn't he just clean himself off and fix this wound with his powers? Were they so limited that he couldn't even do this for himself? It didn't make sense. He could appear and disappear at will. He'd killed with his bare hands, using some kind of plasma-like energy. Why not this?
I had the feeling this was some kind of test of my willingness to submit. It rankled for a brief second, but then I returned to my task and was caught up in it, my mind focussed on it to the exclusion of other thoughts.
After I'd cleaned around the wound and applied the ointment, I bandaged the calf and then started to clean the blood and dirt off his foot. I held his foot in the small basin and poured the warm water over it, and carefully wiped the blood and dirt from the toes and sole of his foot with my bare hands.
As I dried his foot off, resting it on my lap, touching the soft skin, I marveled that even his foot was beautiful, perfectly shaped and yet still masculine. A feeling overtook me and an image of Mary doing just this for Jesus when they were at Simon's home for dinner came to mind. She had been so grateful to be washing the foot of her god and all of a sudden I felt a common bond with her. I thought back to the passage in the scriptures. It was a lesson of humility taught to every seminarian.
When Jesus arrived, Mary took a jar of expensive ointment and went to her knees to wash his feet, anoint them with oils. When the others complained that she wasted valuable ointment that could be sold and the money used to feed the poor, Jesus replied that the poor would always be with them, but he wouldn't.
It was more than that, I realized now as I sat holding my own god's foot in my lap. Mary didn't shrink from caring for him, caring for his bodily needs. It wasn't beneath her to bend on her knees to him in front of all those gathered at Simon's house and wash his feet with her grateful tears, dry them with her hair. How must she have felt, to hold her god's foot in her hand? To look up into his eyes and know that to Jesus, her act was the most profound show of devotion, more powerful than mere words?
Then a curious feeling went over me. I felt that I'd left my own body and was watching myself through the eyes of the curia. All discussion had stopped as they watched me wash his foot. Perhaps they too remembered Mary's act. Mars was silent, as were the others, and he was looking down at me while I dried his foot. My hands were barely moving the towel over his skin. It looked more like a caress.
I saw myself through their eyes, I felt their feelings. Envy. Jealousy. Reverence. Longing. The wish it could be them up there on the dais with his foot in their hands, and not me.
Then I felt it. I was back in my own body, looking into his eyes as I touched his foot, as I held it in my hands. He was as much a god as the one whose foot Mary washed that night. I'd always wondered how I'd respond in the presence of my god. Now here I was, the one taking care of his needs, soothing his wound. On my knees in front of all the most powerful of his followers, I felt something creep inside of me, inside my heart. A feeling, not adoration, not awe. Completion. I was doing what few mortals had ever had the privilege to do. To care for a god's needs.
As I looked in his dark eyes, into that beautiful face, I felt a connection to him I'd never felt before - not though all the fucking and desire. It wasn't as if he was talking to me. I didn't hear his voice in my head. I felt a connection to Mars at some level, some kind of understanding. I also sensed the other members of the curia: their awe, their adoration of him, their desire to be there, in my place. I was filled with it and knew he was filled as well through me.
This was what it meant to be his high priest.
He leaned back and closed his eyes, then turned his head away. As he did, I leaned down and kissed his foot, pressing my lips against the skin, holding back tears. I don't know from where they came, whether from my thoughts of Mary's act, or from some need inside of me, but come they did.
As my lips touched his skin, I thought of how demeaning this act usually was perceived. To kiss another's foot was a sign of submission, an acknowledgement of the other's greater power and status. Between mortals, this act was demeaning, but between a mortal and their god, it was an act of devotion.
He'd asked me if I was happy now that my illusions about my god and his identity had been shattered. As I felt the combined emotions of the curia wash over me as they saw me kiss his foot, as they thrilled in my act of submission to our god, I knew there were still mysteries in this world despite all the disillusionment.
Only time would tell if these mysteries were enough to fill that hole inside of me.
Freedom -- it's a word filled with contested meaning, a word for which mortals have been willing to die ever since we first stood upright. For me, freedom was little more than an idea since I was so caught up in the day to day workings of the Vatican. I couldn't leave the compound and even if I could, I had no idea where I'd go or what I'd do.
John Paul III was now on his death bed, and although he'd been there for several weeks, his physicians said it could be any day. Preparations for the "Day of Revelation" were all in place and the countdown had begun. Once John Paul died and I took over as Pontiff, I'd reveal the identity of our new deity to the faithful, and he'd appear as I read the prophecy of St. Anne.
We were sitting around a large table in my office discussing the event. The consultants from the Milan agency had it all scripted out carefully -- they'd even called in special lighting people to consult, but Mars merely laughed and waved the consultants off.
"You won't need any extra lighting or special effects. Trust me."
I smiled to myself and looked at the notes from the consultants, not wanting to see the looks on their faces. In our age of image, smoke and mirrors, it was easy to forget the man in our midst, dressed so inconspicuously in the dark business suit and crisp white shirt, tapping his fingers with impatience, was no actor or presidential hopeful, but a god.
"But we have no way of accounting for the weather," one of the lighting people protested. "It could be cloudy or overcast. Raining. There's a system brewing that might affect the event and we need to have every possibility covered."
Mars leaned over the table and held his hand out. We watched as a ball of some kind of plasma energy grew from a small blue speck to a rolling sphere of electricity. The god smiled and it expanded, sizzling, its crackle loud in the stunned silence of the room, the smell of burnt ozone assaulting our noses.
"You need light? I'll give you light."
The sphere of energy grew to the size of a basketball and hovered two feet above his hand.
"'And the Lord said, "Let there be light," and there was light,' clouds or no," Mars said, chuckling at the stunned looks on the consultant's faces. The sphere grew even larger, forcing us to shade our eyes and I looked up briefly and saw that it was now more than two metres across. The light was blinding in its intensity -- a miniature sun in our midst -- the heat incredible. The buzzing from the energy held within its confines was almost deafening, but even above the noise, we heard Mars' deep voice, calm and smooth.
"How much light do you need?"
The god finally snapped his fingers and the ball shrunk, vanishing as if he'd sucked it back into his palm. He gave a satisfied grunt as it disappeared completely and stood, loosening the tie around his neck.
"And now, gentlemen, I have some more urgent business to attend to, so if you'll excuse me."
We all stood and every one of us, to the man, bowed lower than usual, the realization that he was a god shocked back into us or, for some, implanted for the very first time.
I looked up at him and he motioned for me to follow, so I did, smiling to myself at those left behind standing speechless.
"That was impressive," I said quietly as we walked down the corridor towards my private rooms.
"I left a few mouths gaping."
"I guess I won't have to worry about an umbrella."
"Probably not," he said, pushing me along, his hand on the small of my back.
"Where are we going?" I asked, but in truth, I had a pretty good idea.
"Administrative shit bores me silly. I need a distraction," he replied. "You're it."
When the door closed behind him, he pulled me to him and my heart rate increased immediately. He slipped his hand between the buttons on my robes, and gripped my now-hard cock. Sighing in satisfaction, he looked me in the eyes. I smiled and pressed my groin against his hand, eager for more of his touch. He laughed, but pressed his own erection against me in response.
"I've trained you well," he said, half-grunting as he took my own hand and placed it over the bulge in his sober wool pants.
"You'd make the dead rise," I replied in a low voice as he moved my hand slowly over his cock.
"I would at that," he laughed and a devilish grin spread on those lush lips. I could still feel his smile as he leaned down and kissed me, and he was in such good spirits, he couldn't stop the laughter even when I tried to slip my tongue between his lips.
Undaunted, I pressed him back against the door and kissed him more forcefully, something happening between us as it had every time I touched him since the day I'd tended his wound. An incredible mixture of lust and love, need and a protective sense, almost like ownership, burned in me. I felt that familiar connection between us. Not as if we spoke to each other but as if I knew how he felt -- knew him. It stopped his laughter, focussed his attention.
If I was his captive, prevented from leaving the Vatican walls, he was just as much mine, relying on me to increase his power, to make certain his ascendance. I revelled in the knowledge that I alone held this place in his existence, knowing that the others, my fellow members of the curia and the staff at the Vatican, all knew I was his chosen one.
I felt their envy and respect as I walked down the halls beside him, as they saw him touch me, lean over during meetings and whisper in my ear, his lips brushing my neck needlessly. I have to admit, it went to my head just a bit.
I started kissing his neck, my hands pulling at his shirt, slipping the tie open and sliding it off, then I nipped at each nipple as I bared his chest, his shirt tangling behind him because the cuffs were too tight to remove it with ease.
"Fuck this," he said and disappeared our clothing in his impatience. My mouth slid down his body, over his stomach and as I knelt down at his feet, I looked up into his dark eyes and licked the head of his cock, kissing the tip, then closing my lips around it and sucking softly. My world became him, his cock, the connection we shared. His intense pleasure filled me as well, bringing me to the same level of pleasure without him even touching me.
A Guide led a tour through the Vatican halls. As I made my way to meet with one of the curia to discuss the details of the Day of Revelation, I ran into them. One of the visitors pointed to me, resplendent in my red robes, but the Guide was quick and said something dismissive, pointing to one of the Rubens on the wall instead, telling those following him about the history of the painting. I tried to duck into one of the rooms in case one of the faithful tried to engage me in a discussion, but wasn't quick enough.
"Cardinal McGuigan," a soft voice intoned from behind me. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck rise and turned quickly, preventing the heavy oak door from closing so I could see her. It was Christine.
She stepped quickly over to me and when the Guide saw her, he looked at me pointedly for direction, but I shook my head and waved him off. I admitted her into the room and closed the door, my heart in my throat.
"Christine," was all I could muster.
"Michael, I tried calling you, but they wouldn't let me through. I told them who I was, that I was a colleague of yours, but nothing. It's as if you're a captive here. Does he even let you out?"
I shook my head. How could she understand? How could I explain what had happened to me? Between Mars and me? It was impossible, and a sense of hopelessness flooded through me at the look on her face.
"I'm his priest now, Christine. I'm loyal to him. He is who he says."
"I know who he is," she replied, anger clear in her voice. "I know a lot about him, actually. That's why I came. I decided that if I couldn't get to you through normal channels, I'd get to you using guerilla tactics."
I looked at her. What did she know? What did I know, for that matter?
"So here I am," she continued and leaned against the wall, her pale hair almost white against the dark wood panelling. Those blue eyes -- even now, even after all that had passed between Mars and me, I could still find her achingly attractive.
"Yes, here you are," I replied, not knowing what else to say.
She went to one of the big leather armchairs in front of a vacant desk and sat, waiting for me to join her. She seemed intent on confronting me and I realized I couldn't just brush her off. I looked at my watch. My appointment with Bishop Mendel was in less than a quarter of an hour.
"I have an appointment in a few moments."
"Cancel it, Michael. You'll want to hear what I have to say."
I sighed and went to the desk, picking up the phone and ringing the Bishop's offices. His secretary answered. I noted the deference in the young man's voice when he realized who it was on the other end of the line. "I'll be a bit late for our meeting," I said. "Something's come up and I'll be delayed. I'll call you when I'm free."
I sat on the chair behind the desk rather than at one of the other armchairs in front of the ornate fireplace. Something made me feel as if I needed a buffer between us. As if what she was going to tell me would hurt, would be bad.
"Michael, Mars is one of the four who will destroy the world. He's going to defeat the others and the battle will destroy everything."
I looked at her in shock. Was she referring to the four horsemen of the apocalypse? Even I didn't believe that. Nostradamus was a madman.
"You can't mean Nostradamus' prophecies?"
"He saw the future," she said with all earnestness. "He saw that when the Dragon returned, four of the immortals would precede him, and fight for dominion over the mortal realm. Their fight will destroy civilization as we know it. A nuclear holocaust, Michael. Only one will remain and he'll rule for a thousand years."
I actually laughed out loud. This was a relief. This I could handle since I didn't believe it. Not for a moment. I knew that Mars and the other gods were not the four horsemen of the apocalypse, but were just gods who had finally returned from imprisonment. In fact, there were more than four. Our god, the one god, had merely defeated them, imprisoning them, and then when he had tired of ruling us alone, he'd fled. They escaped without him there maintaining their bonds. There was no "Dragon" or any apocalypse. That was just our god's attempt to scare us off them if any escaped and presented themselves to us.
I smiled and reached out to her, patting her hand as if to comfort her in her delusion.
"Christine, there is no Apocalypse. No Armageddon. Mars is just one god among many who are vying for power. I don't know who will win, but I'm loyal to Mars."
"And you," she said, her voice bitter. "You're a tool to him, the tool. The way to get the power he needs to defeat the others. You don't even know who you are, do you?"
"What do you mean? Of course I know who I am."
"Do you really? Well, I have a few documents you might like to see."
She reached into her bag and pulled out a thick manila envelope, handing it over to me and looking at me with a strange mix of sympathy and anger. I reached for it but then, all of a sudden, I felt different. When I took it, I cringed at the feel of the paper against my skin. I held it as if it were something diseased. Nausea washed over me as I opened it, the blood pounding in my ears as if I knew that whatever it was, it contained bad news.
I took out a yellowing document and read for a moment. The paper was an official certificate of adoption. On it was typed my father's name and address in Rome. My mother's name, maiden name, and her birthplace. A short description of a boy, aged three months, a foundling left at the sanctuary of Monte Gargano.
I looked up at her in disbelief.
"This is a forgery."
"Why would anyone forge this?"
"I know who my father is."
"No you don't. Not even the state knows who your father was. You were left at the sanctuary in a basket. I talked to the Groundskeeper, who'd been there since before you were left there. All they know is that one morning, they found a baby boy on the doorstep. No one in the neighbouring village knew who you were either or knew who might be your mother."
"And my father, an American citizen, would just get the right to adopt the foundling? He just jumped to the front of the line, over all the locals."
"I don't know, Michael. I only know you were adopted. You were a foundling at the Sanctuary of Monte Gargano. Do you know what that sanctuary is famous for?"
I drew a blank. There were so many religious sites throughout Italy and all of Europe. Who could keep track of them all?
"You obviously know. Tell me."
She leaned forward, and she had that same look on her face, the look Miguel had on his when he spoke to me about Mars. Absolute conviction.
"It's the site of the last visitation of St. Michael. The Archangel Michael."
"Yes," I said in reply. "I always knew I was named after the Archangel Michael. That's nothing strange or mysterious to a Catholic."
"The Archangel Michael made his last earthly visit to a simple shepherd he met on the mountain near the town of Gargano. The Archangel promised that he would return one day, at the end of days, as a babe, but would bring with him the Sword of Megiddo to fight the Dragon, prevent his return."
I shook my head. It was all just too fantastic. I was shocked that an atheist like Christine could be swept up so in this millennium fever, this apocalyptic mania.
"He commanded the shepherd to build the sanctuary for one day, a babe would need it as a refuge, and one day he would return, to destroy the Dragon and return the world to peace. Michael, you were left there as a foundling."
I laughed, very loud, a mixture of disbelief at her willingness to accept this story and a feeling of sickness about this happening to her, to such a brilliant woman. How could she be taken in like this? How could she, the wunderkind, be so convinced? It must be mental illness.
"I'm not the Archangel Michael, Christine. Just a simple priest. I don't accept this document. It's clearly a forgery meant to trick you into trying to lure me away from Mars' side. Who are you working for? One of the other gods, most likely. Trying to defeat Mars by luring me away. It won't work."
"Michael, there's more. I have physical proof. Documents, ancient scrolls. Irrefutable proof. You have to come with me, leave the Vatican and come with me to Palestine."
"I can't leave, and I won't. There's no reason to leave. You're overwrought. I don't know what's happened to you, or who's got to you but..."
"What's happened to me? What's happened to you? I know who got to you. Mars has dulled your mind, that's what's happened. The Michael I knew wouldn't take anyone's word without proof. Did Mars give you any proof of who or what he was?"
"Christine, I've seen his power. He's a god. He's the fucking Roman god of war returned after being imprisoned. He's going to fight the other gods, Celtic gods, Asian gods, whichever are trying to become the leader. He needs me to gain power, to defeat them. One of them is going to rule over us. I've sided with him."
"Why?" she almost screamed. "Because he gives you great sex?"
She held her head in her hands and wept for a moment. When she looked up, her eyes were red, her makeup smeared.
"Oh, God, Michael," she whispered, shaking her head. "Llyr told me your need was so great, that Mars had given you what you needed and stolen you for himself..."
"So you admit you're working with Llyr, then?"
"Yes. No. I mean, I'm not working with him," she said, wiping her eyes with a tissue, "but I have talked to him. He came to me after he met with you. Frances told him about me and he wanted to meet me. It was him who gave me some clues to track down. To see who you really were. He said you weren't ready to know it yet, but that Mars would never reveal it to you. He said there wasn't much time so..."
"He's tricked you into believing this crap about St. Michael. I'm no Saint, Christine. Far from it."
"Forget what you think you know about saints," she replied, and rose from her seat, coming around the desk to me. I shrank away from her as she kneeled down on the floor at my feet, pressing between my legs, her hands on my shoulders. "You're the centre of all this. Why do you think Mars wants you so much? Why do you think he's keeping you locked away? He doesn't want anyone else to grab you, use you the way he's using you. You're a tool, Michael, or a weapon. A tool to help them gain power, or a weapon to fight them. To fight the Dragon."
I shook my head again, disbelief stubborn in me.
"Look," she said, sitting back on her heels, looking at me with sadness on her face. "I don't expect you to believe me now. But I want you to read over the documents I've given you. There's something in it you should read. Ask Mars about it. See if he's willing to tell you."
I looked away, knowing that Mars would just refute everything she said, that he'd smile that smile of his and shake his head that I could be drawn in by this foolishness.
"Michael," she said, her voice insistent. I looked back finally. "He'll refuse to tell you. He'll lie to you. When he does, you'll know what I've said is true. Then call me, come to me, come with me and let me show you what I've found."
She stood and adjusted her clothing, then walked away. I heard her open the heavy wood door and wait, watching to see if I'd go to her, to try to stop her from leaving or even just to be polite. I did nothing, just sat there in the chair, looking at a spot on the carpet in front of me. The door shut with a thud and I heard the click of her heels on the stone floor as she walked away.
"I have a headache," I lied. "I won't be able to make our meeting today. Please tell the Bishop that I'll reschedule tomorrow."
Power does have some rewards. I went into the small study off my private bedroom and sat at the desk in front of the window looking out over the small garden. The manila envelope lay on my desk unopened, and I just sat there for a few moments, not knowing if I really even wanted to open this pandora's box. Whatever it was, I knew it would cause problems, so I hesitated. Part of me wanted to just hurl it into the fireplace, let it burn to ashes so that I could go on my merry way, at Mars' side, taking my place at the head of his Church.
Outside my window, the rain feel, the soft pat of the drops against the leaded glass window a sound from my childhood, so familiar and comforting. I reached out and took the envelope, opening the flap and pulling out the documents. Besides the certificate of adoption was a shiny photocopy of some other document. This was a hand-written note in what looked like Greek script on papyrus. I couldn't read it, of course, but attached to it with a paperclip was another document -- a line by line translation. At the bottom was a signature -- Anne of Medina.
St. Anne. The young Christian woman whose missionary parents had taken her to Palestine in the first century. She'd been visited by Gabriel. She was told of Mars' return, of his rise to power, and of his returning the church of Rome to Rome. That he'd fight to make the whole world believe in the new Church of Rome. That much I accepted as the truth. That much Velasquez had told me. Then I read further. The last part chilled me.
"The Archangel showed me the future and when I saw that the Sword of Megiddo had been reforged, I knew that the end of time was near. The Sword is bright and shines with a blinding light for it slew the Dragon at the beginning of time. But beware -- it has a double edge and can cut both ways depending on the heart of him who wields it."
The Sword of Megiddo. Megiddo was a city in Palestine, the supposed location of the final battle, Armageddon. The sword slew the Dragon at the beginning of time. According to Catholic teachings, Michael, the Archangel Michael, defeated the Dragon -- Satan -- at the beginning of time using this sword.
I put the document down and rubbed my eyes. It was all so confusing, so preposterous. Still, as much as I dismissed this as mumbo jumbo, I was filled with a sense of dread. I sat at my desk, the papers Christine gave me lying on the desktop, and could no longer find any comfort in the patter of rain against my window.