Mars Rising 12-?
by Sophia
Part 12

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."

"What else?"

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."

"Uncomplicated?"

"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."

"Why?"

"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.

___

Part 13

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.

"Michael."

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."

"Christine, I--."

"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.

TBC