The man in black closed and locked the door behind him. He surveyed the room briefly, noting that although he had not entered that room for seven years, there was no patina of dust.
He moved to the large black desk that dominated the centre of the room and lay his valise upon the blotter. Carefully undoing the worn clasps, he withdrew a manila file folder and sat upon the oak office chair that stood silent sentinel with the desk. Opening the folder, he began to
read the slim dossier it contained, the chair squeaking softly as he shifted his position. He read for an hour and a half, studying each sheet and turning it over onto a short stack with its fellows. He sighed as he placed the last sheet onto the pile and rubbed his temples. Adjusting his glasses, he rose from the chair and crossed the room to a shadowed corner where a large safe sat squatly. Pausing, he dipped two fingers of his right hand into an ornate brass font and touched his forehead, chest, and both shoulders in the Sign of the Cross before rotating the huge dial of the combination lock. He spun the knob expertly, not missing a single point of the elaborate sequence, in spite of the seven years.
The last tumbler clicked smoothly into place and the heavy door swung outward, revealing the dark interior of the steel box. Upon black velvet-lined shelves rested an array of strange and oddly matched items: an ornate, baroque Crucifix; an engraved bronze cylinder; a .44 Magnum four-barrel derringer; a silver hip-flask; and a gold Pyx with a worn leather strap.
The man in black pondered the collection of objects, then began to place the items into various selected pockets of his heavy overcoat. As he handled the small blunt pistol, he frowned and hinged open the breech, examining the four silver-tipped bullets. Satisfied with the examination, he snapped the gun closed and slipped it into a metal and rubber frame strapped onto his right arm. He twisted two threaded pins until tight and the gun was firmly locked into the fast-draw mechanism under his sleeve. He tested the operation, flicking his arm outwards and grasping the pistol handle as it slithered into his palm in the blink of an eye. He nodded to himself as he reset the device and prepared to leave.
Swinging the door shut again and resetting the combination made the man in black feel a peculiar sense of deja vu, and he sighed, wondering how this incident would end. Turning from the strongbox, he walked towards the door, flipping off the lights as he left the room. He secured the door and pocketed the key, striding down the carpeted corridor. Another black-clad man passed him on the way out, and greeted him.
"Good evening, Father," the man said.
The man in the black topcoat crossed the carpeted floor of the Cathedral's dark interior and stopped only to genuflect wearily, and daub his fingers in the font. He crossed himself with a grim formality and then stepped towards the massive oak door. He heaved the heavy slab ajar and breathed the fresh, snow-laden air with relief, glad to be out of the stifling, incense-laden air within. He noted that his driver still awaited, and he stepped across the slushy outer path to the car. He also noted ruefully the spray-painted graffiti that adorned the roadside wall of the old cathedral and sighed. The image of a crudely rendered sword made Carpenter frown as he stopped to examine the vandal's work.
"DOOMED TO HELLE . . . SATAN RULES!" screamed the scrawled, fluorescent orange hieroglyphs which still glowed with an unhealthy luminescence, despite the night's gloom. The dark-clad man studied the portent and muttered to himself as he continued to the waiting car.
"Not if I can help it . . ."
The big, black sedan pulled away from the curb in a spray of gravelly slush and was soon swallowed by the evening traffic's glaring headlights. Overhead, the full moon glared yellowly between ghostly wisps of cloud, and the Cathedral bells began to chime.
Inside the warm confines of the big, old car, Father Carpenter stared out through the sleet-spotted window and the driver spoke suddenly.
"So, where are we headed, Father?" Carpenter looked up at the man and hesitated for a moment.
"We have a difficult job ahead, Matthew. This may be the toughest one yet. We must assemble the entire order for this one. We will need them all . . ." the priest said enigmatically.
"Count me in, Father," answered the driver with a frosty smile. Carpenter's leathery face creased into a subtle but determined smile as well and he withdrew a cell phone from his coat pocket. Punching the keys, he then waited for the response. The line clicked and a voice spoke.
"Hello, . . .?"
"Carpenter here . . . you're needed."
"Midnight tonight at the usual place?"
"Yes. Prepare the others and make sure everyone is ready . . . this may be the big one." Carpenter pushed the "end" button and replaced the phone into his pocket.
"Let's go home and prepare, Matthew. We don't have much time . . ."
The car sped onwards, soon lost in the gloom of the late November night.
Midnight approached and cars began to fill a remote parking lot behind a dilapidated warehouse in the city's east end, adjacent to the now dormant industrial area. Snowdrifts plastered the northern face of the structure and the wind howled mournfully. Dark furtive figures, illumined by the moonlight, trudged through the mounting snow as they converged at the back door of the building and were admitted by a husky man standing watch. Inside, surrounded by the comparative warmth of the warehouse, the figures doffed their overcoats and seated themselves in a semicircle in front of a nondescript lectern where a dark-clad man waited. The only light source was an overhead lamp above the lectern which cast a warm light onto the silent speaker. The wind howled faintly and the old building creaked and shuddered to the quiet sounds of people seating themselves. When all the assembly had settled in, the man behind the lectern finally spoke.
"Good evening, all of you. We, the members of the Order of Saint Michael the Defender, are gathered here tonight to face incursion by the forces of Darkness. As before, as is and as will be, we, the Knights of Saint Michael, put forth the light to dispel those who would threaten our loved ones and our faith, and we dedicate our lives and our souls to God, the Almighty, who has given us the Gift and the Burden of responsibility. The Gift shall make us strong, the Burden shall give us understanding and both shall smite the Usurper and banish him 'til the day of ultimate reckoning . . . Amen," the man's voice boomed.
"Amen . . ." came the response from the hushed crowd. The man in black smiled and became less formal now that the Prayer of Faith had been invoked. Outside, the burly watchman stood, cloaked in shadow, his breath steaming as he guarded the door. Even a close observer would not
have detected the double-clipped Uzi machine pistol under his leather coat; the secret service trained their agents well. Matthew scanned the nearby buildings, probing the shadows with a small, Russian starlight scope. The blurry, green details wavered and stilled as he trained the device on crannies that he could not discern in the moonlight. He continued this inspection for a few more minutes and when he was satisfied, he spoke softly into a headset communicator.
"Big Dick to High Roller, Big Dick to High Roller, do you read? Over." The comm unit crackled minutely and a faint voice answered, heard only in Matthew's earphones.
"I read you Big Dick. All quiet up here. No movement below or on the road. I have just heard from Raven, and you weren't followed. The area is secure."
"Good. Keep the channel clear but open. Contact me if anything seems wrong. I'll trust your judgment on this. Out." Matthew resumed his study of the area within his view for the next half-hour and decided to make a circuit around the warehouse. Stowing his scope, he prepared to walk the perimeter of the building.
"High Roller, do you read?" he spoke softly into his headset mike.
"High Roller here . . . nothing to report," came the reply.
"High Roller, I am going to make a perimeter inspection of the building. I want you to keep an eye open on the path ahead of me just in case of hidden surprises. Do you copy?"
"That's a go, Big Dick. Will watch your step and advise." Matthew began to walk, hugging the walls and making little sound as he moved. He covered one wall and then another when his comm unit crackled again.
"Big Dick, I have a contact. About twenty yards behind you. I don't know where it came from, but it's matching your pace. Jumping Jes --! What is that?" Matthew turned, his rough hands clutching the Uzi with the devotion of a zealot.
"I see something, High Roller . . . a shadow of some sort. I should have known that we would have snoopers around here eventually. Father Carpenter, as usual, is right again." The shadow undulated towards him obscenely and faint cackling was soon heard. Two bobbing red lights wavered closer, sometimes switching position as they approached. Matthew, seemingly unperturbed, quietly screwed a long silencer onto the stubby barrel of the Uzi and tilted the weapon towards the closing horror. A flat, ripping burst of fire lit up the area next to the wall, and the black, now-shredded monstrosity was made visible for a whirling, spraying moment before the darkness claimed it for eternity. A faint thup from the distant dark and the ripping splat of a high impact shell behind him caused him to turn suddenly to see the silhouette shape of another twitching thing collapse, steaming, to the snowy ground.
"That's one you owe me, Big Dick. You're getting careless," High Roller chuckled quietly.
"Careless? Hah! You're finally doing your job for once." Matthew smiled, retracing his way back to the main door.
Within the dusty confines of the warehouse, Father Carpenter knew there was no more time to waste. This would be the most dangerous and apocalyptic mission ever undertaken by the Order, and even he did not know what the outcome would be if they failed.
"People," he toned as he thumbed the switch of a slide projector, "this slide shows the frontispiece of an ancient Aramaic text that was found at Jericho II . It's currently under investigation and evaluation at the Vatican manuscript labs. Its existence is unknown to the public, as are many such documents, and it was here that the enigma began. Look at the design in the centre of the parchment. The image is faded and broken, but the next slide . . ." Carpenter thumbed the button again and the machine obeyed.
"The next slide shows a computer-enhanced view of the image."
The group of people looked in fascination at the screen in front of them, but Carpenter knew they didn't realize the significance of the design that would soon be etched in their minds forever.
"You see the shape of an ornate, two-hand sword. Now look at this . . ." Another slide flashed on the screen.
"This illuminated page from the Biblia Sanctifi found at Val Camonica near Brescia, in Italy
. . . you see the sword image again." Slide flash.
"This fresco in a church ruin near Descani, in the former Yugoslavia, shows a flaming sword about to be grasped by a great hand. There are scores of other images and you can review them in the copy of the dossier you all received. What we're dealing with is the continual recurrence of this sword's image; but it isn't the image of this sword that is so important. What's important is that the image represents a real sword." A final slide flashed onto the screen showing an illuminated page from an ornate bible. The illustration depicted the Archangel Michael, resplendent and mighty, holding out a massive sword to a group of armoured holy men. Latin text framed the picture and Carpenter translated aloud.
"Unto those precious mortal men that do honour and praise me, I bestowe upon thee my sword, which shall be named Shaddai, the Daemon-Slayer, until such time as I will be called upon to defend the heavens and the Earth from the Star Wormwood, the Morning-Star, the Lord of the Flies and its legion. The Holy men of this land will then guard this sword until the signs are at hand." Carpenter turned to address the group.
"Before you comment, this page is from one of what are deemed the 'forbidden books.' For centuries the Vatican has withheld certain books like the Liber Ivonis, the Unaussprechlichen Kulten, the Cultes des Goules and so on. Apart from those obvious texts, there are a variety of Bibles that predate the King James versions that are prevalent today. The church deemed it necessary to erase knowledge of those older books in the best interests of the common man. You know the story; if it doesn't kowtow to the accepted dogma of the time, it's suppressed and censured until something else takes over." Carpenter nodded at a spectacled young woman who motioned to speak.
"What exactly are we looking at, Father?"
"The greatest religious relic in our history, Lyta . . . The Sword of Archangel Michael."
The group grew silent and more than one brow furrowed in disbelief. Before they could rise in a wave of questions, Carpenter spoke.
"I know that it is commonplace to consider the Ark of the Covenant as the single most precious artifact and as a man-made object, it is. But the Sword is different; it is not made by man nor made on earth. The sources at my disposal have revealed mostly apocryphal legends concerning the Sword, but a clue to its location came to my attention before I was even aware of it."
Carpenter thumbed a fresh slide and the room was illuminated by the image. The grainy, black-and-white image of a group of young men in desert gear, posed and smiling in front of what looked like the great colonnaded doorway to a vast temple.
A man with a long ponytail spoke up. "That looks like the Kahzneh, at Petra . . ."
"That's correct, Marc. I was with the University of Gibraltar in the linguistics department in those days; that's me on the left, by the way. Back in '52 we made a pretty thorough investigation of the Wadi Araba area. We examined the High Place of Sacrifice, the Jebel Khubtha, the Corinthian Tomb and especially the Khazneh, which is a huge palatial facade carved out of the living rock of the valley. Its name means treasure because it has a number of legends surrounding it concerning hidden riches. It was more than likely used as a tomb or temple." He thumbed another slide.
"Here is the narrow canyon or Siq that leads to the complex within. You can see the Khazneh at the end of the chasm. We spent a long time searching around the ruins, but the interiors of the facades are basically small, empty chambers, devoid of artifacts. We scoured the interior of the Khazneh with painstaking scrutiny and we were able to determine only one thing. The chamber within had been carved from the inside out."
"Inside out?" Marc said, puzzled.
The chamber predated the outside facade by about two thousand years. Dr. Brinton eventually determined that from the direction of the hammer strokes and the marks they left. What we couldn't determine was where the opening to the connecting tunnel must be. We were never able to find out. Our grant was almost depleted and we were forced to return to the University. Dr. Brinton wrote a paper on the discovery but it was largely ignored."
The woman named Lyta looked mystified. "It's an impressive story, Father, but what does it have to do with why we're here?"
Carpenter smiled. He liked to be dramatic. "Because of this."
He thumbed the last slide. The screen flashed again and the image of another old illuminated parchment appeared. It was the unmistakable image of the ornate facade of the Khazneh. A mass of people knelt before the columned structure and the doorway was equipped with a heavy, gold encrusted door with enormous gold hinges. The people in the illustration all looked upward toward the front of the structure which, superimposed upon the carved stonework, was the unequivocal shape of an enormous flaming sword.
The room grew silent and the howl of the midnight wind was the only sound to punctuate the tableau.
The man called Marc spoke first. "The sword is there? At Petra?" He stared at the image on the screen.
"No one's sure. The Sword's existence has only now been considered a possibility by Christian academics. Even those who take the sparse legends concerning the blade seriously have never been so bold as to mount an expensive expedition to find it . . . until now." The group, shrouded in the dark of the musty warehouse, stared at Carpenter in near-disbelief. He continued into the awed hush. "The real puzzle right now is whether there is a hidden tunnel entrance inside the Khazneh. The way to the Sword will certainly hinge on that tunnel, if we can find it in time."
The one named Lyta frowned again. "In time for what, Father?"
Carpenter's face clouded and he pressed on, knowing that what lay ahead was no mere archaeological jaunt.
"There are other . . . forces to be reckoned with here. Forces that are determined to keep the Sword from being found and will do whatever it takes to stop us. The time of this millennium is drawing to a close and a nexus is forming around us. The time of crisis between the forces of Good and Evil is creeping closer and the Sword is the key to unlock Armageddon."
Marc looked doubtful. "Father, I don't want to rain on your apocalyptic parade, but even I think that something seems awfully blown out of proportion here. I mean, there is considerable evil to be dealt with all the time, but this seems a little too 'Sauron-and-the-Cracks-of-Doom-ish' to be taken seriously."
Carpenter looked at the young man sadly and shook his head. "That's what I thought when my old instructor originally told me of the legend, when it was still a closely guarded secret. I laughed, politely of course, but I didn't take it seriously for a long time: until I saw the parchments you've all seen just now." Carpenter opened his mouth to continue when the one named Lyta stood suddenly. "Yes, Lyta? What is --"
He went silent immediately and his eyes widened in horrified shock as the young woman screamed. Her shriek split the dead air of the warehouse and she convulsed with a violence that split the seams of her plain black suit. Her mouth contorted and her eyes blackened as her skin grew taut and parted with a wet tearing sound over her joints. The people seated around her rose in a panic and they stumbled away, overturning chairs in their wake. Amidst the spraying blood and the shrieking, another smaller figure seemed to be ripping its way out of the now-unrecognizable body. The figure, drenched in gore, clambered out of the ruined meat and entrails to stand before Carpenter with the casual ease of a man getting off a bus. It opened its dripping mouth and spoke with a bubbling, liquid voice.
"The Sword will be ours, cattle. Our Master will shatter Heaven and finally depose the pretender who rules in his place. Go forth and seek it out, by all means. All the easier to take from your flayed hands when it suits the will of our Master." It stepped closer and leered. "Your flayed hands, one-called-Carpenter."
Carpenter snapped out his right arm and, as if by magic, the silver gleam of a heavy pistol appeared in his clenched hand. Four shots boomed out and the bloody monstrosity spun apart in spraying chunks. Then all fell silent as the smoke cleared and the gasps of disgusted and horrified awe dissipated. The sharp ping of spent cartridges echoed through the expanse of the dark building as he slowly reloaded the stubby, four-barrelled derringer. The door boomed open and Matthew stormed in, his Uzi cocked and at the ready.
"Father! What happened? Is everything al -- Ahh, Jesus!" He stopped short when his eyes fell upon the remains of what had been a luckless human being and his eyes narrowed. "Father, was it --?"
"Yes, Matthew. It was Asmodeus . . . it used up another innocent to taunt us." Carpenter finished sliding fresh shells into the breech of the gun and closed it with a well-oiled snick. He tried not to look at the pitiful remains of what had moments ago been one of his brightest pupils. He flinched at the thought of what he would have to tell her parents who went to church regularly and were so proud that their daughter would be taken under the wing of the Good and Holy Father Carpenter. The Good and Holy Father Carpenter who could do nothing more than stand gaping like a slack-jawed idiot while their beloved and innocent daughter was violated in ways that defied description. Carpenter looked out into the darkness at the huddled group of his students. What in God's good name was he thinking? Traipsing out to the middle of a stinking desert to look for a weapon that made an H-bomb look like a Fisher-Price toy, with the prospect of battling ten-thousand-year-old demons and very likely Satan himself. With no allies except these wet-behind-the-ears kids? He needed a drink in the worse way. A legion of drinks to drown the weeping, cringing coward that lurked in his dark insides.
"God, this job stinks," he whispered as he reset the spring-loaded slider of the pistol's fast-draw mechanism. Marc stepped forward tentatively, his eyes still bulging with horror.
"F-Father. What are we involved with here? What just happened?" His voice wavered on the hysterical and at a nod form Carpenter, Matthew handed the young man a dented but sloshing hip-flask. The young man drank deeply and when he handed the vessel back, it was with a reasonably steady hand.
"It's the big leagues, my friends. I had hoped that we would be spared what happened here tonight until you all had been hardened by more experience. But it seems we were destined to sink or swim through this. I had known that this was going to happen, only not so soon."
Marc's face darkened. "Do you mean that you knew all this time that Lyta was going to -- going to --"
His voice cracked and Carpenter continued, "The first moment I met Lyta I could see that Asmodeus was in her, probably since birth. The Demons like their games and they often inhabit people to use for their own ends or that of their masters."
"You knew and you did nothing? Couldn't an exorcism have --"
"Exorcism isn't what it's cracked up to be. The Church knows it and so do the Demons. What happened to Lyta was inevitable, but I had hoped that Asmodeus wouldn't make his move until we had secured the Sword. Then it wouldn't matter." Carpenter gathered papers and loose slides and slid them into his valise with shaking hands.
"Matthew, collect your team. Let's get the hell out of here."
The snow whipped against the windshield as the black sedan coursed its way through the deserted streets. Inside, Carpenter brooded over the sudden, brutal manifestation that had occurred that night. He had been briefed by Matthew about the incident that took place outside the warehouse and now sat wordlessly, gazing out at the flurries of clean, white snow that pelted the car. Matthew drove in silence, taking occasional glances at Carpenter in the rearview mirror and wondered what would be next.
"This whole thing stinks . . . why would Asmodeus show his hand so early? And in such a useless, grandstanding way? He accomplished nothing except instill fear in some of the junior members . . . and murdered an innocent young woman." He paused as he thought of quiet, studious Lyta. "Is Asmodeus so confident that he feels he's already won?" Carpenter frowned. "Neither side has the Sword yet . . . there's still a chance."
Two weeks later.
The plane rocked and shook as it strained to climb above the snowstorm that had grounded almost everything else at the airport that night. The small, powerful transport jet, emblazoned with the Constantinian Papal Seal, clawed its way above the clouds and leveled off, the setting sun gleaming off its wings. Carpenter, buckled into a plush seat, examined documents while
Matthew disassembled and cleaned an array of assault weapons, whistling as he methodically tended to the job.
"Matthew, would you be so kind as to give this a clean? I'm not going to have time if I'm going to finish this logistics report." Carpenter unlimbered the derringer and tossed it in Matthew's direction.
He snatched the pistol out of the air, unconsciously aimed down the sight, then snapped open the breech. "No problem, Father. I'll be finished with these in no time."
Silent all through takeoff, Marc Franzoni swiveled his seat to face Carpenter.
"Father, do we still have a chance?" He looked worried and was perspiring slightly in spite of the air-conditioning.
"Of course we do, Marc. This event has been anticipated for centuries. There's been a plan in the works of one form or another since the time of Christ, but it seems that the paths of destiny are finally converging together, with us as the main players."
Franzoni looked incredulous.
"Father, with all due respect, you make it sound like a privilege."
Carpenter put down his papers and smiled slightly. "Well, I suppose privilege is taking it a bit far . . . still, having a hand in shaping the future of the Earth is no small event."
Franzoni looked appalled. "Father, how can you sound so confident? Aren't you even the slightest bit afraid?"
Carpenter frowned for a moment. "Marc, I'm terrified, but there's nowhere to run and hide. This is our job and we have to do it right. When we picked you out of all the hopefuls at the Episcopal College, you were briefed with the knowledge that you might be exposed to a definite element of danger during our researches. Well, here it is. The big game has begun and we are on our way to meet it."
Carpenter smiled again, grimly, and resumed studying his notes and maps. Franzoni slowly spun his chair and stared gloomily out the window, losing himself amidst the billowing cloud-tops awash in the blood-red glare of the sinking sun. Shaking his head, Matthew continued cleaning Carpenter's gun in silence.
Behind them, the four men that made up Matthew's team sat relaxed and making idle conversation with each other, masking their own tension with the casual banter that came so easily to military men. Further down, two women and one man quietly discussed the upcoming event without showing the tense concern that Franzoni had displayed to Carpenter. These were the cream of Carpenter's group; the finest paranormal and archaeological minds in the western hemisphere. The man, a shaven-headed, nose-ringed youth in black leather argued quietly with the two women, identical twins in their early thirties garbed in matching, expensive-looking desert wear. They shook their heads and pressed forth their own opinions, continuing their serious but low-key discourse. Up in the cockpit, two members of the Episcopal Air Arm flew the aircraft towards a destiny that no one could predict.
The last rays of the dying sun winked out behind a horizon rimmed with cloud.
Two days later.
Two weathered, dusty, Humvee all-terrain vehicles slowly advanced along a rocky, winding road amidst a blinding sandstorm. The sure-footed vehicles rounded each bend cautiously, headlights all but useless in the blinding spray of dust. Inside one of them, Matthew held the wheel tightly, squinting out the windshield for direction. Beside him, Carpenter folded a creased, soiled map and put it into a pocket in the door of the car.
"Matthew, there's no point in continuing until the storm is over. Let's pull over to the roadside and wait it out. We're nearly there; a few hours more shouldn't make any difference."
"If you insist, Father. I'm against waiting at all, but I'll agree that we're making almost no progress now. I'll contact the others and let them know." Matthew grasped the mike of the two-way radio and conveyed the information to Franzoni and the rest of Matthew's men.
For three hours the two massive cars stood motionless, sand and grit whipping around them, the wind howling balefully. Inside, each individual, Carpenter included, huddled side by side, staring out at the shifting sand and the mournful gusts. Carpenter spoke softly.
"We're nearly there, people. I know that there is danger where we're going, and that some of us might not be coming home again. It's a terrible responsibility we have, but literally everyone on Earth is depending on what we do in the next few days. I hope I can count on all of you."
One of the twins spoke between cigarette puffs. "We're in, Father. We'll do what needs to be done." The two smiled faintly.
The black leather lad also spoke. "Count me in, pops. Let's get this show on the road . . . storm's clearing."
Matthew was the last to speak. "That's 'Father Carpenter' to you, sonny. The boy's right, Father. Let's get this over with and go home." He picked up the mike once more. "Unit one to Unit two . . . prepare to saddle up and move out. Do you copy?"
"That's a go, Unit one. Ready to rocket."
The storm, finally losing steam, abated enough for the small convoy to resume its course, winding its way through the wagon-rutted roads that led to their final destination . . . the ruins of Petra.
One day later.
The two well-used Hummers clambered over the last embankment and came to rest before a sheer, rugged rock face. The dust settled as the doors popped open and the team emerged and gathered in front of the parked vehicles. Carpenter addressed them all.
"Ok, people. From here we go on foot. When we get close enough to the cliffs, we'll find the Siq, or passage, that leads to the Khazneh. It's far too narrow for the cars so we'll have to portage the equipment ourselves. Matthew, get your men prepped and we'll handle the hardware."
"Right Father. All right boys, step lively. Weapons ready, gear ready. Smith, Rukatansky, you'll be on point. Wehrzbaskie, Jones, you're tail-end Charlie." Matthew barked his orders and his troops quickly and efficiently organized their equipment. Carpenter oversaw the unloading of the excavation tools and the small but tough wheelbarrow that would carry them.
When all was completed, the small group made their way to the reddish, forbidding cliffs ahead, the sharp pinnacles now only high enough to receive the scarlet rays of the setting sun.
By the time the group located the Siq and wended their way along its sinuous path into the main court that fronted the Khazneh, it was well after dark. Camp was set up in short order and soon a blazing fire lit the face of the edifice in a ruddy, wavering light. Food was prepared and, as the group settled around the fire, the ever increasing tension of the expedition finally began to wind down. Matthew, eating from a battered mess tin, warily made a circuit around the camp perimeter, his eyes scanning the rugged area surrounding them. Carpenter, along with Matthew's man Wehrzbaskie, rejoined the group after a brief absence.
"I've just taken a quick look inside the Khazneh chamber; it's just as we left it forty years ago. Now, however, we have some technologies that we couldn't even have dreamed of in those days. If there's a hidden passage to be found in there, we've got the eyes to see it this time." Carpenter's smile was not tainted with foreboding, and the rest of the group responded with renewed morale. Voices spoke and even laughed as the nervous tension drained away to be replaced with . . . hope?
The stars grew bright within the jagged strip of sky left bare by the opposing walls of rock that made up the Petra Valley and the noises of the camp lessened until all was quiet except for the occasional crackle from the fire and the scuffing footfalls of the two sentries that walked the perimeter, their flashlights swiveling and cutting swaths through the deep blue of the night.
The dawn came and the shadowy recesses of the canyon grew rosy with the early light. The majesty of the Khazneh, now in the light of morning, was a thing to make one pause in silent wonder. The group, breakfasted and packed, stood in front of the edifice awaiting Carpenter's instructions. He looked around and then at the black rectangle of the doorway and motioned the others to follow.
"Let's do it. Matthew, proceed with your security arrangements, please."
Matthew posted two of his men at the doorway and led the way in himself.
Within half an hour, halogen flood lamps illuminated the interior chamber and the special scanning equipment was already at work on the walls and floor, with Carpenter's team working to distraction with each of their respective skills.
Marc Franzoni, clutching a clipboard, approached Carpenter. "Well, Father, nothing so far." Franzoni looked glum.
"We've only started, son. I know I'm right about this. Just keep at it," Carpenter reassured him.
Leather-jacket, examining the walls with a very powerful magnifier spoke out, "Pops, take a look at this. I think I got something here."
Carpenter, frowning, moved to the far wall to join the boy.
"Look here. In the bright light, through the glass you can see that the rock crystallization pattern is different from the surrounding matrix."
Carpenter took the offered glass and examined the same spot. "I think I see what you mean, lad. Marc, the rest of you; come here and take a look at this section of wall."
The group spread out along the wall, applying more light and scrutinizing the surface minutely, pasting small markers along where the anomalous discrepancy was found. In a short time a square area roughly four feet by four feet had been marked out on the stone.
One of the twins exclaimed, "This doesn't make sense. We scanned that area when we began and nothing showed up."
"It's peculiar, all right," Carpenter muttered. "Did you use your most powerful setting?"
"Yes, and not a peep from the scanner. As far as this machine is concerned, there's nothing but solid rock all around us."
The twins, frustrated and angry, both began to tinker with the device. Leather-jacket grinned and winked at Carpenter who, shaking his head, returned only a half smile.
"Well, let's see what lies behind this wall. Marc, get the air hammers plugged into the compressor and hand out ear plugs to everyone."
The small, powerful drills were readied and when the last earplug was put in place, Carpenter signaled to begin the excavation. For twenty minutes the drills bore into the hard stone of the chamber, dust and fragments of rock sprayed out, clouding the air until a large chunk of wall collapsed out onto the rough floor. Immediately, the drilling stopped, everyone pulled back and Matthew and Smith, quick as a flash, unlimbered their weapons and peered into the dark. The clouds subsided and silence fell on the group. Carpenter, frowning again, slowly approached the cavity and, with the aid of a flashlight, squinted into the inky blackness.
"Can't see anything yet . . . Marc, would you turn down those arc lamps? The glare is too much . . . let's see. Yes, I see a tunnel leading into the rock. We've found the hidden passage. Alright, get those hammers going again. We're nearly there."
Carpenter found himself grinning in spite of himself. Could it really be this easy? He looked around him, noting Matthew's unchanging alertness, the twins still working on the scanning device and the quizzical smile on Leather-jacket's young face. The drills continued to attack the rock wall and soon the entire marked-off section fell outward in a cascade of powder and shards.
"It looks like we're in the home stretch. Fasten your safety helmets and turn on your lights everyone. We're going in."
Carpenter motioned Matthew and Smith to enter first and they did so, their gun-mounted lights lancing through the remaining dust suspended in the dry, stale air of the passage.
"All clear," Matthew whispered. "Wehrzbaskie, Jones, you follow up, rearguard."
The group quietly stepped into the hole, looking around as their lights fell on the walls. Like the chamber, the only marks on the walls and floor were the bite of chisels. No decorative adornment was lavished on any part of the interior. Carpenter puzzled over this detail.
"It seems there was no attempt to embellish this place with hieroglyphs; like the passage was excavated in a hurry and sealed up just as fast."
Franzoni spoke up. "If what we seek is here, then I'm not surprised it was sealed up in a mad rush. That's not the kind of thing you want to leave laying around."
Carpenter nodded without replying.
The passage was fairly straight, although it tended to angle downward at a slight decline. An hour was spent slowly navigating the passage when one of the twins spoke out.
"Father, do you see? That light up ahead?"
Carpenter squinted and shook his head. "I can't make it out. Turn off your lights for a moment, everyone. Let your eyes get accustomed to the darkness."
They did so, and it wasn't long before the rest of the group perceived a faint glow in the distance. After ten minutes or more, they began to shut off their lights one by one as the phosphorescence grew to an intensity that made the lamps unnecessary. A warm yellow light flowed into the passage, brightening with every step until, without any presage, the narrow channel opened into a vast, arched cathedral, fashioned out of the very living rock. Thick pillars, fluted and capitalled, girded the flanks of the structure and the roof was so high as to be nearly lost within a glowing mist. Carpenter gasped with surprise and the rest of the group slowly left the passage and stood, awestruck at the sight. They moved together, slowly approaching the front of the incredible construct. Carpenter looked around, his head turning this way and that, all the while a look of frustrated expectancy on his face.
Matthew spoke softly. "What is it , Father? What are you looking for? The Sword?"
"Forgive me, Matthew. It's so close I'm being foolish, as though it would just be hanging on a wall for me to find. There's still a riddle to be solved here, and not much time to solve it."
The group approached a massive stone structure at the front of the chamber that stood almost twelve feet tall. Carpenter grimaced in wonder.
"That can't be an altar. It's huge. No human priest could . . ."
Carpenter looked at Matthew with a look of dawning amazement. "Matthew, no human priest could employ an altar this vast, but perhaps . . ."
A voice shouted from above. "Hey, Pops. There's an inscription on top of this stone table. I think you should have a look." Leather-jacket stood, hands on his hips, looking down at the unseen surface of the titanic altar.
"How did you get up there?" Carpenter asked.
"Franzoni gave me a boost," shot back the youth. Franzoni looked embarrassed.
"Matthew, can you get me up there?" Carpenter looked up at the slab.
"No problem, Father." Matthew dug into his pack and withdrew a bundled up black rope ladder. "Hoy, lad! Catch the end of this and let it down the other side of the slab."
Leather-jacket nodded and did as he was instructed. Matthew held the opposite end of the ladder tight and nodded at the priest.
"Ok, Father. It's braced on this side. Climb away."
Carpenter gingerly gripped the thin rungs and pulled himself up. By the time he was halfway up, he grew confident and, soon, only slightly out of breath, was standing on the top of the broad slab. While this was going on, Matthew contacted the other members of his team and formed a security perimeter.
Carpenter approached the area where the youngster was standing and inspected the inscription. Leather-jacket shrugged.
"So what is it? Latin?"
Carpenter pursed his lips and knelt down.
"Yes . . . very archaic Latin."
He produced a battered notebook and pencil and began to transcribe the lines of carven script. Leather-jacket shrugged and joined the others in investigating the interior of the cathedral while Carpenter puzzled over the inscription.
Ten minutes later he stood, shaking with excitement.
"Everyone, come here. It's so close I can nearly taste it." Carpenter almost swung down off the ladder in his feverish haste and Matthew moved as if to catch him as he jumped onto the stone floor.
"I've translated the inscription. This is what it says:
Fashioned, forged in flame and smoke,|
Cleansed by willing, holy blood,
Shaped by arcing hammer-stroke,
Honed, edged and ready it stood.
Waiting, patient and silent.
Locked in ancient, living stone,
The endless night of the final day,
They all stood in silence as Carpenter read, and as the last word echoed around them, they immediately began to dissect the lines of verse. Carpenter held the notebook in his hands reverently, thinking about each line and quatrain, and pondering their meaning. He looked at the far wall and with a sudden inspiration, clapped the book shut.
"People, I think I have something . . . I've been taking the verses apart and I think that the lines that reveal the Sword's location are these: 'Locked in ancient, living stone' and 'The Defender's Majestic, Holy Seal'. I think that these are the clues to finding . . ."
Carpenter looked at the far wall behind the altar and saw, for the first time, a large round symbol carved into the seamless stone of the wall. The group moved closer to the wall and Carpenter reached up to touch the incised marking.
"A circle . . . a symbol of eternity . . . of ongoing existence without end. Possibly the oldest religious symbol in history," Carpenter said in a low voice.
As his fingers gingerly touched the smooth stone, a sharp crack split the silence of the cathedral and the rock wall began to shatter. With a chorus of yelps, the startled group scattered and Carpenter backed away sharply to avoid being struck by the shards that fell from the cavity that opened before him.
The dust settled, the noise subsided and a glow of lambent light emanated from the chamber that now lay revealed. Carpenter peered into the expanse with excited but cautious eyes and what he saw made him catch his breath. Matthew, his Uzi clutched in taut hands, glanced into the chamber as well and his eyes widened.
There, within the golden confines of the newly opened niche, lay an enormous alabaster block, perhaps fifteen feet long. The group slowly filed into the small cell, circling the block in quiet reverence. On the top surface, the prominent image of a huge blade stood out, cut in deep relief. Carpenter, without thinking, touched the carven image gently. Immediately, the block shuddered and disintegrated to reveal . . . The Sword.
At rest amidst the debris of the slab that encased it, the Sword, its enormous blade inscribed with runes and its keen edge glittering, commanded the attention of all in the room. The handle, over three feet long and wrapped with a glossy black hide, was crossed with an elaborately sculpted black metal hilt and capped with a huge, round pommel inset with a deep blue cabochon gemstone. The whole image of the weapon was a thing of dark beauty and lethal potential.
"Dear God . . ." Carpenter nearly choked. "It's really here. The Sword of Archangel Michael. Look at it, all of you."
He fell to his knees in an attitude of prayer and the rest of the group followed suit, eyes shut in silent contemplation. In the silence of the next few moments no one noticed the two shadowy figures that appeared in the jagged opening of the room.
Boom . . . boom!
The thundering crash of shotgun blasts were made even more deafening within the confines of the small room. Leather-jacket and Franzoni pitched forward, spraying blood from ragged exit wounds, dead before they touched the floor. Carpenter looked around incredulously and caught a blast on the top of his left shoulder, spinning him around and hammering him into the wall, where he slowly slid down to the floor. To his credit, as Franzoni was hit, Matthew spun and fired the Uzi in a ripping burst that cut through one of the shotgun-armed figures. Unfazed, both weapons fired simultaneously, cartwheeling Matthew into a broken, bleeding heap against the wall next to the coughing and wide-eyed Carpenter.
The last resonances of gunshots and screams faded away and silence filled the room like molasses. The two assassins, still shadowed in gun smoke and dust, tossed away the weapons and began to laugh. A soft, tinkling feminine laugh that grew until it filled the blood-tainted air.
Carpenter, wincing from pain and shock, fumbled with his glasses and looked upon the enemy that had finally struck: struck at their moment of triumph . . . at their moment of greatest weakness.
"The -- the twins. Uhnn . . . How? Why?"
The two, as smiling and pretty as ever, grabbed Carpenter by the collar and dragged him out of the chamber and threw him onto the cathedral floor like so much laundry. He groaned and faced them from the floor.
"Damnit, I should have known. All the time . . . uhnn . . . You were with us all the time. Lyta was just a decoy, wasn't she? You've been biding your time, waiting till . . . uhnn . . . waiting till we found the sword. That's it, isn't it?"
Carpenter spat out the words, cursing himself for his blindness and the carelessness that had cost him everything. Tears of pain and bitter betrayal streamed down his face and he suddenly felt a deep shame and sadness. He had failed in a mission that meant far more that the retrieval of an ancient artifact. The full realization flooded his brain and he cried out in frustrated rage.
The twins, laughing their laugh, stopped abruptly and began to scream, scream in high-pitched, shrieking agony. In front of Carpenter's pain-filled eyes, the twins' bodies wrenched, popped and ripped apart, the gory, spurting chunks joining together in a nightmare jigsaw, eventually one crude entity taking shape.
"Car-penter . . . did you think I had forgotten? You have performed just as I wished. You have led me and mine to the ultimate victory. The Sword . . . yesss, the Sword. With it in our possession, we are invincible. The Heavens and the Earth are ours for the taking."
"Suck on this!" Carpenter snarled, snapping out his forearm. The heavy derringer did its magical appearing act and shots boomed out, smoke billowing outward. The bloody, piecework demon shuddered and bucked, but did not die.
"Your parlour tricks no longer amuse me, Car-penter," the demon grated. "My master knows about your juvenile toys and, now, I am under his protection. Ask your pathetic little guards out there."
Carpenter saw the scorched and smoking bodies of Matthew's men strewn about the floor beyond the altar and sank down, defeated. He reached into his inner pocket and withdrew a flat, round, gold-coloured box. As the demon turned away, already bored with taunting, Carpenter opened the box and took the flat communion wafer in hand. He broke the white wafer into small pieces and placed one in his mouth, whispering the rites of Communion. Around him, the hideous manifestations of demons began to filter in and grow, soon filling the vast cathedral with their blasphemous legions. For the moment he was being left alone, ignored as harmless, and he had to use the opportunity wisely. He staggered back into the sword chamber and turned over the bodies of Leather-jacket and Franzoni. He opened the brass vial of holy oil and as he anointed their foreheads with the sign of the cross, he whispered the last rites and concluded by placing a small piece of the communion wafer into their mouths. He approached Matthew with an expression of terrible sadness and prepared to take his leave of him. He turned him over and was shocked.
"Father . . . you gotta get outta . . . here . . . I don't think I can help you out this . . . time." Matthew gasped, blood leaking from a dozen wounds. "I'm sorry . . . Father . . ."
Carpenter held Matthew close and wept as the life drained out of Matthew's torn body.
"Damnit, damnit, damnit! This is all my fault! I should have known that it was too easy. All too easy . . . and now you're all dead. All dead!" He put the oil on Matthew's forehead and placed the wafer in his slack, bloodstained mouth, holding it closed as he whispered the Last Rites. Then he anointed himself, and stood up.
He reached for the thick, massive handle of the sword, realizing now that it could not have been made for any human hand. He curled his arm around the hilt and lifted the blade from its resting place. Thoughts of the inscription went through his head, specific lines that now suddenly had meaning.
"For the mortal son and . . . the reaching hand . . ." he thought aloud, ". . . and the sword returned to my grasp . . . That's it! The sword must be offered to the Archangel. He can't or won't just take it. It's part of the pact."
Carpenter became aware of a low rumble that began when he first laid hands on the mysterious blade. The sound grew louder and more intense as he reached the gaping hole in the wall of the room. Carpenter struggled with the tremendous weight of the weapon and his shoulder burned with a deep pain.
"Car-penter! What have you done? No mortal may touch that sword and live. My master will not stand for . . ."
The guttural words of the demon who had once been the twins were cut off as the rumble turned to a roar of great voices and blare of unearthly horns. The demons crowded within the now darkened cathedral began to shout and gibber in confused fear. Great pieces of the high ceiling broke free and collapsed down to crush the vile life out of the demons below and beams of light too bright to look at directly shone down from the apertures left above. A golden vapour billowed from cracks in the floor and suddenly light poured forth from below, blowing chunks of masonry and brick into the air. The sound of singing voices and horns grew even louder and the demons clasped their clawed hands over their malformed ears to stem the din. And then, before the astonished eyes of Carpenter, a huge and fabulous figure materialized out of the swirling mist and lancing beams of light. Although the light was not bright enough to dazzle the eye, Carpenter found that he could not look directly at the manifestation. He then knew who stood before him and he fell to his knees, still clutching the sword, dragging it behind him. He only caught the suggestion of enormous predator's wings, dark, flowing robes, glinting armour and the pinpoints of monstrous red eyes. Carpenter prayed for strength as blood loss made him more and more woozy, and he hoisted himself up for the act that he now knew was his destiny.
He lifted the sword's handle as high as he could and only glimpsed the huge, gauntleted hand that gently took the blade from him, the grasp encompassing the entire length of wrapped leather handle. Carpenter fell to his knees in a swoon and remembered the spectacle of the vast hand and then knew no more.
Carpenter awoke in what seemed only a few seconds, but the entire cathedral was now empty. Light still streamed from the holes in the ceiling but all that remained of the demon horde were small mounds of smoking ash, peppered with loose, sharp teeth. All was silent and he stood shakily, still wondering if he had been seized by hallucinations. The gunshot wound was no illusion, however, and neither were the corpses of his friends and colleagues that lay within the secret chamber. He opened a medicated adhesive patch, and after cleansing the crusted wound, pasted it onto his shoulder. He sat, now unsure of what to do. The sword was gone, as were the demons, and he didn't even know if the forces of good had won. Then, the light changed and the beams strengthened, the sound of singing voices returned, but softer this time.
A voice spoke.
"You've fought hard and well, son; as have your friends. Your quest is over now. The great battle that threatened all you hold dear was won and the demons that continue to follow my wayward one have been vanquished again. Don't grieve for your friends, son. They're with me now as one day you'll be. The sword will be allowed to sleep once more, until it's needed again . . . for nothing ever ends. Be at peace now, son."
As the voice spoke, luminous pillars of pure white vapour rose around him, one for each of the friends and colleagues he had lost. One in particular approached him and although he saw nothing but featureless, luminous mist, Carpenter was sure it was Matthew.
"Goodbye, my friend. I'll see you again some day."
His eyes ran with tears and as he tried to touch the glowing wraith, it vanished with the others and the chamber grew dark. Behind him, the broken shards of the seal-graven wall reassembled itself and Carpenter knew the Great Sword was once more secure.
Carpenter snapped on a flashlight and gathered what gear he needed and made his way outside to join a world saved from an apocalypse that he alone knew about.
He figured it was a secret he could keep.
Created: July 1, 1998; Updated: August 9, 2004