The temple sat on a hilltop so that God could see everything that went on inside. This was the hope at least. That the maker, in all His beneficence, would see what man had sacrificed in His name, that He would peer in the windows and come to know and respect the name of man as man had His.
The temple had stood for more than two centuries. It was built of earth and wood and stone and glass, of blood and flesh and souls.
How many souls? Father Paul Redington wondered, as he gazed up into the vaulted ceiling high above him. How many saved and how many forsaken? And how many more would be forsaken if he did not act soon? This was his time. This was his destiny. An enemy of the church, an enemy of everything that was good and pure and right, had made its intentions quite clear. It wanted something Redington had and it was willing to do most anything to acquire it.
Father Paul Redington’s black cassock billowed as he moved down the aisle toward the altar at the back of the temple. He felt a maelstrom of emotions like nothing before in his experience. He had just finished preparations for the dreaded meeting that was to come. Since receiving the message this very morning things had happened fast. He had first notified the members. All were in transit and would arrive by nightfall. Preparations had been made to receive them; food, drink, comfortable accommodations.
He knew that it would be difficult convincing them of his intentions, but in the final analysis it would not matter. He had already made his decision, and he would carry out his plan with or without their consent. Everything else was purely academic. The consequences of non-action would far outweigh the life of one old priest. He’d lived a reasonably good life and he knew it was time to pass the burden. He had understood from the very beginning that the object was not his to keep; it was never meant for him. He was merely its custodian—one in a long line of custodians that went far back into the dim recesses of Christianity—until its rightful owner came forward to claim it. He must prove once and for all that the time of judgment was near and that man had better stand up to the challenges ahead or be forever lost. And if mankind’s only hope was the young man and the child then Redington must find him before they did, because the father was the child’s only hope of survival.
He reached the altar, picking the artifact out of his pocket, staring at it. After all these years he had never lost the sense of awe the object instilled in him. It began vibrating almost immediately upon contact with his flesh. He’d stopped wearing it around his neck three months before when it had begun causing him pain. He knew what the pain meant, of course; it was telling him that he must let it go, that it was time for it to be passed. He knelt at the altar, the vibrating artifact clutched tightly in his fist. As he began the prayer his blood began to flow, and the pain somehow felt right.
It had been a long road from where he’d begun all those years ago to this very moment in time. From almost the day he was old enough to think and reason, his calling had been the priesthood. Being a Jesuit priest specifically, had come later.
The epiphany had come at the age of seventeen. He and two friends, both fellow seminary students, and both named Joe, Joe Staley and Joe McMillan, had been milling around on the shore of Coffin’s Pond, a medium size spring-fed, gravel-bottomed aquifer on the outskirts of Milford, the town where the small seminary they all attended was located. The early May morning had been bright but chilly and on that morning they were the only souls present at the small gravel beach.
On a whim, Joe Staley had decided to swim across the pond, despite the fact that the day was cold, not to mention that he was not a strong swimmer. He was convinced that he could not fail because if he faltered God would surely intervene. This was not something new for Joe Staley. He lived his life in a perpetual state of God-testing. Redington thought him naïve. Ah, but weren’t they all back then. As Paul and Joe McMillan watched and cautioned, Joe Staley stripped off his clothes, dove into the chilly water and began swimming with strong overhand strokes. He easily made it to the far side of the pond giving a loud whoop of triumph as he did so. However, on his return trip halfway across the deep pond he began to experience problems, yelling and flailing his arms.
Paul Redington had suffered a mild case of polio as a child and most of the time he wore leg braces to help him walk. He was able to paddle around in the shallows but he had never been a strong swimmer and knew that he could not save his drowning friend. The second Joe, Joe McMillan, dove in without hesitation and began swimming toward his flailing friend. In that instant, as if on a bolt of lightning, a vision appeared before Paul Redington, hovering just above the water. But it wasn’t the vision of an angel or anything quite so immaculate. Instead it was the vision of a dark and terrible demon with a single red eye wearing a black and fleshy hide that sent dread lancing into the young man’s heart. It wasn’t the first time he’d seen the vision. It had been plaguing him since he was a very young child, and the appearances always accompanied some terrible and prophetic news. On that morning the vision only lasted an instant, but it was enough to inform the young Redington that something terrible was about to happen.
“Be careful!” he shouted in panic and began to wade clumsily into the chilly water. He got to his waist and realized that if he went any further his leg braces would drag him under.
As Redington watched, Joe McMillan reached his flailing friend without effort, but the drowning Joe’s panic, coupled with the frigid water quickly drained the energy out of both young men, and in a heartbeat they were gone.
Paul stood in freezing waist-high water, his weak legs trembling beneath him as tears of grief and frustration ran from his unbelieving eyes. It seemed his two best friends had just drowned before his eyes and he’d been powerless to save them. Paul limped his way out of the water and to the nearest house. The police were summoned and the authorities spent most of the afternoon dragging for the bodies. By the time they were located it was too late, of course, the two young men were locked together in an eternal embrace. Both their deep blue faces wore expressions of shock, and of betrayal. Paul could only imagine how they must have felt as they’d drowned, abandoned by both friend and God. And he never stopped wondering if they too had seen the vision of the terrible demon hovering above them as they’d drowned.
Paul grieved for weeks. His guilt would not allow him to sleep or eat. His faith was shaken to its very foundations. All he had believed in seemed to have come apart on that fateful May morning. How could a benevolent god allow such a thing to happen? And worse, why was he being allowed to see a creature that caused such terrible tragedies? Was he not a man of God? Was he cursed? His studies suffered as he fell further into depression and away from the truth he’d been seeking since childhood.
As fate would have it he was befriended by a much older and very wise Jesuit priest by the name of Father Lawrence Starbird. Starbird was a visiting speaker at the seminary, a missionary of sorts, handsome and charismatic, a wanderer, a visionary filled with stories of adventure. To the staff and students, Starbird’s life of travel and escapade was a much needed diversion from the recent tragedy and the otherwise humdrum existence of seminary life and learning.
To Redington he was a savior.
Starbird listened to the young man’s story and understood his grief over the loss of his friends. He stayed on beyond his appointed time and began counseling the young student in the true ways of faith and the Lord. He taught Paul about the beginnings of the Jesuits, The Society of Jesus, how it was founded in 1540 by St. Ignatius Loyola, a Basque nobleman and soldier who found God in all things, not just in the things that were convenient. Starbird showed the young student that tragedy and death were as much a part of God’s purpose as were miracles, that there was reason to everything, however skewed those reasons sometimes seemed.
So it was befitting that Redington would share with Starbird something he’d never shared with another living soul, for fear of ridicule or worse, perhaps even the punishment of excommunication.
Almost from the time Redington could remember, he’d seen a vision of a terrible demon that did terrible things. He told the older man how he’d seen tragedy after tragedy in his life, all things that had come true, and that the ultimate spectacle had been when the creature had appeared before him like some evil deity on the morning his two friends had drowned. “It was as if he wanted to show me his power,” Redington said, “Like he was flaunting his murderous ways before me. That demon killed my two friends. I know it just as surly as I know I’m a mortal being.”
“I understand,” Starbird said.
“You do? How could you?”
“Because,” Starbird explained, “since childhood, I too have been cursed by the creature’s presence.”
Stunned, Redington hesitated a long moment before replying. “But how do you know that it’s the same creature?”
“Some things take time, young Paul,” came Starbird’s cryptic reply. “Be patient. In time you will understand what the demon represents and why you are able to see it when others cannot.”
The knowledge that he was not alone in his ability to see such terrible wonders was a revelation to the young seminary student, another in a long string of them since making Starbird’s acquaintance. So, with the careful and guiding hand of his mentor, Paul Redington’s faith slowly began to reignite. Following graduation he was invited to travel with the older man. He accepted without hesitation. His studies with Father Starbird took him in directions the Orthodox Church would never dare go, and soon Paul began to see that politics existed in the church and realized that not all faith was created equal.
Starbird took him away from the heart of the church and its politics to far away lands to study and assist; the Middle East, Africa and South America. The world’s cultural divides astounded Redington. The variety of faiths and superstitions humbled him. He was witness to hunger and suffering the likes of which he could never have imagined. In his travels with Starbird he began to learn other languages and the true ways of humanity. In every way he felt that he was the wandering rebel, different somehow from all of the other young priests who accepted the words of their elders without question, who blindly and joyously acknowledged the Vatican doctrine as law. And as he was learning and getting closer to God, joy began to return to Paul Redington’s life. Eventually, however, he began to believe that there was some unspoken purpose to Starbird’s tutelage, a tantalizing secret that eclipsed the bond they had forged. Although it had never been voiced, Redington saw it in Starbird’s sparkling eyes, and he heard it in his kind voice and his brilliant laughter. It was in everything about the man. So, one day the inevitable question arose.
“Paul,” Father Starbird said. “If you were to learn that there were factions on this planet that threatened the very existence of humanity as we know it, how would you react?”
They were at Starbird’s home on Cape Cod when the question was posed. They always returned there after one of their stints abroad. It was a fine home—a property that Starbird had inherited from his family—and Redington felt comfortable there. He’d never had a real home himself. His mother had abandoned him at the age of nine months and he’d never known his father. He’d grown up in a Catholic orphanage in Boston and had gone directly from there to the seminary.
He and the older man had just finished eating a light supper and were sitting on Starbird’s porch sipping wine and watching sea birds swooping low over the dunes. Their calls were comforting to Redington, like the echoes of faraway dreams. Redington did not remember much from his youth. It somehow seemed all black and white to him now, with extremes that went from violent cruelty to bland stretches of mediocrity. He sometimes remembered the dreams, mostly they spoke to him of faraway places and wonders that Redington understood on some elemental level were fated to be his calling.
He stared at Starbird, knowing instinctively that what was about to be said would be the most important lessen of his life, the catalyst that would kindle his purpose in the grand scheme of things. He realized suddenly that the past three years had been some sort of apprenticeship, that meeting Starbird had not been an accident, Starbird had chosen him. He wondered why. Why, of all the boys in the seminary had Starbird chosen a partially crippled young man?
“Because you were special,” Starbird said, answering Paul’s unspoken question.
Paul stared at his mentor. “You knew what I was thinking,” he said.
Starbird nodded. “I’ve always known what you were thinking, Paul. Haven’t you known that from the beginning?”
Paul nodded hesitantly, his face reddening slightly. “I suppose I have,” he said. “Lord, some of my thoughts must have scorched your brain.”
“But knowing hasn’t made you self-conscious.”
“No,” Paul said, “and I don’t know why.”
“Because your thoughts are pure.”
Paul stared at the old priest in amazement. “All of them?”
Starbird laughed heartily. “No,” he admitted, “but thankfully they’re all forgivable. I know you’ve had doubts, wondering why I chose you, wondering where your life with me would lead. Well, that’s the reason. You’re pure of thought.” Starbird smiled.
It was true, not the pure of heart thought, but the part about him having doubts and wondering why he had been chosen. It had been a major question in his mind since the beginning, of course, but his gratitude had never allowed him to ask. It was enough just to be the chosen one, asking why would have seemed ungrateful, almost blasphemous. But now he sensed the time had come.
“You have something to tell me, Father?”
Starbird nodded and reached toward his collar, unbuttoning it. There was a small conspiratorial smile on his lips. From around his neck he unfastened a golden chain. Attached to it was an object that was no stranger to Paul. It had been around the older man’s neck for as long as Paul had known him. Paul stared at it and there was an awkward silence between the two men. Finally Paul said, “What?” He felt like he was somehow being hoodwinked, like there was a joke in all of this that he couldn’t quite grasp.
“Just watch,” said Starbird. The old priest held the chain out before him, like a magician about to perform some miraculous sleight. The object dangled in space. Paul stared at it. It resembled an arrowhead, the top portion jagged, as if it had broken off a larger object. It seemed ancient, encrusted with verdigris. The stem that held the chain seemed like it had been attached at a later date. It was lashed onto the object with golden threads. Paul imagined that the object had once been the point of some sort of weapon, but of course he had never inquired as to its origin. Why should he have? The old man was entitled to his own personal memento or talisman. “It is from the Bronze age,” Starbird said. “It once belonged to a Roman soldier.”
Something stirred in Paul’s memory and he began to feel slightly uncomfortable. Then, as Paul stared, something miraculous happened. The object began to change shape and color. It elongated to about six inches and began to broaden, like the head of a spear. Then it changed color, going from an aged verdigris patina to a lustrous golden hue. Paul blinked his eyes. The illusion was disorienting, causing his head to spin and his heart to beat wildly.
“I’ve been wondering how it would react to you,” Starbird said in a quiet voice.
Paul looked at Starbird who was still holding the dangling object before his eyes. “How it would react to me?”
“What do you mean? Objects cannot react to people.”
“Ah, but sometimes they can, if they are very special objects,” Starbird said. “This one reacts differently to different people.” And as Paul stared, the object seemed to vibrate, as if it was attempting to alter it shape again. It began to glow like it was bathed in golden fire. “It has accepted you,” Starbird said.
“Accepted me?” Paul echoed in amazement. “What on earth is it?”
“It is a fragment of an ancient weapon,” Starbird replied with another conspiratorial smile.
There was utter silence as Paul’s jaw hinged open. He was totally speechless. The obvious question was there on his lips but he did not dare ask it, so terribly afraid that his mentor would think him a fool.
“Of course, now you’re wondering why I would be carrying an ancient weapon fragment around my neck,” Starbird said.
“The thought did cross my mind,” Paul said, his composure completely shattered.
“First let me tell you that it is much more than just an ordinary weapon fragment,” Starbird said.
Paul’s eyes were bright with anticipation. “You said that it once belonged to a Roman soldier.”
“That is correct.”
“Not . . .?” Paul hesitated as that dim and uncomfortable memory stirred again. He shook his head as he felt the blood rush to his cheeks.
“Exactly,” Starbird said.
“You’re not telling me . . .?”
“Yes, I am.”
Paul scratched his head. “Let me get this straight—”
“You will, young Paul, you will. There’ll be plenty of time for explanations. Right now there are more pressing matters that need to be addressed.”
Paul looked back at the object in Starbird’s hand. Actually he could not take his eyes off it. “But it changed shape and color.”
“Yes,” Starbird said with a smile. “Miraculous to say the least. A most wondrous object.”
Paul nodded even as his expression fell deeper into confusion. The object’s golden light reflected in Starbird’s eyes. Paul could not seem to close his mouth. His jaw felt literally unhinged. “I’ve never seen anything do that before,” he said. “How is it possible?”
Starbird shrugged his frail shoulders.
“How long have you had it?”
“A very long time. But it is not mine. I am only its custodian.”
Father Starbird was talking in riddles. Had he lost his mind?
“Before that it belonged to another worthy soul,” Starbird went on, seeing the confusion on his student’s face. “And before that another, all the way back to the beginnings of Christianity. It has been passed down in the Jesuit society from worthy hand to worthy hand for nearly five centuries. Of course it is much older than that. Its destiny was written eons ago, its secret entrusted to the Jesuits in the fourteenth century. There are those who believe it is the only true path to God.”
Paul’s eyes were alight with wonder. “You mean there are others who know of it?”
“Oh, dear me, yes, young Paul, the human race is a busy and curious lot and its existence is the stuff of legend. The artifact has had its scholars, of course; there are many who believe it is rooted in myth and doubt its existence entirely, and there are others who believe implicitly in its existence and its powers and have sought it with fervor. But the secret of its location has been kept well.”
“But you’ve been wearing it around your . . . neck,” Paul said with more than a bit of amazement in his voice. Then he hesitated, making a gesture with his hand. The other hand went over his mouth as if to stifle an outburst of laughter, or surprise. He remembered, of course. He was quite familiar with the object. Father Starbird had never attempted to hide it from him. He and the Father had bunked together on hundreds of occasions. Paul had never really studied the object, although he knew it was there. He’d just assumed that it held some sort of personal meaning to the older man and had never questioned him about it. Starbird was smiling widely now.
“Oh my God . . .?” Paul said and smiled along with him.
“Exactly,” Starbird said. “What better place to hide an object of great mystery and desire than around someone’s neck. Who would think to look in such an obvious place?”
Paul nodded. “It’s beautiful,” he said, almost as if it was the first time he’d looked upon it.
“Yes, young Paul, it is.”
“So the myth is true?” Paul said.
Starbird smiled. “True?” he said.
“That it is a fragment of the spear that pierced Christ’s body at the crucifixion?”
“The only certainty in this life, young Paul, is that nothing is certain. There have always been stories and rumors, and each man has his own truth. It is indeed a miraculous object, there’s no doubt about that. I have no proof that it is the object of which you speak. And even if it is, I am not obliged to use whatever power it might possess. As I said, I am merely its custodian.”
“I understand that you need to be cautious,” Paul said.
“My duty is to simply pass it on to its next guardian.”
“And who would that be?”
“Why, you, Paul. Who do you think?”
Paul was visibly stunned. He was not sure he’d heard Father Starbird correctly. “What did you say, sir?”
“I said that I am to pass the object to you.”
“Me? I don’t understand.”
“Sit back, young Paul Redington and relax. It is time I told you a story. Do you remember the question I asked a moment ago?”
Paul nodded. “You asked me how I would react if I was to learn that there were factions on this planet that threatened the very existence of humanity as we know it.”
“Exactly,” Starbird said. “Well?”
“Well, I guess I’d do everything in my power to stop these factions and save humanity.”
Paul swallowed nervously, wondering where this insane line of questioning was leading.
“Well?” Starbird prodded.
“Well,” Redington began, “I guess because humanity is worth saving. Because the alternative is unthinkable. I may not be very old or wise but I believe I’ve seen the truth of our species. In Africa I saw hope in a thousand hopeless eyes. I saw a starving man offer his last scrap of food to a dying stranger. I watched a mother sacrifice herself to armed and dangerous thugs to save her only child. I sat with disease-ridden children without even the luxury of hope and listened to their wonderful dreams, and knew then that hope is all that we have. That compassion and humanity are synonymous and that these things together are the true path to God.”
“Good answer,” Starbird said beaming. “Very good answer. Young Paul, I have something to tell you, but first you must accept this gift.” He held the artifact out to Paul. Paul slowly extended his trembling hand. Starbird placed the object and its chain in the palm of Paul’s hand and closed his fingers around it, forming the young man’s hand into a fist. “I cannot stress the extent of responsibility it will require to keep and to covet such an object.”
“I understand, sir,” Paul said.
“Well, then,” Starbird said. “It is yours. Now I can rest.” The old priest sat back in his chair with a deep sigh of relief. It was as if the air had suddenly been pulled from his lungs by some unseen force. He looked deflated and much older and wearier than Paul had ever remembered seeing him. In the same moment Paul felt that he had been given some sort of new strength, that suddenly he could accomplish things he had never before imagined. The numbness went from his legs in an instant and although he did not try to stand, he knew that when he did try it would no longer be difficult; he understood on some elemental level that the passing of the artifact had somehow weakened Starbird and strengthened him.
“What is it you wish to tell me, sir?” Paul said, still holding the object tightly in his closed fist and staring at his master in amazement.
“My son,” Starbird said. “I am dying.”
Paul could not believe his ears. This was the last thing he’d expected. “No,” he said, as tears stung his eyes. “I don’t believe you.” He thrust the fist with the object in it back toward his master. “Here,” he said bitterly. “I don’t want it.”
“Ah, but it is too late, my dear boy. Once the object has been passed it can never be returned. You have been chosen to be its custodian not by me but by a much greater power. Do not take the responsibility lightly.”
Paul stared sadly at his master, both sorrow and inquiry on his face. “I don’t understand any of this,” he said.
“You’re not expected to. At least not now.”
“Well, what am I supposed to do with it?”
“Keep it, covet it . . . protect it at all costs. If you are lucky, if the stars are all in alignment and God has not given up on man, some day you will give it to another worthy soul, perhaps the person it was intended for. But that will be a long time from now, for the person has not yet been born.” He smiled at the distressed look on Paul’s face. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m not going to die this very instant.”
“When?” Paul asked, and there was a deep and profound hurt in his heart.
Starbird shrugged. “Six months, maybe a year. The doctors tell me that although the cancer is fatal, it is progressing at a snail’s pace. It will be several months before I’ll have to be hospitalized.”
“Now,” Starbird said. “It is time for you to hear what I have been waiting for so long to tell you. Listen very carefully because it is important and you cannot afford to miss a single nuance. Are you listening?”
“Yes,” Paul said with an astute nod, and as he listened, the most extraordinary tale he’d ever been told began to unfold.