*This is another summary/exerpt piece like Gateway and A Dragon in Winter. It was written fairly quickly and is not really meant to be a criticism of any particular set of beliefs; it's just meant to be a rip-roaring tale. Hope you enjoy.
Talbot pauses to stare at the stained glass image of the Madonna over the oak doors. He's seen the image - similar ones, at least - many, many times, but for some reason this one appears to be brighter in color than they usually are. The crowns on Jesus and Mary's heads shimmer bright gold, an oddity given that the sun outside is well into setting. The blues of her dress scream their azure refraction and even the reddish-purple cedars behind her seem alive with the pulse of an imaginary wind. There are over 3000 cathedrals in the world, and Talbot reckons he's been in at least half of them, but he's never seen a Madonna so... beautiful. Then again, he's never had to fortify one, either.
"I'm losing my fucking mind," he mutters, ignoring the acolyte behind him who is attempting to move the font without spilling Holy Water. Turning away from the Madonna, Talbot half-smiles at the acolyte - a boy of maybe 16 years who at least appears disgusted at Talbot's vulgarity - and heads down the nave towards the altar. As he approaches the crossing, he eyes Father Donovan rushing toward him.
"Lieutenant Talbot! Lieutenant Talbot!" The Father appears distressed. Given the situation, this seems a normal reaction, but Talbot identifies something... else in the Father's voice. As Donovan gets closer, Talbot realizes that he can see that something else in Donovan's eyes, as well.
"What is it, Father?" Talbot doesn't stop walking, fully expecting Donovan to keep up with him.
Donovan's voice quivers. "Your men, Lieutenant. They... they're speaking blasphemy."
Talbot halts and mentally rolls his eyes. There is too much to explain and no time to do it. And, though Catholic himself - all the men of the unit were Catholic - Talbot has little patience for the "too devout" as they tend to take the longest to explain things to, if they can even be convinced that what is happening is really happening. That the unit operates under the official authority of the Vatican, most choose to neither believe nor accept. They were a secret unit, after all. Too secret, as the cliché goes, and despite the constant preachings of Faith, most wanted some sort of physical evidence of the unit's legitimacy. Talbot counts his blessings that the Vicar General of Rome decided to personally inform Donovan of the unit's pending arrival, alleviating Talbot and Bianchi - the Corpo della Gendarmeria's liaison to the unit - of the time-wasting task of convincing Donovan that the unit was here on sanctioned, and urgent, business.
Talbot has long dealt with things that he didn't fully understand, a lifetime of combat had seen to that. He had spent just over 24 years in the United States Army, first in the infantry, then in the vaunted Special Forces as a demolitions sergeant and, eventually, a team sergeant. He finished his career by returning to the conventional infantry and retiring as a sergeant major. He still finds it strange being called "Lieutenant," but he was selected to lead the Michael platoon based upon his relevant tactical experience, and he gladly accepted the role along with the surprisingly acceptable paycheck. He often reflects upon the irony of essentially being a mercenary in the employ of his chosen religion, but such ironies, he finds, are the norm in life, rather than the exception. At 45 years old, he believes he has responsibly passed the point in which things should surprise him, so he tries not to let himself be bothered by the machinations of the universe.
"What are you talking about?" Talbot asks, returning to Donovan's complaint.
Donovan swallows - Talbot can almost hear the gulp - and wipes his brow. "They're talking of the Devil and how he is the reason you're here."
Talbot stifles a groan. "The Devil, Father? Or Ha'Satan?"
Donovan's eyes widen. The old man, who in 90 years never once questioned his beliefs, certainly didn't expect Talbot to respond so matter-of-factly. "Is there a difference? You claim we are about to be attacked by demons, yet you and your men freely suggest that the Devil and Satan are not one and the same?"
Just then, one of Talbot's men, Cabrera - the unit's self-proclaimed smart-ass - passes by, carrying a hastily-constructed metal plate to cover the stained-glass Madonna with.
"Hey, Padre," Cabrera starts, "it ever occur to you that these demons might not be Catholic?"
Donovan balks and screams at Carbrera, who does not stop to listen. "Are you soldiers not Catholics yourselves? How do you deny your Truths?" Donovan's protests are devolving into what the men in the unit are beginning to interpret as Straw Man arguments.
Miasnikov, the unit's sole Russian member, walks by carrying mounting brackets for the metal plate. "We don't have to believe in this stuff, Father," he interrupts, "We just have to kill it."
The Father collapses to his knees, afraid that he's endured too much blasphemy for one day. He looks up, more to his God than to Talbot. "We are at the end, aren't we?"
"Get up, Father," Talbot orders. "This ain't over yet." As if to emphasize the point, Talbot drops the magazine from his M-4 carbine and checks the bullets, ensuring that Donovan catches a glimpse of the brass reflections. "All things Creation can be destroyed. The Bible teaches us enough of that."
Donovan gapes at Talbot, unsure of what the soldier means. Talbot, unsure himself, simply nods in response to the Father's expression. Slapping the magazine back into the weapon, Talbot continues towards the altar, though he's forgotten why he needed to go to there in the first place. The thought occurs to him that he should perhaps head to the confessional instead.
The soldiers, Bianchi, Donovan, and four acolytes gather in the cathedral's crossing, waiting for Miasnikov who, as a former civil engineer, wanted to check the barricades and defenses one last time.
Talbot, aware of their central location, resists the urge to move the men into what would be a more conventionally defensible position. These things can reputedly fly, after all, obsolescing any concept of high ground, even more so in an enclosed battleground such as this one. Too bad, Talbot begins a thought, the ceilings are so damned high. Donovan, of all people, suggested that they attempt to defend one of the transepts or one of the side rooms, but Talbot prefers to have room to maneuver. Three or four surrounding walls were three or four too many.
Miasnikov returns and Talbot holds up a thumb, which Miasnikov mirrors. Nodding, Talbot snaps his fingers and issues commands via hand signals, prompting the rest of the soldiers into motion.
As Donovan leads the acolytes to what the Father feels is the safest place in the cathedral, the acolyte Talbot saw moving the font earlier tugs on his uniform sleeve.
"Were you really helped by Satan?" the boy asks.
"Why would the Devil help us?" There is a brief flash of embarrassment. "You, I mean."
Talbot shakes his head slowly, signaling the fact that he has no idea. "Not that Satan, son. The original one."
"There's more than one?"
"Apparently this one claims to be the Jewish version."
"Ashton!" Donovan's voice calls out to the acolyte before the boy can ask another question. "Come!"
Talbot pauses for a moment, realizing that he was unaware of the boy's name until just now. Ashton gives Talbot a nervous, though confused, smile and runs to join Donovan and the other acolytes.
"Pray for us, Father," Talbot yells, oblivious to his normal preference of being tactically quiet. "We're going to be too busy shooting up your cathedral."
There is a sound - a scream - unlike any that the men present have ever heard. Perhaps the sound of Legion; perhaps not. Whatever it is sends chills through the bones of each and the sudden sensations of fear are so powerful that each man wishes he'd have stayed in bed that morning.
The metal plate over the Madonna proves useless as it falls beneath the shattering of the stained glass and, for a brief instant and despite the darkness outside, the Cathedral glistens as if built upon the rainbow to Asgard.
Donovan and the acolytes begin their prayer as Talbot and the men disperse, holding down triggers that activate bullets whose effects on their nemeses are not yet known.
Talbot, who has never had time for regret, barely has time to utter, "Kiss my ass," before an unearthly shape descends upon him.
*Continued in The Man in the Fedora
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