A Heavenly Calling

Summary: Matthew Murphy found salvation in a baptism of rancid meat and warm blood. Living an austere, repressed life, he finds sometimes the Lord works in violent, inscrutable ways.

I found salvation anew in a baptism of rancid meat and warm blood. I was caked in the steaming entrails and mangled viscera of the Adversary's servants. Had I still been the squeamish, soft boy I'd once been. The room I stood in is consecrated in carnage, decorated in death. My trusty tools had a warm, metallic texture to them. I barely saw the scintillating characters on my arm, the catalyst that led to all this, beneath all the gore. The Lord may be all merciful, but I am only human. Alas, I was only too happy to arrange a meeting between them and their Maker.

It began a few days ago, when it appeared on my arm one morning. Strange characters, as black and viscous as oil paint, formed themselves along my left forearm. I blinked, unsure if they were real. My alarm sounded a moment later, and I instinctively leapt out of bed. It was 4 AM, a half hour later than I normally got up. I threw on a hoody I'd worn since I was fatter, and I went for a run.

The deserted, dark streets were broken only by an occasional driver or trucker, like I was the only survivor of some disaster. As I jogged, I listened to audiobooks and philosophy podcasts, things I'd never had much chance to learn about. My only formal post-high school education was an Associate's in Construction Management, but my informal education was far more humbling. I'd listened to a smattering of philosophy, theology, and history. After I got back, I had a big breakfast of cereal, yogurt, fruit, and cookies. After that solace, I cleaned up and headed off to work.

I wore a cleaner jacket and jeans, and I hoped on my moped. It might've been an odd sight to behold, but I could afford it. I never felt comfortable with excessive debt, part of the reason I never continued my formal education or got a car. I never needed to travel far from where I grew up, and I never had much reason to. I always, futilely, hoped this would change.

The moped came to life beneath my legs, just like another certain appendage I tried not to think about too much. I listened to a podcast documentary series I'd been following for the last few weeks, about the Council of Nicaea. Christianity before it was a chaotic chorus of contradictory voices, such as the Gnostics and Arians. The Romans persecuted Christians, and later tried to use Christianity as a tool of power. Such was the way of history, I supposed.

I rolled up my sleeve as I waited at a red light. The strange stain was still there. I pulled my sleeve down and considered swinging by the doctor's later. I'd seen an unlucky wrestler with ringworm and strange rashes, like poison ivy, while camping, but this was something else. Our construction schedule was moving into Phase 4, and I needed to fill out some documentation. After today, I'd have no issue taking off. Construction jobs came and went, but my health mattered more.

I parked out front of our latest jobsite, building a house on an empty lot. The sun was almost up, and I was the first one onsite. I pulled out my key and unlocked, when I saw Manny driving up in his car. I waved him in, and he made his rounds around the site. Unlike last week, there were no attempts to break into the supply shed. Copper wiring, our tools, and other things could fetch a high price on the black market, so we had a security firm patrol the site at night. Thankfully, nothing was amiss.

"What's up, Matt?" he asked, taking a sip of his coffee.

"Pirates finally won last night!" he said excitedly. "How about you?"

"Same old," he said. "Learning about the history of Christianity."

"You should've become a priest, then!" Manny said, playfully punching his shoulder. "Oh, going to the bar tonight to catch the game tonight with Greg. Want to come?"

"Thanks, but I already have plans," I said, eager for an excuse to avoid the sports bar.

"Eh, you're always welcome," Manny said, shrugging.

I walked into the trailer at the edge of the site, our de facto field office. I booted up the computer, and I went onto autopilot. I removed my hoodie, and I saw it once more. There was almost a form, a sinuous line, that seemed to have grown from earlier. Not wanting to tempt fate, I took a picture of it with my smartphone, and I prepared to email it to a physician's assistant friend of mine, Sam. As I composed the message, I saw only raw flesh. I took another picture, and examined it.

The strange stain was gone. I looked down at my arm, and it still clung to my flesh. I blinked, wondering if I was losing it. I shrugged it off for now, deciding to focus on my work. My mind drifted to a different place than my hands, and I thought of something different. I mused on Meister Eckhart's Neoplatonic philosophy, before drifting once more to other history. I recalled Grandpa handing me his pistol, still in its box.

When I was his age, as he'd often say, he was saving lives in World War II, although not as a doctor. He was an intelligence offer in Europe, but he was captured by the Germans on D-Day. With only that pistol, a suppressed HDM, he bluffed a whole Wehrmacht platoon into thinking they were surrounded. He negotiated their surrender and withdrawal to Allied lines. He kept his pistol, the only weapon he had at the time, as a memento. He passed away a decade ago, but I thought about his stories when I mused about the monotony of my own life.

I wondered what he'd think of how my life turned out. I had a comfortable childhood, supportive parents, and a fairly stable home. Unlike my older brother, I never went to on to study for a bachelor's or beyond. Nevertheless, I thought he'd respect me working full time, building good habits, and saving for the future. I had a lean, muscular build, which I worked hard to maintain. We are the sum of our habits, and I want good ones. Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics were based on moderation between unhealthy extremes, while Christianity's Seven Deadly Sins were similar excesses of normal behaviors. To use a computer phrase I'd heard on a podcast: garbage in, garbage out.

The rest of the day was as uneventful as the morning. I slipped out as the others went to the bar, heading off to Saint Barbara's parish center. I walked around back of the decaying, faux-Gothic Catholic Church. There were a few cars parked there I didn't recognize, but I paid them no heed as I descended the stairs into the cellar. Down here was a workshop I helped set up, one I spent much of my free time at.

I called it the makerspace, but it was technically just an old workshop. I'd added a cheap 3D printer and milling machine, but it was just a converted storeroom where a parishioner had donated some old tools and machine parts. In my free time, I built a few devices for the church, parishioners, and myself. I'd even run an occasional lesson on how each device worked, but there was never much prolonged interest. I hadn't been here for a week or so, due to work. Regardless, this place was my retreat, my solitary sanctuary. Until now.

It was clear I had company. The empty room beside my makerspace was filled with mirrors and gym mats. The dim lightbulbs had been replaced with energy-efficient LED lights, bathing the room in an inviting glow. For a moment, I thought someone made skylights in the ceiling because it was so bright. Remembering it was dusk was enough to bring me back to the present. My glance became a gawking stare, and I stepped into the room to see who'd converted the dungeon to a dance studio.

I saw the duffel bag first, stuffed with rubber training weapons and foam pads. I saw her stretching in the corner, dressed in a white sports top and shorts. She covered her exposed, muscular arm, as though I'd seen something I should not. Her dreadlocked hair was pulled back into a ponytail, while she expertly shifted her weight on the balls of her feet. Her skin was the color of dark chocolate, and she grinned at me. She moved like a coiled serpent, becoming me over.

"You new here?" I asked.

"Nah," she replied nonchalantly, in an accent I tried to identify. "You?"

"I work next door," I said. "You teaching martial arts?"

"Yah," she replied. I guessed her accent was some creole or patois. "Starting today."

"What style?"

"Combatives," she replied. I thought it sounded Caribbean. My mind raced through the islands I could think. "Ever trained before? You look like a fighter."

"Just a construction worker." Her accent was faded, but it emerged now and then. I guessed it was Jamaican, since that was the only Caribbean island I was aware of that spoke English. I'm sure there were others. "But I just had a few sessions of mixed martial arts training."

She looked up at me with wide brown eyes. "Want to roll?"

"Like in Brazilian jui-jitsu?"

She nodded. "Stand up or guard?"

"Guard," I said.

She put her back down on the mat. I knelt between her strong legs, and she wrapped them around me. I thought I saw a tattoo on her left arm, a line of ink of a vein, but it was gone after I blinked. She pulled me in close, and I focused on the coming match. I'd done grappling a few times, but never with a woman before. Despite me being the bigger and stronger party, this would not be easy.

We nodded, and the match began. Almost immediately, I brought my elbows up to her knees. This felt awkward, in more ways than one. Yet, despite my inexperience, I had a vague sense of what to do. Just like that week of MMA lessons I had, I had to break the guard to get to a better position. I exploded upwards, but her legs locked around me like a vice.

I pressed my elbows into her thighs, and I saw her clench her teeth in pain. Despite me lifting her off the ground, she moved around me like a spider. I drove her back into the ground, trying to drop my body weight into escaping guard. I began overthinking it, trying to recall how to do chokes and joint locks from side-mount. I imagined myself stuck in an armbar or triangle, and I drew my hand back. I thought I saw the strange stain on my right arm, mirroring a similar symbol on her left.

I did not have to worry about passing guard. She jolted like a coiled spring, hooking both of my ankles while thrusting her hips. I went down like a felled tree, my size and strength helpless before surprise and experience. She moved into full mount, kneeling on top of my hips while I laid exposed on the ground. She dropped her chest onto my head, and her arms moved towards my neck. I pushed up, accidentally pressing her firm breasts, and I immediately stopped. This is as close I ever got to a non-related woman. She noticed I stopped resisting, and slipped her hands around my head. I tapped before she even applied the choke, although I half-remembered I was supposed to resist by pulling her hand away.

She immediately stood up, and she helped me too my feet. Half-embarrassed and very self-conscious, I waited for an awkward second. She broke the silence. "Construction worker, huh?" she asked. "I bet you can raise something real hard and fast."

It took me a splint second to get what she meant. By that time, she saw my reddened checks and moved towards her gym bag. She slipped me a business card, which I immediately pocketed. "I need a sparring partner," she said. "My next grappling lesson is Thursday."

"I'll be there," I said, unthinkingly. "What about tonight?"

"Women's self-defense class," she said. "It'll be a large class, so a big guy like you will take up a lot of room on the mat. No offense."

"None taken," I said. "Should I bring anything?"

"Loose clothes and protection," she said, winking.

I nodded without thinking. I was already out the door when I again realized what she was referring to. I gathered my things, as my clothes were sweaty and needed washing. I wanted to refit some piping, but I could finish it tomorrow. I saw a parade of women, all clad in gym clothing, heading into the martial arts studio. Still processing what happened, I read the name on the card: Jada Thompson, Personal Trainer and Self-Defense Instructor.

Before I left the basement, I quickly glanced back at the door. I saw Jada holding a rubber machete in hand. She waved to me. I waved back, and I hurried out into the night. This was the first time I'd been hit on so blatantly, or hit on at all. I typically kept to myself, so this was unfamiliar territory for me. I still felt unsure about what she said, and what she implied. I felt attraction, but I was curious about something else. I looked once more, and my mark returned. I recalled how she'd covered her arm before we grappled. I hoped it was more than hormones.

I headed back to my moped, and I saw I was not alone. I saw a car parked in the space beside my moped, a ride more expensive than my entire net-worth. It was a stealthy black color, with aggressive angles like a fighter jet. My mind raced as I tried to recall any parishioner wealthy enough to afford a ride like that, and nothing came to mind. I wondered if it was another product of Mr. Wilson's midlife crisis, but the owner rapidly dispelled that theory.

"Mr. Murphy," came a suave, slick male voice. "May I have a moment of your time?"

My head tracked the speaker. My body tensed like the time I'd seen a venomous snake during camping, a water moccasin. I saw him nonchalantly leaning against a streetlight, glancing at a polished wristwatch. He was tall and stocky, perhaps as thirty-something. His steely gray eyes met my green ones, and I felt goosebumps forming. I felt a sense between nausea and dread, like the onset of an adrenaline rush. My mind debated fight or flight, but my body stood catatonically.

"Don't be alarmed," he said, in a confident voice. He raised both of his hands. "I'm Reverend Nicholas James, from Riverside Ministries."

"Never heard of it, Reverend," I said. "Why are you here?"

"Call me Nick," he said, reaching into the pocket of his immaculately cleaned suit-jacket. "I understand things may be confusing for you, Mr. Murphy."

Nick pulled out a cigarette and lit it up. He offered me one, but my hand raised without thinking. I did not smoke, and I never wanted to start. Lung cancer killed my grandpa when the Nazis could not, and I didn't want to share his fate. Sensing my unease, Nick rolled up his sleeve. My eyes followed the underside of his arm, which was covered in black, viscous characters that flowed like living ink. I immediately thought of the strange marks that appeared on my own arms.

"They don't appear on any electronic media like cameras, or even to normal people," he said. "But they give us a certain…affinity. It helps us to find each other."

"What, what?"

Nick checked his watch once more. "I don't have much time, Mr. Murphy," he said. "But know this: You'll experience strange things over the next few weeks, but don't be afraid. The Lord has a plan for you. He has a plan for us all."

"What the hell are you talking about? How do you know my name?"

"I've had these markings for a long time," he said. "But our enemies hunt us, so I must be brief."

"You haven't answered my questions."

"Every generation, a few are…chosen. Perhaps by the Lord Himself," he said. "And we are hunted."

"By whom? By what?"

"That's a question that will take a longer time to answer," Nick said. He reached into his pocket, and he slipped a business card into my hand. "Have a chat with me later this week."

"I don't know who you are, how you found me, or what you're going on about, but you are going to answer all my questions."

"That's a fair point, Mr. Murphy," Nick said, extinguishing his cigarette. "I will answer all your questions. Just email me if you can't make it."

With that, Nick stepped into his car. He slipped the key into the ignition. The interior of the car light up like a sci-fi spaceship. The engine purred like a jungle cat, and he closed the door. He nodded respectfully to me, and the car vanished into the night. Despite the taillights, it was hard to see on the road, vanishing like a stealth fighter into the night.

I exhaled. My body immediately relaxed. I headed back home, and I went right to bed. I was not one to stay out late most nights, and I felt more stressed than normal. Meeting an interesting person was a rare event in my life, let alone two in the same night. I went right to bed, eager to forget what I'd encountered. However, my subconscious had other plans.

I found myself wandering through a desert valley, beneath a tyrannical sun. That ever-reigning despot of desert lands beat down on me, as every belabored breath drew in the sands old when Tutankhamen was young. Timeworn mesas rose from the earth around me, and the wind whistled like the calling of houris. I followed the ethereal chorus onwards.

I stopped before an oasis, concealed beneath a shadowed hillside. I was not alone. In the translucent pool was the woman I'd met earlier, Jada, naked, save for strange characters that crossed her arms and torso. Her eyes glowed like silver suns, reflecting in the still waters of the pond below. I tried to read them, but I could not. I stepped into the pond, and my feet sank into the soft bottom. I stepped forwards, and the waters came up to my waist. Something stirred beneath the water, something I was well aware of.

"Virtue finds and choses the mean," Jada said. Each of her words resounded across the pond, as though amplified by an unseen microphone. Another sound came out of her mouth: A loud, obnoxious wail. I recognized it a second later as my alarm clock. The surreal realm melted around me, and another day in my life began. This one, I already felt, would be a bit more interesting than normal.

On my way to work, I started a new podcast series, shorter episodes on a variety of topics. Instead of streaming on a smart phone, I downloaded them onto an MP3 player that I'd gotten as a gift in high school. It was a habit I'd gotten used to since my phone crapped out too much. I listened to an astrophysicist talk about simulating meteor impacts with light-gas cannons. I listened to a linguist talk about the influence of the West African Akan language and Portuguese on Jamaican patois. I heard a cybersecurity researcher discuss radio jamming. Topics past with a greater celerity than the flow of traffic.

At a red light, I saw the reason for the delay. Police were directing cars away from a blocked off side-street, surrounded by yellow tape and traffic cones. Ambulances and police cruisers ringed the narrow road, scarcely larger than an alleyway. As my moped passed, I tried to peek inside. Instead, I only saw a stocky policeman glowering at me, black sunglasses hiding his eyes. His skin seemed pale, and he looked back once more and shuddered. I wondered what shook a big guy like that. Out of morbid curiosity, I turned off the podcast and turned on the radio. There was nothing, so I decided to ask someone at work.

I came into work expecting to see Manny. Instead, I saw a police officer standing outside the site's entrance. I saw police tape covering the front door and windows of the trailer we used as a field office. The door was battered off its hinges, the window was broken into shards of glass that surrounded the nearby ground, and the furniture within was haphazardly tossed about like litter. Noticing my arrival, a tall black policeman approached me.

"Are you Matthew Murphy?"

"Yes," I replied. "What happened here?"

"Break in last night," he replied. "We're still going over the details."

"Are you going to be finished soon?" I asked. "We're going to fall behind schedule."

"Sir, the site owner has given us permission to search here as long as we need," the officer said. "If I may ask, when was the last time you saw Gregory Stepford?"

I gave my statement, ensuring the officer's body-cam recorded it. I tried to be careful around cops, since they were overworked, underpaid, and over-stressed. A position I could easily relate to. I got an email from the site owner, who said that the project was suspended until the investigation was over. It was then I found out Manny was in the hospital, and Greg hadn't been seen since living the bar last night.

Work was cancelled, but I would've taken off anyway. This morning, I'd glanced my strange mark, which had grown since the prior night. My curiosity rapidly vanished, and fear took its place. I remembered the Reverend's words last night: Someone was after me. Even if he was insane, his theories may be real to him, at least. Since the police were being tight lipped, I weighed talking to him. I was deciding against it and heading home, when I got a call from Manny.

"Greg's dead," was all I needed to hear.

Without hesitation, I sent Greg's family the rest of this week's salary, at my own expense. I excused myself from the construction site and headed towards the address on Nick's business card. I saw the city transform from outlying suburbs and row-homes to older, brick construction. While the buildings were older, I didn't see the deserted streets and graffiti that plagued the poorest parts of town. I could see the Ohio River behind a row of houses, and I presumed it was the namesake for his ministry. I drove along the river, and a set of railroad tracks with trees beyond them separated road from river.

Riverside Ministries was not exactly beside the River, but it was close enough. I parked in the lot across the street out front. The Ministry itself was part of a brick row-home, which connected to a soup kitchen and townhomes. I approached the front and gently knocked on the door. Hearing no response, I pressed the doorknob and walked in. I saw a small, empty desk with a Biblical quote from Matthew 23:12: "He who exalts himself shall be humbled, but he who humbles himself shall be exalted."

The furniture in the small foyer was nicer than I'd thought it would be from the outside. The leather chairs were comfortable, almost deceptively so. The mahogany desk looked like the one the current job's site owner used in his personal study, not a cheap one for a waiting room receptionist. Given the car and clothes I saw him in last night, I wondered how much money he'd had access to. That was a lot of money for a religious man to bring in, but I supposed televangelists always found ways to turn God's word into cash. I recalled the one-time Christ became angry was when he saw the money changers in the temple. Even the Prince of Peace got pissed. I couldn't put my finger on why, but this place tensed my muscles.

I sat down for a few minutes, flipping through the magazines on the stand beside the desk. There were celebrity gossip rags, a few general interest magazines, year-old newspapers, copies of old religious programs, and a King James Bible buried near the bottom. Even though I was a partially lapsed Catholic at best, something about it still triggered my Irish Catholic ire. As I placed the magazines back at the bottom, I put the Bible at the top of the stack. For a Christian ministry, I'd expect to see a lot more Bibles and crosses in the front, if only for show. The Matthew quote seemed especially ironic.

The locked door opened, and Reverend James appeared behind it. He only half-noticed me, given the phone he spoke into. He was dressed in similar finery to last night, but the stripes hinted at a completely different shirt altogether. The device he spoke into was not the expensive smartphone I pictured him carrying, but instead a cheap flip-phone, likely a decade obsolete. Not unlike the one I carried with me sometimes. I supposed it was a burner phone or secondary, as a man like him probably had multiple ways, and reasons, to contact others. Running a ministry, even a small one, was not an easy task. "I've got to go, Carmichael," he said. "I have a guest."

Nick ended his call and pocketed his phone. "Sorry, just some nasty business," he said. "Dispute with a contractor."

"I can relate," I said.

"Oh, I can imagine, especially in the construction industry," he said, slapping my back. "But what brings you here?"

"You," I said, pulling out his business card. "What were you talking about last night?"

Nick beckoned me into the backroom. I immediately noticed a change in the worksmanship and quality of the walls and floor. Or more specifically, lack therefore of. The wood floor creaked with each step, while the wall paint was faded, chipped, and flaking. The furniture back here was older and smelled vaguely of mildew and dampness. A few sparse photographs, depicting generic landscapes and old cathedrals, decorated the walls. For a religious ministry, the place seemed soulless. Even the dour old Saint Barbara parish center had more décor and activity than this.

"Not many visitors back here?" I blurted without thinking.

"Not many," he said. "We sadly live in a superficial world, and the illusion of wealth is enough to draw in donations."

We entered a small room with a stone fireplace, and he locked the door behind us. The fireplace likely part of the original house this building was converted form. I figured he purchased a few old houses, connected them together, and then made it his all-purpose residence and religious ministry. The worksmanship looked slapdash, rushed, and sloppy. Cutting those corners would've saved a lot of money, allowing it to be spent on other things.

Nick moved towards the mantle, where hung a picture of a rocky coastline. He moved the picture, revealing a small safe. He turned a small dial to unlock it, and he put his flip-phone inside. He checked to ensure no one else was around, before locking the safe and pushing the picture back in front of it.

"You see, we are two of an endangered species," Nick said, lowering his voice. "A fraction of a fraction of a fraction of people across the world are called like we are."

"So why is this the first time I've heard of all this?"

"Because, Mr. Murphy, we are being hunted," Nick said. "You are fortunate I found you first."

"Why are we being hunted?" I asked, showing him my right arm. "Just what is this?"

"Whatever selected us, also cursed us, in a way," he said. "We can detect those who'd harm others, and those who are harming others."

"But they can detect us," I surmised. "As we can detect each other."

"Yes, or at least our presence," he said, leaning close. "I don't mean to pry, but are all of your friends alright?"

"Why do you ask?" I felt a chill run down my spine.

"I've met only two others who share our ability in my life," he said. "The first said his wife was killed in a hit and run, before he too was run down. The second, she disappeared after her coworker was brutally murdered."

My body betrayed my answer. My eyes widened. My pulse quickened. My teeth clenched. Nick folded his hands on his lips, and he exhaled. He immediately sensed my discomfort, and he physically retreated from me. I think he wanted to reassure me, but something stirred within.

"How exactly did you track me down?" I asked him. "Why would a random, boring construction worker like me be of interest to a big-money man like you?"

"Over the last few weeks, I began feeling that pull once more, of one of our kind awakening. Sometimes it happens while we're young, other times, older," he explained. "I tracked that sensation to that construction site, and I really felt it inside that parish center. Since you're the only fellow I me that rides a moped, I figured it out pretty quick. I just asked around for your name."

"If you could find me so easily, then so could someone else," I said, my blood running cold. Things circulated in my head. "My coworker was murdered last night."

"That's why I use burner phones, among other precautions," Nick said, knocking on his chest. The wrapping was not unlike a door. He opened his jacket to reveal a military-grade ceramic trauma plate. "I suggest arming yourself, training in a martial art, and sitting away from windows."

"Why do you work so openly, then?" I asked, my eyes narrowly. I was not sure why.

"Because I was a fairly late bloomer, as it were," he said. "By that point, I was already well-established with certain groups. I am fortunate that my ministry offers support to those who need it, including our Bible study sessions, our prisoner support group, and our adoption service that matches street kids with appropriate families."

"Are you aware of anyone else, like us?" I asked. "Outside town?"

"Oh, yes," he said. "I believe we're worldwide, but so are the enemy. Something keeps our numbers low, low enough that not even conspiracy theorists have any idea about us."

"Better keep it that way," I said. "But I thank you for your time."

"Oh, no problem," he said, smiling broadly. "But I have one favor to ask you."

"If you meet anyone else like us, you introduce us," he said. "Our kind needs to stick together."

"I'll keep that in mind," I said, half-forming a sentence. Something inside hesitated to mention Jada. "If I meet anyone else."

"Pleasure to chat with you, Mr. Murphy," he said, apparently not noticing my slight hesitation. "I have a meeting to organize for now, but I hope we will see each other again."

"We will," I said, as I headed for the exit.

I left the way I came in, and I felt as though a titanic burden was lifted from my shoulders. I felt like Atlas, only shrugging off my burden for a moment before being crushed once more by its weight. Part of me wondered if I was just buying into his crazed, conspiratorial ramblings when I was psychologically vulnerable. A lot seemed too connected, and too fast, to be mere coincidence. The first time was chance, the second time was coincidence, and the third time was conspiracy.

I remember Grandpa saying that a peaceful life was a prize worth fighting for, but sometimes, the best you could do was make that sacrifice for others. He'd been drafted into a war he didn't start, but one he helped end. I wondered if that was my fate, too, although I didn't know it was a fight I could win. As much as I wanted to pretend this never happened, whoever killed Greg might be coming for me next. I considered the police, but the last thing they needed was more incoherent rambling.

I spent the remainder of the day researching the requirements for a pistol permit, as well as every other defensive tool I considered: knives, guns, tasers, pepper spray, body armor, batons. As a construction worker, I already had a veritable arsenal at my disposal. Throwing a few extra things in there would not hurt. Hell, I could probably build most of the stuff I needed. Either way, I knew I'd be spending time in the parish center's basement.

That night, I dreamt of strange realms once more. This time, I walked across a ruin-laden landscape, a red Martian desert beneath thick, ominous clouds that rapidly fled something over the horizon. The half-buried structures that peeked from the red dust were of innumerable styles, architectures, and geometries. The corpses of a thousand worlds laid bare on that infinite plain, some embedded with a half-organic growth. Against my better judgment, I ran my hand against one.

I beheld a city of quinquangular, black basalt skyscrapers, connected above and beneath the water by a network of enclosed bridges. Organic, insatiable things chased the inhabitants through their former homes and residences, turning galleries into gore-filled houses. Their five-sided bodies and eyestalks aside, I felt a kinship with these creatures. Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star spawn, or whatever they had been, they were people! Betrayed by things wrought by their own experiments, but they were people. All too fallible. Just like us. Just like me.

I found myself back on the nightmarish plain once more, feeling an indescribably chill run down my spine. I staggered forward, and I saw another building, a steel structure lying on its side. Curiously, there was no rust, but scouring and scorch marks covered it. The way it partially protruded from the ground suggested it had fallen, or crashed, from great heights. Carefully caressing it, I felt why.

I saw a man, or something that shared its form, in a suit of olive powered armor with a heavy gun in hand. Organic, gibbering creatures threw themselves at him, even as the starship crashed towards the surface below. Characters on battered armor, burnt as bright and clear as a supernova, ignited as the transhuman trooper blasted the demonic creatures. When his blast struck the gibbering, slavering abomination, it exploded in a shower of charred organs and searing light. The shape of those characters, that celestial writing, looked like my own.

I found myself once more on that hellish plain, and I was not alone. The ground beneath me grew moist and organic, like the soft tongue of a sleeping beast. The air grew rank and fetid, as though some immense abomination breathed beneath me. The third structure I saw was half-engulfed, embedded deeper than the spaceship had been. It was clearly a stone structure of some sort, although its ornate, runic carvings were nearly indecipherable from eons of erosion in this wasteland. With less hesitation, I touched it.

I beheld an immaculate realm of stone spires and interwoven towers. The city was a gossamer web of ceramics that looked halfway between grown and carved. Small stone platforms, ringed by large sapphires, levitated above the city, providing light and water. Having glimpsed the fate of this city, I grimly beheld its fall. A trio of robed figures, humans of varied skin colors, charged towards a tower wreathed in sickly red energy. They drew staves, and backed away slowly, but the energy grew more intense. Things, like those that had destroyed the first two cities, poured out and ripped them to shreds. The last of them had arms glowing with similar characters as the armored trooper, and lasted the longest against that infernal onslaught.

It was then I understood. This was Hell, or at least something effectively the same. It was a tumor between dimensions, consuming sentient beings across civilizations. It drew across dimensions to those who embodied the destructive, malignant urges it resonated with. Over eons, it corrupted, enslaved, and consumed realms, nations, and worlds into its eternally-growing ranks. Collaborators might live on as its appendages, pathetic, corrupt shells of anything they once stood for. It was the unrestrained urge, the ever-present call for more. Perhaps there was no Devil, no Satan atop a bloody throne, but instead the mind of this cancerous realm itself.

Yet there was hope. Those marked, those covered with the characters, were effective weapons against those creatures. Perhaps they were some sort of interdimensional immune response. Perhaps they were predators, and the forces of Hell were their prey. Their abilities, their urges, made them more effective at going on the offense. I saw examples that were too late. I recognized a kinship, of sorts, with them. They mastered their abilities, but I was a neophyte.

I needed combat training, and I only knew one person that could provide that. I knew Jada would be at the basement gym tonight, and I'd be there. While I was no longer working, I nevertheless had a busy day ahead of me. I did not want my world to join that corpse-pile of a thousand worlds. I wondered if I should talk with Nick about it, but I had enough of my own business to resolve first.

In my workshop, I made dozens of gadgets while listening to military history and police procedural podcasts. I started with a pipe shotgun, something that could be dissembled and carried without much notice. I broke out the soldering iron and circuit board for a high-energy radio frequency emitter, a HERF device to muck up any electronics in the vicinity. Electronics weren't my strength, but they were everywhere nowadays. Jamming them made a situation a simple question of mechanical, brute force. That was my world.

I made a few special shells, as well. I loaded a few with rubber balls I picked up from a nearby dollar store, in case I needed an ad-hoc less-lethal approach. I grabbed slugs, birdshot, and buck from a nearby outdoors store. The sugar and black powder-based smoke rounds were for hasty exits. I made a few subsonic loads, in case we needed silence. My personal favorite, and perhaps the most original among them, was the light gas round. The powder charge pushed a piston that compressed some hydrogen, which was channeled through a de Laval nozzle and burst disk, before shoving a small pellet out the front at some obscene velocity. Physicists used similar devices to simulate meteor impacts. No way these would chamber in a regular shotgun. Even without all of them, a construction worker is never unarmed.

By the time I was done building, I heard someone else coming down the stairs. I turned to see Jada moving towards me with spring in her stride. She was already dressed in a white gi, with a duffel bag slung over her shoulders. She winked at me as she walked into the makeshift gym. "You always come early?" she asked, half-seriously.

Again, it took me a few seconds to catch her entendre. I felt like a lunkhead for a moment. I might've been a lapsed Catholic, but I still had an ingrained Catholic guilt. I wondered if my prudish life had blinded me to some key other part of the human experience, something which most of my peers would be well-acquainted by their twentieth birthday. Perhaps I'd missed something about being both a lover and a fighter. I once more ignored carnal concerns to focus on my training. Pleasure came and went, but education endured.

Jada was stretching out, eager to show off her long, limber legs. I changed into shorts and an old tee shirt before doing my own stretches. I saw her glancing at me as I did wrist push-ups. I wondered if it was her being concerned with sloppy form, or if it was due to other thirsts. Or both. She was a personal trainer, after all.

Jada retrieved a rubber machete from her bag. "Ever done weapons drills?"

"No. I thought we were going to do grappling," I said.

"We start standing up," she said. "And we work our way to the ground."

"You know knife fighting?" I asked.

"Started with swords," she said. "But I know how to handle someone else's blade."

I reddened, pretending to be oblivious. "Sorry. A lot's been on my mind."

"I can tell," she said. "You had a strange dream, right?"

"How did you know?" I asked.

"Lucky guess," she said, shrugging. "I had them, too. One about you walking naked into a pond, and me wandering through a strange hellscape."

"With the alien city, crashed spaceship, and stone tower?"

"Virtue finds and choses the mean," Jada said, exactly as in the dream. "You know where that's from, don't you?"

"Aristotle," I said. "And the first dream."

I would have freaked out and ran if Jada hadn't moved closer to me, pressing the rubber blade to my chest. She slipped my hands onto hers, and showed me where to push. This time, I understood her with no words. Twisting my hips, I brushed the blade aside, trapping her wrist. I rotated her elbow and threw her to the ground. She sprang back to her feet and held it in her other hand. I repeated it, and changed roles. We flowed like two well-oiled gears, although my inexperience slowed things up.

We did a few other weapon techniques: disarms, slashes, thrusts, and stances. After she demonstrated the isosceles, Weaver, and Chapman stances with her rubber pistol, she worked through transitions. Inside her bag was a simulated arsenal for training: rubber knives, fake guns, clubs, and plenty of striking pads. We didn't do much striking, but I knew it was something I had to work on. Before we went to grappling, she showed me something at the bottom of her bag: an old sword.

"This is a reproduction of a British 1796 Pattern Infantry Officer's sword," she said. "Based on one from the Second Maroon War."

I recalled my cursory history of Jamaica. The Maroons were the descendants of escaped slaves that lived in the hills, who'd fought both the Spanish and the British. I wondered if they'd been Jada's ancestors, perhaps passing the original down as a heirloom. She held the blade and then slipped off the handle, revealing a concealed compartment in the hilt. Inside was a carbon dioxide canister, feeding into a channel etched into the blade.

I immediately winced. That was undoubtedly a modern modification, similar to the wasp knives used by divers against sharks. Anyone stabbed with such a weapon would have a rapid, agonizing death as compressed gas expanded into their innards. I'd heard of them on a hunting podcast I'd listened to at random whim. Why she'd made, or commissioned, such a weapon implied a few uncomfortable things.

"I grew up in a bad part of Kingston, before coming here," she said, reading me like an open book. "So it was necessary sometimes."

I nodded. "So, are we going to roll?"

With that, Jada tried to sweep me. I stepped back, moving to her side. I sprawled on top of her, but she pulled me into guard. This time, I was ready for her. I jammed my elbows into her thighs, pressing my weight into them. Her legs buckled back, but I slipped under them. I got into side mount, keeping my chest pinned to hers. I tried not to think about how intimate a grappler knew their partner's body, even as I fully mounted and straddled her. She was clearly enjoying it.

Jada pulled a risky move, slipping out between my wide legs. She latched onto my back, slipped her elbow around my neck, and tried pulling me into a rear naked choke. I pulled down on her hand and pivoted towards her. I dropped my weight on her again, but she wised up. She rolled her extended legs like spindles, pinwheeling me away. I rushed back in like a fool, but she was waiting for me. She narrowly caught me in a triangle, and I tapped.

We rolled a few more times before calling it a night. The third time we rolled, I tapped her with an arm-bar I lucked into. For that night, at least, my strength and inexperienced matched her finesse and training. At various times between the matches, I'd looked at my arms, seeing the strange characters seeming to grow, like some mad tattooist was inking me unseen. I was honestly surprised I was doing this well at all, although I supposed it wasn't just my own skill helping me. I could feel something working through me, through us, as we practiced on that worn-out mat. Maybe it was Jesus, maybe God, maybe something else.

Jada cleaned up in the bathroom, and she changed into a tee-shirt and jeans. I packed up the veritable arsenal I'd manufactured, and I walked out to join her. I saw similar characters marching and down her arms, flickering in an inexplicable light. I drew a notepad and started copying them down, as well as my own. I would try to research whatever language this was, if it even was a human language. I remembered, and then I brought up something.

"Jada," I asked. "Have you met anyone else like us?"

"What do you mean, like us?" her eyes perked up.

"People with this writing, this connection," I said, pointing to the strange characters on my limbs. "I met a guy, Reverend Nick-"

Her eyes widened. "Please tell me you didn't talk with him," she said. "That man is a snake."

"M-my coworker was murdered the other day," I said. "I was scared, confused, and-"

"Matthew," she said, pronouncing my whole name as if in admonishment. "He probably organized the killing."

"Wait, what?"

"When I moved here, he approached me with a strange story about being hunted," she said, hissing. "I approached him cautiously, and soon afterwards, a goon named Carmichael man killed my coworker."

"But why? Doesn't he just run a charity?"

She shook her head. "I don't know what he does, but it's nothing good," she said. "I could practically feel the sleaze rolling off him. Couldn't you?"

Memories flashed back to me. I recalled the shit-eating grin that always plastered his face. I recalled his preoccupation with appearances. I recalled how the inside of his ministry was rotten and shoddy. I recalled him on a burner phone with a man named Carmichael. I recalled the strange sensations I got, and the false comfort he promised. How better to send someone into distress, I wondered, then by causing it yourself?

"I didn't tell him about you," I said. "But he knows where I work. He knows I spend time here."

"Then we should go," Jada said. "And be safe."

Jada kissed me as she headed upstairs. I followed her out, still dumbstruck by what happened. I felt concern and compassion swirling within my mind, as my loins followed suite. I took a few minutes to focus, since I wanted to be clear-minded for the ride home. I gathered my things, and I headed upstairs. Jada had already left, and only my moped remained parked out front. However, I was not alone.

I felt him before I saw him. He lurked in the blackened rear of Saint Barbara's, beside the old garage. He must've been waiting for me. He moved up behind me, as I struggled to retrieve a weapon from my bag. A sap came down on my head, and I stepped back out of range. In that frantic moment, I glimpsed a face in the darkness, the prematurely aged, ogrish countenance of meth addict.

"Carmichael?" I uttered, half-inquiring and half-accusing.

He did not stop. He was bigger and stronger than me, a reminder why I could not rely on brute force alone. I fumbled through my bag, eager to draw a weapon. Instead, I only drew a pipe from my half-dissembled shotgun. I felt confidence overwhelm me, as I heard a strange calling in my ears. It was like the peaceful choir from my first dream, a tone somewhere between feminine and ethereal. My bludgeon arced towards Carmichael's scab of a head, but I was too late.

I'd telegraphed my move too blatantly. As strong as I was, whatever help I'd had from otherworldly entities, was all for naught in that moment. Flesh failed. Faith failed. Carmichael was far more familiar with violence than I'd ever been. His club came towards my torso with the alacrity of an avalanche, knocking the wind out of me with one fell move. I staggered for a moment, and then the another blow connected. It all went black.

I dreamt once more, but these were not welcomed dreams. I saw an older, middle-aged man, holding a Bible in hand. He spoke angrily with a man resembling a younger Nick James. The younger James leapt from his seat, choked the preacher unconscious, and snapped his neck. He rifled through the man's pockets, taking his wallet, car keys, and Bible. He drove off, a twisted smile on his face. The glowing characters on his arms grew gnarled and warped.

I woke in agony, as ice cold water splashed against my bare chest and face. I saw a dim light overhead, a dying bulb illuminating the frigid, forsaken basement I was trapped within. I threw myself forwards, but the ropes bound me to a heavy chair. Carmichael's distinctive form blocked out the light, as ominous as an eclipse shadow. A smaller figure emerged behind him, like the moon of a black planet. From the cigarette in his hand to the smug grin, I immediately knew who was behind it.

"Greetings, Mr. Murphy," Nick said. "I guess if it can go wrong, it already has."

I tried replying, but the gag kept my words from escaping.

"No need to struggle, Mr. Murphy," the corrupted preacher said. "I have no quarrel with you, so long as you comply."

I said nothing. Instead, I tried slipping out of my bounds. Nick simply walked up to me, and he pressed his lit cigarette to my bare chest. My eyes widened with pain as the heat singed my skin. I screamed, despite my best efforts not to. He didn't care. This basement was deep enough to be effectively soundproofed. He gestured to Carmichael, who emptied the contents of my bag onto the basement floor.

"You had quite an arsenal on you," he said. "Had I known, I would've offered you a position as an armorer to my associates here. No matter. These will fetch a good price on the street."

Another bucket of cold water flew at me, striking the raw area of skin burnt by the cigarette. I heard the hiss of steam and agony rip through my body. In the darkness, I saw those strange characters glowing. While I didn't even know their message, or what language they were, they comforted me. Even if I died down in this horrible basement, I'd had one thing to cling to, which they couldn't take away.

"What I want is simple," Nick said, reaching into his coat pocket. He pulled out a small, compact semi-automatic pistol that looked as expensive as his coat and car. "You are going to tell me everything you know about Jada."

I wondered what happened between him and Jada before, but it probably was not good. I recalled him mentioning he knew a woman with our markings, but she vanished after her coworker was murdered. I wondered if he was lying, or if he referred to her. Either way, she was some object of ire, for reasons that now seemed clear to me. Whatever Nick was up to, he'd dropped the smarmy façade to reveal the rot underneath. Just like his building.

A cellphone rang, and Nick sighed. He holstered his pistol and stepped back. He pulled out a flip phone, and he headed towards the stairs. "I've got to step out," he said, gesturing to his underling. "Carmichael, make him talk, and I'll give you your next fix."

Nick walked up a rickety flight of wooden stairs, leaving me alone in the basement. I saw Carmichael walk towards a familiar toolbox, setting a number of my tools on top. My pliers, my screwdriver, my drill, my hacksaw, my hammer. This creep was undoubtedly going to turn the tools of my trade on me, with all the finesse of a drunken fool. A cruel smile crossed his ragged face, as he imagined the sadistic fantasies he'd soon indulge in. A quick look around the floor revealed over rust-red stains, and I figured this was not the first time he'd done something like this.

With nothing left to lose, I threw myself to the side. My bodyweight capsized the chair like an overloaded boat, sending me sprawling to the floor. It was a jolt of pain, but the ropes came loose. I struggled against the biting ropes, like a fish thrashing in a net. I saw the shotgun and my special shells, all less than a meter away. It took Carmichael a second to register what happened. He drew my hammer, raised it above his head, and charged me.

It all came together in that moment. My light-gas shell slid into the improvised barrel like a well-oiled piston. The front half of the weapon came back as I slammed it against my crude firing pin, pounding my shoulder like I imagined an amorous couple. The strange symbols glowed bright, like the last gasp of a dying ember. I trusted. Something, someone. I trusted. I was not alone down here. The thunderous report of the weapon deafened me for a moment. When I opened my eyes, Carmichael was no more.

Instead, Carmichael decorated that filthy, bloody basement. He was little more than a series of stains on the wall, floor, and ceiling. He'd probably reduced countless others to such messy smears on the basement floor, and now he joined them. Bits of bone and viscera coated my shirt chest and face, a warm, wet death I nevertheless savored like a good meal. However, my escape would not be so easy.

In the chaos, I'd slammed into and accidentally activated my HERF device. At the top of the stairs, I saw Nick shaking his cell phone in bewilderment. The line had undoubtedly been cut, terminating whatever conversation he was in on. He looked down the stairs as I struggled to load another shell. I rolled behind a flimsy shelf I hoped could catch bullets better than I could. He reached for his pistol.

Nick got off two shots before I dared look up at him. A familiar shape moved up behind him, while his ire was directed at me. I saw the tip of Jada's sword, but coming in for the back. In the chaos between gunshots, I shouted something. "He's got body armor!"

Nick halted for a moment, trying to make sense of what I'd said. The tip of Jada's sword moved from his chest towards his neck. He noticed only a split second too late, as steel slipped through flesh like butter. He futilely brought his pistol up, but it clattered harmlessly to the ground from his dead, limp hand. I saw the character's on Jada's glow, and her sword resonate with similar power. Reverend Nick James exploded a second later. At least I wasn't the only one covered in gore.

Even slathered in blood, Jada looked amazing. I'll spare you the details of how we tossed the place, Reverend James' ministry of horrors. Jada, acting on a hunch, followed the car that Carmichael used to take me to the basement entrance to Riverside Ministries. I gathered my stolen weapons, tools, and gadgets. Jada managed to get Nick's safe opened, after I told her about it, and the verse from Matthew in the foyer. The combination turned out to be 23-1-2, which I knew was more than a lucky guess.

"Even the Devil can quote Scripture for his own purposes," I mused as we emptied it, quoting Shakespeare.

We gathered what we could from inside, cleaned ourselves off as best we could, and we made it out of there before the sun came up. We retreated back to my room to pour over the evidence. What we found was beyond our worst thoughts. There were fake identifications, lists of contacts, and more horrific documentation. Everything about Riverside Ministries was an affront. Laying there on my bed, we descended a list of travesties.

The original Reverend James? Murdered long ago, with the fraud we met stealing his identity. The prisoner outreach program? A way of blackmailing prisoners into further misdeeds. The child adoption program? A front for human trafficking. There was also evidence of dealings with local street gangs, and the false Reverend used drugs and blackmail to keep them in line, like he did with Carmichael. Worse were the other listed contacts: terrorists, dirty cops, corrupt executives, and even politicians. Not just locally, but globally.

"There were ones like us worldwide," Jada said. "But they've been corrupted."

"And they have friends in high and low places," I said. "All working for Hell. All working to end the world."

"Nick was just a low-ranking member," Jada said, sighing. "And they'll notice he's gone."

"So, what are we going to do? Wait for the cops to sort this all out?" I asked. "These creeps own the police."

"And the underworld, too," Jada said. "But there's one thing I realized."

"They can bleed," I said.

Jada smiled wide.

"I'm going to need training," I said. "It's just us against the world."

Jada looked at me. "We're not alone. Can't you feel it?"

I nodded. "Yes," I said. "I feel something else, too."

Jada leaned into me. I felt her breath against mine. My hormones raced. "Are you alright with this?"

"Yes," I said.

She kissed me, and she mounted me. What followed was just as intense and pleasuring as any jiu-jitsu match. I thought I saw our sigils match each other in intensity, a sort of supernal synchronicity. I supposed it was fine, as long as you did things in moderation. Virtue finds and choses the mean. I just didn't want to end up like Nick. As Jada went down on me for the first time, I wondered what I'd been missing. The sounds we made became a true heavenly calling. That was how my mission started.