Authors: Chris Stewart
This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used factiously. Other names, characters, places and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination, and any resemblance to actual events or locals or persona, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
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Original Edition © The Shipley Group Inc. (Published by Deseret Book Company) Condensed Edition © 2013 The Shipley Group Inc. (Published by Mercury Radio Arts, Inc. under license from Deseret Book Company)
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.
Cover design by Richard Yoo
ISBN: 978-0-9892933-0-3 (eBook)
Oh, beautiful, for heroes prov’d
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country lov’d,
And mercy more than life.”
America the Beautiful
Katharine Lee Bates
The two angels stood on the highest point within the cemetery and looked east, taking in the destruction of the once mighty city. Behind them to the west, below the crest of the hill and thus protected from the nuclear blast, were rows and rows of untouched marble markers surrounded by grass and trees. Farther on, beyond the cemetery’s fence, the capital struggled still to live, but before them, on the blast side of the hill, the center of the city was nothing more than ash, the cinders so light and feathery they were caught up in the slightest breeze. The center of destruction was utterly bare, smooth as black glass—no trees, no grass, no living thing, certainly no people. Farther from the center of the destruction, the shattered buildings became somewhat recognizable. Here and there, a few marble pillars protruded from the landscape, and the roads were still identifiable by the lines of tumbled cars. Two of the main bridges across the Potomac River lay in a ruin of twisted steel and black cement, but the north bridge was still open though the downtown portion of the city had been abandoned and might never be reclaimed.
Behind them, crowds of people filled the cemetery, for the grassy knolls and open grass had become a makeshift sanctuary. Farther west, the city looked fairly normal, though it was not nearly as busy as it used to be. One in ten people who once lived here had remained. Others were leaving now, but some were returning, too, having discovered there was little reason to go elsewhere. There were no safe havens in other places. Wherever they went, things were pretty much the same.
Overwhelmed with emotion, the two spirits didn’t speak as they took in the devastating scene. Overhead, the sky was dark and lonesome, a flat-gray plate of clouds that capped the sky. Finally, after nearly half an hour of earthly silence, the father turned to Saint Michael. “Too many cities have been destroyed now.” His voice was strained.
Saint Michael nodded sadly. “Parts of Israel. Most of Gaza. Cities in Iran. Other places throughout the Middle East.”
The father closed his eyes as he remembered. He and Saint Michael had walked those parts of the earth together. He knew what things were like there, having seen the devastation for himself. Entire regions of the mortal world smoldered in radioactive ash. Millions were surrounded by hunger, death and despair. Sin and depravity were so overwhelming there was hardly any hope at all. “How could they do it?” he asked. “I simply don’t understand.”
Saint Michael thought before he answered. “Let’s not blame them all,” he said. “There are many good still left among them. And that is true everywhere. Whatever country or region you chose to take me to, I could find you good and righteous people living there.”
The father brought his hands up to his face, then slowly shook his head. It was just too painful to see the suffering and too frustrating to know it could have been avoided if the people had only seen and only cared.
Saint Michael watched him thoughtfully for a moment, then touched him on the shoulder. “You’ve forgotten, my good friend, what it was like to live here. You’ve forgotten how powerful the voice of Lucifer can be. You’ve forgotten the pull of temptations, the anger, the lust and greed and weakness of the natural man. Your memory has been washed—though just a bit, perhaps—of the intensity of the experience, which is fine. Mortal life can be so acute, so severe and so powerful that sometimes it’s hard for us to remember how difficult it really was. And the Dark One is even more dangerous now than he was before.”
The father shook his head. “No, Michael, I haven’t forgotten. Not a moment. Not an hour. Every day, every emotion, every joy and every fear, every lesson learned is branded upon me. You know we don’t forget.”
Saint Michael didn’t answer for a moment. “I don’t suppose we do,” he said at last.
The father shook his head again. “No, we don’t forget.” Then he nodded to the mortals huddled in the tents below. “They think that we forgot them, though.”
Michael smiled, his eyes shining. “A bit of irony, I suppose. I mean, how could we forget them? How could we forget our own children? We love them now more than we ever did, for our love is more perfect, which makes it more powerful.”
“If only they
. If only they
. If they would just try to listen for us, then they might hear our tender words.”
Saint Michael folded his arms, his face relaxed. It was as if he knew a secret that he wasn’t telling. “They are so busy,” he answered carefully. “There are so many battles for their time. It’s hard for them, just like it was hard for you and me.”
The father thought a long moment as he studied the grassy cemetery that fell below him to the west. “So you think that I can help him.”
“Yes, I know you can.”
The father hesitated. He was a much younger spirit than Saint Michael and not as sure.
Saint Michael watched the uncertainty in his eyes. “He’s your kin,” he reminded. “The earthly bonds between you are deep, the heavenly bonds even more powerful.” He moved his head to the side and pointed to the west, almost laughing. “And remember this, my friend; his mother is out there praying. You’ve heard her many prayers. They are so strong and faithful, they almost drive me to my knees. Could you deny such faith?” He shook his head. “I don’t think either of us can.”
Closing their eyes, the three of them slipped away, drifting into an agitated and restless sleep.
One of them was in Saudi Arabia, one was flying over the North Atlantic Ocean, and the last one was back in the United States. All of them dreamed powerful premonitions of the future.
But one dreamed of darkness, while the other two dreamed of light.
* * * * * * *
Azadeh slept inside the moving aircraft as it cruised at nearly supersonic speed across the vast emptiness of the ocean. They flew high, above 43,000 feet. It was early evening and because they were heading east, the day was short, the sun setting behind them in a third of the time it normally took for darkness to come on.
She sat near the back of the high-performance military executive transport. Sam and the other soldiers huddled near the front. The aircraft was too small for them to stand and the seats were close together, the aisle narrow, so they bunched up behind the cockpit door, which was open, allowing them to see the rows of multicolored panels and other cockpit instrument displays.
Azadeh watched and listened for as long as she could force herself to stay awake, but sheer exhaustion eventually overcame her and she drifted off to sleep.
* * * * * * *
It was a dark world, filled with noise and rubble and filth and smoke. It was hard to breathe, the air tart and acidic with the burning fuel and rubber from the line of destroyed cars that littered the dark streets. She could hear the muffled but heartbreaking sobbing of a mother who’d lost her child. Azadeh pressed her scarf to her face, holding her palm against her nose to filter the dirty air. There was something else in the smell, heavier, more powerful, and it made her stomach turn. The smell of burning flesh. A hot wind blew up from the south, swirling pieces of paper and tattered garbage at her feet.
Without warning, there was a terrible roar behind her; she didn’t even have time to turn before the fighter aircraft—dark with heavy bombs hanging from its canted wingtips, its two engines spouting blue flames—screamed over her head. It was so low she could actually feel the heat from its engines, the roar so powerful she could feel it in her chest, the passing air so piercing she had to slap her hands against her ears.
The fighter disappeared as quickly as it had screamed up from behind her, leaving her with the emptiness again. The crying mother was silent now. There was not another soul around.
She stood there a long moment. She felt so desperate and alone. The empty street stretched on before her, straight, without any intersections, an unending canyon of buildings on both sides. Everywhere she looked it was the same hopeless devastation, the same fatal sense of despair. Moving to a smoldering car beside her, she climbed up on its crooked bumper and looked down the street for as far as she could see. It grew darker in the distance, the details swallowed up in the dying light.
She took a breath and squared her shoulders.
She had no choice but to walk.
She shivered, stepped down from the car, and started walking. The street continued stretching out before her. She moved faster now, feeling a sense of urgency she hadn’t felt before.
She almost broke into a run.
Something was up ahead of her. Something important. Something good.
She saw a flash of movement and slowed her pace. A thick darkness had gathered all around her but she didn’t feel afraid anymore.
Realizing the peace inside her, she stopped.
For the first time since the day on the mountain when her father had been killed, it was true, she wasn’t scared. She felt sure and peaceful. She felt warm and full of joy.
The little boy emerged from the shadows and walked into the street. She didn’t move, her heart beating in her chest, her eyes wide in awe, her hands brought together in surprise. He was so beautiful. Flowing hair. Wide, almond eyes. Dark skin. Beautiful teeth behind a flashing smile. A little girl followed him. Azadeh sucked in her breath again. A brother and his little sister. She was as beautiful as he. The little girl walked toward her older brother and he turned to help her navigate the cluttered street.
The little boy finally caught sight of Azadeh. Seeing her, he stopped.
He was close now, so close she could read every expression in his eyes.