The nexus of rain and sediment seeped through some of the time-worn razor-thin cracks in the rough hewn ceiling of the lower caverns of the catacomb chamber. This particular room was a mere cavity that had been recently carved out by excavation efforts. A few geologist tools had been left, neatly laid to the side wall. In the flickering light below, the suffocating room gave the impression of crimson, as sanguine flexuous droplets trickled down the side of the rock wall and over the Roman numeral majuscules that had long ago been etched in the stone; hieroglyphic chronicles that would identify to the pious and historian alike a memorial melange of bloody and unbloody sacrifices from the earliest of Anno Domini times.
These uneven, worn confines, which had sheltered and witnessed an explosion of Faith in the face of indescribable, insane persecution and suffering over the early centuries, and in later centuries harbored clochards who were not welcome in Roman homes, would this night testify silently to the conventicle of three men who believed fate had dealt them a cruel blow as they hovered close to the lifeless body of Patrick Michael Gallagher.
He had been breathing, though not well when they had managed to steal him out of the restaurant and find a willing cab a few blocks away. To the Roman driver it had seemed like just another night of drunkenness that had turned to stupor. Bar fights and bawdy behavior were common to these night coachmen who had been privy to things so ribald that often times such tales never made it to the confessional; so embarrassed were the violators or witnesses to such behavior. Therefore the cabbie hadn't blinked when Niki and Stephen cradled a weak, incoherent Pat, shuffling him into the back seat, concealing his bloody wounds with Niki's overcoat. They considered their fortunes improved when Niki had spotted Ogidi a few blocks further down in the shadows. He had evidently gone to retrieve his medical bag. That was vital. After rejoining them, Makuta had quickly taken charge in the front seat, relaying directions and conversing in Italian with the driver.
Dropped off a block from St. Clement's, on Stephen's directions they had found a door near the sacristy of the ancient church and carefully carried Pat down the steep, rickety steps where construction workers had abandoned for the last week their work of reinforcing the walls and ceilings of the first level beneath the church. The trio, carting Pat's wounded body, had wended their way through narrow, dank, dirt-filled tunnels and down wider stone steps covered in loam until they had found a larger room where they had carefully laid Pat, cradling his head beneath Ogidi's medical bag. The good doctor had emptied it of the vital ingredients he would need. After a shot, some gauze and salve, Makuta had inserted an IV, drawn blood from both Niki and Stephen to replenish Pat's, whose breathing became steadier for a short time and then had tapered off until a comatose state took over. Less that half an hour later the breathing ceased altogether and Ogidi had removed the IV. There was nothing more anyone could do.
Dateline: Catacomb chamber beneath Rome - November 5th, 5:05 a.m.
"O ye of little faith," might have been the watchword this cold night in the dank catacombs that connected to the second level beneath St. Clement's Church. Here in the dank climes of near darkness a light was brighter than anyone could imagine. Yet Dr. Makuta Ogidi and the two consecrated ones - Monsignor Stephen Navarro and Father Nicolosi Andriopoulos - could not see it. Were they blinded by it or to it? Truth be known, in their grief they saw it not for it was an interior light, one which Niki had prayed for endlessly from the very second the demonic, inhuman claw clutched at Pat Gallagher's throat in the Ristorante Romano and the guttural roar of the monster that signaled victory before unspeakably and inexplicably exploding in an implosionary fashion before their very eyes. Unbelievable! Unreal! Unearthly! Hideous and horrible!
The two priests knelt in prayer over the lifeless, body of the Texas reporter who, less than six hours ago had been so alive and animated in the restaurant. As Niki wiped off melted wax that had dripped onto the cold ground floor to warm his own hands, he held out hope that life would return - hope against hope that somehow, someway God would see fit to bring Pat back, back to fight another day.
At that moment, though he hoped, Niki did not truly believe God would perform a magnum opus on this contentious American whose blood oozed skepticism. Yet, unbeknownst to Niki and Stephen,
within the lifeless body over which they held prayer vigil, there was a recrudescence of a survivor; one who had faced death and passed beyond and then, for reasons only known to the Almighty, was ushered back from the blinding light into the reality of the finite purgatory of mortal man. Pain was the first signal he was back.
Slowly his mind rose from the velvet-lined oblivion where he had lingered in ethereal suspension, desirous of remembering nothing, to an intense aching which seemed to encompass his entire body. Pat's groan signaled a miracle. Niki was ecstatic as he made a quick sign of the cross and a prayerful ejaculation and leaned closer to his weakened friend.
"Welcome back to the world...again."
"Ooooh, Nik, what happened?"
"You, my friend, were dead. Medically in every way," stated Ogidi in seeming disbelief as he moved to the other side above Stephen. "I monitored you myself."
"God does exist, Doctor," Stephen affirmed as Niki nodded almost giddily.
"Ouch." Pat cringed as the pain brought him back to the circumstances of the agony he was in. "This is getting to be a bad habit. How bad's the damage?"
"Thank God, you'll live," Niki emoted.
"I think we'll call you Lazarus," Fr. Navarro chided.
"Don't ever let me doubt you again, Nik." Pat's sincerity and gratitude was genuine.
"Ah, blessed are they who believe but have not seen."
"Well, I seen it, guys and I still don't believe it!" Gallagher was dead serious.
"And somehow we were seen," injected Ogidi, ruining the reunion.
Stephen was defensive. "But we're safe now. I don't think we were followed."
"Where are we?
Niki was the first to answer Pat's query. "Where Christians sought refuge when they too were persecuted - the catacombs."
"Well, they had better odds against the lions than we do with lizards!"
Kneeling to check Pat's wounds and check the blood supply, Ogidi turned clinical. "You have lost much blood. You, Patrick are one lucky young man. I am reinserting the IV that I had used until you were declared dead."
"Huh, dead!? Pat's blank stare turned to recognition from the affirmative nods of both Niki and Stephen.
"We administered Extreme Unction, Patrick," Stephen explained. "We thought you were a goner."
Was it all a nightmare, Pat thought as the elixir Ogidi had injected began to take effect. Everything was slowing down, the pain was easing but he was maintaining consciousness. What quickened were his memories, sketchy thoughts of the inky events that blanketed his psyche. That woman - Maria - at the restaurant. No, she'd not been a woman. Far from it. A thing! A hideous monster that bespoke the growing power of the Basilisk. Pat tried to remember more specifically what happened. It helped blot out the pain, especially in his right arm. Fragments flew by his thoughts. The hate-filled monster who'd seared his flesh, the mad flight through rain-soaked streets, the agony in his arm and chest.
He could not describe in human terms the interior sense of peace he experienced after that. No pain, just buoyant in that brilliant light which faded from his memory the more he tried to recall its image. Had he seen God? If that was Heaven what fears could he possibly have here on earth. He had crossed the Rubicon of revelation and resurrection. The Church was right, "to die is to gain" for Christ said it, "He who believes in me, even if he die, shall live."
The reverence of this discovery was interrupted by a jolt of pain as Ogidi extracted the IV. "I fear that is all the blood we have right now, my American friend."
"He'll live won't he?" Stephen was practically pleading.
"He is - how do you Americans say - 'not out of the woods' yet." Ogidi responded, turning towards Pat, "You need to receive injections to prevent infection. I regret that I do not carry such medicines with me."
"What can we do, Makuta?" Andriopoulos pensively probed.
"We need to get him to a hospital, but that is risky, very risky. Frankly, we're all at risk."
Niki nodded, "we were fortunate to escape the Legion's clutches."
"I was afraid they'd gotten to you, Makuta." A look of concern flushed Stephen's face. "Once outside the restaurant I lost you."
"I, too, feared the worst, Makuta," Niki added.
"Diversionary tactics," assured Ogidi.
"More like survival tactics, I'd say, Nik."
Ogidi finished wrapping Pat's wounds. "There. That will stop the bleeding - for now."
"Much obliged, Doc." After a pause, Pat managed to sit up, bracing his body with his good left arm.
"So, guys, what do we do now? Don't know about you, but I'm mighty tired of being the fall guy for this Legion. I say we strike back."
"Patrick, we cannot afford to rush headlong into their midst," Niki counseled him. "Until we are certain we have the means to stop the antichrist."
"And do we?"
"We will." Stephen assured him.
"Do not forget, my friends," Niki admonished, "that it is darkest before it is light. We have God...and from Him will come the means necessary to do what we must."
"Then I must return to the Vatican. It is imperative I speak to Cardinal Zachmunn," Stephen insisted. "I believe he holds the key."
"What key?" Pat wanted to know. "What can he know, or do for that matter, that we can't figure out by ourselves? I mean, from what you've told us, Stephen, Zachmunn's not in a particularly good position to have a private chat with you. If the Basilisk has penetrated the Vatican you can be sure Zachmunn's bein' watched."
"I'm certain of it," Navarro agreed. "Which is why I must go back. Maybe I can prevent any tragedy from befalling him. He is, after all, a man who has traced the rise of the Basilisk for years and has striven to find it and stop it before - - "
"In the meantime," Niki spoke up, "we must try to find out what the next move of the Legion is going to be. We are going to have to go back out there, and seek them out."
"Wonderful," Pat commented dryly, wincing in pain. "I'm so relieved to know that. It's what I've been saying from the beginnin'. We're not gonna accomplish a damn thing sittin' around here."
"We are sitting around here," Niki reminded him, "because you were 'cooked' by that thing in the restaurant. We could hardly leave you smoldering on the floor, now could we?"
"I'm better," Pat lied, knowing he deceived no one. "Stephen, I've got an idea."
"Oh, oh," Niki muttered.
"No, seriously, hear me out. Why not take one of us back to the Vatican with you?"
"No. I --" Stephen interrupted, but Pat rushed on.
"Just hear me out, dammit. You can get one of us in and out of that place. And there has to be places to hide...we'll be creative. Anyway, once you can get to Zachmunn, how else are you goin' to report back to us what you've learned? This way, you've got a ready-made courier and someone to cover your ass. What could be better?"
"Profanely put," tutted Niki. "War games. You have studied the military maneuvers well, no?"
"No. I watched a lot of old WWII movies on TV," came Pat's sarcastic reply. "Look, it's not as stupid as it sounds. Why take any more chances than we have to? There's too few of us to scatter our remains about Rome, while the antichrist or whatever you want to call the head lizard just walks in and takes over. And if it sounds like a war maneuver, hey, let's face it. It is! Hey, we gotta play the same game, think like the enemy, or else be defeated by those bastards."
"The American reporter is right, my friends," Ogidi agreed. "One of us must go with you, Monsignor Navarro. There is safety in numbers. We are not soldiers in the proper sense. But unless we quickly learn to think in the way of the Legion we will succumb. All our efforts will be in vain, and those who have already died will have done so for nothing. I, for one, do not like to face those facts."
"Okay," Stephen was impatient. "But we must decide quickly. It's growing late. If Macelli or Father Urazzi should wake early and find me missing, we may be too late to get any information from His Eminence, or even warn him."
"Can you smuggle Pat in with you?" asked Ogidi.
Niki was adamant. "Pat's in no condition to--"
"I'll go," Pat grimaced, rising stiffly to his feet and holding his injured arm tightly against his side.
"You are in no condition to go," Niki sharply rebuked him yet again.
"Look, it's about time I started doing more than bumblin' my way from one near brush with death to another. I owe you guys that much," Pat said tersely. "I'm not opposed to gittin' down and dirty if I have to. Not now. Not after that 'thing' nearly barbecued me. Besides, Nik, I'm not afraid to die anymore. I'm ready."
"Are you really, Pat?" Niki was searching for total conviction.
"Well," Gallagher hesitated, "I'm no saint, but --"
"I think it is wise that he goes, Father. The monsignor can get him the medical attention he needs at the infirmary and he can keep him hidden. Surely you can furnish some clerical garb for him?"
"Yes, of course, but we must hurry."
"Then it is settled," finalized Ogidi. "We will proceed in this manner. Stephen and Pat will return to the Vatican before dawn. My Greek friend and I will, in the meantime, seek a place where we can remain in some safety. I fear my flat is no longer safe. At the same time we will continue to track down the other members of the Legion. Tonight, either Pat or Stephen will rendezvous with us."
"So we meet back here?"
"No, we must stay on the move." Niki was adamant. "Even though I agree we weren't followed, it is no longer wise for us to return to a place for a second time. This Legion, deriving its power from the basiliskos, will no doubt be able to scent us out. Just as we smell its evil, it can smell our good intentions."
"A hidden place, ah the Colosseo," suggested Stephen. "The Coliseum would be good. By the north gate. I've been there often. It's a virtual labyrinth. Tomorrow night, at one o'clock, one of us will be there to give you an update."
Niki bent and picked up the small candle which he'd placed on the stone floor near Pat and held it aloft, shedding a soft light over their faces.
"Go with God," he softly intoned, anointing both Stephen and Pat.
Immediately the two Americans were on their way out the twisting, tangent and pungent corridors of the ancient ruin. While they made their way toward the entrance, despite the nagging pain and weakness from loss of blood, Pat could not help but derive satisfaction from a renewed faith in God and himself and his friends. He could now more readily identify with those forefathers of the faith who were interred in these crude walls, the same who had given their lives. He was willing to do the same now to save the world from the advent of the antichrist. Martyr. That term never made much sense to him until now. As he and Stephen traversed the underground passageways toward the surface, Pat realized that his allies - countless Christians whose remains had composited into the very soil that further fortified these walls - were now Heavenly souls cheering and praying him onward and upward.
The one thought that he clung to as they neared the door to the outside was this: Inevitably those brave souls had to leave the sanctuary of the catacombs and bravely, boldly, fearlessly face the enemy. So did he. That thought carried him up and out into the drenching rain which could not quench the stench that pervaded the earth, a fetor that came from the ultimate evil on earth - the yet-to-be revealed antichrist who still lurked in the shadows, watching, waiting, plotting and preying.
Next issue: Ninth Chapter - Episode Four
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