(c) 2015 Thomas F. Brown, All Rights Reserved.
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August 17, 2217
The self-proclaimed “Lord” of the Army of the Cross held Sunday services in front of the great wooden “X” in the center of town. The mayor’s body had been left in the shackles to rot. The crowd that had been forced to attend the ceremony didn’t flinch or hold their noses against the stench — they were afraid of the possible consequences.
Fortunately, the Tigerflies were not in attendance, perhaps due to the plant sap sprayed on the body, so the people were (for the moment, anyway) safe from those dangerous insects.
Obviously cribbed from every branch of Christianity known to man, the Lord’s preaching was filled with platitudes and generic morality.
“You must free yourselves of the dependencies of flesh,” he said in a loud voice. “You must trust in God’s Grace for salvation and know that this world is merely a proving ground for the afterlife. You must worship God with all your heart and all your soul and prove to Him you are worthy of Heaven. Fail in that and you will be condemned to burn in the fires of Hell. Make no mistake: God will not save the faithless. He will not tolerate the skeptical, the uncertain, the irresolute. Believe in God and He will share with you eternal life.”
The man’s features didn’t change. They remained flat and unemotional throughout the ceremony. It was, Ben thought later, as if the Lord wore a lifelike mask under that grey monk’s hood. But the voice was a different story. It changed dynamically as he spoke. That voice now grew angry and demanding.
“Bring her,” he called to his soldiers. Now, the men and women were standing side-by-side, together for the first time all week. There were whispered exchanges of reassurance between them, but talking was frowned upon, so it was done carefully when the soldiers weren’t paying attention. The resulting tension was palpable. But while the adults were all together, the children had been corralled to one side, surrounded by angry men with guns, held hostage to the good behavior of their parents. Needless to say, they were terrified. A few were visibly sobbing, such as the six-year-old girl they pulled out of the group by her arm.
“Ow,” the little girl cried. “You’re hurting me.” The soldier smacked her hard across the cheek for her trouble, and while she continued sobbing, she said nothing more. The girl quickly found herself standing next to the Lord. She struggled desperately to control herself to avoid being hit a second time.
“And now the parents,” the Lord said. Apparently, this part of the ceremony had been prearranged because the girl’s mother and father were standing in the front of the crowd. Two armed soldiers urged them forward until they were standing face-to-face with the Lord. The two men shouldered their crossbows and drew swords. The Lord made a motion with his hand, and the parents were forced to their knees. Their heads were pushed down and swords set against their necks.
The little girl, near frantic with terror, looked on with eyes as big as saucers, her cheeks wet with tears. The Lord turned and addressed her.
“You admitted to your teacher that you don’t believe in God,” he said. “Is that true?”
But the girl couldn’t find her voice. She stared up at the man in the grey monk’s robe and trembled uncontrollably.
“Answer me!” the Lord screamed at the top of his voice. The sound echoed around the square as if from a megaphone. The little girl opened her mouth, but still couldn’t speak. Instead, she nodded mutely.
“It is unjust,” the Lord said, addressing the crowd, “to punish a child for something that isn’t her fault. This little girl isn’t to blame for her failure to believe in God. Rather, the sin falls on her parents.” He paused then, while murmurs ran through the assembly. It was less than a week since the invaders arrived, but there was no doubt in anyone’s mind what was coming. The Lord turned back to the little girl.
“But I am not without compassion, little one,” he said, gently. The new tone of voice was more frightening than his anger had been a moment ago. “It is within my power to spare one of your parents. But it will be your choice which one lives. So, who shall it be? Which one will live — mother or father?”
But the girl shook her head: no!
“Choose, girl, or they both die!” Once again he raised his voice to an imperious shout. “Choose!”
The seconds dragged on, and the Lord began to grow impatient. He motioned with his right hand, and the two swords pulled away in preparation to strike.
“Mommy!” the little girl screamed, finding her voice at last. Satisfied, the Lord nodded. The sword threatening the woman was immediately sheathed.
The father wasn’t so lucky.
The sword drew up and back, for a moment glittering in the sunlight before moving with frightening force against the exposed neck. Head separated from body in a deluge of blood. The mother screamed and the little girl fainted.
Total silence settled over the assembly.
The Lord turned to the crowd of wide-eyed children. “This,” he said, addressing them in that same gentle, fatherly tone of voice he’d used with the girl, “is what happens when you fail to learn your lessons.”
Ben witnessed it all in a state of supreme shock. How was such evil even possible? What could possibly drive someone — God-fearing or no — to perform such heinous acts in front of children? And how much longer would it be before all shared the same bloody fate?
“Jesus,” Ben prayed silently, “Why have you abandoned us?”
To be continued …