Pat ran past the middle school, down a lane that led to a small lake. He knew this path like the back of his hand; it was where he went when he had to clear his mind.
He turned right and made his way around the edge of the lake, being sure to watch for the tree roots that insisted on growing through the tar that the city had laid down. This plan for making the course easier for walkers and runners had not passed muster with the natural growth of the surrounding area. Regardless of what anyone did to civilize the pathway, those roots grew right through, bulging and cracking the surface.
He was carefully wending his way through a particularly dense area when he felt a stinging barb in his leg. He stopped at once and looked down at his calf.
There was a fish hook snagged in his skin! Not only had it caught, but because of his speed of motion at the time it went in, it had also dragged a good inch or two. Blood oozed from the gash and dripped down into his sock.
He worked it loose, grimacing in pain, then stood back up to follow the fishing line in order to find who its owner might be.
“Sorry, son. Didn’t see you coming,” said a voice from within the foliage.
Pat watched as an old man, fishing pole in hand, emerged from the greenery and ambled towards him. The fisherman seemed almost too old to still be alive; Pat could not remember seeing anyone so ancient-looking in his life.
“Didn’t expect to see anyone out this early,” the old man explained affably. “Tryin’ to find me some breakfast.”
Pat grinned, dismissing the whole incident as an accident. “No problem. Good luck finding anything in that pond, though. Not much in there this time of year. The brook that feeds it is probably dried up.”
“Well, hasn’t been too bad. Got a couple of rainbow trout yesterday. Good eatin’.” The old man smiled, showing cracked, yellowed teeth.
Pat was surprised. “Really? Never heard of anyone getting rainbows out of this little pond.”
The man chuckled. “Ya just gotta know what they like, and how to call them.” He worked at getting the fishing line back onto the reel. Then he spied the gash on Pat’s leg.
“Oh, that ain’t good. Looks like I sprung ya a leak.”
Pat looked down at the wound. “Guess I ought to get home and take care of it.”
He turned and started back down the path. “See ya.”
“Wait!” the fisherman called. “I can get ya fixed up. I have some bandages and stuff in my tent up there.” He pointed back through the foliage. “Come on up. Hate to see you have to cut your run short.”
He left no room for refusal, just turned and started up the hill. Pat had just opened his mouth to say he’d be fine when the old man slipped and fell, hard, on his knees.
Pat rushed up the incline. “Are you okay? Here, let me help you up.”
“Oh, I’ve fallen harder than this and survived,” the older man insisted. But at the next step, he almost fell again. His face twisted in pain.
Pat lifted him to his feet again. “Best get you to your tent. Looks like you’ll be the one to need first aid.”
“Much obliged—say, we haven’t exchanged names, have we? Mine’s Nicodemus—Nick for short.”
“And I’m Pat. Good to meet you, even in these circumstances.”
They puffed on, wordlessly, until they came to a flattish clearing.
Nick’s tent sat in a circle of sunlight coming through a break in the dense treetops. A chair was conveniently placed near the tent’s entrance.
Pat helped Nick to the chair. “Okay, so where’s the first aid stuff? We should really get ice on those knees of yours. You took a pretty vicious fall there.”
“Oh, I think I’ll be okay,” Nick said, stretching out his legs and rubbing his knees. “The bandages and things are in my backpack just inside the tent flap there.”
Pat nodded and went to work on opening the tent. It was an old canvas one, and the flaps were knotted down tight. He was too busy concentrating on the ties to notice how very carefully Nick was watching him.
Pat finally got the knots undone and slipped inside. The backpack was right beside the entry; he picked it up and brought it out.
“Okay—now where? One of the side pockets?” Pat hoped fervently that the bandages could be found quickly; the day was not getting any earlier, and he had other things to do.
“Nope—think you’ll just have to upend it and sort through everything. I’m not very organized, being alone and all.”
Pat suppressed his frustration. He said, “You know, the cut is not that bad.” He turned his leg; the wound had pretty much dried up. “I don’t think I’ll need to bother you after all.”
“Wish you’d go through the bag for me.” Nick’s voice had suddenly gotten very solemn and quiet.
Pat looked at him quizzically. Why the change? He gave Nick a long look, then slowly turned back to his task.
“Sorry, Pat, didn’t mean to set you off,” Nick chuckled, all gravity gone. “It’s just, well, I could use some help getting that mess cleaned up. Never seem to get around to it.”
Pat found it a weak explanation, but continued to sort through the contents of the backpack: boxes of moldy raisins; a paperback that looked like it had been hauled out of water—at least Pat hoped; a couple of sealed, relatively fresh-looking sandwiches; and numerous single unwashed socks. Pat thought a big fireplace and a well-placed lit match might be a better idea than sorting through this junk.
He sat back. “No bandages, as far as I can see. Do you want all—this—back in the bag?” He shuddered at the thought of handling Nick’s dirty laundry again.
Nick pointed at another pouch, still zipped closed. “Try in there.”
Pat shook his head—why do these things always happen to me?—and opened the pouch. He dumped its contents out on top of the other things, not knowing what horrible surprises might be lurking within.
To his surprise, what fell out were three long, crooked pieces of iron, but unlike any he’d seen used in his lifetime. These looked old, like the museum pieces he’d observed on occasional trips to archaeology exhibits.
“Where did you get these?” he asked Nick, wonder in his voice. He looked up at the old man.
Nick’s face was solemn again. “From a friend. He no longer needed them so I took them, uh, off his hands.”
His eyes grew dark, intense, his stare seeming to turn inward for a moment. Then he blinked, and smiled at the younger man again.
“Well, sir,” he continued, “I was going to use them to maybe put up a door if I ever got a house, but it don’t look like that’s gonna happen. Why don’t you take them— you’re a young feller, and who knows, maybe you could find a use for them.”
Pat thought how ludicrous it would look, him running down the path carrying iron spikes. “Thanks, but no, I really don’t see that happening.”
“You will,” said Nick gravely.
He started, seemed to realize something, then grinned at Pat. “I mean, young guy like you, I bet you could put something together. Go on and take ‘em. My gift to you. For helping me back up to my tent.”
Pat suddenly remembered the old man’s tumble on the slope. “Oh, that’s right—you need ice. I’ll be right back.” He started back down the hill.
“Pat! Take these na–, I mean pieces of iron with you.”
He was about to object, then thought, Maybe, since this old guy seems a bit nuts, taking these sharp objects away from him would be a good idea. He’s dangerous enough with just a fish hook!
Pat walked quickly back up the hill, stooped down, picked up the iron bars—
–and fell over in a dead faint.
Gabriel materialized beside Nick, and together they gazed at the motionless form.
“About time he showed up,” Nick said. “I was about to give up. Not getting any younger, you know.”
Gabriel had to chuckle. “Come now, Nicodemus, you know you aren’t getting any older either.”
Nick huffed. “Well, maybe not, but it’s been a long haul any way you look at it.”
Gabriel sighed. “It won’t be long now.”
Nick’s eyes watered, and he sniffed as he wiped them on his sleeve. He put a hand on Pat’s shoulder. “That’s what I’m afraid of.”
Pat’s mind cleared, and he found himself standing among thousands of tents in the middle of a desert. The sun was dropping toward the horizon, and all around him he could see people emerging from their dwellings. They didn’t seem to see him as they went about their business, which was good because Pat was having a hard time believing what he was seeing himself.
Was he somehow plunged into a historical re-enactment? If so, how did he get here?
The people—men, women, children—all had on dusty, road-worn, ankle-length robes. Veils or headdresses covered everyone’s heads, and leather sandals protected their feet. Pat could hear the bleating of lambs and the lowing of cattle. The sounds of a strange language rang about him as people hurried to get their evening meal prepared.
A sudden shriek, and a cry of “Help! Seraph!” came from a couple of tents away. Pat found it odd that he could suddenly understand the language, but didn’t take time to think about it. He ran with the rest of the crowd to the tent.
A woman lay unconscious, two punctures in her ankle attesting to the reptile’s attack. And then suddenly another shriek, where he had been standing only moments before. And another to his right, then another behind him.
The camp was in an uproar. The ground seemed like it was moving, but a closer look revealed that the motion was caused by thousands upon thousands of deadly vipers. They were moving quickly into the camp, biting anything that came near them. Pat couldn’t see any way of stopping them.
Another shout, but this one with the ring of authority. The silhouette of a man appeared, standing on a rise at the edge of the encampment. His back was toward the setting sun, and it made him look as if he was glowing. Somehow, without even trying, his voice rang over the entire encampment, above the shrieks and cries of the populace.
Suddenly there was a stirring in Pat’s hand. He opened it, pulling it up with a quick jerk. He looked down in panic, certain that an asp was about to bite him.
The iron rods, which he had still been clutching in his hand, lay on the ground. Pat was puzzled—why had he felt that motion? If that wasn’t a snake about to bite, then what had it been?
The iron rods suddenly moved on their own. Pat stared agape as they shivered, writhed, and melted together end-to-end. He couldn’t believe it—the rods had formed themselves into a serpent! As it slithered away, with Pat staring in astonishment, its color changed from a dull grey to a glowing gold.
It quickly approached the man on the hill, who was still trying to quiet the people down. He picked up a pole, which had a cross-piece nailed to the top. He spied the golden snake, which had frozen into a lifeless coil. Picking it up as well, he hoisted its coils over the top of the pole, resting it on the crosspiece. Shouting again to the people, he exhorted them, especially the bitten ones, to look at what he was bearing through the camp.
Gasps of awe and amazement ran through the crowd as people, barely alive, looked at the golden snake and got up as if nothing had even happened. The people shouted and danced with joy as they saw the other snakes slithering out of the camp and over the distant dunes. Pat could hear what the people were chanting—it sounded like his name!
“Pat? Pat! Hey!”
He opened his eyes and found himself lying in the leaves next to Nick’s tent. The sun shone through the trees, which had begun to show their fall colors.
Nice, Pat thought, fading out again. I like fall…
He woke up again and saw Nick, and someone else, looking down at him. The stranger was in shadow.
What was that…he remembered something about snakes…
With a shout he sat bolt upright, his eyes darting from Nick to his companion and back. “What the— where—what happened?” He shook his head, trying to comprehend what he’d just experienced.
“Calm down, Pat. You’re okay,” Nick said soothingly, his hand on the young man’s shoulder. “You passed out there for a bit.”
Pat gazed at Nick, still confused. Suddenly the other figure came into the light.
“Gabriel!” exclaimed Pat. “What are you doing here? What’s going on?”
“Hold on.” Gabriel put his hands up. “Let me explain.”
Pat raised his eyebrows, waiting. It was making a little more sense now. Any time an angel was involved, weird things were bound to happen.
“Go on.” He sat in the leaves with his arms wrapped around his bent legs and stared at Gabriel.
The angel nodded and looked over at Nick. “We’ve been friends for a very long time, Nicodemus and me.” He leaned towards Pat, staring at him intently. “And I mean a very long time.”
“Please, I am in no mood to guess your meaning. I have had a lousy couple of days, so would you just speak plainly?”
Gabriel sighed. “Okay, I will, as you put it, say it plain. Nick here is a Hunter. He and his brethren have been Heaven’s agents in trying to keep the number of Accursed down to a minimum, or destroy them altogether, since the beginning of human life on this planet.”
“You know them as vampires.”
“What?” Pat was incredulous. “I thought the incidents of—That Night—took care of all that.”
“Don’t we all wish. But that was never promised. No, as long as Lucifer and his kind are allowed to roam free, there will be a threat of vampires and others of their ilk.”
“And how does our friend here,” Pat indicated Nick, “fit in with all of this? Just what does being a Hunter mean?”
Gabriel was about to explain when Nick held up his hand. “No, let me tell him.” He stretched both arms out towards Pat, palms up.
Pat shrank back at the sight of the scars, cross-shaped, on the old man’s forearms.
“What happened?” He looked questioningly up at Nick, compassion replacing impatience.
Nick smiled. “I knew you’d be a good choice. Always putting others ahead of yourself.” He nodded approvingly. “Okay, now that I have your attention…” He took a deep breath and let it out.
“Now, considering the, um, circle your family moves in these days…”
“You mean like Gabe here?”
“Exactly. It should be a little easier to understand who I am, and actually believe it.” Nick closed his eyes. He hesitated a moment, then his eyelids fluttered open.
“I was granted the gift of an extremely long life, in exchange for my help in destroying the demons that prey on human blood. Guess I’m doing a good job—been at it for over two thousand years.” Nick let that soak into Pat’s mind.
The youth’s eyes grew wide. He could hardly believe what he was hearing, but here sat one of the mightiest archangels of Heaven right beside him as well. What was there not to believe?
Nick continued. “You know where it reads in the Bible about the Pharisee who believed in Jesus? Who came to see Him in secret?”
Pat nodded. “Ye-es, I know that—wait a minute. That’s you?”
Nicodemus nodded. “The same. After I talked with Him, I was making my way home when Gabe here met up with me. We had a long talk, mostly him talking and me being numb with shock, but by the time he explained things to me, I was ready and willing to become the next Leader of the Hunters.
“As you probably recall, I was the one who requested Jesus’ body and donated my own tomb for His burial.”
Nick picked up the iron spikes that Pat had dropped. “However, what’s not written is that my cohorts and I also took possession of His Cross. In the dark of night, we broke it up and carted away every sliver. We also took—the nails.”
Pat sucked in his breath and stared at the nails Nick held reverently. He stared up wordlessly at Nick, and then over to Gabriel.
“I-I thought…” he stammered. “I didn’t realize…”
“Yes, I know. It’s alright. How could you know?” Nick smiled reassuringly, then continued.
“About the Hunters. Now this was told to me by Gabriel here, so he can vouch for me.
“The original Hunters were the men of the tribe Cain married into. They…”
“Hold it.” Pat shook his head in confusion. “Do you mean Cain, as in the Book of Genesis?”
“Yes. Now don’t interrupt. Anyway, when Cain was forcefully taken by Lucifer and his bride, Lilith…”
“Wait! Sorry,” Pat said as Nick rolled his eyes and blew out his breath in frustration, “but you can’t just dump information like this on me and expect me not to ask questions.”
Gabriel leaned over to Nick. “He’s got a point, you know.”
Nick pushed Gabriel away and shook his head, but with a glint of amusement in his eyes. “I suppose.”
“Okay kiddo,” he addressed Pat, “let’s get this passel of questions out of the way. Then maybe I can get this story told before the first snowfall.”
Pat smiled inwardly. Nick was a cranky old codger, but definitely a softie at heart. “Okay, this— Lilith.” he began. “I remember Mom and Dad telling me she was seen around here just before—all that—happened.”
“Yes. Lilith. She thought she was going about unseen, but the energies of the angels massing for battle caused her to become visible to mortals. She went to ground—hid—when the battle began. Like many, she was not roused to action at that time. Her Master, Lucifer, had other plans for her. Plans that are starting to take effect.”
Nick looked to Gabriel, a tired sigh escaping his lips. “Now I’m all talked out. It’s your turn. Not easy for a man my age to keep yammering on like that.”
Gabe snorted. “Uh-huh. I’ve heard that line from you for at least a thousand of your years.”
“Uh, guys?” Pat interrupted. “I still am confused about something. Well, lots of things, but right now it’s enough to know this—why did I pass out when I picked up the nails?”
“Did you dream?” Nick asked.
Pat started. “Yes. How did you know?”
Nick nodded. “Yep. I was told that would happen. It’s part of the preparation for you. To accomplish the mission God has planned out for you. That is, if you accept. Everyone has a particular mission in life, great or small. Lucky you, to have it all spelled out for you.”
“A mission. You mean like what we were told after the battle? When Mom returned to us?” Pat dreaded the answer, but had to know.
Gabriel nodded. “Yes. You are being asked to become a Hunter. Help Nick here recruit others, make ready the weapons. Your sister is learning, this day, of her mission as well.”
“What will she be doing? Oh, wait, maybe I don’t want to know.”
Gabriel said, “No, and I couldn’t tell you anyway.”
“Ah. No surprise there.” Pat sighed.
“If you two are through with your tea party, can we move on?” Nick asked in frustration.
Gabriel gave him a look, then gazed intently at Pat. “Do you accept this responsibility?”
Pat swallowed hard. “Um…”
The two others waited.
Pat laughed uneasily. “Well, it is a lot to think about, after all.”
“Don’t think. Act, son. Remember, it is a directive from God Himself. As with all of His servants in the past and present, He will not give you any burden you can’t handle.”
“Yes, Nick, I know that. But it’s all so—sketchy. I don’t know any details…”
“And you won’t know, unless you accept. Not to force you—if you turn it down, nothing ill will be thought of you.”
Yet both Gabriel and Nicodemus knew Pat’s answer already.
Pat closed his eyes. He squared his shoulders and took a deep breath. Opening his eyes again, he gazed at the angel and the Hunter with a new calmness and resolve.
“Yes.” he said firmly. “I’ll do it.”