THE LOYAL ANGEL
Chapter 3: The Visitor
Sitting in the darkness of the cell, Paul groaned. He could still feel the sting of the rod as it snapped across his back. He had been determined not to cry out, but after the eleventh strike, the scream had been ripped from his throat against his will.
He did not know how many more blows he had suffered before he passed out. He did not remember being carried to the cell, nor having his feet set in the stocks. He had woken up to find himself surrounded by absolute darkness.
He did not know the size of the cell or if he shared it with unseen others. Nor did he know what had become of Silas. All he knew was the pain of the welts on his back and the deep black silence of the cell, broken only by the echoing sound of his own breathing and the occasional dripping of water somewhere in the distance.
Except, that... wait. There was something else. Paul held his breath and listened. The ragged, faint sound of breathing continued. What he had mistaken for the echoes of his own breathing was, in fact, the sound of another prisoner somewhere in the darkness. Paul focused on the sound; irregular, halting, labored. Whoever it was must be in far worse condition than he. He closed his eyes, ignoring the ridiculousness of doing so while in darkness, and mouthed a silent prayer for the poor soul who shared the cell.
He was still praying for the unknown prisoner when a searing white light erupted in the enclosed space. Paul threw his hands over his face and attempted to shut his eyes. Then he remembered they were already closed, which made the intensity of the light that much more alarming. Even with his eyes shut and his hands covering them, it was like staring into the face of the sun.
Then someone spoke. The voice was powerful, though not loud, with an odd musical quality that echoed strangely in the small space.
"My apologies," the voice said. "I sometimes forget how uncomfortable my aura can be for mortals."
The light assaulting Paul's vision faded until it settled into a warm, steady glow. Slowly, carefully, he opened his eyes and taking a deep breath, cautiously lowered his hands from his face, ready to bring them back up again if the light proved to be too much.
It was not. Paul squinted as his eyes adjusted to the now well-lit room. Then he gasped, his breath whisked away by what he saw. The entity standing before him appeared to be awash in brilliant white light, its outline blurry and indistinct. Faint variations indicated what might be a body with arms and legs, but whatever manner of clothing the being wore shined forth with the same powerful glow, washing out any perceptible detail.
Long, shimmering golden hair framed a beautiful and flawless face. So perfect were the features of that face, Paul could not decide whether they belonged to a male or female, if such distinction even applied to this apparition. And it had wings, like a pair of eagle's wings with soft white feathers, the outline visible behind the creature’s back.
Paul blinked rapidly as he realized there was only one explanation for what he beheld, only one possibility. With a halting voice, Paul said, “Are you an angel?”
It grinned knowingly at him and nodded softly. Paul was struck by how human its expressions were. He found it odd, but then, what did he know of angels? Still, the being’s mannerisms were surprising casual, an observation that made Paul more curious than afraid.
"Is that better, I hope?"
The voice of the angel took Paul by surprise, and he realized he had been staring at it stupidly. He shook his head to clear the fog from his mind, realizing as he did so that the angel was referring to the lessening of the light. Ignoring the pounding of his heart, he forced his mind to focus.
"Yes,” he said. "Thank you."
The angel's grin warmed to a broad smile. "I'm glad."
But as it said this, it looked past Paul, and its expression shifted to one of concern. Paul turned his head to follow the angel's gaze. A body lay on the stone floor a few paces away. Like Paul, the feet of the man sat immobile within stocks, but unlike Paul, he was not conscious. He lay on his side, one of his arms thrust out past his head, the other out of view. Angry red welts covered his bare back, and Paul could not help but wonder if that was how his own back appeared. The unconscious prisoner’s head faced the opposite direction, but Paul knew without a doubt who he was; Silas, his missionary companion, and friend.
He appeared close to death. Dried blood caked the back of Silas' head, the hair matted and crusted. His breathing was shallow, erratic, and a long pause between breaths caused the air in Paul's own throat to catch with apprehension. He looked back to the angel pleadingly.
“Can you help him?"
The angel's expression softened. Glancing up, it gazed at the ceiling for a moment. Then it closed its eyes, smiled, and nodded. Without a sound, the angel moved over to Silas. Paul could not tell if it took steps or just glided across the floor. Kneeling over Silas, it placed one hand on his battered back, and the glow from that hand grew white-hot. Paul turned half away as he squinted again. The glow faded, and as it did, Silas' breathing grew steadier and less labored. Withdrawing its hand, the angel stood and moved back to the near corner where Paul sat in his stocks.
"He will sleep while we talk," the angel said.
Paul looked around at the entire cell, now fully visible thanks to the angel’s light. The room was much larger than he had at first supposed, and he now saw that they were not alone. Five other prisoners lay scattered about the cell, each with their legs similarly shackled. There was no way to tell how long they had been imprisoned here. They all either lay flat or sat slumped over the stocks, and none appeared to be awake, for none reacted to the appearance of the angel.
Paul indicated the other prisoners. "What about them?"
"They will sleep as well," the angel said. "Do you mind if I sit?"
What a ridiculous question, Paul thought. Did angels sit? If they did, this one certainly did not need his permission to do so. Overcome by the absurdity of it, he laughed, which hurt.
"Please," Paul said with a grin of his own and held out a hand in mock courtesy.
He watched as the angel lowered itself to the ground, and again, he could perceive no mechanical action from the movement. The angel did not reach out a hand to steady itself. It simply lowered, hovering, to a sitting position. One corner of the angel's mouth curled up into a sly grin.
"You know, I told Tannin not to antagonize you," it said, chuckling. "He was actually quite shocked when you banished him. I don't think he expected that."
"The demon you exorcised from that girl. I warned him to leave you alone, but he just wouldn't listen."
"You were there?" Paul said, astonished. "You spoke to the demon?"
"Of course!" The angel made a clucking noise and chuckled again. "Poor Tannin, always taking on more than he can manage."
"You know this demon?"
"Oh, yes! I’ve known him since before the rebellion, before the Fall. Since then, I have contended against him regularly enough here on earth. I'm sorry to say he’s the reason you find yourself in this jail cell now."
"What do you mean?"
"After you cast him out of the young girl, he began whispering poison into the ear of that Brute, Epaphroditus. Tannin influenced him to rile up the mob and deliver you to the magistrates."
"I see," Paul whispered, and his eyes glazed over as he grappled with the implications of the angel's words.
He found himself contemplating the possibilities of a world layered on top of this one, out of view and imperceptible. He had never considered the extent to which heavenly and demonic forces might contend with each other to influence the actions of humans, either for good or evil. As he pondered, the angel continued.
"Tannin has one of the slipperiest tongues in all Satan's horde. He is adept at sowing seeds of doubt, of whispering drops of poisonous suggestion into the ears of men." The angel's eyes narrowed. "Through his vile influence, he has caused many men and women to doubt the power of God's grace and turn away from Him."
The angel waved a dismissive hand. "I wouldn't worry too much about Tannin though. While he is troublesome and capable of influencing the weak-minded, your faith is strong. And you have me to watch over you."
Paul stared in puzzlement at the angel. Its mannerisms and expressions were so casual, not at all what he would have expected from an angel. He assumed a member of the heavenly host would present a haughty, formal presence. Instead, this angel expressed an almost human personality. Perhaps perceiving his bewilderment, the angel grinned again.
"Paul, you look confused."
"Well," Paul said haltingly, "I have never met an angel before, but I would not have expected you to be so... normal."
The angel laughed. "It's interesting, isn't it, human imagination? You conjure up ideas of things beyond your perception and understanding. Then you’re dismayed and disappointed when they don’t turn out to be just as your feeble mind imagined.”
"I meant no disrespect," Paul said. The angel chuckled again.
"Oh, I took no offense. If anything, I’m amused and perhaps a little flattered. I’ve been on earth for thousands of your years now. I suppose in spending so much time with humans, I've grown comfortable with your mannerisms."
The angel nodded with decision. "Yes, I think I shall take that as a compliment. Now, if you were to behold some of my brethren in Heaven, you would not be disappointed. They are some of the least interesting creatures you would ever meet; all pomp and ceremony. Take Gabriel for instance. No sense of humor whatsoever. Yes, most of my fellow hosts would be just as you imagined; reverent, solemn, and exceedingly dull!"
Paul smiled. He could not help but like this angel. Still, its presence confused him. "If I may ask, what is the purpose of revealing yourself to me? Do you bring a message?"
"No message, although I can tell you the Almighty is pleased with your work thus far. No, I am here to comfort you in your time of distress."
"I appreciate that, and thank you for what you did for Silas."
The angel considered that for a moment. "I don't think the Lord meant for Silas to die this night."
"You don’t think? You mean, you aren’t certain of God's will?"
"Well, of course, I know His will!" the angel said with a touch of indignation. "We angels are not omniscient if that's what you mean, but the Lord does speak to me. He did so just now and granted me permission to heal Silas. I also receive constant updates on proclamations made in Heaven, not that much new has happened, not until fifty years ago."
"Fifty years ago?"
"When the Father sent His Son to earth.”
“Ah,” Paul replied in understanding.
“Now, that was an exciting time! After thousands of years of conflict, we finally dealt a decisive blow against the enemy."
"Satan and his demons." The angel's eyes narrowed as he spoke. "For millennia they have gained ground in the struggle, but now the tide has turned. Victory is at hand!"
Paul tilted his head as his mind raced to process what the angel said. "Pardon me for saying so, for I am no soldier, but I’ve known a few. You remind me of them, and you speak as though you’re engaged in a war."
"Oh, we are!" the angel insisted. "We're combatants in the greatest struggle in the history of the world, indeed beyond this world. This war has raged since the Lord laid the foundations of the earth, and I have been at its center since the beginning."
Paul's forehead creased with contemplation. As with all Jews, he had been taught how Satan tempted man to sin, but he had never thought about it as an active conflict, a war between heavenly forces.
"So, you were there when Satan rebelled?"
"I was." The angel's countenance changed. The easy smile vanished to be replaced by a wistful expression. His eyes stared vacantly as though recalling past events. "I was there when Lucifer's pride led him to believe he could supplant the Almighty. I was there when he and his angels assaulted the Holy Seat and were cast down—"
"To earth," Paul said.
"Into the void," the angel corrected him, "although it took them little enough time to make their way here."
"So, it’s for revenge then," Paul probed, "that Satan leads man astray? He seeks to pull us down with him to damnation?"
"Partly. Lucifer could not defeat God, so he seeks to hurt Him the only way he can, by targeting those the Lord loves. But do not underestimate your role in this matter. Mankind is not merely collateral damage in some heavenly power struggle. No, Lucifer holds a special hatred for your kind. You see, humanity was the catalyst for the Conflict from the very beginning, and he blames you for his fall."
"What do you mean? Can you tell me about this war and how it started?"
The angel paused, perhaps considering whether he should reveal the information. After a long moment, he nodded with decision, and the face changed, taking on the most serious expression Paul had seen up to that point, a fierce visage that reminded him this was a being of immense power.
"I have been sent here to comfort you," the angel said in a formal tone, "so if it will bring you comfort, I will tell you about the war, but be warned. This information is unknown to humanity, at least in so much as the details are concerned. This, therefore, constitutes a revelation, and as such, there will be a price."
"What price?" Paul asked, with some trepidation.
"That's not for me to say, but there will be one. Also, you should not reveal what I am about to share with you to any other mortal person, either through speech or the written word. You recently wrote a letter to the churches in Galatia, and I assume you will continue to write to others as your ministry grows?"
"Yes,” Paul agreed, “if God allows me to leave this prison, certainly."
"In that case, I must insist that you do not disclose anything I share with you in those letters. In fact, it would be best for you not to reveal that I have appeared to you at all. Few mortals have received revelations of this kind, and none have heard the full story of the Conflict from one of the heavenly host. This will be a great burden for you to bear, and as I said, there will be a price."
The angel paused before asking, "So, Paul, do you wish me to tell you the story of this war and of humanity's place in it? Please be certain before you answer."
Paul hesitated only a moment before nodding. "I do. Please share your story with me."
"Oh, this is not my story." The angel grinned. "This is your story. As I said, humanity is not some mere proxy in the Conflict. You are the front line, and earth is the main theatre. The war started almost from the very beginning of this world, but to understand why it happened, we must go back a little further, to just before God created the heavens and the earth."