Everyone was surprised when the priest stood up except Xander. From the reactions of the crowd, it was atypical behavior.
“Early bedtime, Father?” The bartender summarized the surprise in the room.
The priest was shaking his head as he pulled on his coat. “Not for me, but early departure all the same, Fred. Duty calls.”
He pushed open the front door and began walking up the street. He did not notice the men in uniform until they blocked his path. He gazed curiously at the red-and-blue uniforms that had suddenly become such an impassible obstacle. Their appearance seemed incomprehensible to him, which was probably why he showed no fear. “Is there something I can do for you gentlemen?”
Their leader grinned at him. “I believe you can, Father Andrews. Is it true, as I'm told, that you are the caretaker at St. Farker's?”
Andrews raised his eyebrows at this. “Indeed, such is the case. Why do you ask?”
“I have heard,” said the officer, “that he died a cruel and unusual death.”
“It is generally conceded to be in the very nature of Saints that they tend to die cruel deaths,” said Father Andrews.
“Forgive me, Father, but I am not Church-going man. Could you refresh my memory as to the manner of his unfortunate demise?”
“I'm surprised you don't ask, instead, why he was canonized at all. It was quite a controversy, at the time.”
“Long before my time,” the officer said. “So I know little of it save the rumors which have reached my ears. Why was it a controversy?”
“Sometimes,” said Andrews, the death of a Saint is a clear-cut thing. For example, if someone is killed for defying the enemies of the Church, and thus dies for Christ, they are an obvious candidate for sainthood. Likewise, if they are known for having done many good works during their life, such as ministering to lepers or feeding the poor.”
The officer leaned against a lamp pole. Clearly this was not going to be a brief disquisition.
“Farker did not fall into such a neat category,” said Father Andrews. “He was murdered, and of course had been known to have done good works, of course.”
“So why was it such a problem to admit him to the Saint club?”
“The reason he was killed,” said Andrews, “was because he had a collection of artifacts deemed sinful by the Church. Word got out to the public about it, and a mob closed in on his chapel and killed him with his own horde.”
“So it's true he was sucked and roasted?”
“Yes. Farker was exsanguinated with a swizzle and his corpse then burned with the fire from an everflame.” Andrews grimaced. “We can only pray he did not suffer long.”
Something changed in the officer's expression. In a second it had switched from solicitous to a more businesslike mode. “So tell me, Father, what happened to the means of his execution? Since all you have of poor Farker himself is a piled of ashes and a few bits of bone, have you kept the swizzle and everflame among the relics, to display to visitors of St. Farker's?”
Andrews got a guarded look then. “Yes,” he admitted. “but they are kept locked in glass cases to avoid tempting the weak. Although the Church deplores his murder and wishes to revere the memory of the good things he did, the artifacts are also part of his memory, to remind the faithful how dangerous these alien toys are...and to warn them not to collect them as he did.”
“Quite right, Father. But are you sure it's safe to leave them in a shrine? Despite the Papal ban, there are people who value such items. They could be stolen by men desperate for money.”
“They are secured behind many locks,” said the priest. “And the inner part of the shrine was once a bank vault. Without the combination, or safe-cracking tools of the Ancients, such as powerful explosives and power drills, it would be difficult for anyone to get in there before their attempt was noticed.”
The officer let go of the lamp pole and straightened. The street lamp's, fuel repository had been recently refilled. In the dark of the evening, its light shone upon his confident expression as he regarded the priest. “How many people know the combination, father? Only one would risk loosing it to accidental death. But to have too many clergy know it would be a risk of a different kind.”
“There are always three of us,” said Andrews. “We act as guardians in rotation.”
“Is that why you left the bar early tonight, Father? Is it your turn to stand watch?”
Andrews lowered his eyebrows in puzzlement. “Yes. But why do you care? I've been tending St. Farker's for thirty years, and no non-pilgrim has ever bothered to ask me these things before.”
The officer glanced at his men. “These are dangerous times, Father. Perhaps we should escort you to your vigil, to make sure no one waylays you.”
“I hardly think that's necessary,” said Andrews.
“Oh, I think it is,” said the officer. “In fact, maybe you ought to let us in when we get there, to make sure nothing's missing.”
Wrapped in shadow, Xander heard all of this in silence. It sounded like the Honcho had heard of these 'relics' and if so his interest in them was predictable. To remove all the blood from a man and to burn up his body, the relics must be in good condition, he thought. Can't do that with a weak swizzle or a feeble everflame.
“I presume that's an official request,” said the priest. “Are you aware that in the old days you would have required a search warrant from a judge to intrude upon private property?”
“Sounds like lawless times to me,” said the officer. “How could they possibly solve crimes if they had to ask permission to look at evidence?”
“It had something to do with unreasonable search and seizure,” said Andrews. “Haven't you ever heard of the Constitution?”
The officer smiled and shook his head. “Haven't you heard of recent events? Say, the last two hundred years? This ain't the United States, Father. The Lone Star Empire believes in rights, too – up to a point. And that point happens to be where the rights of the individual conflict with the needs of Government.”
“That was the whole point of search warrants,” the priest told him. “A judge had to be convinced that the needs of law enforcement overrode personal privacy.”
There were men behind him as well as in front of him now. The group began to walk, escorting him to St. Farker's. “Rest assured, Father, this is one of those situations. Right now, Texas needs your relics more than you do. Your pilgrims will have to make do with the candles and paintings and whatnot for the immediate future.”
Xander waited until the sound of their footsteps grew faint before unweaving the pathspace and peeking out of the doorway he had been skulking in. Would the priest let them in without a fight? He did not look to be much of a fighter, and there were five of them.
At length they stood before the First National shrine of Saint Farker. “Gentlemen,” said Andrews, “let me make myself clear. Since, as you point out, we are no longer in the United States, I conceded that you have the authority to enter this building whether I wish it or not.” He produced a key ring from a pocket and began to unlock the front door. “Furthermore, if fugitives from justice were hiding inside, I could not object to your breaking the door down, if for some reason I did not have the requisite keys.” He proceeded to the second lock, selecting another key from the ring, letting the first dangle back with the rest.
“And we appreciate your good citizenship,” the officer said with a straight face.
Andrews unlocked the third lock and swing the door open. “Since this is a shrine and not a temple, there is not even the traditional right of sanctuary I could offer to any fugitive inside. However, “ he continued, “since you can see for yourselves that there is no one here...”
The officer looked around and focused on the vault door at the back. “There could be someone hiding in the vault itself,” he pointed out.
“Hardly. It's airtight and small. Were someone to lock himself in there overnight to elude the law, he would be risking suffocation.”
“What's the combination?”
Andrew just looked at him. “The relics inside that vault,” he said, “are not mine to give away. They belong to the Church...and so does the combination.”
The officer glanced at one of his men, who lifted a loaded crossbow. “I really must require you to open the vault, Father.”
“If you shoot me, how are you going to get it open?”
“Let me put it this way,” said the officer. “For you to open it, you will need the use of at least one eye and one hand. The rest of you is surplus to requirements. How much would you like to lose before you cooperate?”
Andrews closed his eyes, then opened them. “We're in the shrine of a Saint. What makes you think I'll cooperate at all?”
The officer sighed. “I don't want to hurt you, Father, but I have my orders. If for any reason you're stubborn enough to become a martyr, we'll just wait for the others who know the combination to show up. If your own life doesn't mean much to you, are you willing to sacrifice theirs too?”
Andrews drew himself up and faced the man. “Everyone has to make their own choices,” he said.
The officer shook his head. He turned to his men. “Start with a leg,” he said.
Two of them seized the priest and shoved him down on a chair. Another stepped forward with a length of pipe in one hand and lifted it.
Andrews closed his eyes.
There was an ugly sound of a hard object striking a body, but no pain. Surprised, the priest's eyes snapped open in time to see the man in front of him drop the pipe and keel over. Something whipped around in the corner of his eye. The man with the crossbow tried to aim it at a gray-clad stranger with a staff, but the staff was already in motion. Thwack!
The two holding him let go abruptly and surged forward. The next few seconds were full of complicated movement, at the end of which the only men standing in the room were the stranger with the staff and the officer. He looked at the crossbow on the floor.
“I wouldn't, if I were you,” said Xander.
The officer thought better of it and backed up to the door. “This isn't over,” he said.
“I know,” said Xander. “Give my regards to Brutus.”
The officer dashed out for reinforcements. Xander watched him go to make sure he did, then turned back to the priest. “If you really want to protect those relics,” he said, “you'd better get them out of the vault and come with me.”
“How do I know you're not after them yourself?” Andrews asked him.
The wizard thought about it. “You're right,” he said. “There's a better way.” He strode up to the vault door and closed his eyes.
The dial on the door began to move. After several moments it reversed direction. After it did this several times, Xander pulled the door open.
The priest's eyes were wide. “How did you do that?”
Instead of answering, Xander stepped into the vault and after a few seconds, emerged carrying a short length of pipe and a metal disk. There was dried blood on both ends of the pipe and a hissing came from it.
He regarded the objects and set them on a table. He stroked the edge of the disk, and a dazzling blue-white dot appeared above it. The air above it rippled, and some loose scraps of paper on the table blew toward it and were sucked up into the brightness to vanish as puffs of flame.
“I'm not after your relics,” he said, “because I can make my own. I can also un-make them.”
Xander stretched out a hand and held it over the pipe and the disk. After a few seconds the hissing from the pipe died, and the hot spot over the disk vanished.
“There,” he said. “You don't have to protect them anymore. But you're still in danger. Unless you want to suffer for no reason at all, you'd better come with me.”
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