Lombard walked into his office with a brooding depression. After he was verbally disemboweled by Ace on global television, his book hit a brick wall. His agent refused to sell it, most distributors didn’t give him space on their servers, and critics tore it apart like rabid piranhas. Even his staunch supporters turned against him and ridiculed his lackluster defense of the book. By early June, it was dead in the water. But Lombard couldn’t just mudsling and accuse Ace of everything short of eating small children, though if he had no other choice, he’d resort even to that. The reason why he couldn’t do it, as silly as it may sound, was because he looked into Ace’s eyes.
As a pastor, he looked into the eyes of countless people but when he made eye contact with Ace, he saw something he never saw before. Ace had the eyes of a man who started down death itself and won, the eyes of a man who existed to the chagrin of the whole universe and knew it, daring it to move against him. These were the eyes of an ancient being that learned things no human was supposed to know. But instead of going mad, Ace faced this knowledge and accepted it, learned how to live with it and use it.
This is what Lombard thought he saw in Ace’s eyes for that brief instant. In his career as a televangelist, he was used to spinning, preaching just about anything that would net him an extra dollar without shame and without apology. Now, he couldn’t understand how to tell his congregation what he saw, how to put a spin on it and present it in a way to rescue the book his ghostwriter stitched together in just a few weeks from various neo-traditionalist talking points. In a fit of mad humor, Lombard thought that it was fitting that it took Ace only a few seconds to expose the truth behind his book. After all, it was just a rush job to sell some copies to devoted fans.
He loved his devoted fans like a farmer loved his chickens. They were obedient and listened to his ramblings. Even though nothing he said ever made sense when applied to reality, they listened. They had to be given easy answers, absolutes and praised for not doing all that much with their lives but living a dull, mind-numbing routine. None of them were stupid people. In fact, all of them were very smart and painfully aware that their lives were slipping away like fine sand slips through our fingers. They needed denial. They needed to be numbed, and they really needed to have hope for something in their future, like an afterlife they could imagine.
And then, there was Lombard and people like him to provide the opiate for their pained, panicked souls. He praised the average and the commonplace, cried foul at every progress, and called every job other than a routine life in an office cubicle, a hedonistic pursuit. When humans learned of what the Nation really was, and that cyborgs had unlimited life spans, they panicked and recoiled in terror, fear and disgust. There were almost 100 million humans who were suddenly exempt from aging and death as far as his followers understood. It seemed so brutally, mercilessly unfair…
So Lombard rushed to the rescue, casting the Nation as a Satanic cult of sinners who sold their soul to the Devil for eternal life, but he said that the souls of the cyborgs were absent now. Dragged down to the deepest pits of Hell by demons and tortured for all eternity. What the humans saw walking around in the guises of humanoid machines were just empty shells without a spiritual essence.
His lie made everyone in his megachurches feel better about the rather dim destiny they faced. Eagerly diving deeper into denial, the vast congregations accepted Lombard’s words without question. By this time, many of them had devoted their entire lives to confusing, often self-contradictory texts to ease their pain and fear, and to deny or challenge anything these texts or Lombard said, would overturn all of their worldviews and bring back the pain and confusion they spent so much time and effort to avoid.
For hours he sat in his office trying to think of what to say to the congregation of thousands that would attend his sermon that evening. The office was dark because he shut the thick blinds on the windows. In the darkness, he waved his hand to turn on a lamp and dug out a magazine with Ace’s face on its front cover. Lombard looked into those red, glowing eyes that seemed ablaze with an inhuman, almost supernatural glow. He knew what he would say to his congregation tonight.
His ride to the megachurch was quiet as he gathered his thoughts and for the first time in his career committed them to memory rather than a reusable plastic sheet with notes. When he stepped onto the stage, took his place behind the grand podium to the applause of thousands and took a sip of water, he did something unusual. After the applause had died down, he remained silent for almost a minute, looking around.
His elaborate podium was front and center on an giant stage that could easily accommodate one of the Nation’s giant Siege Machines. On both sides of him, holographic screens two stories tall displayed close-ups of his face with crystal clarity. Tens of thousands gathered to hear him speak today, taking up every seat and standing in several giant dugouts under the stage of what used to be a music arena which hosted world class artists for hundreds of years.
Finally, Lombard spoke.
“It’s not often that a pastor speaks about himself,” he said slowly and carefully choosing his words, “but tonight I feel like I absolutely have to do it. I’m sure you remember the book I wanted to sell and a certain talk show appearance that doomed it…”
Loud boos interrupted him. They weren’t aimed at Lombard, but at Ace and the Nation. Some in the audience chanted “down with the Nation” while others chanted “let the truth be known.”
With a strong, commanding gesture, Lombard cut off the chants. He continued his speech just as slowly and carefully as he started it.
“I realized something from that day. When I said that Ace wasn’t a God-fearing man, I was wrong. When I called him and his fellows heathens and atheists, I was wrong. In the eyes of the Nation’s men, women and children is the light of a great faith that unifies them and gives them strength, just like it gives us strength to live our out lives. Allow me to correct myself. Ace is a man of God.”
Stunned whispers filled the cavernous hall. The followers of the firebrand televangelist turned to each other with shock. As the tense whispers began to settle, Lombard went on.
“You see, faith can become a tool for control and that’s what I’m really famous for. I used faith for money. I used it to buy homes, jets, and cars. I even bought myself a pair of crocodile shoes. Why? For a very simple reason. Because I could. I got so caught up in making all my speeches in buying all those things because just like all of you, I need to distract myself from questions I can’t answer. Just like all of you, I hated Ace, and Dot, and Nelson and everyone in the Nation for their long lives. I thought they had it all figured out, or they just didn’t have to worry about the big questions in life because they could live forever.
“But when I sat face to face with Ace and looked into his eyes, I saw that just like all of us, he has a mission, a drive, a need, a desire that keeps him going and makes him hunt for the ultimate answer. In his quest, he is surely a man of the Great Architect, a being we also call God. And Ace’s life is devoted to figuring out how the Great Architect came to be and how he runs the universe. As a friend of all those on such a noble quest, I wish him and his companions the good fortune of one day touching the face of God with their hands.”
The concert hall was deathly quiet. This wasn’t the speech they expected to hear. They wanted something affirm their ideas, repeat a well-known, well-rehearsed dogma to a laser light show, not cryptic speeches from an insane televangelist in total silence. But someone seemed to appreciate it.
Out of the stands rose a woman clad in the black and red clothes of the Shadow Demons. A few months ago, she stood in the chamber of the Reaper on the other side of the galaxy. After a long trip and bidding her time, she stood in the church of the mad pastor, applauding him.
She was a pretty woman with a gentle face, her long hair made of crystals. Her bare arms were adorned with bracelets, one secured around the top of her bicep, the other on her wrist. The red runes on her cheeks glowed with a faint light. Unfazed by the fact that only she was clapping, she slowly strolled down until she was right at the stage. She jumped up and softy landed right next to the pastor. Taken aback by the presence of a Shadow Demon in his church Lombard’s first reaction was to run away. But instead he only stepped back two paces and looked at the woman with anxiety.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“My name is Mai,” she introduced herself almost purring.
“I’m glad we have you here with us Mai,” Lombard switched to his typical spiel. “How can the Lord help you today?”
“I think you’re beyond that Mr. Lombard,” slyly noted Mai. “For a few minutes, I was in the presence of someone who had a glimpse of the infinite, a glimpse of the great mystery… And now, when I’m up here you want to go back to your parlor tricks?”
Lombard swallowed hard. He could feel his heart pounding. The audience was still totally silent, struggling to believe their eyes. Mai walked around Lombard slowly, swaying her hips seductively with every step. The pastor’s glance slipped to her waist.
“Pastor…” purred Mai. “I’m not sure you should staring at me like that. It’s almost indecent.”
“What do you want?” asked Lombard, wiping sweat off his brow and breathing hard, involuntarily stealing a glance at Mai’s sculpted legs that flashed from the slits of her unistrap dress.
“I’m here to bring you a gift,” said Mai.
“What kind of gift?”
“Bow and I’ll show you the netherworld.”
“Will I come back?”
Lombard bowed, falling on his knees in plain sight of the silent, shocked audience. Mai extended her hand and a sword just like Ace used in his battles appeared in her hand from somewhere unknown. The red aura around the blade ignited and with a steady, practiced move, Mai ran the pastor through with her sword.
The audience sat still, expecting a divine trick of some sort. But as they saw blood beginning to pour from the deep gash in the body of their pastor, the thousands of people panicked. Screaming, they all ran for the exits, but found them all sealed from the outside. Over the collective screaming of the panicked crowd, Mai’s voice thundered.
“I told you he would rise again!” she yelled to them.
The crowd slowly hushed, turning its attention to the stage. Mai, her sword held out in front of her, stood over the pastor’s body. She looked at the audience with a sadistic smirk. Around her, a red circle with floating runes around it appeared, rotating slowly, glowing ever brighter. Her sword’s aura surged.
Suddenly, the dead pastor’s blood turned black and retreated into his body. But instead of rising from the dead, the pastor’s body just began to turn black piece by piece. In under a minute, the pastor became nothing more than a humanoid shape with spiky crystal hair, pitch black gel for skin, no mouth or nose but a mask with two red, glowing eyes. The demon spawn that was once Pastor Lombard rose from the dead and looked at the audience.
It raised its hand, showing its fingers that turned to massive, razor sharp shearing claws and somehow produced an unholy hiss. Its eyes erupted with a sinister flame.
The audience screamed in terror and tried to flee, ripping at the sealed doors as Mai laughed in the background. She twirled her dark sword in her hand and went to create more spawns. Walking just as seductively as she did in front of Lombard, she didn’t rush. After all, there was no escape for the congregation of the mad pastor who was metabolized to create a crude, brainless, undead version of a Shadow Demon.