Joan learns more about the source of her power and reconnects with old friends.
|Author's Note: I'm using the public domain World English Bible to avoid potential legal issues. Therefore, it's not exactly what you would hear in a Catholic Mass, but it's close enough.
Chapter 76: Red
Since the front of the church faced the street, people arriving by vehicle parked behind the church and entered through the back door. The courtyard behind the church buzzed with activity: old ladies hugging one another, a table for signing a petition to end the death penalty, a bake sale fundraising for a local homeless shelter, and middle-aged men swarming around a deacon. Joan walked boldly between Marc and Mokuba, holding their hands as a few people stopped to gawk. She noticed her parents' bicycles locked to the wrought iron fence and gulped down a wave of nostalgia.
Tamara walked ahead and held the back door open for the trio, but since this door was much narrower than the front entrance, Joan released their hands. She blessed herself with holy water from a small bowl affixed to the door frame and heard a collective gasp from across the room, amplified by the church's sound system. She looked up to see the entire choir frozen. A few sheets of music fluttered to the floor. Joan's father George spilled a steady trickle of water over his face from a stainless steel water bottle as he paused mid-gulp.
"What?" Joan asked innocently.
Gertrude spoke first. "We're just so happy to see you."
"It's been a long time," the choir director added.
Someone helped George clean up the water he had spilled while Joan approached the choir with Marc, Mokuba, and the bodyguards in tow. She hugged her mother first, then got hugged by most of the other choir members as Gertrude went to hug Mokuba. "I sensed you were the more virtuous brother. Thank you for bringing her back to us."
"It's not exactly like that," Mokuba protested, feeling awkward in her long embrace.
"It doesn't matter why. What matters is that you're here."
"It does matter," Marc cut in. "We need to have a word with the big man in the sky."
"I'm sorry," Gertrude said, "I don't think we've been properly introduced."
Mokuba did the honors. "Mrs. Saunders, this is Joan's boyfriend Marc Aurelio. Marc also works for me, and he's the reason we met. Marc, this is Joan's mother Gertrude Saunders."
Gertrude shook Marc's hand while she scrutinized him. "I remember your name from the article and your face from the Youtube video, but . . ." Gertrude lowered her voice, "is she really seeing all of you?"
"Yes." Marc's unyielding walnut eyes stared into Gertrude's.
Gertrude glanced back at her daughter smiling and exchanging pleasantries with old friends. Joan's confirmation sponsor grabbed her hand to examine the ring on her finger. Gertrude turned back to Marc. "I'd like to know the full story on how you met, but it will have to wait until after Mass." She gave them a short nod and returned to her seat.
Joan broke free of the choir and made her way back to her men. "Can you believe it? They wanted to set me up with a microphone. I told them no, but they made me promise to sing from the pews. Not that I wasn't planning on doing that anyway, but now the pressure's on." Before Marc or Mokuba could reply, Joan spotted an old friend from high school on his way in the door. "Ozzy!" She dashed to a Scottish man with dark, wavy hair and gave him a big hug. "Come sit with us."
Oswald glanced at Joan's entourage as they caught up with her. "I don't wanna be a third wheel."
"Don't be ridiculous. You're a fourth wheel, and Mokuba needs more California friends."
Oswald blinked. "He does?"
"Of course. Come on!" Joan urged. She dragged him away from his bewildered parents and into an empty pew. Marc took a seat beside Joan and Mokuba sat beside Oswald while the bodyguards positioned themselves on either side of the group.
"So . . ." Oswald fished for appropriate words, trying to avoid the elephant in the room, "seen any good movies lately?"
"Well," Joan said, "there's this one where a whore magically gets pregnant by four men at the same time, and then the Greek goddess Hera shows up and curses her unborn child, so she winds up going to church to see if her childhood god has anything to say on the matter, and she runs into an old friend along the way."
Mokuba fidgeted on the hard wooden pew.
"Is she you?" Oswald asked.
"Yep. How did you know?" Joan asked.
Before they could converse further, Joan's mother announced a greeting along with a three-digit number. Joan picked up a music book from a shelf behind the pew, flipped to the number, and began singing The Summons. Joan suspected that her parents had made a last-minute change to the program for her, knowing that this was her favorite hymn.
A priest in his fifties with short, dark hair peppered with gray wearing red vestments walked up the aisle along with a deacon and a full complement of altar servers. Joan recognized Father John and locked eyes with him as he turned to face the congregation. «I need answers. Do you have them?» The way Father John's eyes widened assured Joan that he had received her thoughts.
Marc felt the mild brain zap from Joan's use of magic and tightened his hand around hers. «Don't do anything you'll regret.»
«We regret more from our inactions than from our actions,» Joan told Marc.
«Not from where I'm sitting at the moment,» Marc replied.
«Why, because you impregnated me or because you got caught?»
A flood of thoughts came at Joan. She saw visions of Marc's former domestic life with Laura: the good, the bad, the growing, unvoiced need and anger and desperation over their repeated failure to reproduce. Mounting tension that finally reached a breaking point. «Joan, if I knew we could keep it, I would impregnate you all over again, but then you had to go and piss off a goddess. Don't do the same with God.»
«I'm not going to piss Him off, just get His attention. Besides, the God I know is much more forgiving. Not to mention we're old friends.»
«I hope you're right about that.»
Joan tuned back into Mass as a middle-aged lady spoke the first reading, "Now when the day of Pentecost had come, they were all with one accord in one place. Suddenly there came from the sky a sound like the rushing of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. Tongues like fire appeared and were distributed to them, and one sat on each of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other languages, as the Spirit gave them the ability to speak. Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under the sky. When this sound was heard, the multitude came together and were bewildered, because everyone heard them speaking in his own language. They were all amazed and marveled, saying to one another, 'Behold, aren't all these who speak Galileans? How do we hear, everyone in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and people from Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, the parts of Libya around Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians: we hear them speaking in our languages the mighty works of God!'"
Pentecost. Joan should have known when she saw Father John wearing red. Before the middle-aged reader could take her seat, Joan swirled the air in front of the altar, creating a deafening noise. With every ounce of focus she could muster, she shredded the altar's tablecloth and distributed the shreds over the heads of every member of the congregation. She set them alight, and they burned for a few seconds. Several people bolted for the doors, but many remained frozen in place.
Now, if only Joan could get the languages part down. She heard Oswald speaking in Gaelic and others throughout the church testing their native tongues, but it all sounded like gibberish. She hadn't thought this through. Maybe, with a little more focus, she could –
"Joan," Mokuba gasped, "please stop." The pounding in his and Marc's heads faded with the flames. Glazed looks crossed their faces as they recovered.
The rest of the congregation continued to chatter, oblivious to the conversation in Joan's pew, while Father John attempted to establish order.
"So you were serious about the magic thing," Oswald whispered to Joan.
"Yeah," Joan whispered back. "It's all because of this ring. It takes a toll on the guys, though."
Once they realized they couldn't understand foreign languages, the people began complaining about the smoke from the tablecloth. Several people, including George, coughed and left the building. It wasn't much worse than incense from Joan's standpoint, but then again, her dad couldn't tolerate incense either.
Marc massaged his forehead. "Well if this hubbub doesn't get God's attention, I don't know what will."
Chapter song: Let It Be – The Beatles
Chapter 77: Upstart Goddess
Someone shouted above the noise while pointing to the right of the altar. "Look!"
The congregation hushed as they all turned to face a glowing statue of the Virgin Mary in the corner of the church. Her skin darkened to a more lifelike tone, and she slowly stepped down from her pedestal. Except for Joan's pew, the entire congregation dropped to their knees.
«Please don't turn out to be another psycho bitch like Hera,» Joan prayed. Sensing her concern, Marc drew a knife while Tamara and Joe drew pistols.
Unperturbed by the weapons, Mary continued approaching at an easy pace. "Upstart goddess, I believe she called you."
«Upstart whore,» Joan corrected silently.
Mary continued speaking as if Joan had voiced her thoughts. "She used that word to confuse you. Hera knows full well what you are becoming and wishes to halt the process."
Joan looked at Mary's gentle aura of pure light, put a hand on Marc's shoulder, and he sheathed his knife. The bodyguards lowered their pistols as well. "So, you've been talking with Hera?"
"If you could call it that. She mostly screamed and ranted before I reminded her that I too had an immaculate conception."
Joan blinked. "You . . . you're calling my conception immaculate?"
"Of course. I don't see how else four men can father a single child."
"I mean, we did have a big orgy," Joan admitted.
Mary shook her head. "It doesn't matter what you did or didn't do to the outside of your cup. The inside was clean. You conceived through love, not through physical means."
Endless questions raced through Joan's mind, but she knew she wouldn't have time to ask them all. She had to make the most of this precious opportunity. "I need to understand a few things. Why does Hera have a problem with me, but you don't? I thought God was a jealous God."
"Hera doesn't want you seducing Zeus. Adonai, on the other hand, has mellowed out over the years. He now realizes He would get bored without a little entertainment every now and then."
"Say what now?"
"You amuse Him, not to mention you remind us so much of our daughter-in-law Mary Magdalene."
"So Jesus really got married?"
"Then why did that part of the Bible get erased?"
"Many don't truly believe but rather use Him to gain power over others."
"So all that talk about virginity and monogamy?"
"People are always putting words in Adonai's mouth. He gave up trying to correct them after that Joseph Smith incident."
"Oh. Mormonism. Right. So, you know that curse Hera laid on our unborn child? Can you help us get rid of that?"
"That is between you and Hera. It is not my place, nor Adonai's, nor my son's to meddle." Mary began walking back to her pedestal.
"Wait, can I at least have a hint?"
Mary stepped onto her pedestal, turned to face the congregation, and spoke her final words. "I've given you more than a hint; I've given you a flock. Their faith should alleviate the burden on your men. You'll find wielding your power easier from now on." Mary's aura faded as she whitened back to marble.
Joan wanted to ask much more, but she knew Mary would not speak again.
The entire church remained motionless until Father John tore off his red chasuble and flung it to the ground. "That's it! I'm done. Mass is cancelled."
Oswald's parents grabbed him and dragged him toward the front door. Several others mumbled and started to leave.
"Wait!" Joan called after Father John.
John's stole fluttered to the floor. "If you want to play priest today, be my guest. I'm through." He headed for the back door, tossing his cincture behind him as he walked.
Joan pushed past Marc and ran after John, followed closely by Tamara.
Marc smirked and strode up to the altar. "Apparently I'm playing priest today." He faced what remained of the congregation and held his palms high and wide. "Please open your missalettes to page what-have-we-all-been-doing-with-our-lives and join me in reading the parable of the upstart goddess." Marc began telling the story of how he first met Joan, starting with her online dating profile.
Chapter 78: Rectory
Joan followed Father John through the courtyard and into an alley. John paused in front of a green door to remove his alb and dig his keys out of his cassock. He unlocked the door and stepped inside, but Joan wedged herself between the door and the frame before he could close it.
John stared at the determined whore on the threshold of his home. He'd known her for a decade, watched her grow into a young woman as she volunteered for countless church activities, sometimes alongside her mother and often on her own. He'd heard good things about her from the catechists, but she also had a reputation for asking them tough questions. They'd always said she was bound to do something special in life, but why this, of all things? "What do you want?"
"I want to know why you just up and abandoned your congregation like that."
"Because they're not mine anymore; they're yours. Isn't that what you came here for? You may have the congregation fooled with your sugar daddies' holographic technology, but I did some research on them after your mother asked me to pray for you."
Joan stared straight into his brown eyes and kept her lips still. «No. None of that was holographic. We're still figuring out how it works. We came here looking for answers.»
John sighed and released his grip on the door. "Come in."
Joan popped into John's small living room, followed by Tamara. Joan glanced around the cramped quarters and turned to her bodyguard. "Take a break. I'll call you when we're done."
Tamara nodded and left.
John plopped into a faded brown armchair, too emotionally exhausted to entertain elementary etiquette. "So, how many years has it been?"
Joan moved a pile of newspapers off another chair and sat down. "Since I stopped going to church entirely? Two or three."
"All that time, I was under the impression that you'd found a church closer to wherever you're living now. What changed?"
"A lot of things. First of all, I fell in love." Joan told him the same story she'd told her mother about her asexual boyfriend, adding how long she'd stuck with the church in her college town even after she'd abandoned the constraints of monogamy. Several minor incidents later, she'd reached a point where she no longer felt any value in attending church and gave up going through the motions.
The conversation drifted to philosophy, to Joan's growing sense that the people in her life mattered more than any gods worshiped by ancient peoples. They mused over examples of polygyny in the Bible and how Jesus didn't actually say much on the matter. Mary had responded with surprising warmth to the circumstances surrounding Joan's "immaculate" conception, which raised a new series of questions Joan hadn't had time to ask during the brief encounter. Did Adonai have a physical body? If so, did that body have contact with Mary's body? Did she go on to copulate with Joseph later? Did Jesus have siblings? Mary seemed adamant that those things didn't matter, but in a society without modern medicine, those things probably mattered a lot more. Where was Joseph during the Crucifixion? Was he dead, or had he abandoned his family? Joan wondered if the Holy Family had faced similar issues to the Aurelios. They might not have been as perfect as they seemed on the surface.
As John listened to Joan speculate, he found himself running out of answers. His resolve slipped a little with every second. "And you weren't as perfect as you seemed on the surface either."
Joan shrugged. "People say that God made us all perfect, so in theory, perfection should look different on different people. I just follow my heart and go where it leads me."
John contemplated this as he gazed at the woman before him. Perfection depended on a set of ideals based on beliefs, and Joan had thoroughly shattered his beliefs. "So you're proud of being a prostitute?"
"Yes. Prostitute is so formal, though. I prefer Whore."
John threw back his head and laughed. "All right, Whore. How much for a blowjob?"
Chapter 79: Black Belt
Joan grinned. "I'll have to clear it with my gods first." She held up her scintillating ring. "I told Seto I wouldn't take on any new clients."
A gray streak dulled John's ordinarily turquoise aura. "I was just joking about the blowjob thing."
"No, you weren't. You're letting fear hold you back. Sit tight; it will only take a minute for me to ask." Joan closed her eyes and focused on all four of her men at once. «I'm about to suck off a priest. Any objections?»
Thoughts flooded back to her so fast she couldn't untangle them.
«One at a time, please. I'll hear what Michael has to say first.»
«Did he mistake you for an altar boy?» Michael asked.
«Smart Male, special Male, pretty Male.»
«But why does he want blowjob from Woman?»
«Same reason you do.»
«Look,» Marc interrupted, «We're running out of material to entertain your flock. Make him cum quickly and tell him to get his ass back into your church.»
«Her flock? Her church?» Seto asked.
«Mary the mother of Jesus visited us, told me I was a goddess, and handed the church over to us,» Joan summarized.
«Did she remove the curse?» Seto asked.
«No,» Joan thought.
«Then what's the point in having a church?»
«I think Mary wanted to even the playing field between me and Hera without directly getting in the middle of our feud. From what I understand, having more believers will increase our power, so you won't get those brain zaps anymore, or at least they'll be milder.»
«Whore, they have been getting milder, no doubt due to your diligent practice.»
«Sure, but I've been practicing in front of people. They must have developed some faith in me, even if only a little. Now, we should have a lot more to work with. A bunch of people walked out of the church in disgust, but many stayed.»
«And now they're getting antsy,» Marc interjected.
«Marc is doing great. But yeah, we can't keep up this priest act forever,» Mokuba thought.
«Fuck that priest,» Seto thought, «but only if he agrees to preach for you.»
«I think he'll be satisfied with a blowjob, but good to know he's approved for fucking if needed. What do the rest of you think?» Joan asked.
«Use condom,» Michael thought. «Woman don't know where he's been sticking that thing.»
«Actually, based on his aura, I'm pretty sure he's a virgin,» Joan thought.
«Pretty sure or sure sure?» Michael asked.
«Well, I could ask. I'll know instantly if he lies about anything.»
«Woman do that and use her best judgment on the condom. Don't give him anything at all if he lies.»
«Are the rest of you in agreement?» Joan asked.
Marc, Mokuba, and Seto chorused their assent.
Joan opened her eyes. "The gods say yes, but the price is that you preach for us."
"So you're taking this goddess thing seriously, then?"
"I have to if I want to keep our child. I put my trust in my gods when they gave it to me, and they trusted me to keep it safe. The only way out of this is forward, so I'm going to give it my all." Joan rose and approached John's chair. John stood cautiously. Joan's hands slipped around his waist, toying with his black Augustinian belt, a symbol of his chastity. "When was the last time you did something like this?"
Pulses of excitement charged down John's spine as he stared into Joan's captivating eyes. "I . . . I had a girlfriend in college, but we didn't . . ."
Joan pulled him close and stroked his hair. Her breath tickled his ear. "That's all right. I like virgins."
John's aura sparkled, dignified yet ready to evolve. His penis, dormant for decades, sprang to life under his habit. He reflexively tried to meditate away the engorgement but quickly realized that he didn't want to miss this opportunity. He'd devoted over half his life to Abraham's God, but Adonai had never paid John any attention, never offered him so much as a pat on the back for all his service. With trembling fingers, John undid his belt.
Chapter 80: Level Up
Joan met up with Tamara outside and returned to the church holding hands with Father John. George had propped open the doors, and most of the smoke from earlier had dissipated. Marc sat in the priest's chair while Mokuba, Joan's parents, and a small group of parishioners lazed on the carpeted steps leading up to the altar. Mokuba's bodyguard Joe remained standing, silently watching the proceedings.
Joan dropped Father John's hand, walked up to Marc, and threw her arms around his neck. "How'd it go?"
"Surprisingly well. Only half the people walked out before I dismissed them, and this lovely bunch wanted to stick around for more. I got tired of telling stories, so we started talking about how to redecorate."
"Redecorate?" Joan asked.
Marc waved his hand at a stained glass window, and the glass rearranged into a stunning likeness of Marc's perfectly formed cock.
Joan's eyes lit up. "Sparkly! It looks like we all leveled up our magic."
"And no more brain zaps," Mokuba said, "at least not for little things like this."
Gertrude eyed the penis in the window. "Don't you think this is a bit too much?"
Joan blinked. "No."
Gertrude sighed. "I know you're going to do it your way, but please . . . think carefully about what kind of goddess you want to be."
"Mom, how are you so calm about this?"
"All my life, I've thought that the only path to eternal life was through Jesus, but now I know we have other options. Whatever happens in the end, I'd rather be together with my family than sittin' pretty in some so-called paradise without you."
"Dad, what about you?"
George shrugged. "I've been privately atheist for many years now. I sing with your mother because it's fun, but there have been times when I wanted to get up and walk out so I didn't have to listen to any more bullshit. Anyway, I don't know why you thought starting a religion was a good idea, but just promise me you won't kill anyone or ask people to start wars in your name."
"Don't worry. That's not on my agenda," Joan said.
"Good to hear," George said.
Joan surveyed the small group of people gathered at Marc's feet, looking up at him and her with adoration. These were her people now, her responsibility as well as her source of power. "Thank you for your faith. This god thing is still new to us, so we appreciate your patience as we move forward. Father John has agreed to serve as our priest, and we'll keep in touch with him so he can share news of our travels and deeds with you." Joan locked eyes with her parents and paused. "I'll keep in touch with you too, Mom and Dad. Without you, I wouldn't know the first thing about being a goddess. You taught me to love, to trust. Even in my darkest moments, I always belonged somewhere. I know this is weird for you, and you may not always agree with the path I'm taking, but knowing you still love me anyway means so much to me."
Joan's parents rose and hugged her, tears of happiness dripping from their eyes. She held them close, thankful they hadn't rejected her even after she seized control of their church.
Joan looked up to see Marc's brow furrowed. «My god, what troubles you?»
«Neither Laura nor I ever had anything like this.» The depth of Marc's pain surged through his thought.
«You'll always love her, though. I'll never take that from you.»
«It might be easier if you did.»
«But she's part of you. You wouldn't be who you are without her influence on your life.»
«Then bring her back to me.»
«You think I can do that? You think I can wave my magic ring and make her take you back? Even if mind control is within my power, it wouldn't really be her. Do you want the real Laura, or do you want a doll that looks like her? If you're happy with a doll, we share the same power. You're free to try whatever you want on her.»
Mokuba coughed, dispelling the apparently silent tension between Marc and Joan. "Can we wrap this up? It's way past lunchtime."
Gertrude clapped her hands. "Oh yes! Let's go to the brewery."
Joan considered the distance from the church to the brewery. "Uh, Mom, we only took one car."
Gertrude patted Joan's shoulder. "Don't worry about that. George and I can take our bikes on BART. We may even get there before you do if we hit the next train."
"Our heavy choir books are going to slow us down," George pointed out.
"We're tough; we can handle it," Gertrude insisted.
"Mom, no offense, but we don't want to be kept waiting another twenty minutes if you miss that train," Joan said. "Let me try something." Joan floated into the air, flew to the other side of the church, and came right back.
Mokuba and Marc tested their flight abilities as well and found easy success. The flock members who had stayed after Mass clapped.
"All right," Joan said, "you two and Father John can ride in Tamara's car. We'll fly and meet you there."
"Do gods even need bodyguards?" Tamara wondered.
"We should be able to protect ourselves from regular people," Mokuba said, "and I doubt you'll be much use against other gods, so maybe you should protect Joan's parents and our priest from now on."
Joan nodded, exchanged a few thoughts with Seto, and that settled the matter. Joe would watch over Father John, and Tamara would watch over Joan's parents. As the bodyguards loaded into Tamara's car with their new charges, Joan let Michael know they were on their way. Joan, Marc, and Mokuba took flight and made a beeline for the brewery.