The battle between Dangchao and the Christians was on in earnest, and it continued that way as the countdown toward the end of the three and a half years of Tribulation continued.


In the two years from the time that Dangchao had first caused the sacrifices to cease, and had moved into the Temple in Jerusalem, both sides had lost count of the millions who had chosen to reject the Mark, and the millions more who had been executed to appease Dangchao's rage.


Although Pius was slightly more sane than the Antichrist himself, he was also becoming addicted to the sickening pleasure that came with conducting such a worldwide inquisition. It was the thrill of pure, unadulterated power that attracted them now, except that in their case, it was very much impure and very much adulterated use of power that had made it all so evil.


But, although Dangchao and Pius were killing many more people than Rayford and Chaim were converting, the Christians were clearly winning the spiritual battle. The numbers of people asking to become a part of the Tribulation Force were growing every day in spite of the killings.


The asteroid and meteorite showers had left millions dead and widespread destruction. Neither the U.N., nor the governments of its individual member nations, seemed capable of dealing with the problems that flowed on from the disasters. The world appeared to be heading back to the Dark Ages. People everywhere were disillusioned. Dangchao was definitely slipping in the popularity stakes.


But dissatisfaction with the new world order was not the main reason why people were choosing to become followers of Jesus. People joining the Tribulation Force were primarily moved by the testimony of those who went before them... a testimony that shone forth even at their executions. Surely there was something beyond this life, and these followers of Jesus had found it!


The Two Witnesses, far from being spooked by Dangchao and Pius' show of strength and by their cruel efforts to locate them, had actually announced simultaneous press conferences, one in Sydney and one in London.


The frenzied response from the media showed how little control Dangchao had over the Press as well. Troops were sent to break up both conferences and to arrest or kill Rayford and Chaim; but in both cases, it was the troops who were destroyed, as the Two Witnesses simply spoke a word and soldiers fell to the ground, their insides eaten out by maggots.


When it came time for Chaim and Rayford to leave their respective press conferences, they spoke once more and everyone present became temporarily blind. In the ensuing confusion, the Two Witnesses merely walked away, unnoticed.


The press conferences themselves were an overwhelming success for the Christian cause. The Two Witnesses exuded such an air of calm and confidence throughout their respective interviews that the whole world could not help but be impressed. What they said, from opposite ends of the world, was almost the same. They explained in clear simple language that all God wanted was for people to give him the honour that he deserved as their Creator. They said that Dangchao and Pius, and others like them, were only God's puppets, placed on earth to test the faith of each individual. And they finished with a heartfelt plea for people to turn from their service to the Antichrist and his Mark and to put their faith totally in God and in his Son, Jesus, before the next curse fell on each of them personally. They did not specify what form the curse would take.


"You will be wishing that you could die to escape it," Rayford promised. "I would not want to wish it on anyone. But it is going to happen. Believe me. You have a very short time to repent. Please, for your own good, turn now. Even cutting your hand off would be nothing by comparison to what awaits you if you don't turn now."


The press conference, which included live broadcasts all over the world, resulted in the biggest influx into the Tribulation Force that the Christians had so far experienced. There were too many for the Twelve Tribes to handle on their own; so, some of the people who had already undergone amputations themselves were being called in to assist with operations.


It did not take long for the rest of the world to become aware of the increased support for the Christian cause.


Dangchao, who had been fuming ever since the press conferences, was out of his mind.


"Puppets, are we?" he shouted, a few weeks after Rayford and Chaim were first reported to have called him that. He threw yet another newspaper down after reading the hated word.


"Puppets? How dare they!" He thrust his hands into the air and his head back in frustration as he shouted. The media had taken up that one word and woven it into just about every report that came out about the Twelve Tribes after that.


Dangchao went on a rampage through his palatial drawing room, kicking furniture and knocking things over. He smashed a heavy vase into a large mirror. Pius looked on almost indifferently now. He was growing accustomed to Dangchao's rages, and he had even had a few himself.


"I'll show them who the puppets are, and who pulls the strings! I'll show them!" Dangchao shouted.


"Apollyon! Get up here! Apollyon!"


"Yes, Master!" And suddenly at Dangchao's right hand stood a creature that could only be a fierce and powerful demon. Its face was uglier than anything that Pius had ever seen before... apart from Dangchao's other face. Pius shrunk back into a dark corner, hoping that the creature would not take notice of him.


"Apollyon, bring up your troops!"


"You mean bring them up here?" Apollyon asked in disbelief.


"Yes, bring them up here!" Dangchao shouted. And his face assumed the grotesque form that Pius so feared. "I want the world to know how much power I have. I want them to taste what I can do to them. And I want to teach those Christians a lesson."


"But they'll hurt our people too, Master," Apollyon said. "Do we really want to do that now? Before time?"


"I know what I'm doing!" Dangchao shouted. "If I can't send them to hell, I can at least bring hell to them!" He was overcome with amusement at his own turn of phrase, breaking into one of his fits of demonic laughter. "They're taking people away from me. But I can have the satisfaction of tormenting them now... before they die!" And the laughter resumed once more.


Pius was not so sure about the wisdom of tormenting their own people, but if Dangchao's plan would bring some suffering to the "aliens"… (Pius' name for the Two Witnesses; he never used the term "Christian" when referring to the believers, because it reminded him of what he had once claimed to be.) If Dangchao's plan would bring suffering to the Twelve Tribes, then it was worth a lot of "collateral damage", as Dangchao liked to call it.


"Now, Apollyon! Do it now!" Dangchao bellowed, and his demon face lit up as he prepared to watch what followed.


The floor of the room split down the middle, tearing the carpet and splintering the floorboards. Smoke came out… dense, black smoke; and it filled the room, filled the palace, poured out into the street, and eventually filled nearly all of Jerusalem. People could barely breathe.


And then, out of the smoke, there came the sound of troops, a kind of rhythmic beating of hooves, and the metallic bumping and scraping of armour. It sounded distant and faint at first, but then it grew in intensity. People at the limits of the smoke were the first to see what the sound was coming from, and they instinctively turned to run.


It was a great cloud of locusts... or at least creatures that resembled locusts. But they were a strange mutation. Their armoured bodies and metallic wings made them sound like knights on horseback when they flew in a horde as they were at the moment. On their tails were stingers like those on a scorpion.


These locusts did not attack crops or grass or trees. Instead, they attacked people. They had tiny sharp teeth that they used to get a hold on someone before jabbing their poisonous stinger in. The pain was unbearable... worse even than the pain of childbirth. The poison paralysed their limbs as well, making it impossible for victims to do more than roll on the ground in agony for the two or three hours it took for the pain to wear off. Pain-killers were largely ineffectual, and there was no known antidote.


Many would be stung over and over, despite every attempt to escape the horrible plague.


The locusts kept coming out of the thick, black cloud all that day. They left Jerusalem in separate hordes, each one going in a different direction. They would each work their way around the world over the next five months, stinging all who were in their way.


All, that is, except the members of the Twelve Tribes. Perhaps it was some residue from the tiny transponder that these creatures were attracted to. Or perhaps it was divine protection for the 144,000. In either case, it did not take long before Rayford, Chaim, and the media had recognised the irony of the trap that Dangchao had fallen into.


Rayford and Chaim had predicted great suffering over all of the earth... suffering that would be so painful that people would wish they could die. They had pronounced the curse, but Dangchao himself had been the "puppet" through which it had become reality! His own tiny alien creatures with their metal wings, sharp teeth, and scorpion tails were the instrument through which God gave the world a taste of what hell would be like. At the same time, God had protected the people who were the target of Dangchao's hate!


The Tribulation Force were not, as were the Twelve Tribes, totally immune to the locusts, but the pain for them seemed to be little more than a bee sting by comparison to what others felt.


When Christians, whether from the Twelve Tribes or from the Tribulation Force, came upon others who had been stung, they offered comfort, prayer, and whatever practical assistance they could give. It did not take away the pain, but it became a powerful testimony, not only of God's power to protect his own, but also of the love that the Christians had, even for their enemies.


The rest of the world... those who had not converted to faith in Jesus by this time... were, indeed, becoming more and more evil.... more and more "enemies" of God and of all who would follow Him. Every kindness from the Christians only increased their hatred.


Although countless millions had converted to faith in Jesus by this time, the majority of the earth's population continued to support Dangchao and his policies. They believed his lies about the Two Witnesses being the cause of all of the earth's problems, and they felt and expressed nothing but hatred for God.


The three and a half years of the Great Tribulation were only a year away from completion by the time the locust plague had ceased. Five months after they had arrived, the locusts returned to Jerusalem, each having circled the globe. It was like a rewind of their arrival. Another cloud of thick, black smoke covered the city; they flew into it; and then the cloud of smoke disappeared down through the hole in Dangchao's palace, taking the fearsome creatures with it.