The onion-domed cupola lay crumpled on its side amid the rubble of the destroyed church. On approach, Artem counted both the tears and the holes he saw in its shiny blue tinplate.

The tears were from sharp pieces of flying steel shrapnel that had ripped through the cupola. They were most likely fired from Grad rockets some 20 kilometers away, he deduced. “Grad” meant hailstorm in their language. And the navel-like holes were from bullets. Most likely fired by their soldiers atop BTR-80 armored personnel carriers as they came into the village.

The older villagers who had no choice but to stay had told him that the orcs were mostly from the enemy’s remote provinces, and that they were all younger than the battered AK-74 rifles with worn wooden stocks that they wielded. Some wore only cheap sneakers rather than combat boots. When the orcs evacuated from the village after two months of occupation, they had stolen everything they could, even the blow dryers and manicure kits from the town’s only beauty parlor.

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The new flat-screen TV he’d bought himself on the 25th anniversary of his ordination probably had pride of place in someone’s Siberian house right now, Artem thought to himself.

But the older villagers had taken away and hidden the icons – Mother Maria, Queen Olya, King Volodymyr, Petro, Pavlo, Luka and others – before the orcs’ initial assault on the undefended village. When he learned of their actions after the occupation, Artem was surprised by the bravery of the farmers, motorcycle mechanics and grade-school teachers he had pastored for more than a decade. And also surprised by how little he knew about them.

As he carried the Kevlar case that housed the borrowed drone toward the church ruins, Artem realized that he had come to use the names of military equipment more than he did those of Saints. It was his secret that, after two years of war, ways he might kill orcs occupied him more than ways to help his parishioners, even as they came back to rebuild their shattered houses and battered lives.

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His own house, next door to the annihilated church, was dust and debris too. He now lived with other displaced priests at the Bishop’s dormitory in the capital. He had driven down today to launch the drone and video the former Church of St. Michael the Archangel.

The drone belonged to Vitya, a technical college student from the village turned solider for his country. Vitya could not use the reconnaissance drone now. He was in a military hospital and recovering from his battle injuries. Steel shards had been extracted from the shattered bones of his left leg and replaced with titanium orthopedic pins. With his crippled limb and carved-up face, Vitya said to Artem that he was “lucky”; he’d done his duty and he’d lived when four village boys he played football with until 8th grade had perished.

The wounds on the young man’s face were still healing, Artem noticed, and wondered what the scars would look like in Vitya’s old age.

“If he has an old age,” Father Artem thought to himself. War had come to this land before; all his countrymen knew that. His own father had said that there is never any peace here – only pauses between wars.

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But this war was different. It had come just as the country’s greatest generation was coming of age. Now, the best and brightest it ever put forth lived under a rain of steel.

Artem reminded himself to be careful of the broken glass and jagged concrete pieces as he knelt down to open the carry case. Vitya, whom he’d baptized as a squirmy baby now hobbled on adult crutches, had shown him how to do a basic flight and record video with the machine. It was God-like in its capacity and design elegance, Artem had thought as they buzzed the drone around above the hospital’s ground on a clear, sunny day.

His aim was to film the ruins of the church – and his neighboring house – and submit the clip to the compensation process the government had established. It angered him that the government needed proof of the country’s carnage. But he needed the money. Or, rather, as he had filled in on the bureaucratic forms, his congregation needed the money.

He carefully lifted the drone from the padding that encased it, inserted its rechargeable battery, and extended its spider-like arms. Then, Artem carefully set the drone on the ground. It was overcast and the wind was up, but how hard could it be to fly what was a toy and a hobby for most people in the “normal” world.

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Vitya had shown him how to plug the controller to his phone and Bluetooth to the controlling app, so he pulled his “mobilka” from his pocket. There was an SMS from the Bishop.

“It is a difficult time for all of us, Father. We each have many difficult choices. Please let me know by the end of the week.” Artem deleted the message and then regretted it.

Father Klym, another displaced priest at the rectory, had warned him the ultimatum was coming, when they drank overly hoppy craft beers in an overly hipster bar in the capital earlier in the week.

Before the full-scale, as it was called by his countrymen, Klym had run a successful side-hustle importing second-hand cars from the EU. He, Klym and everyone else in the faux dive ignored the air raid siren alert when it sounded.

“There are less people now. They’re consolidating the congregations, Artem,” Klym had said. “He wants us gone.”

“It will be either we go to the chaplain service on the southern front or we go to Lviv to work with abused refugee women or some other deserving types,” Klym continued. “Or, we get out of the game altogether. Become civilians. Be eligible for mobilization.”

Artem remembered that Klym had let him pay for most of their beers. He admired the guy’s wheeling and dealing – it reminded him of his cousins smuggling in leather jackets from Turkey in the ’90s – but Artem wasn’t sure he actually liked the guy. When he first completed the seminary, Artem knew for sure that he would have loathed a priest like Klym. That was a long time ago, he thought to himself.

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He fanned out the drone’s four black plastic propellers and pressed the On button in the center of its sleek gray body. Then, Artem lifted up the drone and let it rest on the palm of his extended left arm. With his right hand, he activated the app and scrolled around for the correct screen button. Unlike the smart and savvy post-independence kids in the village school, Artem’s English was almost non-existent, so he’d memorized what Vitya had shown him.

Automatic Take-Off.

With a soft whizzing sound, the drone ascended to a pre-programmed altitude. He saw 3 meters appear on the altimeter on the phone screen. The cosmonauts of his Soviet youth had had less technology. He needed to take over the flight from there.

Pressing the joy sticks on the controller, Artem tried to take it further up and out over what had been the church’s structure. He could feel the wind at his back.

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The church was one of the “mushroom” churches that sprang up all over the country in the years after independence. Like many others, it had been built, though, in the old Byzantine style. The church’s bearded leaders had hoped the style spoke of something more solid and reliable than the corruption and chaos of the country’s contemporary times.

The lay-out was a sacristy to the north which housed the altar. To the south, there was the antechamber where parishioners could buy bee’s wax votive candles or store their umbrellas on rainy Sundays. And, where the older women would beseech younger women to put headscarves on only to be ignored.

To the east and west, there were small chapel sections, both with an array of Saints. Saints for perseverance, Saints for the relief of grief, Saints for guidance in troubled times. The country had never been short of Saints because its history had never been short of suffering.

Up a spiral staircase and above the antechamber, there was the choir. The wrought-iron staircase creaked under the weight of climbing choristers, which used to annoy him, but he never seemed to get around to tightening and lubing its bolts.

Through the drone camera, Artem spotted the twisted staircase among the fallen walls and collapsed baby-blue ceiling. It would make for good “ruin porn” on social media, he found himself thinking.

“But I need some steady shots,” he said to himself as the drone hovered and hopped around in the sky.

An iconostasis separated the altar in the sacristy from the main body where the congregants stood during Liturgy. Its hand painting had been funded by Serhiy, a villager who’d migrated in 2005 to Naples. Several car repair garages and other “interests,” he’d told Artem, was the source of his wealth. Serhiy would come home for his summer holidays to the only newly built, three-story, show-off house in the village and the murmurs of its poorer residents that he was actually dealing in whores and “how could Father Artem possibly take that dirty money.” The orcs’ commander had claimed Serhiy’s house for himself during the occupation – and many villagers thought that was just desserts.

Their gossip, though, hadn’t stopped the villagers from also removing and saving the iconostasis’ painted panels before the shelling. All that remained of it was one mostly burnt section with some lettering.

Luke 11: 28, it read.

“Blessed are those who hear the word of God and obey it,” Artem remembered.

There was a sick feeling in his throat. His esophagus spasmed and his thumbs fumbled on the joy sticks. With the wind starting to swirl, he was struggling to keep the drone steady and the video focused and clear. It wasn’t as easy as Vitya made it look.

“Calm the hell down,” he said to himself. He said the prayer that he used out of habit – even if it meant less to him now than in his early priesthood. But the words were good and good words usually helped.

“Strengthen by the Lord’s grace our weak will and infirm intention, so that, confirmed in the law of the Lord, we may cease to be cast about by worldly thoughts and lusts of the flesh,” he recited to himself.

The wind slightly eased and Artem succeeded in steadying the drone. It was some 20 meters above the crushed church now. He could make out a dotted line of “voronky” – mortar shell craters – approaching from the northern direction. The orcs had systematically stepped in their fire and left the evidence of their deadly intent with dirt daisies.

Through a military radio, some young man operating his own drone had told some other young man operating an 88mm mortar cannon about a kilometer: “One click more. One click more. Now you’re on target. Lock and load the heavy ammo.”

There was nothing arbitrary about this war, Artem realized. The wind further calmed, and he pressed the red record button on the app. He swallowed down on the bile coming up.

The ruins of the church, he saw on the little digital screen, were in the shape of the crucifix. At 30 seconds of filing, Artem decided he’d had enough.

He stopped recording and pressed Automatic Landing. As the drone’s technical wizardry brought it back to rest at his feet, Artem threw up.

Doubled over at his waist, he spat several times. Then, he pressed an index finger to each nostril and cleared snot onto the ground. He wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his North Face jacket.

He gathered himself and deleted the recording from the app. He turned off the power on the drone.

Then, Artem made a choice. The priest knew what was to be next for him, regardless of his Bishop’s options.

Father Artem reminded himself to first go to the apteka around the corner from the Bishop’s dormitory before he moved out. He wanted to buy some of the facial scar cream that Vitya said really worked.

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