Authors: Hunter Shea
So many people to thank for this one. First and foremost, huge thanks to Don D’Auria for rescuing me from the slush pile and being the best editor a writer can ask for, and Louise Fury, agent extraordinaire. Go Team Fury! This book morphed into a lot of different forms before it became what it is now and some very special folks along the way kept it moving along. My undying appreciation to Patricia Thomas (MIL) for giving me the tools to start it, Michael Chella for the awesome artwork that helped my vision of the story, Tim Stanton for agreeing to be a man of the cloth (fictional, of course), Jack Campisi, my brother from another mother and fellow Monster Man, and my sister Carolyn Wolstencroft for being my early reader and editor.
This book is for Shane Leuis, the nicest and nuttiest guy you’ll ever meet. We’ve both seen the edge of hell together, and lived to laugh about it.
“And He said, ‘What hast thou done? The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground.’”
—Book of Genesis 4:9
“And there was a war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon.”
—Book of Revelation 12:7
“Sheena is a punk rocker.”
Hot sand blew into the stranger’s face as he crested the dusty hill. He refused to blink, refused to admit even the slightest defeat to the power of nature and the one who birthed it. He spat on the lone tuft of grass that clung to the hilltop, laughed as it turned a bilious brown, wilting back into the dry earth.
He was surprised to find a small orchard of fig trees lay nestled in the valley below, a lush land fed by the runoff from the surrounding hummocks. At the outer edge of the orchard sat a clay home, baked hard in the sun, big enough to house three, maybe four people. The leaves of the fig trees chittered in the breeze, mocking him. He’d see to that.
Using his gnarled, wooden staff, he descended the hill in a matter of minutes, his bare feet finding a solid grip with each step. The sun was strong and burned the back of his neck. He pulled his woolen hood over his head, pausing a moment to take in the orchard from eye level.
Five rows of a dozen trees each were spaced out evenly across the valley. Thousands of ripe green figs hung from the branches. They looked, to him at least, like swollen scrotums. He reached up to pluck one, grimaced as it discolored in the palm of his hand, turning a mushy black and melting between his fingers.
The tree followed suit, the figs dying and falling in a rain dance of heavy plops, bursting as they hit the ground. Leaves shriveled up, became brittle, while the branches sagged as if saddled with the weight of the moon.
The trunk split in half, the bisected tree collapsing in opposite directions.
The verdant soil around the tree transformed to a cancerous black, spider veins stretching to its neighbors, the scene of rapid decay and death replayed again and again until the orchard was a killing field, bereft of life, the soul of the land corrupted beyond measure.
This made the stranger smile.
Two men erupted from the house, hands on their heads, wailing in shock, anger, fear. Their life’s work had been destroyed in a matter of minutes, struck down by an unseen plague. A woman holding a child to her breast emerged. She looked across the demolished field and cried. The baby fidgeted in her arms as if it too could sense that something had gone terribly wrong.
One of the men met the stranger’s gaze, pointed.
“You did this?” he cried. It was more a question than an accusation, for the moment. The strange man in his former orchard was the one thing that did not belong. If he was not the cause, and how could one man do this, then perhaps he was witness to the death of his beloved fig trees.
To the man’s amazement, the stranger bowed and said, “Yes, I did.”
Fire flashed in both men’s eyes and they disappeared into the house. The woman turned away from him, shielding the baby from his view. The men emerged brandishing long swords. They held them high above their heads, charging at him.
He waited for them to come to him, to wear themselves out running across the barren field. They swore curses as they rushed headlong, prepared to maim this stranger who had taken their life from them through some power they did not and could not understand. But they did understand retribution, the swifter the better.
The stranger waited until they were several steps away before raising his walking stick above his head. It caught both swords as they swooped down to cleave him from shoulder to hip. With a flick of his wrist, both swords were torn from their hands, buried in the unyielding wood of his staff. He tossed it aside, grabbing for their throats.
He closed his eyes, in the throes of an orgasmic rapture as he felt their windpipes crush between his fingers. They swatted at his thick forearms to no avail. He squeezed tighter, cutting off their supply of oxygen, demolishing the inner workings of their respiratory systems. They wouldn’t be needing them much longer.
Their throats collapsed one after the other with an audible rending of cartilage and muscle. He released them, looking on in amusement as they dropped to the ground, their eyes distended, tongues swollen and lolling from open mouths.
The woman sobbed, falling to her knees. He came to her in slow, steady strides, confident that she would not run from him. She looked up as his shadow loomed over her.
“What kind of monster are you?” she asked, defiance in her eyes. Her baby had grown silent, tucked within her robes.
He retrieved his staff and leaned on it, regarding her with cold curiosity.
“I’m the best kind of monster,” he said. Drool pooled at the corners of his mouth, oozing into his filthy beard.
He made fast work of the woman and the baby, using his staff to bludgeon them until they were unrecognizable mounds of fresh, exposed meat. Flies gathered in droves as he sat in the shade of the tiny house and admired his performance.
Death and desolation had been his constant companion; all for one moment of rage. It had happened so long ago that he couldn’t even remember how it had started, not that he even cared anymore. The heat and the afterglow of the kill lulled him into a languid stupor.
He was startled for the first time in memory when the woman’s lips, separated from her face when he had fustigated it with gleeful abandon, began talking to him from amid the quivering pile of spoiled meat, organs and bones.
“You are a wonder to behold,” the lips mouthed without tongue, teeth or throat. “I cherish you above all others. You are not cursed, but blessed.”
The stranger staggered to his feet and gripped his staff, prepared to pummel the mouth into shreds.
“I like your instincts,” it said. “Kill first, ignore the need for questions later.”
He raised the staff above his head, and paused.
“What sort of demon be you?” he shouted.
“The best kind.” The lips shook up and down with laughter. The stranger’s arm shuddered with palsy and the staff slipped from his hand.
“Your talents are wasted, wandering this insipid land, bringing pox to everything you touch. Oh, I have such delights in store for you. Come with me. I have much to show you.”
The lips closed, sliding lifelessly down a shattered arm, resting in the bowl of a shard of broken skull.
The stranger’s legs bent with a will not of his own until he was kneeling. His breath hitched in his chest as a shadow rose up from the foul earth where the fig trees once stood. It grew and grew until it was the size of the surrounding hills, a black cloud of pure malevolence. He trembled before it, bowing his head.
“Call me Master,” the shadow bellowed in his head.
“Master!” he bayed, as much to placate the shadow as to alleviate the pressure building in his head. The pain was excruciating. He screamed again. “Master!”
With that, the pain and pressure ceased. The shadow retreated back into the earth. The land was once again silent and dead. Even the merciless wind had departed.
The stranger looked about, wary. He retrieved his staff and got to his feet.
He was permitted two steps before the ground opened up beneath him. He plunged into darkness in a free fall that seemed to stretch on forever.
And as he fell, for the first time in decades, he felt peace.
Cardinal Gianncarlo walked briskly to Pope Pius XIII’s office, his black robe billowing behind him. The sound of his quick and heavy footsteps echoed across the vast, marbled hallway. The day was bright and filled with promise, in stark contrast to the roiling cloud that had descended upon his fluttering heart.
The cardinal was normally a stern man, authoritarian to those beneath him, unflappable in his sense of duty to the Lord. His parents, Italian citizens who had made the mistake of openly sympathizing with the Jewish plight during World War II, had been murdered before his very eyes. At the age of seven, he had been placed in a Nazi death camp, managing to survive two years in brutal captivity until the Allied forces freed them all. He vowed to live the rest of his life in service to God and had done so with unequaled integrity and passion, earning the confidence of the leader of his blessed church.
The e-mail from the lone priest of a small Vermont parish had turned his skin the color of spoiled milk when he had been urged by his secretary to open it just minutes ago. With a knot of dread cramping his stomach, he sped off to the pontiff’s study. Time was of the essence. Time and—
He reached the library that doubled as the pontiff’s main office and study, and with unsteady hands rapped loudly on the massive oak door. Like the architectural design of the entire Vatican Palace, the door was a study in elegant simplicity. The voice of Pope Pius XIII beckoned him to enter.
“Sorry to disturb you, but something urgent just came in that I think you should see,” Cardinal Gianncarlo said with a slight stammer.
The pope looked at the cardinal and knew. The exact details of the message were still a mystery to him, but the outcome, of that he was sure. The cardinal thought he detected a slight flickering of the light, the fire that had made him one of the most dynamic popes in centuries, behind his old friend’s eyes.
Pope Pius XIII unfolded the printout with trembling, liver-spotted fingers and read the extensive message. When he was finished, he looked up at his old friend. Deep lines of great sadness etched across his brow.
“So, the inevitable has come back to hound us,” the pope said.
“As much as it pains me to say, yes.”
With a heavy sigh, the pope slumped back in his chair.
“How long has it been since the last appearance? Twenty, thirty years?”
“Nothing since Jonestown. Well over two decades of praying the evil was finally gone forever,” the cardinal answered.
“What has no life can never die, my friend. I had hoped to have passed on to our Father’s arms before this office was faced with such a situation, but we both well know life is never quite what we plan it to be. I’m an old man now. Do I have the strength to go through this again?”
The pope shrugged, the weight of time and responsibility bearing down on his brittle, sagging shoulders. He had served the office of pope for over thirty years, no small feat. He recalled his days as a young man, fresh from the seminary in his first parish in Bergamo, Italy. That young man would never have even dreamed to be what he would one day become. And no one could have guessed the true secrets that lay in store for his discovery when he ascended to the papacy.
“Would you like me to get Father Michael?”
Cardinal Gianncarlo had to resist the urge to pull him close, offering comfort for a man who had dedicated his life to bringing peace and comfort to millions. They were different men the last time, when the beast within Jim Jones was sent to hell, but not before so much had been lost; terrible choices forced to be made, too many lives lost. It had changed them, added years and unbearable pain to their souls.
The old pope shook his head.
“That is my duty. At my age, it will surely be my final call. Let the burden of the nightmares rest with me. I only ask that you sit and pray.”
The cardinal settled into a plush leather chair and the pope offered his hand across the large, neatly arranged desk. In silence, the two men prayed while life outside his windows carried on, ignorant to the dark shadows gathering at the earth’s edge.
Pope Pius XIII found Father Michael’s Spartan room empty. He had only been there once before, decades earlier, and all seemed exactly the same as it had then. Located in a basement of the Holy See’s Museo Pio-Clementino, it was actually a converted storage area, sandwiched between two rooms used to house stockpiles of books and scrolls collected by Popes Leo X, Clement VII and several others, all hermetically sealed in special glass chambers that prevented the ravages of age and air to wreak further havoc on the priceless documents. Windowless, it contained a battered chair, three bookshelves filled with old religious texts and a thirteen-inch, black-and-white television, presumably Father Michael’s lone portal to the world outside the Vatican.
The pope shivered at the thought of searching for Father Michael in the only other area of the vast Vatican he was known to frequent. Taking a service elevator, he rode down five levels to a seldom-used subbasement. The doors opened to reveal a darkly lit, cavernous warehouse whose sole purpose was the storage of old religious artifacts, mostly statues gathered from every corner of the globe over the past thousand years. Row upon row of cold, stone saints, crosses, gargoyles and other grotesqueries filled every corner of this level. Dusty, low-wattage lightbulbs intermittently cut the gloom. The damp, moldy air assaulted his nose and he stopped to sneeze, leaning on his cane to keep his balance.
Reluctantly stepping into the gloom, the pope had the feeling of being surrounded by the dead, remnants of man and beast frozen for all time in various stages of glory, horror, birth and agony, just as Lot’s wife had been turned into a pillar of salt by God upon gazing at the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Worse still was knowing whom he sought amidst these long-forgotten effigies, the living relic who had caused him to question everything he believed in, yet strengthened his faith in ways that were impossible to describe. He felt weak, as if his muscles had been stricken by a powerful flu.
Pausing, Pope Pius XIII strained for any sound of the living amongst the chimeras.
It was silent as a tomb.
“Father Michael,” he rasped.
Receiving no reply, the pope walked farther into the maze of statues. He turned a corner and came face-to-face with a gargoyle, its hideous half-human, half-dragon visage partially covered by a cloak. A long neck ended in a rectangular body with birdlike claws peeking out of the bottom, seeking purchase that was no longer there. He read the small tag hanging from the gargoyle’s neck:
From the Collegiate Church of Saint Waudru, Mons, Belgium, 1648
Momentarily pondering why mankind had shown such an interest in abominable images, the pope nearly lost his breath when he looked up to see Father Michael standing not more than two feet in front of him. Somehow, the six-foot-three priest had managed to answer his call without making a sound. He stood before the pope, mute and without the slightest hint of movement. It was as if he too had been turned into one of the monstrous statues he was so fond of.
“You…you startled me, Father Michael,” Pope Pius XIII said.
Father Michael was an imposing sight, disturbingly preternatural in appearance. His large frame, broad shoulders and immense hands were those of an Olympic athlete. He stood completely erect, not a single joint or bone in the slightest semblance of repose.
It was his face, dear God, his face, that nearly made the pope gasp. That face had haunted his dreams for more than twenty-five years. He feared it would follow him into death and beyond.
Father Michael was completely bald, his face a series of sharp, angular lines. Strong jaw. Sharp nose atop pencil-thin, bloodless lips. Large brow shaded two seemingly sightless, ivory eyes, utterly devoid of pupil or color. His skin had the pallor of a cadaver, fresh from the embalmer. Two large, rounded ears helped complete the image of a human phantasm made flesh. There was no sign of life in the mask that was Father Michael’s face.
It was a weakness, the pope had realized long ago, this fear that overpowered him when in Father Michael’s presence. Whether his fright was caused by the priest’s physical form or the knowledge of what his unleashing could mean to the world was unclear. Perhaps, most likely, it was both.
The pope’s innards tightened like a coil. The silence between them was almost too much to bear. Clearing his throat, the pope said, “We have need of your services. We received a communication from a parish in Vermont, in the States. I will make arrangements for your departure immediately.”
For an interminable period of seconds, Father Michael stood there, showing no indication that he had heard anything the pope had just said. Then, while closing his milk-white eyes, he bowed his head slightly.
In a voice as old as the church itself, he grumbled, “In the name of God, I am at your service, Your Excellency.”
“You’ll leave tonight. A helicopter will take you to Fiumicino Airport where a private jet has been arranged to fly you to the States. Gather whatever you may need and meet me at the Hall of Penance in one hour.” The Swiss Guards, the bodyguards of the pope as well as protectors of the Apostolic Palace, had been alerted to escort a special representative of the pope to the Vatican’s lone helipad.
Having said all that was needed, Pope Pius XIII eagerly turned his back on the priest, if that’s what he could call him, and made his way to the waiting elevator.
He shuddered when he heard Father Michael call after him.
“It will be a pleasure to meet an old enemy.”
Father Martin Rooney accessed his e-mail as soon as he heard the tiny electronic beep signal an incoming message. He was a transfer from New York and the most computer literate in the bucolic Vermont town of South Russell. Farming held more importance than computers here. He never ceased to be amazed at the total absence of iPods when he passed teens in the street. It took him some time to adjust, but he’d eventually come to feel very much at home in this little holdout to a forgotten era. The fact that his home had been invaded by a pestilence far beyond his means of extermination angered as much as frightened him.
The message was brief and to the point. The Vatican would be sending a representative ASAP. He would arrive by late afternoon, tomorrow.
The Vatican? The archbishop’s concern must have matched his own to forward his message to the Holy City.
He was to gather all eighty-five inhabitants of the town, actually eighty when you left out the Carron family, at the church and await Father Michael’s arrival.
That will be easily done, he thought. Word spread fast in small towns and the news of the past week had left every member of South Russell on edge. What was once a deeply religious, happy town of farmers and small-time custom jelly manufacturers was now a fractured community of insomniacs who jumped at the slightest sound and walked in packs for fear of being alone, clutching rosaries and casting furtive glances.
Even Father Rooney, the resident city slicker, was at wit’s end. He had seen things up at the Carron farm. Things that turned his view of the world flat on its ass. Things that made him, a grown man, run screaming like a child in the night.
He lifted a cigarette to his mouth and pressed the Print icon on his computer. He wanted to show everyone that the Vatican had answered their cry and all would be right again. It was his job as priest and confidant to reassure the town, what had become
, that help was on its way and the plague that had descended on their tranquil hamlet would be expunged. His frantic e-mail to the archbishop two days earlier had prompted a very quick response. That they were sending a representative from the Vatican demonstrated just how serious the situation was, while instilling confidence that the powers that be knew full well how to deal with the frightening matter.
If I tell them that, will that only deepen their fear? And who is this Father Michael?
. What kind of man was dispatched to handle the terror up at the Carron farm? What had he seen and done in the past to qualify him to be the lone representative from the head of the church?
He rubbed his eyes with his palms, shuddering. Not a drinker by nature, he considered opening a bottle of the wine reserved for services. A glass or two could do more good than harm. He was so, so tired. The limits of his endurance had been passed days ago and he’d even started to experience heart palpitations.
Dammit, he needed that wine, if only to have a moment’s rest, an hour of calm. Besides, Father Michael would be here soon. Let him be the man in charge. Let him find the light within the darkness. Let him bring peace to the town.
But deep down, he knew no one in South Russell would ever rest easy again.
On the way to the small wine rack he kept in the sacristy, he grabbed a large glass, watching it tremble in his hand as if it belonged to someone else, an old man. For each sip of wine he took that night, he shed twice as many tears.
Father Michael grabbed the few possessions he needed: change of clothes, heavy, ankle-length coat and his gunnysack of necessary tools. It had always been packed and ready, so there was no need to check its contents. Using pathways that only he, the monster of the Vatican, knew of, he quickly made his way to the Hall of Penance. Inhumanly fleet of foot, especially for a man his size, Father Michael made it to the designated meeting place with Pope Pius XIII in minutes. He was aware that it would be some time before the pope, frail or not, would enter the Hall.
The Hall of Penance, as it was named by Pope Urban II centuries ago, was located deep within the Vatican, many levels lower than even lifelong residents of the Holy See believed existed in the massive city. It was accessible through a hidden passageway located in the subterranean passage that connected the Vatican Palace to the ornate gardens. Only Father Michael and the succession of popes were aware of its presence and purpose. Accessible by a narrow tunnel hewn from the rock foundation of the Vatican itself, the secret hall was a simple, circular room without electricity or fancy decoration. The stone walls had been roughly chiseled, the ceiling just high enough for Father Michael to stand erect.
In the center of the room, on a rectangular altar made of flawless marble rested an ancient artifact thought by most to be mere myth.
A long, bronze-tipped spear lay on the altar. It was bathed in an eternal blue blaze that gave off neither heat nor cold. Its tip was crusted brown with blood shed two millennia ago on the most momentous day in human history.
The Holy Lance was the very spear used by a Roman soldier to pierce Jesus’s side as he died on the cross. Its powers were mighty. Those who possessed it were said to become invincible, and rumors of it being in the hands of great conquerors and rulers over the past two thousand years were as numerous as the number of fake lances that were fought over and stored in secrecy.
Father Michael knew the truth. How it was given to the Apostle Peter and kept from the world by generations of succeeding men chosen to protect it at all costs. It was eventually placed in his care, and he had chosen to safeguard it underneath a small farmhouse in Austria, far from the town’s church and, what he thought, suspicion.
Of all the tales told about the Holy Lance, only its plundering by Hitler holds a shred of truth. To this day, Father Michael didn’t know how the maniacal leader managed to find it. The Fuhrer and his top men, all driven insensate by their desire to master the mystical arts, thought that with the lance under their control they would win the war and conquer the world. But like all men, they only knew of half-truths, and even those were greatly outnumbered by all the falsehoods under which they had operated.
They also weren’t aware of Father Michael, who waged a one-man war within and behind the lines of combat to recover what rightfully belonged to no man. Hitler heard of the deeds done by a hulking, mad priest that witnesses claimed could not be stopped by weapons. It was a sign, that God had sent a soldier to reclaim his prize. In the last days of the war, he took the lance into his bunker, sure in the knowledge that it would, at the very least, spare him from death. Father Michael arrived at his bunker moments after US soldiers, who discovered Hitler’s body, his head shattered by a single bullet. General Patton, knowing the history of the lance, handed it to him, the lone priest in the scarred battleground, offering a military escort so he could safely return it to the Vatican.
And here, in the Hall of Penance, it had remained for close to seventy years, where it waited for him to hand over to the new Christ. So much about the Holy Lance and he were similar that he felt a strong connection to the relic and their intertwined destinies.
Father Michael tentatively reached out to touch the blue flame, the sole reminder of his purpose, his rebirth.
He quickly pulled his hand back at the sound of shuffling feet. Pope Pius XIII entered the room, winded and pale. Father Michael offered no help, stayed silent as the mystical blue flame.
“Here is everything Cardinal Gianncarlo has on the state of affairs in Vermont,” the pope said between ragged breaths. He held out a thin, bound report to the mysterious priest, careful not to make any sort of hand-to-hand contact. “Your plane will land at Logan Airport in Boston. From there you will take a helicopter to South Russell, Vermont. Our only concern is the weather, as it appears you will be arriving at the same time as a terrible winter storm. I know full well that a mere storm could not stop you. I just hope it doesn’t delay you so much so that you will be too late.”
Father Michael nodded and quickly scanned the pages, absorbing every minute detail of the mission before him. To the untrained eye, the tale coming out of Vermont would appear as either the ramblings of a priest who had suffered an obvious break with reality, or an exaggeration of something far simpler and benign than it seemed. The cardinal was a wise man who took nothing lightly. This was no false alarm.
The pope took that moment of silence to stare wide-eyed at the Holy Lance. Devout as he was, the sight was almost beyond belief. He was a modern man as well as a man of the cloth, believing that most miracles had some scientific explanation, rooted in more mundane details as yet undiscovered. The lance, followed by his initial meeting with Father Michael, had forever changed or, better yet, solidified his Christian belief system. Science had since become so much minutiae in the greater and wondrous workings of God the Father.
“This will get worse before it ends.” Father Michael’s voice, a guttural growl that commanded attention, shattered the pope’s reverie.
“Yes, I’m…I’m sure it will,” the pope replied.
“There’s no telling what demonic force is behind this or how far its limbs reach. The minds of men are more pliable than ever before. It will be difficult.”
“And that is why we have you.”
Father Michael nodded in reply.
The pope looked briefly into Father Michael’s ivory eyes, hoping to see something of the man beyond the frightening exterior. He could only imagine the tortured soul that lived behind those dead man’s eyes.
“Go with God.”
Father Michael left the Hall of Penance with the speed of a fleeing wraith, the flap of his coat echoing down the long tunnel.
Pope Pius XIII felt his knees buckle. He slumped to the floor and clasped his hands together in silent contemplation of events to come. Father Michael was the church’s only physical weapon against the evil that had resurfaced. All that was left now was prayer.
It was literally the calm before the storm as the helicopter touched down in an empty field a hundred yards beyond the Vermont church. The pilot had unsuccessfully tried to make conversation with the blind priest the entire ride over. At least he had assumed he was blind, judging by his eyes. The man moved with incredible dexterity but the pilot figured he was one of those sightless people whose other senses had increased tenfold to make up for the loss of the one.
“Do you need help getting to the church?” he shouted above the sharp
of the blades. He touched down in a hard-packed field with a harsh jolt.
The priest merely grabbed his bag, opened the cockpit door and trudged across the field.
“That’s one strange dude,” he said.
With a shrug of his shoulders, the pilot waited until the odd holy man made his way to the church doors in the distance before taking off, thankful to be rid of his bizarre cargo and anxious to get back before the storm hit.
Father Michael trudged through the eight inches of old snow that blanketed the field, crunching through the thick layer of ice that crusted the hardpack. He paused at the massive red double doors to the church. There was a stillness in the frigid air that devoured all sound. Ominous gray clouds filled the sky, ready to burst at the seams. Beyond the coming storm was a feeling, like a faint static electrical charge, that confirmed he was not too late.
Behind the doors he could hear the quiet murmur of dozens of hushed voices. No doubt they had heard the helicopter and were buzzing about his arrival. He opened one of the doors and was immediately inundated with gasps from the expectant congregation.
Here stood a man, larger and more imposing than everyone’s worst childhood nightmare of the boogeyman, who was supposed to deliver them from evil. Silence enveloped the church as he strode down the aisle to Father Rooney, who stood aghast before the pulpit.
Father Michael noted the fear in the people’s faces. Not just fear of him, but a disease of anxiety that had nestled within their bones and turned them into a pack of the living dead. Their priest was in no better shape, his red-rimmed eyes marking him as a man who had slept very little in the past week, if at all.
“Fath—Father Michael, I presume,” he said, his eyes growing wider at the approach of the massive priest.
“Come with me,” Father Michael ordered, walking briskly beyond the altar to the rear of the church. Dozens of heads swiveled, following him as he walked down the aisle. He heard Father Rooney assure his congregation that he would be right back and to remain calm. He felt a small twinge in his gut at the sound of their frantic replies.
A minute later, the priest joined him. “Before I go to the Carron farm, I need to know one thing. Had anyone been staying with them recently? Someone who was a stranger to the community?” The air vibrated as he spoke the words.
To his credit, Father Rooney did his best not to fixate on the intense timbre of the priest’s voice. He thought for a moment, and said, “Actually, they had taken someone in. A transient was passing through town looking for work a couple of weeks or so ago. Now, there’s nothing odd about that in a farming town. Many of the farm owners here employ migrant workers. What made this stand out, I guess, is the season. We rarely if ever have people pass through looking for work just before winter. Joe Carron took him on anyway, I believe to make repairs to the barn and fencing around his land. Why do you ask?”
“Did you see this man when you went to the farm three days ago?”
“No, but what does this man have to do with the possessed child?”
“Everything. How do you know the child is possessed? You’re not a trained exorcist.”
The small-town priest quickly grew angry. “Because she changed from a beautiful little girl into some sort of demonic beast before my very eyes, that’s how I fucking know she’s possessed! I watched her jump through a pane of glass and tear the back off a cow with teeth that were longer than her arms! And I ran. I ran for my life and I haven’t the courage to go back there and it makes me sick to my stomach thinking about what that family is going through, alone!”
In a perfect world, Father Michael would have had the time to talk the priest down, allay his fears, his sense of personal failure. This world, however, was far from Eden and about to get much, much worse.
“You said in your communication that the sheriff went there two days ago.”
Father Rooney cast his eyes to the ground. “He hasn’t returned.”
Father Michael placed a hand on the priest’s shoulder. “Go, tend to your congregation. Keep them in the church until my return. No one is to leave the church before then. No one.”
Relief swept across Father Rooney’s face. His greatest fear would be having the Vatican official ask him to accompany him to the Carron farm. He turned and walked back into the church on unsteady legs, bolstered by the thought that only something as frightening as this Father Michael would stand a chance against the evil at the Carron house.
The skies erupted as Father Michael took the two-mile walk to the farm. Snowflakes as large as the palm of a child’s hand fell in copious amounts, already covering the unpaved path. The wind began to howl, whipping through the dead limbs of the trees, injecting cold into his veins.
Less than a thousand feet from the Carron property, he stopped at the sound of crackling twigs to his right. Through the whistling of the wind, he strained to hear any movement in the wooded area that surrounded him.
A pile of dried leaves crunched to his left.
A shuffling of feet to his right.
With one swift motion, he pulled a long staff from his gunnysack while dropping the bag from his shoulder. The staff had a solid-gold cross at the end, encrusted with dazzling jewels: rubies, emeralds, sapphires, diamonds and jade. He twisted the base of the staff and with an audible
, six-inch blades slid out of the top and opposing arms of the cross. In an instant, it had become a deadly trident. He held it out before him, his eyes and ears scanning for the approaching attackers.
Twin howls exploded around him. With lightning speed, he was hit from behind while a foot connected with his midsection.
He was quickly knocked to the ground.
And without his trident.
Father Michael lay face down in the snow, temporarily winded. His attackers had fled into the woods as quickly as they had come.
The sound of childlike laughter drifted on the swirling winds.
He gingerly touched his right side where he had received the kick. Several ribs had been broken. They were the least of his concern. They would heal.
His trident was missing. No doubt they were planning to use it against him. It was an unwise decision on their part.
Rising to one knee, he squinted into the onslaught of snow that was rapidly escalating into a major blizzard. He feigned grievous injury, clutching his side and grunting in pain as he rose to his feet. It was the basic law of the hunt in the animal kingdom. Kill the weakest of the herd. They would be upon him and careless in their confidence.
The howling rose again, this time directly in front of him. They were planning a full-out frontal assault, which meant his plan was working. They were reckless and drunk with the scent of a certain kill.
Reaching into his coat pockets, he plucked out a pair of palm-sized crucifixes with razor-sharp blades protruding atop each end. Engraved on the body of each were the words of demonic exorcism as old as the church itself. The arcane passage, which was in no way related to the larger rites of exorcism for vanquishing demonic spirits safely from human hosts, had been passed down to each succeeding pope throughout the ages. When needed, the pope would inscribe the words onto a weapon but cover it so the chosen champion of the faith could not read it, for they were human and not meant to know.
Until Father Michael came to be.
A burst of adrenaline coursed through Father Michael as his attackers came into view.
Two boys, Aaron and Billy Carron, ages fourteen and twelve, were now more beast than boys. Completely naked, they had covered themselves in blood and excrement. They halted their advance just several feet from him. One of them held the trident, jabbing it in the air with quick, jerky movements, anxious to plunge it into his heart.
They too had become demons, which meant there was no hope of finding human survivors at the farmhouse. Their very bone structure had been altered by their possession. Bony ridges had broken out haphazardly across their faces, shoulders and legs. Their arms had become elongated, with fingertips that now ended around their lower calves. Thick clots of red-and-black blood cascaded from their fuchsia eyes. They snarled at him like cornered hyenas. Their stench was overpowering.
Father Michael straightened up to his full height, his hands gripping the deadly crucifixes.
One of them, the one with the trident who Father Michael believed to be Aaron, the oldest, spoke in a tongue that had been shredded by the extra rows of teeth that had grown in his mouth.
“You die, Father fucker! Die like a cow like a sow like a pig like a bitch like a leech like a baby like a mother like…” He paused for a moment and smiled. “Like your wife.”
It was meant to shatter his composure but it was a feeble attempt. He had seen and heard too much in his service of God to become unhinged from those words.
He merely replied, “God bless you and may He pity your soul.”
They attacked as one, all claws and teeth, the trident a lance of certain death.
Father Michael jumped above their heads as they passed through the now-vacant space. He landed with a loud thud, facing the naked backs of the charging demon-children. With a quick snap of his wrist, a crucifix-dagger sliced through the air and directly into the spine of the demon holding his trident.
It dropped face-first into the snow, dead before it hit the ground. A golden light spilled from the wound in its back, arching into the sky and disappearing into the snow squall. The demon’s skin turned a grayish color before shriveling up, bones popping from the pressure, until its carcass resembled a five-foot log of spoiled beef jerky. The casual passerby wouldn’t even give it a second glance, assuming it was a rotted hunk of tree limb.
The remaining demon wailed in anger at his fallen brother.
Father Michael quickly retrieved his trident while keeping his eyes on the demon. It rocked back and forth, its heavy breath cascading like smoke from its open mouth.
Without warning, it rushed Father Michael again, arms outstretched, deadly talons ending from its fingertips. Father Michael sidestepped its charge like a veteran bullfighter, taking the opportunity to smash the butt of the trident into the demon’s face, crushing its left cheekbone. The demon swiped at thin air and whirled from the pain in its head.
Father Michael was acting on pure instinct, his mind impervious to any thoughts that the demon he was about to kill had just recently been a small boy. In his time, he had killed thousands of demons, some of them even babies, transformed by the great evil into pure monstrosities. Even God’s will had its savage solutions. To be His servant meant to be good as well as unmerciful.
“Come,” Father Michael shouted at the beast. “Let us be done with this and let me deliver you to your true Father.”