“Reverend, you have a visitor.”
He couldn’t remember when he fell in love with the pain. When agony first turned to pleasure, and then to joy. Of course, it hadn’t always been like this. He remembered screaming all those years ago when first they put him in this cell; those memories were vague, though, like reflections in a dusty mirror.
A buzz as the door slid open, inconsequential. The aching need was what drove him in this moment, and nothing else mattered. It was a primal desire: a longing for the tingly rush of adrenaline each time the lash licked his flesh. The blood dripping down his parched skin fulfilled him like biting into a juicy strawberry on a warm summer’s day.
“Some woman. Says she needs to speak with you immediately. She says her name is Frieda.”
A pause, the lash hovering in the air like a poised snake. The Reverend remembered that name, found it dancing in the recesses of his mind. He tried to pull himself back from the ritual, back to reality, but it was an uphill slog through knee-deep mud to reclaim those memories.
It was always difficult to focus when he was in the midst of his cleansing. All he managed to cling to was the name. Frieda. It was the name of an angel, he knew. . . or perhaps a devil.
One and the same when all was said and done.
She belonged to a past life, only the whispers of which he could recall. The ritual reclaimed him, embraced him with its fiery need. His memories were nothing compared to the whip in his hand, its nine tails gracing his flesh.
The lash struck down on his left shoulder blade, scattering droplets of blood against the wall behind him. Those droplets would stain the granite for months, he knew, before finally fading away. He clenched his teeth in a feral grin as the whip landed with a sickening, wet slapping sound.
“Jesus,” a new voice whispered from the doorway. “Does he always do that?”
“You’ll cuff him?”
“Why? Are you scared?”
The Reverend raised the lash into the air, poised for another strike.
“Just…man, you said he was crazy…but this…”
The lash came down, lapping at his back and the tender muscles hidden there. He let out a groan of mixed agony and pleasure.
These men were meaningless, their voices only echoes amid the rest, an endless drone. He wanted them to leave him alone with his ritual. They weren’t worth his time.
“I think we can spare the handcuffs this time; the last guy who tried spent a month in the hospital.”
“Regulation says we have to.”
“Then you do it.”
The guards fell silent. The cat-o’-nine-tails, his friend, his love, became the only sound in the roughhewn cell, echoing off the granite walls. He took a rasping breath, blew it out, and cracked the lash again. More blood. More agony. More pleasure.
“I don’t think we need to cuff him,” the second guard decided.
“Good idea. Besides, the Reverend isn’t going to cause us any trouble. He only hurts himself. Right, Reverend?”
The air tasted of copper, sickly sweet. He wished he could see his back and the scars, but there were no mirrors in his cell. They removed the only one he had when he broke shards off to slice into his arms and legs. They were afraid he would kill himself.
How ironic was that?
Mirrors were dangerous things, he remembered from that past life. They called the other side, the darker side. An imperfect reflection stared back, threatening to steal pieces of the soul away forever.
“Reverend? Can you hear me?”
The guard reached out to tap the Reverend on the shoulder. Just a tap, no danger at all, but his hand never even came close. Honed reflexes reacted before anyone could possibly understand what was happening.
Suddenly the Reverend was standing. He hovered above the guard who was down on his knees. The man let out a sharp cry, his left shoulder twisted up at an uncomfortable angle by the Reverend’s iron grip.
The lash hung in the air, ready to strike at its new prey.
The Reverend looked curiously at the man, seeing him for the first time. He recognized him as one of the first guardsmen he’d ever spoken with when placed in this cell. A nice European chap with a wife and two young children. A little overweight and balding, but well-intentioned.
Most of him didn’t want to hurt this man, but there was a part—a hungry, needful part—that did. That part wanted to hurt this man in ways neither of them could even imagine. One twist would snap his arm. Two would shatter the bone; the sound as it snapped would be . . .
A symphony rivaling Tchaikovsky.
The second guard—the younger one that smelled of fear—stumbled back, struggling to draw his gun.
“No! No, don’t!”
That from the first, on his knees as if praying. The Reverend wondered if he prayed at night with his family before heading to bed. Doubtless, he prayed that he would make it home safely from work and that one of the inmates wouldn’t rip his throat out or gouge out his eyes. Right now, he was waving his free hand at his partner to get his attention, to stop him.
The younger guard finally worked the gun free and pointed it at the Reverend. His hands were shaking as he said, “Let him go!”
“Don’t shoot, Ed!”
“Let him go!”
The older guard, pleading this time: “Don’t piss him off!”
The look that crossed his young partner’s face in that moment was precious: primal fear. It was an expression the Reverend had seen many times in his life, and he understood the thoughts going through the man’s mind: he couldn’t imagine how he might die in this cell, but he believed he could. That belief stemmed from something deeper than what his eyes could see. A terror so profound it beggared reality.
An immutable silence hung in the air. Both guards twitched and shifted, one in pain and the other in terror. The Reverend was immovable, a statue in his sanctuary, eyes boring into the man’s soul.
“Don’t shoot,” the guard on his knees murmured. “You’ll miss, and we’ll be dead.”
“I have a clear shot. I can’t miss.”
This time, the response was weaker. “We’ll still be dead.”
A hesitation. The guard lowered his gun in confused fear, pointing it at the floor. The Reverend curled his lips and released, freeing the kneeling guard.
The man rubbed his shoulder and climbed shakily to his feet. He backed away from the Reverend and stood beside the other, red-faced and panting.
“I heard you,” the Reverend said. The words were hard to come by; he’d rarely spoken these last five years.
“I’m sorry, Reverend,” the guard replied meekly. “My mistake.”
“Bring me to Frieda,” he whispered.
“You don’t—” the younger guard began. A sharp look from his companion silenced him.
“Right away, sir.”
“Steve, we should cuff…”
Steve ignored him, turning and stepping outside the cell. The Reverend looked longingly at the lash in his hand before dropping it onto his hard bed. His cultivated pain had faded to a dull ache. He would need to begin anew when he returned, restart the cleansing.
There was always more to cleanse.
They traveled through the black-site prison deep below the earth’s surface, past neglected cells and through rough cut stone. A few of the rusty cages held prisoners, but most stood empty and silent. These prisoners were relics of a forgotten time, most of whom couldn’t even remember the misdeed that had brought them here.
The Reverend remembered his misdeeds. Every day he thought of the pain and terror he had inflicted, and every day he prayed it would wash away.
They were deep within the earth, but not enough to benefit from the world’s core heat. It was kept unnaturally cold as well to keep the prisoners docile. That meant there were only a few lights and frigid temperatures. Last winter he thought he might lose a finger to frostbite. He’d cherished the idea, but it wasn’t to be. He had looked forward to cutting it off.
There were only a handful of guards in this section of the prison, maybe one every twenty meters. The actual security system relied on a single exit shaft as the only means of escape. Sure, he could fight his way free, but locking the elevator meant he would never reach the surface.
And pumping out the oxygen meant the situation would be contained.
The Council didn’t want to bring civilians in on the secretive depths of their hellhole prison. The fewer guards they needed to hire, the fewer people knew of their existence, and any guards who were brought in were fed half-truths and lies about their true purpose. How many such men and women, he’d always wondered, knew who he was or why he was here?
Probably none. That was for the best. If they knew, they never would have been able to do their jobs.
As they walked, the Reverend felt the ritual wash away and he became himself once more. Just a man getting on in years: broken, pathetic, and alone as he paid for his mistakes.
Finally, they arrived at the entrance of the prison: an enclosed set of rooms cut into the stone walls backing up to a shaft. A solitary elevator bridged the prison to the world above, guarded by six men, but that wasn’t where they took him.
They guided him to one of the side rooms, opening the door but waiting outside. Inside were a plain brown table and one-way mirror, similar to a police station, but nothing else.
A woman sat at the table facing away from the door. She had brown hair and a white business suit with matching heels. Very pristine; Frieda was always so well-dressed.
“Here we are,” the guard said. The Reverend didn’t acknowledge the man, but he did walk into the chamber. He strode past the table and sat in the chair facing Frieda.
He studied her: she had deep blue eyes and a mole on her left cheek. She looked older, and he couldn’t remember the last time she’d come to visit him.
Probably not since the day she helped lock him in that cell.
“Close the door,” Frieda said to the guards while still facing the Reverend.
“But ma’am, we are supposed to—”
“Close the door,” she reiterated. Her tone was exactly the same, but an undercurrent was there. Hers was a powerful presence, the type normal people obeyed instinctually. She was always in charge, no matter the situation.
“We will be right out here,” Steve replied finally, pulling the heavy metal door closed.
Silence enveloped the room, a humming emptiness.
He stared at her, and she stared at him. Seconds slipped past.
He wondered how she saw him. What must he look like today? His hair and beard must be shaggy and unkempt with strands of gray mixed into the black. He imagined his face, but with eyes that were sunken, skin that was pale and leathery. Doubtless, he looked thinner, almost emaciated.
He was also covered in blood, the smell of which would be overpowering. It disgusted him; he hated how his daily ritual left him, battering his body to maintain control, yet he answered its call without question.
“Do you remember what you told me the first time we met?” the Reverend asked finally, facing Frieda again.
“We need your help,” Frieda said, ignoring his question. “You’ve been here for a long time, and things have been getting worse.”
“You quoted Nietzsche, that first meeting. I thought it was pessimistic and rhetorical,” he continued.
“Crime is getting worse. The world is getting darker and…”
“I thought you were talking about something that might happen to someone else but never to me. I had no idea just how spot on you were: that you were prophesizing my future,” he spoke. “Do you remember your exact words?”
“We need your help,” Frieda finished. Then she added softer: “I need your help.”
He didn’t respond. Instead, he said: “Do you remember?”
She sighed. “I do.”
“Repeat it for me.”
She frowned. “When we first met, I said to you: ‘Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.’”
He nodded. “You were right. Now I am a monster.”
“You aren’t a monster,” she whispered.
“No,” he said. “I am your monster.”
Rage exploded through his body, and he felt every muscle tense. “That is not my name!” he roared, slamming his fist on the table. It made a loud crashing sound, shredding the silence, and the wood nearly folded beneath the impact.
Frieda slid her chair back in an instant, falling into a fighting stance. One hand gripped the cross hanging around her neck, and the other slid into her vest pocket. She wore an expression he could barely recognize, something he’d never seen on her face before.
She was afraid of him. The realization stung, and more than a little bit.
The Reverend didn’t move from his seat, but he could still feel heat coursing through his veins. He forced his pulse to slow, his emotions to subside. He loved the feeling of rage but was terrified of what would happen if he gave into it; if he embraced it.
He glanced at the hand in her pocket and realized what weapon she had chosen to defend herself. A pang shot through his chest.
“Would it work?” he asked.
She didn’t answer, but a minute trace of shame crossed her face. He stood slowly and walked around the table, reaching a hand toward her. To her credit, she barely flinched as he touched her. He gently pulled her fist out of the pocket and opened it. In her grip was a small vial filled with water.
“Will it work?” he asked.
“Arthur…” she breathed.
The name brought a flood of memories, furrowing his brow. A little girl playing in a field, picking blueberries and laughing. A wife with auburn hair who watched him with love and longing as he played with their daughter. He quashed them; he feared the pain the memories would bring.
That was a pain he did not cherish.
“I need to know,” he whispered.
He slid the vial from her hand and popped the top off. She watched in resignation as he held up his right arm and poured a few droplets onto his exposed skin. It tingled where it touched, little more than a tickle, and he felt his skin turn hot.
But it didn’t burn.
He let out the shuddering breath he hadn’t realized he was holding.
“Thank God,” Frieda whispered.
“I’m not sure She deserves it,” Arthur replied.
“We need your help,” Frieda said again. When he looked at her face once more, he saw moisture in her eyes. He couldn’t tell if it was from relief that the blessed water didn’t work, or sadness that it almost had.
“How can I possibly help?” he asked, gesturing at his body helplessly with his arms. “You see what I am. What I’ve become.”
“I know what you were.”
“What I am no longer,” he corrected. “I was ignorant and foolish. I can never be that man again.”
“Three girls are missing,” she said.
“Three girls are always missing,” he said, “and countless more.”
“But not like these,” she said. “These are ours.”
He was quiet for a moment. “Rescues?”
She nodded. “Two showed potential. All three were being fostered by the Greathouse family.”
He remembered Charles Greathouse, an old and idealistic man who just wanted to help. “Of course, you went to Charles,” Arthur said. “He took care of your little witches until they were ready to become soldiers.”
“And now he’s dead,” Arthur said. Frieda didn’t correct him. “Who took the girls?”
“We don’t know. But there’s more. It killed three of ours.”
“Michael and Rachael Felton.”
“And the third?”
He cursed. “You know she wasn’t ready. Not for this.”
“You’ve been here for five years,” Frieda said. “She grew up.”
“She’s still a child.”
“She wasn’t anymore.”
“She’s my child.”
Frieda hesitated, frowning. He knew as well as she did what had happened to put him in this prison and what part Abigail had played in it. If Abigail hadn’t stopped him…
“We didn’t expect . . .” Frieda said finally, sliding away from the minefield in the conversation.
“You never do.”
“I’m sorry,” Frieda said. “I know you were close.”
The Reverend—Arthur—had trained Abigail. Raised her from a child after rescuing her from a cult many years earlier. It was after his own child had been murdered, and he had needed a reason to go on with his life. His faith was wavering, and she had become his salvation. They were more than close. They were family.
And now she was dead.
“What took them? Was it the Ninth Circle?”
“I don’t think so,” she said. “Our informants haven’t heard anything.”
“Where did it take them?” he asked.
“We don’t know.”
“What is it going to do with them?”
This time, she didn’t answer. She didn’t need to.
“So you want me to clean up your mess?”
“It killed three of our best,” Frieda said. “I don’t…I don’t know what else to do.”
“What does the Council want you to do?”
“Wait and see.”
“And you disagree?”
“I’m afraid that it’ll be too late by the time the Council decides to act.”
“You have others you could send.”
“Not that can handle something like this,” she said.
“You mean none that you could send without the Council finding out and reprimanding you?”
“You were always the best, Arthur.”
“Now I am in prison.”
“You are here voluntarily,” she said. “I’ve taken care of everything. There is a car waiting topside and a jet idling. So, will you help?”
He was silent for a moment, thinking. “I’m not that man anymore.”
“I trust you.”
“What happens if I say ‘no’?”
“I don’t know,” Frieda said, shaking her head. “You are my last hope.”
“What happens,” he began, a lump in his throat, “when I don’t come back? What happens when I become the new threat and you have no one else to send?”
Frieda wouldn’t even look him in the eyes.
“When that day comes,” she said softly, staring at the table, “I’ll have an answer to a question I’ve wondered about for a long time.”
“What question is that?”
She looked up at him. “What is my faith worth?”
The Reverend—Arthur, he reminded himself; his name was Arthur—sat on the red-velvet chair inside the private jet, high in the clouds and traveling at several hundred kilometers per hour. He felt out of place, sickened by the luxury and ostentation of this trip. He’d spent the last five years living in his roughhewn cell, and it had become his home.
He missed it, the cell with its lumpy mattress and low ceiling. It had become his sanctuary, a place to hide away from the world. Things had gotten to be too much for him to handle, and the utter simplicity of the cage took away his choices. It took away his free will and his ability to make mistakes.
Out here in the real world, mistakes were all he had left.
He looked out the window at the clouds and saw his face reflected there, but this time, it was more like the face he remembered. He’d shaved off the beard and cut his hair, and now he was wearing comfortable and light clothing. It would be cold in the mountains where he was heading, but he didn’t fear the cold.
The onboard phone started to ring through a little speaker built into his chair. He stared at it curiously for a second and then pressed the green button to accept the call.
“Arthur?” Frieda asked as she was connected.
Her voice boomed through the jet’s speakers, causing him to wince. He found the volume controls and turned it down to a more acceptable level. He hadn’t realized just how peaceful his cell had been without loud noises.
“I’m here,” he replied.
“You should be landing in just under an hour. We will have an escort ready to—”
“No escort,” he said. “Just a car. I will travel alone.”
“You should have someone with you in case—”
“No escort,” he reiterated, cutting her off once more.
She was silent for a moment. “Very well,” she agreed finally. “Did you find the supplies I left for you?”
He glanced at a cardboard box on the chair beside him with a frown on his face. “I did.”
“I know it isn’t much,” she said, “but I can’t make this trip common knowledge. I’m already pushing my luck with the jet.”
It was definitely not much: a small caliber revolver, a few vials of holy water, a satellite phone, and a pair of short knives…none of the more powerful implements he’d used while he’d still been a Hunter serving the Council.
Then again, the one absolute thing he’d learned over the years was that those items had been a crutch. The only true weapon he’d had in his battles against evil had been his faith.
Something he’d lost long ago.
“You won’t tell the Council?” he asked.
“No,” Frieda replied. “They would never approve.”
“How many of them wanted me dead when I went into the cell?”
“How many still do?” he asked.
She sighed. “They are fools for not trusting you.”
“Maybe,” he said. “Or maybe you’re the fool.”
She was silent for a long moment. “When you arrive at the airport we’ll have a car waiting. The GPS is already set, and it’s the last known coordinates of Rachael Felton’s phone. It’s up in the mountains out in the middle of nowhere.”
“What were they doing there?”
“It isn’t clear,” Frieda said. “Rachael called us the day before she died and said she and her husband were chasing something powerful, and they said it was time sensitive as though it had an agenda. They picked up Abigail for backup and said they would report back to the Council once everything was taken care of. But they never did.”
“So you sent a team?”
“The Council sent a team to check on them,” Frieda corrected. “And when they found the bodies…”
“You came to me,” he finished.
“The Council is still debating its next steps. They think Rachael acted rashly by not calling for more backup, and they’re trying to blame this on her. By the time they make a decision it will be too late.”
“All right, Frieda,” Arthur said. “I’m doing this for Abi. But you need to make sure my cell is ready for me when I get home.”
As soon as the jet landed, Arthur stretched out his body and breathed in the cool mountain air. He allowed himself a few seconds to savor it before walking toward the waiting car. The airfield was empty except for his jet.
There were a few people watching him in suits, but they said nothing as he approached. He ignored their mixed expressions of awe and hatred and climbed into the waiting car
He had spent seven hours trapped on that jet being flown halfway across the world to the Rocky Mountains. The sun hadn’t yet risen in the sky by the time he landed. The red, ominous glow in the clouds warned him that a storm was approaching, but he didn’t have time to wait around.
He headed off into the mountains, following the GPS, and for the next several hours lost himself in the simple act of driving. It had been so long since he’d sat behind a steering wheel that it was almost cathartic.
He was forced to park alongside the road in a ditch and make the last leg of his journey on foot. It was a five mile hike into a cold and dark forest. His body burned from the exertion, and he loved the sensation. The walk gave him time to clear his mind and prepare himself for what he might find.
He didn’t need the GPS to tell him that he’d arrived at the right location.
The bodies were torn to shreds, dried blood everywhere. Arthur could tell immediately, however, that the Council’s foot soldiers had been mistaken about how many people were killed here in this clearing.
There were only two bodies.
It was a forgivable error with how mangled and disfigured those two were. He stood in a clearing, miles from civilization in any direction. Organs hung from tree limbs, entrails were ripped apart and scattered across the ground, and both heads were missing.
More than that, neither of the two heads were Abigail’s, nor any dismembered body parts her shade of skin. She wasn’t lying here mixed in with the dead, which meant she might still be alive.
She might be alive…
He had come here full of hatred, wanting nothing more than to avenge his adopted daughter and destroy whatever had taken her life. Frieda had manipulated him, knowing he would agree to this mission because of his love for Abigail. They both knew he relished the opportunity to punish whatever creature had harmed her.
But, if Abigail was alive and there was even the slightest chance of saving her…
The realization gave Arthur pause, and he felt a stirring of something he hadn’t experienced in a long time: hope.
The Reverend patted the loaner pistol at his side—a snub nose revolver that looked like a peashooter—and headed through the trees. He had a few other implements with him, including the knife and a vial of holy water, as well as the satellite phone, but he didn’t bring much else.
The phone was off for now: anything technological had a tendency to fail around the supernatural and was more of a burden than anything else. He’d considered leaving it behind as well but decided to hang onto it. He was supposed to report in every hour and give Frieda a status update, but that definitely wasn’t going to happen. This wasn’t about her, and it sure as hell wasn’t for her.
Instead, he followed the tracks.
Those tracks weren’t even hidden: broken branches, scraps of discarded clothing, and dried blood. Arthur felt like he was being led somewhere rather than chasing something. Never a good sign. After killing two members of Arthur’s order, this demon had to know there would be retaliation. Whatever Arthur was dealing with, it wasn’t afraid of him at all.
He walked for a few hours, stepping lightly and feeling his body limber up as he went. The air tasted perfect. He’d grown used to the stale oxygen from the caves, piped in through the elevator shaft and having an oily, metallic flavor. This air tasted of trees and nature. He hadn’t even known how much he missed clean air, and he could feel it rejuvenating his soul.
He paused at a tree line looking over an empty mining town. It was built into the side of a hill and consisted of around twenty dilapidated buildings. The tracks led him here, and he knew the demon was somewhere in the town, waiting for him.
Squat houses that were rundown, decrepit, and overgrown with vines surrounded a broken down Church. This was an old country-store town, abandoned in the woods and falling apart in the preceding years.
Four spikes adorned with heads were standing in front of the Church. Each had an expression of horror and served as a deterrent: a warning.
He remembered how a sight like this would have bothered him when he was a younger man. Two of the heads were the missing Hunters, and the other two he didn’t recognize. When he was younger, knowing that this creature had killed his friends would have made him furious enough to charge headlong into the Church and start blasting everything in sight. The depravity of it would have bothered him.
The only thing that bothered him now was how little he cared.
A mist hung in the air as the sun rose, dew clinging to his boots. He felt a breeze of wind and tasted moisture. It was quiet in the clearing, filled with foreboding.
He walked through the overgrown street toward the Church. Broken shutters and roof tiles littered the dirt road as he went. It felt like a ghost town: empty, uninviting, and threatening.
The sun flitted through the trees overhead. It was eerily quiet, not even birds or insects chirping. They could feel the supernatural presence, the sheer wrongness of it, as easily as he could. Even the forest could sense something was amiss.
The Church was bigger up close, built on a hill and dwarfing the buildings around it. Part of the ceiling was caved in and it was covered in mold and vines. He guessed it to have been built in the middle of the nineteenth century. It must have been abandoned not long after.
He stepped past the spikes, barely noticing the grotesque expressions of pain and terror on the faces of his friends. He’d seen worse in his time.
He’d done worse in his time.
He moved to the door and slipped the snub nose revolver from his belt. It felt comfortable in his hand, ready and waiting to deal death.
The door was cracked. Inside, he heard the creaking of a board as someone strode across the floor.
“Whoever I find inside,” he said, “I will kill.”
A moment passed in silence, and then a silky, smooth voice came back to him. It was a voice he recognized instantly:
The Reverend felt a shiver run down his spine and his heart skipped a beat. “No, no, no,” he muttered.
The door opened smoothly in front of him and he saw Abigail standing there, a lascivious smile on her face.
“…would be a shame,” she finished.
She was older than he remembered, no longer the little girl he’d rescued so long ago. She had deep black skin, high cheekbones, and brown eyes. She also had a scar on her right cheek that never fully healed, a gift from her earlier life.
But she still looked so young and vulnerable to him, standing in the antechamber of the Church. She was barely older than twenty, little more than a child. As soon as he saw her a thousand emotions he’d kept bottled inside spilled loose, overwhelming him with raw intensity. Fear, love, loss, grief, it rocked him to his core, but one emotion stood above them all.
He was ashamed that he hadn’t been there for her for these past five years. He’d fallen apart, lost everything, and she’d suffered because of it. He hated himself because he’d allowed this to happen to her. He hadn’t been there to protect her like he should have. Like he promised he would be.
Abigail was not his child by birth, but she was the only family he had left.
And now she was possessed by a demon.
What stood before Arthur was only the shell of the girl he loved. Something else was in control. He could feel the rage and hatred emanating from Abigail’s lithe body. Her skin was covered in a heat rash, her flesh barely containing the demonic presence within.
Except something was wrong. The process was happening too fast. This demon was destroying Abigail’s body at a prodigious rate. Hours: that was all the time she would have before the demon’s essence consumed her and finished wrecking her body. Then the demon would be forced to find a new host or return to hell.
“That’s why you took the children,” he mumbled in horror. “Vessels.”
The demon grinned. “These bodies are just so…weak. I took this one this morning, and already I feel her giving out.”
“You can’t be here,” he said.
Arthur’s hands were shaking as his mind struggled to understand what he was dealing with.
“Nevertheless, I am.”
“I mean you can’t,” Arthur said. “It isn’t possible.”
He’d never seen or heard of a creature this powerful on the surface before. It made normal demons seem like candles beside a bonfire. Hell spawn destroyed bodies over years, months if they were more taxing than normal, but never weeks or even days.
Hours? That was unthinkable.
“And yet here I am,” Abigail said. The demon stepped back, holding the door and gesturing with her arm. “Might I invite you in?”
The Reverend felt a sharp pang of fear rip through his stomach, something he didn’t expect. He’d faced terrible things, battled demons, torn cults to the ground. He’d always assumed he’d faced the worst the world had to offer.
He’d been wrong.
And now it was too late to fully appreciate his overconfidence. Frieda’s overconfidence. The Council’s arrogance. They had all underestimated this, and their response was too small. They should have called in every asset they had available and sent them in. With sheer numbers, they might be able to take something like this down.
By the time this creature was returned to hell, the path of devastation in its wake would be immense. The body count in the thousands.
He couldn’t run. He wouldn’t make it more than a few steps before the demon brought him down. The gun he was carrying would be useless, except as a distraction. He’d faced the possibility that in coming here he might die, but he’d never felt it was more than a small chance.
Now, the reality was he would die as a failure.
He forced himself to breathe normally and stepped into the Church.
“That’s the spirit.”
“How are you here?” he asked.
“Maybe you should ask God.”
“She and I aren’t on speaking terms.”
Abigail roared with laughter as though Arthur had said the funniest thing in the world. The demon wiped her eyes, little pieces of skin flaking away.
The Reverend glanced around the Church. Most of the pews were old and rotten, the floor was rough and covered in dust, and a section of the north wall had caved in. Stained glass adorned the windows along the right side, one of which had shattered. Glass shards littered the floor
Upon a raised platform at the front of the Church lay three little girls, unconscious, maybe six years old. They looked unhurt, though it was difficult to tell from this far away.
On the left side of the room lay a rotten corpse covered in flies. The stench filled the air. Skin was sloughing off, and it appeared to have been boiled.
“That one lasted six hours,” the demon said, following his gaze. “One of the better ones.”
“Who are you?”
“Does it matter?” the demon asked. “Who are you?”
“Arthur Vangeest,” he muttered. The demon perked up and grinned.
“The Reverend? The legend himself?” It walked around, eyeing him like a prize pig. “You don’t look like much.”
His mouth tasted like cotton. It felt like his body was wrapped in a coating of lead, weighing him down.
“I heard you went off the reservation. That you were out of commission.”
“What do you want?” he asked, ignoring it.
“What does anybody want?” the demon replied. “I just want to live, to experience this world for a while. It’s been far too long.”
“Maybe I am. Maybe I’m not.”
“I can’t allow it.”
“You don’t have a choice,” the demon replied. “But, in the spirit of fairness and out of respect, I’ll make you a deal. I will not kill indiscriminately. I will only take what I need to survive and accomplish my mission.”
“You took children,” Arthur replied.
The demon shrugged. “They last longer.”
She said it matter-of-factly, as if the explanation was self-evident.
“And the best part,” the demon said, “is that I’ll let you walk away. You get to live.”
The Reverend felt the words sink in, the realization awakening him from a dream. A dream of that had lasted for the past five years; it began with the death of his family and culminated in this moment. It was why he’d taken Frieda’s offer, why he was standing here at all.
He turned, stared the demon squarely in the eye, and smiled. All of his fear evaporated.
“You don’t get it,” he said. “I don’t want to live.”
He drew the snub nose revolver and fired right in the demon’s face, but the demon wasn’t there anymore. It moved in a flash, anticipating and countering. It ducked under the shot and quickly stepped to the side, falling into a fighting stance.
Arthur fell into his old self, the fighter, the Hunter, and let his muscles do the work. He spun, dodging an attack, and fired another bullet at the demon.
This shot went wide as well but gave him enough time to slip a short blade out of his boot. He aimed the gun, pulled the trigger, and stabbed at the same time. He caught the demon off guard, drawing a long cut across Abigail’s stomach as the demon avoided the shot.
The demon punched back, grazing his chin and sending him staggering. Arthur ducked, stabbed, and twisted his body to avoid a kick from the demon.
It followed with another series of precise punches, but Arthur managed to dance away from all of them. He slashed with the blade and drew another cut on Abigail’s forearm, drawing a thin line.
They separated, both panting, and the demon leaped to the far wall. It bounded straight into the air with a superhuman jump, catching a beam and sliding up. It hung from the rafters, legs curled like a praying mantis, hissing down at him.
Arthur felt his heart pounding in his throat. His muscles were loose, and adrenaline coursed through his veins. This was what he lived for, the thrill of it.
“Not what you were expecting?” he asked.
“Exactly what I was expecting,” the demon replied. “I like to play with my food before dinner.”
The demon pounced down at him, and he dove out of the way. He rolled and came up dancing, moving his body gracefully to avoid the demon’s attacks. He moved with practiced ease, dodging blows with only millimeters to spare, no wasted motion. The Order thought it was a blessing, a gift from God that he could move so fluidly and quickly.
It wasn’t. Years of training and thousands of fights gave him this skill. He’d received his fair share of scars and bruises battling demons and humans, but it had turned him into a practiced machine with one purpose. There was never a divine substitute for the real thing.
Another attack, another dodge. He countered an uppercut by sliding just out of reach, stabbing out with his blade and drawing another cut on Abigail’s shoulder. He hated hurting her, but this wasn’t her anymore, and anything he could do to weaken the body increased his chances of survival.
The demon grew frustrated and called on its inner nature to gain the upper hand. It lashed out at Arthur with a fist and then telekinetically threw a wooden pew at him. He dodged both attacks, and then spun out of the way of a second pew followed by a roof beam. The building shuddered under the blows, and the floor tilted a few degrees, throwing them both off balance.
He danced back, quick-stepping over the pews and dodging another attack. The demon pursued, using Abigail’s body and the Church itself as weapons. It tore down a section of roof and threw it, but Arthur ducked out of the way, diving under a pew. The roof exploded into dust and rained shards of desiccated wood around him.
When Arthur came back up, he cut with his short blade, stabbing the demon in the knee. It hissed in anger, bounding away from him.
It raised a hand and telekinetically threw three pews through the air at him at the same time. They were spread apart to cover a large area. The demon laughed, knowing they would be impossible to dodge.
So Arthur didn’t.
With a roar he charged forward, launching his fist into the center pew. It shattered into dust and small fragments with a resounding boom. He walked through the cloud of particles hanging in the air, panting. He felt dust cling to his sweaty skin.
“Impressive,” the demon said. “You aren’t quite human anymore, are you?”
It circled around Arthur, keeping a safe distance. He saw respect, if not fear, on Abigail’s face. He spun slowly, keeping his eyes on the demon and catching his breath.
“Just what are you?” it purred. “You aren’t one of us.”
“I’m what your kind made me,” Arthur said.
The demon glanced at the cuts on its knee and hip. They weren’t deep, but that wasn’t the point.
“Now I see why they call you a legend,” she said.
“You haven’t seen anything yet.”
“I have a counter offer,” Arthur said. He turned his body away from the demon, cutting his palm with the blade. He did it smoothly, out of her sight. “If you leave now, I won’t hunt you through hell.”
The demon laughed, but this time, it was less confident. Arthur raised the gun, firing another shot, and the demon charged back in. The snub was empty, so he tossed it aside, ducking an attack and countering.
It only took seconds to realize how outmatched he was in this second engagement. Arthur’s adrenaline was wearing out and the demon was still sizing him up. His tricks weren’t as impressive this time around, and he was half a step slower.
The demon was fast, pushing Abigail’s honed reflexes well beyond human limitations. It didn’t need to rest, didn’t need breaks. It didn’t care what happened to her, whether it shattered her hands or tore her muscles. It was relentless.
Inevitably, a hit landed. It caught Arthur in the ribs, just under the lung. He felt the air rush out and collapsed to one knee. One rib, at least, was cracked.
The demon followed through with a roundhouse kick, catching him on the side of the head. The world went out of focus, and he tried to find his feet.
The demon didn’t let him, kicking him in the ribs again and knocking him back down. If the rib hadn’t pierced his lung, he would be lucky.
He tried to suck in air but got nothing. He crawled away and heard the demon laughing. His shirt was wet, and he felt blood streaming down the side of his face.
“That’s it? Already done?”
Arthur moved toward the dais, leaving bloody handprints behind him. Another kick sent him down, but he kept crawling.
“I expected more!”
His vision closed in, and he could only see through pinholes when he reached the dais.
The demon hit him again and laughed. “Get up! I’m not done with you yet!”
He pulled himself alongside the three girls, gasping.
“You can’t save them,” the demon said, laughing. “You are nothing. Pathetic and weak. Explain to them that you failed. Tell them that they belong to me now.”
He knelt between the girls, muttering. He pressed his palm against their foreheads, smearing his blood from the cut.
“Praying? It’s too late for that now,” the demon said. It knelt next to him. “Are you asking God why she abandoned you?”
Arthur ignored the demon and kept muttering in Latin. It listened for a second, then he felt it tense up beside him.
“That isn’t a prayer,” the demon said.
Arthur stopped, one word short of finishing his litany, and faced the demon. “No,” he said. “It isn’t. Hanc.”
The hit landed a split-second later, a punch to the side of his head that rocked his neck and threw him to the ground. He groaned and rolled, leaning against the dais.
Abigail roared in anger, pacing in front of the girls. Abigail’s hand was broken, the bones shattered from hitting Arthur with the full force of her muscles. It hung limp at her side, unnoticed by the demon.
“What have you done?” the demon screamed, gesturing toward the girls.
“The thing about being a legend,” Arthur groaned, “is you learn a few tricks.
Abigail screamed and kicked him again.
“You claimed them!”
“And now you can’t touch them.”
“But you aren’t a demon!”
“No,” he mumbled. “Not quite.”
He rolled and slipped his hand into his pocket.
This was his last shot, and this time, he did pray. Just a quick request. He’d already done everything he could, protecting the girls, and this would be his Hail Mary. He was dead either way.
He slid to a knee, popped the vial in his hand, and scattered liquid into the air. The demon tried to avoid it, but some landed on its skin. It seared where it touched, sizzling like bacon. Arthur climbed to his feet and began chanting, sanctifying. He begged God to ordain Abigail, to protect her.
He prayed, for the first time in many long years, that God would listen.
The demon screamed in rage. “I’ll kill her!”
He could feel the change in the air as Abigail’s body began closing to the demon, purifying against his presence, and he knew his prayer had been answered. Abigail’s body was no longer a safe haven for the demon.
“And then you’ll be back in hell,” he said.
“She will come, too!”
“Then a counter offer,” he said. “Take me instead.”
The room fell silent. Arthur could hear sizzling as the holy water burned flesh. He prayed that Abigail would survive.
“You won’t fight me?”
“You don’t have long to decide. Nowhere else is safe.”
The demon calculated, and he knew what it would decide. In him, it would have time; time to find another body.
At least, that’s what it thought.
It happened in an instant. One second he was Arthur, and the next he was something else. He felt overwhelming pressure inside his temple, and it was more than he ever could have imagined.
It was no wonder it had taken Abigail so easily, he doubted any human could be a match for it longer than a few seconds. It was a hot knife slicing through his brain.
His Hail Mary seemed an even longer shot now. He doubted he could hold it back long enough with sheer willpower. If he failed, it would kill Abigail anyway just out of spite.
All he needed was a few seconds.
He took the short dagger into his right hand and began carving into his left arm, just below the wrist. Blood ran from his first cut.
He started the second line in his skin, and the demon understood what he was doing. He felt it roaring in his mind, trying to subsume him. He nearly caved under the pressure, nearly lost it all, but he understood pain. He understood what true devastation was. The demon was fighting with brutality, trying to overwhelm him with sheer force. It didn’t understand that he had passed that threshold long ago.
I killed those people, he whispered in his mind.
He finished his second cut, shaking from the sheer pressure of the demon’s strength. Every single pain receptor in his body was being triggered, and it felt like he was standing in a fire. He felt it tearing and clawing for control, shredding his very existence.
There is no forgiveness.
The third cut, drawn at an angle to connect the other two. He felt his will wavering and knew he wouldn’t have long. He’d mentally battled demons before, but never like this. It felt like a train crashing into a brick wall.
There is only penance.
He finished the final cut and collapsed, feeling everything drain away. The demon went silent in his mind, and he felt humble respect mixed with unfathomable rage. The sigil in his arm trapped it, and once his body died the demon would have nowhere to go but back to hell.
When it went, he knew, it would take him with it.
But he was ready.
Shaking, he pulled the satellite phone out of his pocket and set it on the ground in front of him. He tapped the only stored number. It rang and was answered almost instantly.
“Arthur?” Frieda said.
“Promise me,” he said, sucking in a shuddering breath. Red agony had closed his vision to narrow slits.
“Arthur? What’s wrong—?”
“Promise me you’ll take care of her,” he interrupted.
The words hung in the air. A long moment passed and he imagined Frieda on the other end of the line, tense and barely containing her emotions.
“I promise,” she said finally.
He looked over at the form of the girl who should have been his daughter. She looked so young lying there on the floor. She seemed dead, but he hoped she was only unconscious.
He prayed she could come back. He thought of the good times he’d spent with her, raising her and teaching her and loving her like a father.
“Tell her I love her,” he said. “I always will.”
“I’ll tell her.”
With a smile, he plunged the dagger into his heart.