A Bit of Free Horror

A More Beutiful Monster cover complete In this free short tale, a tug-or-war over a young priest develops between a weary sorcerer and a demon who deals in contracts. Can the evil be stopped by a well-planned murder?

A More Beautiful Monster

Father Michael, Near the End

When the sorcerer DuHarren put the knife in my hand, the silver hilt stung cold against my flesh. His grey eyes glinted steel and ice, yet they held mine fast as surely as Hell binds a sinner’s soul. It was I, though, who burned with God’s vengeance.

The sound of hooves hurrying over cobbles and splashing through slush reminded me that outside a storm raged, hard rain tattered by wind like a dying breath of winter. But within DuHarren’s chambers, hearth fire and gas light gleamed off polished wealth, and his bare chest glistened with moisture in the still heat.
He pointed precisely to a place on the faultless curve of his breast. “Just here,” he said. “This is where you must strike. Do you understand Father Michael?”

His brazen behavior taunted me, fanned my wrath. I raised my eyes to his, remembering that, only days ago, I had seen something in those eyes worth redeeming. Now, I found in them only pride and malevolence.
“Yes,” I whispered. “Oh yes, I understand.” I raised the blade between us, but stopped, stood frozen for a hard instant while rivulets of sweat beaded on DuHarren’s murderous hands – and on mine. It gleamed liquid red in the firelight – like blood, like pools of it cooling beneath Mary Evans’ corpse.

Du Harren, Long After His Beginning

“Mr. DuHarren,” Mary Evans said, and though I nodded encouragingly, she lowered her eyes and returned to silence.

Those were the first words she’d addressed to me in the five long minutes since I’d ushered her into my office. I’d poured us both hot, sweet tea, and tried to make her comfortable, but still she perched on the edge of the settee, twiddling her fingers in her lap as if to loosen courage like yarn for knitting.

I sipped at my tea, then put the cup on the saucer with a harsher clink than I’d intended. Seeing the girl’s lip tremble, I curbed impatience. Every soul in the city had heard of DuHarren, the Sorcerer, who haunted the banks of the River DuSaunt stealing souls for Satan by the dark of the moon. I did no such thing, and though the Demon Tamuel was my long-time associate, I’d never met Satan and cherished hope never to do so. Still, the fearful notion had been planted in childhood, and Mary was having a difficult time shaking it.
The girl knew what service I could provide, of course, or she wouldn’t have come. She’d likely sought the advice of some crone who’d told her that I could – for a price – undo the choice she now regretted and unravel its consequences. I knew already the nature of that regret, it was plainly written in her age, her station, the dread in her eyes, and the flush on her cheeks. But I could do nothing until she overcame her ingrained fears, confessed, and requested my help.

I wished heartily that she’d find her voice, but I’d been a Sorcerer – or more precisely a Revisionist – for a very long time, and experience had taught me that this moment couldn’t be rushed. Trying a proven tactic, I rose and – as if her words and silence were both far from my mind – began to arrange wood on the fire.

She spoke to my back. “I’m pregnant, Mr. DuHarren.”

She would want to undo her decision to receive her lover, and she would want to accomplish the Revision quickly, believing we could manage it before her condition started to show. Despite two-and-a-half centuries of Tamuel’s influence, I continued to strive for kindness – or at least courtesy – so I didn’t tell her that it was already much too late for that. Surely every cook and strumpet in town had already divined her pregnancy and shuttled the news about in whispers.

I settled back in my chair, glanced up briefly, and said with indifference, “Please go on, Mary.”

“I’m not… I’ve not been wed.” She cringed as she looked up, plainly fearing violent condemnation, yet her eyes begged for a chance to explain.

I granted her a sympathetic look.

“Davey and I plan to wed, sir, we do. But he’s called for service in the regiment, and it’s a chance he’d never looked for at all. His family… they’re respectable but poorer than my own, even, and it was only… it’s the greatest good luck, Mr. DuHarren. It wouldn’t be prudent to wed now.” She looked at her hands, watching them clutch the homespun that covered her knees.

“Why is that, Mary? If you wed and he’s lost in battle, spirits forbid, you’ll at least have a widow’s pension.”

“I have thought of it, but… Sir, I’m afraid that if Davey knows, he won’t go at all. If he were to trade his one chance to make his way because of this, I couldn’t forgive myself.”

“Should your Davey perhaps have a choice?” I’d spoken mildly, but even my well-practiced calm was shaken by her vehement response.

“No, sir!” She sat bolt upright, her countenance transformed. “No, I’ll not let him choose! What choice is there, Mr. DuHarren? If it’s not the regiment then Davey must be thief or fisherman, and in either case the chance that he’ll live to see the child grow up is far worse than his chance to reach a soldier’s pension.”

Tamuel flared into my perception, looming suddenly over the girl with hard-breathing desire. Her unexpected passion inflamed him. This one, his attitude said, I want. He would own her, command her, use her up body and soul – the price of our service, should she seal the contract. The Demon stood at her shoulder and whispered through his teeth, compounding lies and truth in the dark halls of her mind, where fear and anger might render the mixture volatile.

My own temper rose but I shoved it down, laid refusal over it with the weight of stone. I would not feed Tamuel’s flame. It had been a long time since anyone had come seeking my services who had not already been buried in moral filth. Long years had passed since compassion had roused me to resist his desires. I could not, by my pact, refuse service should a customer insist. But I could – at some later cost to myself – try to dissuade.

I had no qualms about unmaking the pregnancy. In thirteen score years, I’d seen enough to understand that, sometimes, for a woman to simply not be pregnant remained the best solution for all – even the child. The choice always weighed heavy on a woman; the price was high, regardless of the means by which she accomplished the deed.
But Mary had come to me. She’d garnered Tamuel’s interest. The cost to her, measured in pain, would soar to sickening heights.

I couldn’t let it happen.

When she began to speak again, Tamuel’s sick, selfish thinking colored her words. Her voice grew strident. “And then, what of me? I’m Lady Warwick’s personal maid. It was hard work that got me my position – and bootlicking, and incredible luck. If I’m wed, I can’t be her maid, and if I’m pregnant I’ll be lucky if the Estate keeps me on as a char-woman.”

Tamuel’s sparks reflected in Mary’s eyes, witness to the inroads he’d made toward her soul. I took an iron grip on the moment, calling up reserves of strength I’d almost forgotten I owned. Ignoring Tamuel’s warning growls, I placed my hands on Mary Evans’ shoulders and spoke with cool persuasion.

“Mary, this Revision you seek, despite your intention, draws on darkness. I’ll not allow it until you’ve considered consequences. Look at me.” I spoke the command in the manner of Mesmer, and when she obeyed, I held her gaze until her hazel eyes went still and her breathing slowed.

“Now look into the fire, Mary Evans. Tell me what you see.”

It was a parlor trick, but if it worked she would think it magic. She would encounter her fears and find her own wisdom in the flames, and take it for vision.

***

The door snapped shut behind Mary’s heavy skirts and I laid my palms flat against the oak, leaning into it and letting relief loosen my stiff shoulders. Thank God, I thought, and felt more than heard Tamuel’s answering snarl. I paid his temper no mind. I felt grateful, recompensed as I could not remember having felt any time in the last decade. Who was to be thanked for such a gift if not God?

Mary Evans had seen, as I’d hoped she would. She’d gazed into the flames and understood what she would lose – far beyond the precious life of her child – if she insisted on Revision. A glimpse of the true cost had been enough to open her ears, and she’d heard her heart’s plea for mercy. When she cried, I’d fed her cakes and dried fruit and gave her sweet, milky tea. She’d left my rooms restored, sad, but brave and content.

Moments such as this, moments of relief from a triple lifetime’s burden of guilt and dread came to me so rarely that – for all my hard earned strength and power – I trembled as I turned away from the door, and nearly fell to my knees in tears if not in prayer. A long minute later, I passed a hand over my burning eyes and walked back to my chair by the fire. The flames had faded to a tender glow.

“This calls for brandy,” I said aloud to break the mood, and reached for the decanter. The Demon howled displeasure, but disturbed my peace not an iota. “No, Tamuel,” I said. “She chose, as is her right. I’ve turned her from your Hell’s gate, and by our pact I’ve won twelve hours of peace before you extract your toll. Tonight

I’ll sleep without your hot breath on my neck. Leave me.”

Tamuel complied. He had no choice, being as firmly bound as I by the terms of our contract. But as he withdrew, he growled something I’d long expected but nevertheless chilled my spine.

“DuHarren,” he said, “I’ve grown quite tired of you.”

***

The next morning, Tuesday, Tamuel remained absent long after my contracted twelve hours of freedom, but my peace was shattered by a visit from a young priest. I had breakfasted at leisure, and was standing near my windows watching sunbeams break and scatter over the city when a hansom cab stopped in the street below. The Father, a small, fair man with a blaze of red hair and a light step, advanced on my door, his manner brisk despite the weight of a thick black cross hanging at his chest over the brown wool of his cassock.

Briefly, I considered ignoring his knock, but there would be little point. Others of his kind had come before, and over the decades I’d learned that young priests are unfailingly persistent. Not that I could fault them for that. Church and Sorcery make poor neighbors, and truth be told I myself held little pride in my art – so little that deliberately I’d taken no apprentice. When finally death released me, I’d be the last of my kind. I’d take cool comfort in that as I burned and choked on sulfur.

Be that as it may, no man wishes to take up lodgings in Hell any sooner than needs must, so as I swung open my office door, I braced myself against holy assault.

“Good morning,” he began. “My name is Father Michael, from St. Martin’s Church.” To his credit, he nearly hid his fear that in meeting me he might come face-to-face with the Devil, though he gave in to the urge to finger the rosary hanging at his hip.

“State your business, Father.” I pointedly did not invite him in.

The priest’s freckled cheeks blushed crimson but he spoke slowly and managed an even tone. “I’ve heard stories about you since I was a boy, DuHarren. Until recently, I believed they were just that, wild tales and no more. But you are indeed flesh and bone I see, and lately your name arises among my flock. I want the truth, firsthand. Are you what they say you are?”

“If they say I’m a sorcerer, then yes. I’m the Revisionist, and the undoing of past events simply can’t be done without sorcery.” I smiled, but his youthful brow dipped into a baffled V, and in his gaze I caught both fear and – oddly – hope.

Repenting my inhospitality, I ushered him inside and offered the armchair. “Will you take tea?”

He smiled and began a nod of acceptance, then seemed to catch himself out. “Er… no, thank you. I’m quite comfortable.” Giving the lie to those words he sat stiffly, only his eyes mobile as they roved over my polished wood and Turkish carpets. “Your business thrives.”
“Yes,” I smiled. “My customers are willing to pay dearly for my services. The magic I offer is a beautiful seeming thing. My clients almost never see danger until it’s far too late.” I told him at some length about my art, even provided him with examples of the kinds of things a young and vital priest might wish undone.
For a time he was silent, then he shook his head – a small, private gesture. “No sorcery partakes of beauty,” he said. Brave words, but so soft that they nearly vanished in the hearth’s whispering flames.

I began to pace, troubled – or perhaps intrigued. His sea-green eyes tracked my movements, and I watched him in return, keeping his tense figure in the corner of my eye as I traced and retraced the same four steps. He wore his crosses and beads like armor. The leather purse at his belt surely held testament and water, oil and salt. Yet, for all his talismans, I could see – I knew beyond doubt – that his God remained distant, scarcely more than a concept. He failed even to perceive the nearness of the Demon Tamuel, who at that very moment hovered behind his chair.

Tamuel laughed. I could feel his excitement, and I knew the cause. The Demon saw in our guest the same dissonance that vibrated in my senses. The young priest had ventured into battle unsure of his steel. His sword of faith might bend.

Offered a pretty evil, Father Michael could be subverted.

Father Michael

Arrayed – and armored I thought – with priestly instruments, I knocked on the sorcerer’s door. “I’m Father Michael,” I said, but the man was not at all what I’d expected, and it unsettled me so that I could scarcely hear him, let alone speak.

Civil though he seemed, I knew DuHarren was heathen, an abomination to God and Satan’s servant. I refused to doubt that truth, yet very soon after I met him a strange and persistent image came to mind. Two DuHarrens, it seemed, paced before me. One reflected dark, the other light.

He’s possessed, I thought, in the truest sense. But perhaps he could be saved. Perhaps an ember of humanity still burned within the Demon-clad heart. This flash of insight seemed god-given to me alone, and inspired by that belief and a nascent vision of what might be, I ignored the instruction of the church to take such matters to the Bishop.
God chose me for this task, and I would see it done.

I stripped my ebony cross from around my neck, thrust it before me and, nearly shouting in my excitement, commenced the sacred rite of exorcism.

“Have you, DuHarren, entered into a blood pact with the Devil and do you now repent?”

DuHarren’s eyes widened and he smiled, incredulous. “What?”

“Have you entered—”
“I heard you, Father.”

I rushed on, convincing myself that the rite might be effective without repentance on the part of the afflicted. “I exorcise thee, oh impious Satan,” I began. “I abjure thee, by him who expelled thee from thy stronghold, bereft thee…” I trailed off as DuHarren, mocking theatrically, began to recite the formula himself.

“… bereft thee of the arms which thou didst trust in, and distributed thy spoils.” He turned his iron-grey eyes on me, chortling. “Come, priest,” he said. “Why have you stopped? Must I recite the whole text alone?”
While I stood dumbstruck, DuHarren laughed until tears trailed down his cheeks. At length and with obvious effort he contained his mirth and flopped into an armchair.

He clutched his side and spoke between labored breaths. “Forgive me, Father Michael. I’ve heard it before once or twice. Besides, have you ever faced a Demon? I can’t help but wonder what you’d do if one were to show himself.”
He fought another swell of laughter, and then shook his head and fell quiet.

I was watching his face closely – I couldn’t seem to look away – and at that moment, all at once youth drained away and left him looking old in spirit and somber, as if he drew sadness from some deep, ancient well.

“Come, now,” he said, and his voice was truly gentle. “I’ve been unkind. Put away your cross and save your salt and holy water for another time. Let’s have tea.”

While he busied himself with cups and saucers and spoons, I struggled to convince myself that I mustn’t take tea with the Devil’s man, tried to muster the drive to get up and leave. Instead, I did just as he had suggested: stowed away my cross and then sat silent, sipping sweet, clove-scented brew and contemplating sorcerer’s flames.

DuHarren didn’t break the silence until it had grown old and somehow comfortable. He reached over, then, and laid a hand on my shoulder as if to console me.

“Don’t feel badly about this, Father,” he said. “More experienced men than you have failed to save my soul. You are a bold and brave soldier of God and that should be rewarded. Here’s what I offer: You may ask any three questions – two now, and the final one in three days. I’ll answer with the truth.”

My first question surprised me, coming immediately to my tongue as if it had lain in wait behind my teeth. “How does your magic work?”

DuHarren’s answer droned on for some time, a lecture more tedious than any I’d endured at seminary. In the end all I retained was that it had to do with the nature of time, the nature of spirits, and the price of promises, services, and souls in Hell’s markets.

I thought I would ask then whether the gossips spoke truth when they said DuHarren had been born before their grandmothers, but before I spoke, I read the answer in his eyes. Instead, I asked, “How have you lived so long?”

“I cannot die,” DuHarren answered, in a voice that seemed tight with well-worn pain. “I can’t die until I have a successor, and I won’t name one. Thus, I go on living.” He paused and his mouth toyed with the idea of a smile. Suddenly, his eyes sparkled, and he cocked an eyebrow, clearly teasing.
“Day after day,” he said, “year upon year.”

***

By Thursday evening, I’d sunk deeper into fatigue than I’d known was possible. I’d not slept for more than minutes at a time since my ill-fated attempt at exorcising DuHarren, two long days ago. My mind returned to that visit again and again, and every time I cursed my ineptitude, yet still I could not bring myself to take the problem to the bishop. And – like running barbed wire through every waking minute – I fretted over the choice of my third question.

As if it meant salvation.

I was grossly out of sorts by the time I entered the confessional. While I should have been preparing myself to hear the sins of my flock, the name DuHarren wound through my thoughts and chafed like rope. The overheated booth, with its hard seat and residue of a century’s shame offered no comfort and did nothing to put me in a frame of mind to counsel sinners.

In less than an hour I learned more about my congregation than I’d ever wanted to know. Tim Garrett had confessed to coveting his neighbor, which the Ten Commandments didn’t address at all. Donnell Jamison reported that he’d smashed his wife’s wrist when she tried to stop him from pawning her dead mother’s jewelry for whiskey funds – a cruelty, but not mentioned in scripture. And Millie Baker, surprise, admitted to having spread her legs even wider than usual for a bag of John Dempsey’s stolen coppers.

The thought took root that my priesthood was farce. I wondered – not for the first time – whether my calling had ever been real. Had I merely taken my lucky chance and set out on the only road I could see that might lead out of poverty?

The question remained unanswerable, and I put it aside. I reminded each supplicant of the righteous path, prayed with them, assigned them penance which at least would assuage the conscience, and granted them absolution. As if it mattered.

Then Bailey Swanson came in, good man that he was.

He confessed that he’d obliged his aged, long-crippled mother when, after a final stroke she’d begged him to end her suffering. I remained mute for so long that finally Bailey curled his work-callused fingers through the partition screen and cried, “Well then, am I damned to Hell?” I thought probably so, but I choked out words of comfort, assigned meaningless penance, and sent the man on his way with absolution – mine, if not God’s.

One more, I decided. Father Paulo would have to relieve me. I needed food and quiet, perhaps prayer or meditation, and definitely sleep – even if I had to seek a remedy from the herb-wife to get it. I cleared my throat as Mary Evans knelt and began her, “Forgive me father…”

This one should be easy, I thought. She’s a levelheaded girl.

But as she poured out her miserable tale, I became first perplexed and then enraged – so much so that I could scarcely contain it. Of their own accord my hands became fists, and I longed to release their violence. When I’d calmed enough to think, I admitted that sins worse than fornication came to the confessional by the dozens. And I knew Mary hadn’t sinned alone – she could not bear all the blame.

Yet I couldn’t – wouldn’t – offer the stupid girl absolution.

Davey was my half-brother, and the family was poorer now than when I’d been Davey’s age. I had cajoled and placated and pulled every string I could get my hands on to get Davey’s name added to the regiment’s rolls. Opportunity would not come twice to the boy’s door, and the mortar Mary was prepared to launch on him could lay waste to his only chance.

Fury blew through me like a storm.

“Whore!” The word came up like vomit, and Mary’s wordless cry only inflamed me more. When she tried to speak I spoke over her, my voice shaking, my eyes burning.

“Get out of my church Mary Evans. Get out! And wear your knees raw praying that God Almighty will end this evil of yours before the seed bears fruit.”

DuHarren

It was near midnight Thursday night when Tamuel let himself into my office. He used the door, appeared in almost human form, and he spoke in a civil tone, all of which put me immediately on guard. The Demon adopted this approach when he meant to do business, and bargaining with Tamuel meant danger.

“I’ve a proposition, DuHarren.”

“This is news?”

I grew more alarmed when he responded to my sarcasm with a lop-sided smile. Cutting straight to the gist, he said “You want out, old man, but you don’t want to burn in Hell. Your chance has arrived.”

I stared.

He rose, placed claw-fingered hands behind his back, and began to pace. Long years I’d been pacing just so. I saw now that it had been his habit I’d indulged, not mine. I pledged to pace no more.

“I’m tired of you,” he repeated. He smiled as he paced, running his claws absently over the hearthstone. “Our red-haired friend, though – there’s a man who interests me.”

The priest had interested me, also. He’d reminded me – painfully – of the young man I’d been, long ago. Light where I was dark, compact where I was rangy, yet our souls were not so different. The Demon’s interest couldn’t bode well for the young man. Immediately when he spoke of it, I was beset with visions of young Father Michael caught for centuries in Tamuel’s claws and schemes.

Rather than examine the distress those visions caused, I forced a laugh. “Even if I agreed, Demon mine, do you suppose for a minute that Father Michael would consent to become my apprentice?”

“Demon mine? A fine attempt to bait me, but I won’t bite.” He sat again in the chair, crossed his arms, and commenced drumming his claws against his superfine wool jacket – my jacket, really. Gazing at me through narrowed eyes, he said, “I want that priest, DuHarren. And in answer to your question, I think his willingness is more possible than you believe. But that isn’t what I have in mind. I’ve a simpler plan. We’ll help him kill you, and then I’ll teach him myself.”

I choked on my indrawn breath, and the Demon poured me brandy and patted my back until I recovered. I thought at first I might cling to my existence solely to spite him. I could have done it. He was not allowed to kill me, and as I refused an apprentice, I could only be removed – and replaced – by murder.

Besides, though my life was burdensome, the remedy had drawbacks. Foremost, it condemned another soul to a loathsome existence, and the soul belonged to a man I’d rather not harm. Also critical, I’d be doomed to Satan’s heat evermore – and that seemed a long time even at my age. Not least important, I found it daunting to contemplate my own murder.

Tamuel, demonstrating his skill at politic negotiation, had come prepared with a response to every objection. “And you’ve laid the groundwork,” he concluded. “Your encounter with the priest unbalanced his mind.”

He told me what Michael had said to Mary Evans. “After that, she went to the herb-wife for cure. She was convinced again that she must end the pregnancy but afraid to return here, thanks to your meddling. The herb-wife slipped,
I’m afraid, and the poor girl died in a lovely pool of blood.” Tamuel laughed, but he wouldn’t confess to guiding the crone’s bungling hand.

“Did you know,” he asked me, “that Davey is Father Michael’s youngest brother?” He smiled so broadly that it would have seemed joyous if it weren’t for the countering effect of pointed teeth. “You laid the trap so cleverly, dear associate, that I won’t believe you had no inkling of purpose.”

He stepped close to embrace me, but I held up a hand and he stopped, prevented by our pact from touching my person without consent. My rebuff didn’t dampen his jovial mood. “Three questions,” he bellowed. “Three questions! I couldn’t have planned it better myself.”

Father Michael

After Mary’s confession, my rage gave ground quickly to exhaustion. I gladly shed cassock and collar, fell on my cot, and slept that night long and hard. I woke Friday morning with the first grey gleam of day, hoping that what I seemed to remember about last night’s confessional had been a dream. Out of habit, I bent my knees to the cold floor and began to mutter prayers, but I couldn’t finish.

“Sweet Jesus, help me,” I whispered, “I’ve condemned that girl.”

I tended quickly to ablutions, vowing repeatedly never to allow weariness to cripple me again. I strode to the curb in front of the church, and was about to raise a still-clenched fist to hail a cab. My brother Davey stumbled from the alcove outside the chapel door and fell on my shoulder, wailing, dripping tears and snot.

“Michael, she’s dead. My Mary’s dead.”

***

Dusk had fallen by the time I’d soothed Davey sufficiently, promising that I personally would bless Mary and see her buried in the churchyard. I hired a cab and accompanied him to the roadhouse, then left him to meet the postal coach that would deliver him to his regiment.

I directed the hansom’s driver to DuHarren’s establishment, and spent my time on the short trip staring out at the starless night and muttering about the sorcerer. “Abomination,” I called him, and assured myself that Mary’s blood was on his hands. That heathen had tricked me, had reduced me – a priest of God – to such a bedeviled state that I’d slaughtered a lamb in the confessional.

I checked my anger with a tight rein and laughed at what I saw as sublime irony. The sorcerer himself had given me the key to his undoing.

“Three questions,” I said, my breath a mist in the cab’s dark interior. “I couldn’t have planned it better myself.”

DuHarren

Friday evening I took from a drawer the silver dagger I habitually used to break a letter’s seal, polished it bright, and placed it on my desk. That preparation done, I sat in my favorite armchair, feet stretched toward the hearth, and awaited Father Michael’s knock.

Under the lamplight, I swirled a lovely amber liquid inside its crystal globe. It would be my last taste of peach brandy. Trying to get used to the idea, I ran through a list of final events as if reciting a litany. I would never again bathe in the sea, dash through the rain, join wills with a spirited horse, caress and claim a yielding thigh.

Pleasures I hadn’t yet known were forever lost to me. The seasons would turn without my watch. And, I’d have not even another day to come to know my green-eyed priest.

This night, Tamuel and I would work hand-in-hand for the final few minutes of our long alliance, and at the end of it I would be free for the first time in two-hundred-fifty-three years, four months, and six days. A few breaths later, I’d also be dead, but I wouldn’t feel the flames of Hell licking at my soles.

If the deed was done properly, the knife would suffice as a thumb in the breach. I’d breathe until it was moved or withdrawn. Between the act of murder and my demise, I’d have time to wheedle from the priest what I needed in order to escape Satan’s donjons. Secretly, I intended to give Michael’s soul an equal chance.

When I answered his knock, the young Father blazed through the foyer with holy zeal squealing at his heels, wagging its flea-bitten tail in anticipation.

“My third question,” he demanded.

“Yes,” I answered quietly. “It’s that time. Will you take a seat? Some brandy?”

“Never mind your false civilities, DuHarren. I’m not here on social call.”

I sighed. “Very well, then. Ask your question.”

He gloated like the bird that nabbed the worm. “How can your sorcery be stopped?”

“Clever question,” I said, though it was the most unsubtle question of all the millions that might have been asked on such an occasion. “Clever indeed, but the answer is simple. To stop me, you must kill me. Can you do it?”

To his credit, his face drained pale as a white peach upon hearing it, yet after a moment he nodded. Looking me square in the eye he said, “I can.”

“There’s more,” I said. “The Demon Tamuel and I are bound by blood-sealed contract. He holds my heart in his grip, and you can’t kill me unless the ties that bind it there are severed. My murder must be accomplished by piercing the left ventricle of my heart. I opened my shirt to show him the exact target.

“Just here,” I said, “Do you understand?”

“Yes.” he nodded. I saw no hesitation.

I thought I had banished fear, but suddenly every nerve and cell of my flesh rebelled, deaf to reasoning. Sweat beaded on my chest and dripped from my brow. Air seemed scarce – I couldn’t find enough to fill my lungs, and when at last I did, I couldn’t let it go. My hand shook wildly as I picked up the knife and placed the carved hilt in Michael’s open hand.

The blade lay there for seconds, both of us staring at its gleam. Then, convulsively, Michael’s fist closed around the hilt. I met his burning eyes and they told me what I knew. Our course was fixed. Nothing – nothing – could turn that dagger from my heart.

Father Michael, In the End

Nothing had ever fit my consecrated hand so perfectly as that silver dagger’s hilt. I raised the blade between us. For an instant I held it there, suspended, while in my mind Mary’s blood pooled and boiled at our feet, and then I thrust the blade toward DuHarren’s lurid breast. Time lost all its markers, and I watched the subtle pulse of his flesh, each heartbeat a sweet eternity as the gleaming blade drew close. Then the tip pricked the skin and a single carmine droplet formed and fled the wound.

Alas for my humanity, I would have balked then, but Holy Spirit took hold and guided my hand. The knife, vehicle of God’s vengeance, plunged into the heart of sin. So replete, so perfect was my communion at that righteous moment that my breath came hard and my blood pulsed hot and ecstasy seared my flesh.

Then, the heat drained from me all at once, running down my neck and back in rivulets. My cooled vision cleared – such a shock of icy change that I began to shiver. I felt DuHarren’s eyes before I found them. The irises, once stone grey, had gone soft like soaked clay, and they drew me in. I passed through a sorcerer’s eyes, but looked into a man’s soul.

My hand shook and I heard him gasp, eyes wide in fear or pain. Still standing with me, he raised a hand and wrapped his strong, careful grip over my own, holding me steady.

“Easy, son,” he said, pouring empathy I had never mustered even in ministry.
“A doctor…”
Tightening his grip, he said, “A doctor can’t help.”
“I’ve murdered you.”
“You’ve freed me, Father Michael. I’m indebted to you. Yet I ask a final kindness.”

I nodded through tears, my tongue locked.

Quickly, between sharp, short breaths, he told his story – a long, long life distilled into a few hard-edged sentences. At the end he said, “Please, Father, I don’t want to burn.”

Silent, I forced my thoughts into coherence. The wind began to howl outside and then a rumble of thunder and rain, hard rain. The candle on the desk bowed before a windy draft.

My voice came at last, thick with impossibility. “Were you baptized and confirmed?”

“Yes,” DuHarren said, releasing his breath with a sound like leaves falling in November. “Yes, Christian is my given name.” He made an odd sound, and I realized a beat later that it was laughter, full of humor but robbed of its heart, the knife in his chest chopping it into pained bits. “And my saint’s name,” he said, gathering control, “is Stephen, after the Martyr.”

Scarcely thinking, trembling, I fumbled at the thong that tied my purse closed. “Help me,” I said, and DuHarren’s free hand partnered with mine. Together we draped my stole and readied the tiny flasks of oil and water.

“Confess.”
He added his sins one upon the other like arithmetic and spoke the sum – a loose handful of words. I bade him pray with me and never had I heard even the most pious parishioner undertake a penance with such a joy of unburdening.

When the prayer was do

ne, he repeated, “Amen.” I cleared my throat to begin the rest, but he said, “Not yet, Father.”

Hope thrilled over me, and breathless I asked, “Is there a way, then? Might you live?”

“No,” he smiled. “Praise Heaven, no.” Then his smile twitched and vanished, and for a moment his eyes burned once again. “You’ve saved me, Michael Carrick,” he said, with as much force as the blade in his chest allowed. “Let me save you as well. Know this: The Demon Tamuel played guide to your hand tonight. He would bind you as he bound me.”

The Demon, DuHarren said, had powers of persuasion that I couldn’t imagine. I must gird myself with God and with whatever stonewalled defiance I owned. “He will ask three times before dawn,” he told me. “You must refuse him every time.”

He demanded my vow, his grip on my hand as strong as the iron that had once again hardened his eyes. When I gave my word, he sighed.

“Father,” he asked, “Consecrated ground?”

“Yes.”

“Pull out the blade.”

We tugged together against the flesh of his heart, and suction gave way with a liquid rush. The blade came free. DuHarren crumpled, and I reached to soften his fall, leting the weapon clatter to the floor. His wounded heart embraced its own demise, shunting blood away in rhythmic spurts.

Last rites poured from my lips in time with that red pulse, sobs shaking my voice silent between floods. I finished the words as he died. He smiled at me until all the life had drained from his eyes.

***

I don’t know where I found the strength in my small frame to carry DuHarren’s body. The streets were darker than I’d ever seen them, all the lamps blown out by heinous wind, all the shutters latched against the storm, yet I made my way to the lich gate without stumbling. I laid DuHarren’s corpse gently on unbroken sod, and left him alone while I went to fetch pick and shovel. I dug his grave deep, speaking comforts with every thrust and heave of the spade.

“Christian,” I called him, “Christian Stephen, my son.”

I first saw Tamuel as I left the cemetery, just as the bells of St. Martin’s tolled midnight. He was formless, all darkness and shadow, but lit somehow from an inner core, a more beautiful monster than any I could have imagined. I asked him if this was his true form.

“Yes,” he said, and his voice hissed like molten lead creeping over a glacial core. “Do you find it pleasing?”

“Evil,” I said. “As is the beauty of Lucifer.”

He laughed, and when he was through his voice had coalesced to a rich, rounded baritone. “Lucifer, eh? And what, pray tell, do you know of that old fraud?”

My labors at DuHarren’s grave had purged me of heat, and I made no reply at all. It was only habit that rustled my fingertips over the beads of my rosary as he fell into step beside me, settled into near human form.

“No matter,” he said, and stuck clawed hands into his pockets, hunching his shoulders as if cold. “But believe this: Lucifer’s glory is like a candle in a house fire, compared to mine.”

I noticed too late that he’d steered me away from the church and the priests’ residence, where I had intended to take refuge until dawn and thus dodge the Demon’s assaults. I noticed too that, though he was quite tall, our steps marked out time in matched rhythm, like old friends whose boots had kept company on many a long walk. I looked up to find the Demon’s face, but – by all appearances – I walked the night streets with DuHarren.

He smiled.

“You’re with me until dawn,” he said a short time later. “No point in fighting.”

A coach drawn by a pair of blacks waited at the apex of the River Bridge, and we boarded without ever a word to the driver. He took me to an inn on the edge of the city. In the dank hall, he ordered ale and bread and cheese, and set about making his pitch.

His first two offers proved easy to refuse. Promises of riches, power, and sex, descriptions of things he thought tempting – all of it made me conscious of the blood and grave dirt that soiled my clothes and my flesh. I wanted to add my vomit to the rest of the sticky substances on the rush-strewn floor.

He put aside his inkwell, quill, and parchment, and sat back to contemplate me. Pursing DuHarren’s expressive lips, he drew down his brow as if puzzled and shook his head.

Dawn quivered just beyond the thinnest edge of night. I could hear it ringing like new-drawn steel. I thought that I had won.

“What would you change, Michael Carrick, if you could?”

“DuHarren,” I said immediately, before I had a chance to raise my guard.

He laughed, a disturbingly gentle sound. “Alas! You pick the one deed even I cannot undo.” A clock was ticking somewhere in the room, and the innkeeper’s dog rose and stretched, ambled toward the door.

I waited for the cock’s crow.

He asked, “What else?”

I wasn’t going to answer. Yet dawn hung so near, what could it hurt? It would be a relief to confess my regret to someone, anyone, even the Demon Tamuel. Perhaps I pretended in that moment that it truly was DuHarren who sat across the rough-hewn planks of the table.

“Mary,” I whispered. I cleared my throat and said it louder. “Mary Evans. I would undo that.”

“Ah,” he said, still seeming kind. He produced bottle and quill and parchment once more. He unrolled it before me and I saw that the agreement was but a small paragraph. Below it stretched inch upon inch of parchment bearing one signature after another, each crossed out with a single neat line. As I watched, he dipped his quill in his well of blood-red ink, and scribed just such a line through the last name on the list.

Christian Stephen DuHarren.

I raised my gaze, expecting to look into the stone grey eyes that belonged to the man who had – in the end at least – owned that name. Instead, I saw green, my own too-liquid eyes – but dark as though through smoke over an olivine sea. I drew back, leaned away from that mirage as far as I could. The mirror eyes tethered my body there on the bench, but through my soul’s eye I saw from a distance.

There I sat in the tavern light’s glow, a hapless body housing a weak mind and a soul that craved the taste of every sweet evil I had renounced. But across the table breathed another me, a Michael Carrick with weakness smoothed from his brow, timid step made bold and sure, soft places girded with muscle. The things such a man, such a solid Michael Carrick, might do!

Light surged in those sea-gem eyes then, and drew me close until once more I sat body and soul across from Tamuel. As never before I loathed the cloak of my craven flesh, despised my heart with its cowardly tremble, endured my substance like torture. Tamuel reached his blunt-fingered, freckled hand – my own hand – across the age-polished oak, and I took it. My heart calmed, the tide of pain washed out. I did not receive strength, but I felt its promise.

Tamuel released me and showed me a likeness of my smile, then flattened the parchment open with one hand and elbow. With the other hand he dipped the quill anew and offered it to me, cocking an eyebrow.
“Well then,” he asked, “for the good of our flock?”

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Copyright Loretta Sylvestre 2009; 1st publication 2009 Triangulation: Dark Glass, PARSEC Ink, ed. Pete Butler; Author reserves all residual or other rights

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