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Marks Upon My Soul

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I suppose I should begin my story by telling you that I am a priest.  Now, before you go making assumptions about the kind of person I might be, I should also tell you that religion was a very different game when I became a priest.  You see, these days, religion’s main sell seems to be that you get to feel good about yourself.  Be nice to others, donate to the poor, go to Church every once and a while and you can feel like a good person and that horrible burden of human nature is lifted from your shoulders for a brief moment so that you can go about your day in peace.  But when I was ordained, religion was entirely about power.  In those days, one couldn’t very well come up with a reasonable argument against the divine birthright of the ruling class.  There was only one law in those days: violence.  And the ones who had power were wealthy and ruthless enough to inflict plenty of it.  You couldn’t argue against their claims that they had been sent by God, but you could become one of God’s chosen in a simple way.  And that was by joining the clergy.

Not that I had much of a choice at the time.  When I was a kid, there were only two career paths presented: a young man could become a soldier, or he could become a priest.  I had the distinct pleasure of being both.  One day, I was just a fourteen year old kid living on a farm at the edge of the province, and the next I had steel in my hand, conscripted into our Lord’s militia, knowing that I would never see my mother again.  I fought in that war for ten years.  I knew carnage like I knew the back of my own hand.  War today may be far more efficient, but back then it was definitely bloodier. 

During what I can only call a suicide mission, I was captured by the enemy.  I was held prisoner for three years, transferred between prisons and camps so many times that by the time I was released, I had absolutely no idea where I was.  I didn’t speak the language, so I was dropped on the doorstep of a cathedral. 

I had no money, no means, no knowledge of geography or travel.  So I had no options.  That was how I became a priest.

I quickly learned that the clergy was just as brutal, maybe even more so, than the armies I had faced.  Luckily, I was a veteran of brutality, and I rose quickly through the ranks.  I was a cardinal at twenty-eight.  Now, I know that seems early by today’s standards.  But you have to understand, that back then, someone living to their fifties was considered old age.  Twenty-eight was relatively young, most didn’t make cardinal until their thirties, but it wasn’t unheard of, especially in the war-torn landscape that I had found myself in.

So three days after my twenty-eighth birthday, I was on a caravan to Rome.  I arrived at the Vatican a month later, and that’s when I learned of the far more insidious battle that was occurring, had been occurring, and would continue to occur for the entirety of my long life.

I don’t like using the term “exorcist.”  That term was only popularized in the twentieth century by Hollywood.  Back when I became a cardinal, “demons” were considered the cause of everything.  Every illness, every crop failure, every change in weather.  And it was the stance of the Church that any Christian could perform an exorcism.  But when I got to Rome, my youth was seen as an advantage in what the Church called “the spiritual war.”  As a priest, I had performed “exorcisms” on pigs, babies, houses, trees, basically anything that took what I know now is a normal turn towards illness or ill temper.  But in Rome, I was introduced to true evil.

My “official” death was May 19, 1664.  But, living forever is relatively easy if you have the right friends.  I was thirty-one at the time.  I was dispatched to a small, frigid village to hunt down a demon that had been killing off clergy members.  What resulted rocked my faith to its core.

To this day, I don’t believe in God or the devil, not in the Christian sense.  Sure, I’m technically still a priest, but I have lived many lives and I have studied the theology and mythology of nearly every culture on earth.  I can’t say that after all my years that I am completely certain of what lies beyond this realm, but I probably know a quite bit more than you.  I am still employed and dispatched by the Vatican, given official permission to perform rites, blessings, masses, and exorcisms.  But my means are far more…unorthodox than those of my fellow clergy members.

So when I say that you shouldn’t assume much about me just because of the starch white collar I wear when the moment calls for it, I mean it.  I have looked true evil in the eye, and that sort of perspective changes a man. 

I knock on the door of the farmhouse, fidgeting in my stiff black clothes.  I hate the uniform, avoid it most of the time, and today is a particularly bad day for all black.  It’s August in Misssissippi.  The heat is oppressive.  A kind of haze hangs on everything in sight.  I glance back at the truck.  I can see Willa in the driver’s seat, eyes on a book that she has propped against the steering wheel.  Viro sits in the open bed, legs swinging off of the tailgate, headphones in.  I can remember the first time Viro got mobile music, a Walkman in the 70s.  I had made the mistake of grabbing the headphones off of his head and taking an impromptu listen.  The nightmares lasted months.  I have no idea where he gets the “music,” but I know well to avoid it.

The peeled white door in front of me swings open and a small, plump woman glares at me with suspicious eyes.  A man comes up behind her.  He looks exhausted, dark circles under his eyes, face in need of a shave.  He looks me up and down, eyes lingering on my collar.

“Good morning,” I say cheerily.  The woman just frowns at me.  I can feel the dark, heavy energy inside the house, seeping out the open door like fog.  “I’m Father Winston.”

“You the exorcist?” the man, Mr. Clifton asks, frown matching the woman’s.  “The one sent by the Church?”

“Not me in particular, but my colleague is,” I reply, stepping back to allow the pair a view of the truck.

“He don’t look like a priest,” the woman pipes up, frown growing as she eyes Viro’s torn jeans and thick sunglasses. 

“That’s because he isn’t.”

They both give me a confused look.

“I can assure you that Mr. LaVern is the very best exorcist the Vatican has to offer.  They wouldn’t have sent us unless the situation called for it.  We have come all the way from Germany because we were made aware of how…dire the situation is.”

As a response, it seems, there is a loud thud upstairs.  The Cliftons look up, worry souring their faces.  When they look back at me, they jump.  Viro is behind me now.  I’ve long gotten used to his habit of sneaking up on people.  But no matter how many times I tell him, he never seems to grasp how off-putting that can be to strangers.  Immediately, the couple’s guard is heightened.  Viro flicks his cigarette away from him and just glares.

“Aren’t you gonna invite us in?” Viro practically growls. 

I turn and give him an annoyed look before pulling my messenger bag around and yanking out an envelope sealed with wax.  I hold it out as an offering.

“What my friend means to say is: here is all of the paper work, along with a verification number that you can call.”

Mr. Clifton snatches the envelope from my hand and tears it open.  His eyes narrow as he reads the pages, occasionally glancing up at me.  Finally, he sighs heavily and steps aside, pulling the woman with him, and gestures me within.  I force a smile and step inside, knowing plenty well that Viro is going to be left on the doorstep.

As predicted, Viro just leans against the doorframe and stares over his dark sunglasses.  I pay him no mind, even as the couple glance at him suspiciously, and begin my line of questioning, running through the symptoms, duration, signs, and reactions.  At my third question, the small woman turns and glares at Viro.

“Well are you gonna come inside or not?” she demands.

I pause to look up at Viro.  I know that that is as good as an invitation as he can hope for.  But he still stays leaned against the frame, looking up at the ceiling now.

“I don’t think that would be wise right now, ma’am,” Viro replies.

His sudden politeness sends a chill down my spine.

“Why not?” Mrs. Clifton demands.

“Because, the second I step through this door, that…thing upstairs will know that I’m here,” Viro replies, still watching the ceiling.

The woman turns her critical stare onto me.  I sputter for a moment.

“What he means is, the…entity within your daughter will sense that there is an exorcist in the house and it might…react.”     

Mr. Clifton grabs his wife and pulls her in tight, a worried expression on his face.  I mean to continue my line of questions, but I’m stopped before I can begin by a low, prolonged, almost animalistic moan coming from the room above us.  It draws on, loud and angry, and ends with a tremendous crashing, the sound of something heavy hitting the floor above. 

“Viro,” I say slowly, eyes on the water stained ceiling above me. “Why don’t you go get Willa from the car?  I think we’re going to need her today.” 

Normally, Viro would complain loudly at being used as errand boy, but not today.  No, he turns and disappears without a word, which means that he actually agrees with me.  We’re definitely going to need Willa.

“What’s wrong, Father?” Mr. Clifton asks.  He looks like he might be about to cry.  “Can you h-help our Macey?”

“Why don’t you take me to meet Macey, Mr. Clifton?” I say, forcing myself to smile as amicably as possible.  It’s important to stay calm.  I may not have the preternatural senses to feel what the beast upstairs truly is, but I know that it feeds on fear. 

We climb the narrow, rickety stairs of the small farmhouse and as we ascend, a silence falls around us.  Not just from Macey’s room, which has again gone eerily still, but from everywhere.  The stairs slowly lose their screeching quality, the wind outside dies down, the cows and the sheep in the fields all quit their bleating, and even the crickets finally fall entirely hush.  I wonder if the Clifton’s notice, or if it’s simply an illusion taking over my mind.  Either way, it shows tremendous power.

The second story landing is a wreck.  Every bulb and every fixture has been ripped from the walls.  Crude words have been carved with something sharp into the wallpaper, painted over, and carved again.  The carpet is stained and reeks of urine.  Everything is dented and faded bloodstains streak the walls and the floor, even the ceiling.  Mrs. Clifton ducks her head in shame and leads me down the hall.  The silence remains around us, oppressive, and the only thing I can hear is my heart beating in my ears and my own steady breathing.  I reach into my pocket for a rosary, a gift from Viro nearly 400 years ago, and wrap its oddly-shaped beads around my knuckles.

The door to Macey’s bedroom was once pink, but now the paint peels away from the warped wood in long, discolored strips.  When Mrs. Clifton fishes a key from her pocket and puts it into the door, some of the paint flakes away and falls to the stained carpet like perverted autumn leaves on infertile soil. 

I steel myself, gripping my rosary hard.  The lock of the door clicks and I roll my shoulders back, preparing for what lays beyond.  The silence is heavy, oppressive, and my ears rings uncomfortably.  Mrs. Clifton pushes open the door.

Within is a perfectly put together little girl’s room.  Opposed to the chaos of the hall, Macey’s room hasn’t a thing out of place.  Her pretty pink bedspread matches the pretty pink lace curtains that flutter in the wind of the sunny day outside.  The carpet is pure white, the walls are papered with pale pink patterns, and framed pictures and posters cover the spaces that aren’t taken by the shelves and shelves of dolls.  In the corner, by the closet full of frilly dresses, is a massive dollhouse.  And seated in front of it with perfect, ruby curls and wearing a pristine white dress, is Macey.  Her back is turned to us, but she plays gently with her dolls, humming to herself under her breath.  Her soft humming is the only thing that I can hear and I feel like I recognize the tune from a memory, distant and hazy.

I hesitate.  The report had said Macey is a bit of a tomboy, an active help around the farm and a gifted athlete.  I had seen picture—pastels are hardly her style.  Her parents watch me expectantly, the worry on their face deepening.  I pull my hand from my pocket and step within the room.

Immediately, the sounds of the world return, a massive crescendo that makes me flinch the moment I step over the threshold.  I try not to become too disoriented, curling my fists and keeping my eyes on the child.  Macey continues to hum to herself and play with her dolls as I approach slowly behind her.

“Macey?” I call.

I look around the room and start to notice that something is very much not right.  The framed photos on the walls seem fine at first glance—a happy, smiling family at a barbeque perhaps—but then I notice something off about them—the man at the grill behind them is in flames, a dead body floats in the pool, and the families eyes are entirely, terrifyingly black.  The posters depict girlish cartoons involved in bloody orgies and Satanic rites, smiling at me happily as I pass.  The fish in the tank on the dresser are all dead; not only that but they appear to have been crudely sewn together in horrific conglomerations at some point and tossed back in the crystal clean tank.  The mirror on the wall is broken and I notice strangely archaic symbols hidden in the pattern of the soft pink wallpaper. 

There’s an appalling smell of decay the closer I get to the girl, and her humming grows louder.  I peer into her doll house.  Gripped in a white knuckled fist is a tiny, headless doll wearing a priest’s collar.  In her other hand is the bloody carcass of some small animal that she mimes as devouring the headless priest.  Her other dolls are strewn about and each has been horribly maimed or disfigured in some way.  Melted, warped, supplemented, and scarred body parts stick out at unnatural angles from black-eyed dolls.  Even the dolls on the shelves, I notice, are strange, staring at me with dark eyes, little white gloves stained dark red.

I’m so caught up looking at the dolls that I don’t notice that Macey has stopped humming.  When I look down at her, she is turned around, staring back at me.  Her visage makes me flinch.  She looks atrocious, like she hasn’t seen the sun in ages, like she’s been soaking in water far too long.  Infected, weeping sores take up most of the space on her face.  Her skin is flaking in the spots it isn’t oozing.  Blood dribbles from her mouth and a yellow pus from her nostrils.  The white dress she wears is stained down the front with something green and foul smelling.  She appears to have pulled out her hair in large chunks at the front of her forehead, leaving raw, bloody patches behind.  Worst of all are her eyes, sunken and swollen and looking like black, bottomless pits.

“Hello, Father,” Macey says sweetly, smiling with bloodstained teeth.  She blinks those eerie, black eyes, lashes clumped and crusted.  “Are your friends going to come in to play with me?”

“M-Macey,” Mrs. Clifton stutters from behind me.  “This is Father Winston and he’s—“

“Shut up, whore,” Macey snaps, voice shrill and girlish.  She glances at her mother, who begins to whimper behind me, and rolls her eyes.  “My mother was a whore, you know,” Macey say earnestly, reaching for my hand with damp, clammy fingers.  “She fucked nearly every boy in town.  They all called her ugly,” Macey looks critically up at her mother.  “So she sucked their dicks to prove them wrong.  First dumbass to actually stick it in her was my poor, stupid daddy, and my mama made sure she kept him around.  Didn’t ya, Mama?”

Mrs. Clifton begins to weep earnestly, and her husband steps in front of her, rubbing her arm soothingly.

“Now listen here, Macey,” Mr. Clifton begins.

“Fuck off, daddy,” Macey sneers.  “I know what you’ve been thinking.  That this is what you get for fucking that fat cow.  Your ugly little dyke daughter could never make the right friends, could she?  That’s what that bitch gave you, and now it’s even worse.  Can’t even stand the sight of either of them most of the time.”

“That’s enough,” I say quietly.  “Don’t you want to play with my friends?”

The beast’s dark eyes light up and she nods, pus dribbling from her nose as she does so.

“Very much so, Father,” she says eagerly before again turning her eyes on her poor parents.  “Father Winston here has brought an old friend to see me,” she announces to them.

“I thought you might have met before,” I respond, fingers closing hard around a bead.

Mmmm,” the beast moans luridly.  She flips about so her body is facing me and reaches her hand beneath her dress.  Behind me, Macey’s parents gasp, horrified as the pre-teen hikes up her skirts and begins to rub herself.  “Viro and I go way back.  It’s no surprise you two are friends.  He likes to fuck little girls too.”

The beast rolls her body sinuously and I avert my eyes.

“Macey, stop that!” Mrs. Clifton shrieks.

“Why, Mama?” Macey hisses before again moaning.  “I learned it from the best.  You weren’t much older than me when you started sucking cock, were ya?  This priest will let me suck his cock, do you want to watch?  Give me some pointers?  Mother to daughter.”

“Viro’s never going to come up here if you act like that,” I say firmly.

“You must not know him very well, priest, because this is precisely the way Viro likes it,” the beast retorts.

“What is she talking about?” Mr. Clifton demands, grabbing my shoulder.  “Who are you?” 

“Don’t listen to it, Mr. Clifton,” I reply. “It’s lying.”

“Oh I’m not lying,” the beast interjects.  “I know Father Winston’s wife very well.”  I look down at her, brow furrowed.  “Viro may promise you such grand things, Father, but he lies like the rest of us.  And it’s still damnation to let…whatever you are inside of her the way she did.  She was so pure, wasn’t she?  A lot like Macey here.”  The beast rubs the child’s body luridly, tugging down the collar of the frilly dress.  I avert my eyes and the best giggles madly and continues.  “Oh, she tells me about the way you watched her as she grew, groomed her into being your perfect little slave, lied to her father about your intentions, fucked her on her nineteenth birthday—“

“Enough,” I snap, closing my eyes tightly.  I can’t let this demon get to me, but she doesn’t stop speaking.

“You really aren’t so different from us, are you, priest?  Poor, innocent, Christiana.  She didn’t know then, but she knows now.  She was bred, born, and raised for you, wasn’t she?  She tells me about all of the rules you broke and the filthy things you did, how badly you wanted her.  She tells me when she isn’t having her skin flayed off and her insides fucked by hordes of demons.”

Macey descends into a fit of childish giggles.  I stay steel faced, trying hard to stay focused, to ignore what I’ve just been told.  I haven’t thought of Christiana in decades.  It had taken me so long to get over her death, but as in all things, I persist.  Time marched forward and slowly, so so slowly that pain faded away.  Hearing these words now, those painful feelings come flooding back, and I know that’s precisely what this beast wants.

It’s not all lies.  Christiana had certainly been beautiful and innocent.  And young, so young when I met her.  When her father, unable to care for his large number of children during a draught, not allowed to marry off his youngest daughter until her older sisters were wed, and fearful of the fate of such a pretty young girl in a cruel world with a father who could not care for her, had left her in my care when she was twelve years old.  I was a cardinal at the time and, unbeknownst to Christiana’s father, I was also already an immortal exorcist who carried on regular conferences with demons.  Yes, I had deceived her father.  Viro had whispered in my ear of the girl’s fate lest I take her in and I hadn’t hesitated to assure her father that I would raise her in the faith and send her to a convent when she came of age.  It was not a complete lie.  She was raised in my faith and spent three years at a convent after her fifteenth birthday.   

“You tell Viro that if he comes up here and fucks me, just like old times, while my whore mother watches,” the demon begins again, shaking my from my memories, “then I will leave this little girl alone and crawl back into the hole that I came from.  If not, I’ll kill her and the idiot father and Viro will have another hundred years on his sentence.”

“Isn’t there something you can do?” Mr. Clifton cries.  “An exorcism?”

“There’s nothing he can do, daddy!” Macey cries gleefully, her voice splitting, reveling the low growl of the beast that puppeteers her.  “Nothing that none of those other lowlife priests you’ve had crawling around here haven’t tried already.  But there’s something you can do, and that’s sit your ugly wife down and get her ready to watch her little girl be fucked by a demon.”

“Is this all you came for?” I scoff.  “To torment a farmer and his poor wife?”

The beast’s black eye snap back to me and it sneers.

“I do as I please, Father,” it snarls, lunging forward to grab my wrist in an iron grip.  I’m too slow and I fail to pull away before she’s on top of me.  She lowers her oozing, foul-smelling face towards mine, fingers curling around my throat.  “Just as you did, with Christiana.  Just as Viro does with you.”  I ignore its taunts and brandish the rosary in my fist, pressing its beads hard against the beast’s putty-like skin.

There’s no reaction and my stomach sinks.  The beast is confused at first, but then it seems to realize what I’ve just attempted.  With supernatural strength, it rips the rosary from my hands, a look of absolute delight painted on its rotting maw.  It sits on my chest and holds the rosary up to look at it, pining me easily, even as I struggle.

Viro’s rosary,” it muses, smiling wide as it turns its dark eyes back to me.  “Of course he gave it to you.  Works against every beast of the dark except those whose blood was used to sanctify it.”  My eyes widen with realization and the beast grins madly down at me.  “Told you Viro and I go way back.”

“We certainly do, love,” Viro, suddenly not a foot from me, says in a syrupy voice.

The demon that pins me rears angrily, howling.  The sudden appearance of Viro in the room sends everything into sudden chaos.  Furious at its defenses being broken, the beast lunges for Viro and forgets me entirely.  Willa has broken through its warding, allowed Viro a chance inside the room.  As I scurry from the fray, I spot Willa just outside the door, sitting cross-legged on the floor, a circle of white candles around her.  Her eyes are wide, unblinking, and entirely white.  

I dash towards the Cliftons.  Their faces are painted with horror and confusion.  I glance behind me, back towards the doll house and find Viro on his feet, pinning the small girl against the wall.  At the point where his skin meets the Macey’s, his fingers are already turning black, the skin burning away to reveal something underneath, something not meant for human eyes.  I grab the Cliftons by their arms, turning them both forcefully towards the door.  They shout at me, frantic, afraid for their daughter and in shock over the supernatural occurrences they are witnessing.

“We have to go, now,” I direct, keeping my voice calm, even as behind me I can hear the low, unearthly growl of a Night Beast.  It doesn’t matter how many times I hear that sound, that call of the burning plains of Hell, or how many nights I spend tangled in sweat-damp sheets with Viro at my back, that horrific cry with will always chill me to my bone.  The Clfitons, who have never heard such a sound and who are only mortal humans, instinctively run for their lives.

I follow the couple out the door, slamming it behind me as another mighty roar rips through the house.  We continue down the stairs and I shout at them to keep going, practically shoving them out of the house.  I can hear the visceral fight occurring in Macey’s room, the small area no doubt locked down by Willa, trapping the two demons within.

Outside, night seems to have fallen three hours early.  I don’t think the Cliftons have noticed yet.  They’re shouting at me, demanding to know what’s happening.  There’s an enormous crash from inside the house and the hellish sounds of a demonic clash echo through the dark.

From my breast pocket, I pull a small bible.  It’s ancient and nearly every page is scribbled over with dark ink in foreign and forgotten languages.  I press it into Mrs. Clifton’s hands and look her in the eye earnestly. 

“Go to the barn,” I say, clasping her hands in mine.  “Keep this with you.  Read from it.  It’s in Latin, but read from it, both of you, the best you can.  Stay there and I will come find you when Macey is safe.”

Mrs. Clifton nods, wide-eyed.  Her lips move but she seems to be unable to form words.  I point towards the barn, tell them both to go, and they do, running on shaky legs. 

I don’t give myself a moment to think, I run back into the house.  I know that I’m the only chance of Macey surviving this ordeal.  Ignoring the mighty crashing and howling and the vicious snarls from Macey’s room, I duck up the stairs.  Willa is still where I saw her before, eyes white.  But she is no longer seated on the floor.  Instead, she and everything within her circle hover just a few inches above the dirty carpet.  Her lips are moving, noiselessly chanting. 

As I approach, the door to Macey’s room is blown backwards, hitting the hallway wall with a crash.  I plaster myself to the wallpaper, closing my eyes out of habit.  From inside the room, I can hear the beasts speaking to one another.  It is in a dead language, one that I doubt any human alive knows, but long ago I was gifted with Allspeak by Viro.  Though I cannot read the words or write them, nor can I even identify what language it is, I understand their spoken meaning effortlessly.

“That pet of yours is right outside the door, Viro,” the beast hisses, no longer in Macey’s voice, but in a voice far deeper and vicious.  “If I drag him back into the Pit with me, what do you imagine our brothers will do to him?”

Viro growls furiously and I feel a crash against my back, through the wall.  I don’t dare open my eyes.

“Leave that child and face me,” Viro demands.

“It’s nothing compared what they’ll do to you,” the beast wheezes, ignoring him.  “Our brothers, oh the way they speak of you.  You and the little priest you’ve worked so hard to keep from us.  They have such plans.  And you know how patient we can be.”

“Leave the girl!”

“If I do, she’ll die and be condemned.  But perhaps, that’s what you want,” the beast taunts.  “More time here with your pet and all of his kind.  Filthy little vessels.”

Viro snarls and again the wall behind me shakes.  This time, it’s so mighty, I’m sure it’s going to crack.  The flames of Willa’s candles have turned black and they dance higher and higher into the air around her.  She now hovers over a foot in the air and I recognize the silent words she is chanting, I know that she is weakening the demon that still hides within Macey, uses her like a shield.  The beasts within the room again begin to fight and I fear that Viro might hurt the girl if he keeps going.  Keeping my eyes shut, I dash blindly across the hallway, crashing hard into the opposite wall.  I have to think of something to do.  Viro usually has no issue dispatching demons, but I fear that he may be evenly matched today.  And I’m not going to let Macey die.  I’m not going to let Viro add any more time to his sentence. 

From my pocket I pull a worn strip of cloth and secure it tightly around my eyes.  I know the ritual by heart.  It might be a long shot, but I need to separate Macey’s soul from the beast that is curled around it.

“Regna terrae, cantata Deo, psallite Cernunnos,” I begin, my voice clear.  The beast inside the room screeches, the sound of a parasite being wrenched from its host.  “Regna terrae, cantata Dea psallite Aradia. Caeli Deus, Deus terrae!”

“Peter, leave!” Viro shouts in English, his human voice barely understandable.

I ignore him and continue.  I can feel Willa guiding my feet as I walk through the door of the room.

“Humiliter majestati gloriae tuae supplicamus.  Ut ab omni infernalium spirituum potestate.”

The beast screeches again and I feel something catch me around the middle and toss me across the room like a rag doll.  My back hits a hard angle and I cry out in pain as I feel a rib fracture.  But I ignore it, struggle to my feet, and continue.

“Laqueo, ad deceptione nequitia.  Omnis fallaciae, libera nos, dominates.  Exorcizamus.  Omnis immundus, spiritus.  Omnis satanica potestas.  Omnis incursio.”

I can’t see what is in front of me, but I can feel it in my bones.  Terror, the terror that one can’t help but feel when so close to something so unnatural.  There is something similar to heat in the room, an awful burning sensation that is almost indescribable.  But it isn’t heat.  It’s my body protesting, ripping itself apart with such a proximity to creatures so ghastly.  It’s my very soul trying to escape a horrid fate.  The scent of death and of rot fills my lungs, makes it hard to breath, but I choke out the incantation all the same.

“Infernalis adversarii.  Omnis legio.  Omnis ad congregatio secta diabolica.  Ab insidiis diaboli, libera nos, dominates.  Ut coven tuam secura tibi libertate servire facias.  Te rogamus, audi nos!”

Again, I’m grabbed by something.  My feet leave the floor and for a terrifying moment, I fly through space, no idea if I’m about to be thrown through a window.  Instead, I’m tossed into the dollhouse and the wood crumples beneath me, stabbing into me, and I scream in pain as my already injured rib feels as if it is breaking some more.  A body crawls over mine, Macey’s body, but it’s yanked away an instant later.  I push myself up and continue, struggling to breath but shouting as loud as I can manage.

Ut inimicos sanctae circulae humiliare digneris!…Te rogamus…audi nos!  Terribilis Deus Sanctuario suo, Cernunnos ipse truderit…virtutem…plebi!”

There’s a ringing in my ears drowned out by the screaming of the beast as it thrashes on the ground, being ripped from Macey’s body.  I’m so close to being finished.  I straighten the best I can and recite the final lines.  

Suae, Aradia ipse fortitudinem plebi Suae! Benedictus Deus, Gloria Patri, Benedictus Dea, Matri gloria!

There’s an almighty howl so loud that I feel as if my eardrums might burst, and a massive force throws me back again.  With no physical body in this realm, the beast is weakened, vulnerable.  Its next move is to no doubt find a suitable host, attempt to escape before Viro can throw him back into the Pit.

The parents, I think, in the barn.  I pray Viro is listening to me.  I can feel the heat of them still, the wrongness of the creatures not five feet from me.  The sensation fades, I hear a breaking window and the beasts rush off into the night.  And then I hear a soft, quiet sob.

At once I rip the blindfold from my eyes.  Gone is the girlish room.  Instead I find only the skeletons of such a place.  A barren, threadbare bed with heavy shackles on the posts.  Dust covered, broken dolls on the shelves.  Ugly, stained wallpaper on the walls.  And in the middle of the floor is Macey, broken and shuddering.  I get to my feet, ignoring the pain, and run to her.  Gone is the sunken black gaze, replaced by the pale green eyes of a frightened child.  She stares up at me, face etched with terror, and I can sense that her soul is stained, damned, and if she dies now she will spend eternity in the Pit.  And she is dying.

Willa is there beside me, concern painted on every inch of her body.  She’s fast to act, unloading the satchel at her side, pulling out herbs and stones and candles.  Willa is a powerful Wytch, but I doubt even she can muster enough power to save the girl’s life, especially after the feat she just accomplished in holding a Night Beast at bay.  She’s drained, I can see it, but she’s already got her hands over the girl’s heart, chanting quickly under her breath. 

“Macey,” I say softly, brushing the hair away from her sweat soaked forehead.  I know what fate awaits her.  The Night Beast will drag her to the Pit where her soul will be consumed by the creatures there.  The same fate that awaits me.  The same fate that Christiana suffers.  If there is mercy in this world, she will be a quick snack.  But I know that the violation that she has faced these last few months has only been the beginning.

I cannot let that happen.

I search the girl’s body, searching for the Mark of the Beast.  Willa keeps the girl alive, but only barely.  She gives me a cryptic look, I know what she’s thinking.  Viro would not like this.  It’s what they want, he would say.  Every sin I take on only lengthens my descent.  And the further I fall into that black abyss, the worse my fate becomes. 

But I will not let this girl suffer.  Whatever penance I must serve, I have more than earned and whatever sins I have committed, I did so knowingly and purposefully.  This girl, on the other hand, probably did something small.  Resented a rival at school, got angry with her parents, ditched out on a responsibility to spend time with friends.  Some miniscule mistake that sent a flare up above her as ripe for the taking by the sorts who like to consume little girls.  A childish mistake I will not let her burn for.

The Mark is on Macey’s inner thigh.  A ring of teeth marks and at the center, a swooping rune, the beast’s name.  I roll up my sleeve and find a blank space on my forearm.

Many of my Marks are faded with age, dark and deep.  Names, written in languages I don’t know.  The names of the demons that will feast upon me when I descend, their claims upon my soul.  It’s been a long time since I’ve added to that ledger.  I used to do so without hesitation, not understanding the gravity of what I did, focused solely on my newfound power to save those who needed saving.  It was Viro who explained to me what I was taking on.  He has the power to dispatch most demons with ease, toss them back into their holes before they even have time to leave a proper Mark, their names fading from their victim’s skin before long.  It’s the reason his sentence is what it is, the reason he was cursed to this atonement.  And it’s a power I will never possess. 

I can’t let this girl be damned and I can’t let Viro’s sentence be extended, not so close to it finally being complete.  I press my arm against the Mark and look up at Willa.  She gives me a strained glance, pausing her incantations.

“Are you sure, Peter?” she asks, glancing down at my arm.  “What will Viro say?”

“I don’t care,” I retort.  “Do it.”

Willa grits her teeth and huffs, but does as I ask.  She wraps a hand around my wrist and her other she lays on Macey’s leg.  Closing her eyes and steadying her breathing, Willa begins the spell.

The sensation of another person’s sins being grafted onto your soul is agonizing.  Luckily, Macey is a good girl and the girth of her trespasses is narrow.  I bite my lip so hard that I taste blood as I attempt not to scream, lest Viro hear me and try to intercede.  When it’s over, when the white hot pain fades into a dull burn, I look down at my arm, at the new Mark upon my soul, and try not to think too hard about it.  Willa stares at it as well, the fresh wound, swollen and angry, her expression sad.

“She’s still dying, Peter,” Willa whispers.  “The Night Beast was keeping her alive, the damage is too extensive.  I don’t-…I don’t know if I can do anything.”

Macey’s breathing has slowed, and she blinks up at us blearily.  I reach for her again, I want to soothe her, but before I can even dab at the sweat on her brow or smooth her hair, a cold fist curls around my wrist.

Viro forgets his strength and yanks me to my feet so roughly that I’m afraid my shoulder might dislocate.  I hiss at him, try to pull away, but Viro doesn’t let up.  He is staring at the fresh Mark with a look of disgust and fury, fingers curled so tight that my hand is losing sensation.

“Let go of me!” I shout at him, again trying to free myself.  He doesn’t listen though, hardly ever does, and instead turns his eyes onto me.  They’re still yellow, always the last thing to be hidden when Viro settles back into human skin.  He stares at me, his usually blank expression twisting as he thinks up something to say to me.  I don’t want to hear it.  “Why would you do this?” he whispers, voice surprisingly gentle.

“I had to save her,” I retort, again trying and failing to free myself.

“Viro, do something!” Willa cries from where she is still knelt beside Macey.  “Stop fucking squabbling and help her!”

Viro finally lets me go and turns around.  Macey’s eyes have closed now, her face dangerously pale.  Viro’s expression is entirely dismissive.  He doesn’t care if Macey dies, it makes absolutely no difference to him.  She is free of the demon’s claim, the score is even.  Once, long ago, I had hated Viro a bit.  His values and priorities will never line up with mine, with any human’s for that matter.  I had thought him cruel, heartless, evil even, back when I believed in such a notion.  I had had to accept that eventually though.  He will never care about human lives, just as I will never care about the lives of ants, no matter how hard I try.  I can accept that they have their purposes as a unit, as a species, but an individual ant matters not.  To Viro, Macey is little more than a dying insect.  His yellow eyes again turn to me.

“Tell me you didn’t do it for me,” Viro demands roughly, advancing on me with menacing intent.  He often forgets how to be a human when he sheds his skin, and right now he looks primed to attack.  I haven’t seen him this angry in a long time. 

“I had to save the girl,” I repeat, voice terse.

“You were being reckless!” Viro retorts.  He seems to catch himself though, seems to realize the way he’s behaving.  He stops his advance and shoves his hands into the pockets of his jeans.  His eyes though, still yellow, move up and down my body.  “What will I do if you die, Peter?  Huh?  With that many fucking Marks on you?  I’d be trapped here forever.”      

There’s something else in his expression, something beyond selfish-intent, something hauntingly human.  Willa again shouts at Viro to help Macey and he looks back at the girl as if he’s entirely forgotten that she is there, still barely hanging onto life.  It’s been years since we lost someone.  In the past, the possessed would anguish for months, even years before communication could successfully get to the Vatican and an appropriate exorcist could be dispatched.  Back then, it was a rarity for one to survive possession, just like any other disease.  But now, all it takes is the click of a button and a short airplane ride.  The demons rarely have enough time to do that sort of damage. 

Perhaps I’ve gone soft, but the thought of watching Macey die makes my heart want to rip itself from my body.  I give Viro a pleading look.  Normally, he wouldn’t intercede.  He’s not supposed to, not that he wants to anyway.  His normally cold gaze seems to wither under my scrutiny though, and he furrows his brow.

“I can’t,” he whispers.  “You know that.”

With that, he strides from the room.  I don’t hesitate to chase after him, shouting after him in the hall.

“You can!” I cry.  “You just won’t.”

Instantly, Viro is in front of me, a fist curled in my shirt.

“You’re right, Father, I won’t,” he snarls.  “You forget your place!”

I put my hands on Viro’s chest and shove him back so violently that he seems shocked, stumbling back a few steps.

“No!  You forget who I am!” I retort.  “You forget I’m not afraid of you.  And I’m not afraid of death.  Or of the Pit.”

“You will be!” Viro roars, stepping into my personal space once more, baring his teeth.  He keeps moving, forcing me backwards until my shoulders hit the wall.  With his arms, he pins me there, leering down into my face with a mask of madness.  “You can’t imagine the horrible things they plan for you.  And guess who has tickets for a front row fucking seat for that shit show?”

Viro disappears, nothing but empty air in the spot where he had stood.  I swallow hard, something similar to guilt stabbing into me hard.  I know that there is some strange exception for me within whatever semblance of a heart beats in Viro’s chest.  And I know that those emotions confuse and terrify him.  But I can’t think about that right now.

I go into Macey’s room.  On the floor, Willa is still chanting, though even she seems to have lost hope for the girl.  I lay a hand on her shoulder and she falls silent, body slumping forward in defeat.  Macey is a pale, broken figure barely breathing on the floor, and I stoop down and lift her light frame into my arms.  As I carry her through the house and out into the yard, where the sun is starting to set over the fields beyond, I can feel just how small she really is, malnourished and atrophied.  The beast no doubt forgot to feed her, incapable of feeling human hunger as it is.  Her bones stick out at sharp angles and many of them feel broken and improperly healed. 

Her parents rush towards me from the barn when they see me from within, wailing as only parents about to lose a child can.  It breaks my heart to watch Mr. Clifton take his broken, dying daughter from my arms, dropping to his knees and howling at God to save her.  But whatever being is nearest to God in this universe cares as much about Macey as Viro does.

Willa stops short of the family, hands over her face and eyes welling with tears.  The last person she watched die in this manner was her sister, over fifty years ago, and I can see in her expression that she is reliving that now.  I cannot comfort her though, I have to administer Last Rites.

Mrs. Clifton screams, begging me to save her little girl, to do something, anything.  I lock my jaw, steadying myself to send this girl off to the Other.  She is not lost, I remind myself, she will be back again.  But it’s still painful to watch her go.

Before I can say a word, Viro’s hand lands on my hip, making me jump.  I hadn’t expected him to return and in my shock I am silent.  He looks at me as if perplexed, studying my face with his head tilted to the side. 

“I heard what Xvi said about Christiana,” he tells me, watching for my reaction.  I feel heat rising up my neck but I don’t dare look away.  He watches my memories surface as an enthusiast watches birds, a look of mild interest on his dark features, and then glances at Macey.  “You think this girl’s anything like her?” he asks, not able to help but chuckle at the very idea.  I wait for him to look back at me before answering.

“No,” I say firmly.  “But she still doesn’t deserve to die.”

Deserve,” Viro scoffs, rolling his eyes at the notion, callous as ever.  His shoulders roll back though and he gives me a serious glare.  “I do this, and you never take another Mark again.”

I clench my jaw.  It’s not a power I want to give up, but Viro’s hand is curled around my wrist and I know he expects an Iron Promise.  I look back at the Cliftons, their cries dying down.  They know what’s coming, what’s about to happen.  Shock and despair has left them nearly mute.  Macey takes her breath rattle and I look Viro in the eye.

“Fine.”

Another blight on my skin, this one a burn, hardly any pain at all.  Viro’s hand is gone from my wrist and he is gone from my sight.  I have no idea how he does it, but I know that there is no such thing as free life.  Viro’s lifeforce is vast, massive, and a human lifetime is nothing but a scratch.  He will be missing though, for a couple of days, and I have no idea where he goes or why.  I look to my left and Macey is taking a massive gulp of air, sitting bolt upright in her parents arms. 

Willa and I leave the Cliftons after midnight, once Macey is in bed resting, her parents keeping vigilant watch at her side.  They try to offer us money as we leave, but we turn them down.  Knowing Macey is safe is all that matters, Willa assures them.  We’re both exhausted, but her more so than me, so I offer to drive.  Willa is grateful, falling asleep instantly in the passenger seat once I am out on the smooth, country roads again.  We find a small motel and Willa showers in the dingy bathroom while I make my report, seated on the bed.  In the morning, we will check on Macey again.

“You stink,” Willa says to me, her hair wet and a towel wrapped around her body.  Her skin is covered in intricate scars, wardings she carved there herself to prevent her ever falling prey the way her sister did.  For a demon, a girl like Macey is like a sports car.  Something quick and fast and fun that they’ll drive off a cliff just so nobody else can have it.  But a Wytch, once as powerful as Willa, is like M1 Abram’s tank, already primed to destroy.  When Willa’s sister was taken, a US President ended up dead.  She comes up in front of me and reaches for my collar, loosening it.  “You should take a shower.”

I nod vaguely, staring at my computer as the collar comes sliding off.  Willa puts a finger on my chin, brings my gaze up to hers and inspects me carefully.  There’s something in her eyes, a question I can tell she’s dying to ask.  But she doesn’t, instead attempting to tend to me, the way she always does.  She runs her long fingers through my hair gently, jaw tight as she looks me over.

“Viro will be back,” she assures me, misreading my apprehension.  “He always comes back.”

“I know,” I reply, pulling my chin from her grasp.  Willa stares at me, eyes squinted.  She’s trying to read my thoughts, Viro has been teaching her how.  I get off the bed before she has the chance to.  “Don’t do that,” I grunt, putting space between us.

“You’re upset,” Willa infers.

“A little girl almost died,” I retort.  “I have a new Mark on my soul.  Viro is probably going to bury me when he gets back.  Do I need another reason to be upset?”

“He won’t,” Willa says, nodding.  “H-he wouldn’t do that.”

“He has before,” I reply.  “You don’t know him like I do, don’t pretend to.  He’s a fucking demon, Willa.  You will never understand him, or be able to predict him, so don’t try.”

“Right, that’s your job,” Willa scoffs, rolling her eyes.

“Yes, it is,” I snap, roughly yanking at the buttons of my shirt.  “I’m taking a shower.”

I try to separate, but Willa follows me.  Her breath quickens

“Who is Christiana?” she asks.  It’s not a demand, she isn’t angry.  No, there’s almost shame in her voice.  I turn back to her slowly. 

“You heard?” I ask.

“Viro showed me.”

“Of course he did,” I huff, throwing up my arms.  “How much?”

“You left the Church for her,” Willa replies, voice small.  She looks at her feet.

“I walked away, for a while,” I answer honestly.  This isn’t like Willa, she’s never been the jealous type and she’s never been deceived about what a truly am.  “I’ve lived a very long life, Willa.” 

“Is it true?” she gasps.  I realize that she’s close to tears.  Taking a sharp breath, I close the space between us, putting my hand on her cheek.  She doesn’t look at me though.  “Am-…am I damned?”

My heart shatters into a million pieces as I realize what she’s thinking.  For a long moment, I can barely breathe.  I expect her to recoil from me, I would if I were her.  How could she not be repulsed by the being who so carelessly doomed her?

“I don’t know,” I reply, my voice barely a rasp.      

She may be a Wytch, a very powerful one at that, but a human soul still burns in her body, one she has tirelessly kept protected against the forces that might claim it.  I’ve heard about the agony of the warding spell she had performed on herself, of the pain that she went through.  And if what that Night Beast had said was true, then it was all for naught.  Willa may have signed herself away willingly when she climbed into my bed.

And this what I truly am, isn’t it?  A repugnant beast no better than the monsters I claim to fight.  I take these Marks onto my skin and care nothing for if they might rub off onto those I hold close.  Stains such as these are like oil—inky and impossible to remove, clinging onto everything it touches and killing it slowly. 

Willa isn’t pulling away.  Instead, she’s stepping closer, plastering herself to my chest.  I wrap my arms around her.  I don’t know how to reassure her, I’m not sure if that’s even possible.  Demons lie, I tell myself, they find a weak part within you and exploit it.  But the relationship I had with Christiana has never been something that I regret.  It had hurt when she died, killed by an interceding seraph after we had tried so hard to escape from that life.  And yes, I had felt tremendous guilt.  It was ultimately my fault that she had died.  It had crushed me.  I didn’t return to the Church for years afterwards. 

Maybe I was a fool, living all of this time with the assumption that Christiana has simply passed into the Other peacefully.  Maybe I was just trying to comfort myself, remaining ignorantly blind to the things I did to those I claimed to love.  Maybe I had just tried not to think about her, it was easier that way.  I had carried no anxiety though, no lasting burden once the years wiped my conscious clean. 

Of course, I am far from an average priest.  And Willa is far from the only lover I’ve taken since Christiana left this world.  A single human lifetime of celibacy is all the Church decided to require from me, especially when the skills I possess far outweigh their desire for conformity.  Priest is little more than a title anymore, a visage to put people at ease in their time of turmoil.  I have walked with many at my side since Christiana died, and the thought that I unknowingly damned them all makes my mind feel like it might come apart at the seams.

I pull away from Willa, unable to hold her any longer with how disgusted I am with myself.  She grabs my hand though and waits for me to look at her.

“Do you regret making your deal with Viro?” she asks me seriously.

“No,” I breathe, and it’s the truth.  I’ve never regretted it.

Willa looks at her feet again, still holding my hand.  She is still staring at her feet when she speaks again.

“I think I should go see my mother.”

I nod.  It’s a good idea.  Willa’s mother can no doubt be an intimidating entity.  She’s one of the most powerful Wytches alive and in her long existence, she has built up a veritable platoon of daughters.  Willa is one of twenty-four and the immensely powerful coven may very well be able to give her answers.

I tell Willa that I agree and she thinks about it for a long moment.  She tells me that she’s tired, that she’s going to leave in the morning.  She releases my hand, says again that I should take a shower, and wanders towards the bed. 

“I’m tired,” she says distantly, not looking back at me. 

Without waiting for an answer, she drops her towel and climbs naked into the King size bed.

The water pressure in the shower in low, and I turn it up as hot as it can go, praying that the boiling water might sanctify me.  What have I been thinking all of these years?  If one lies with dogs one must expect to rise with fleas, and I am currently well infested.  I examine the new Mark on my arm and, a little lower down, the swirling pattern of an Iron Promise on my wrist.  Have I always been this careless?

Willa is asleep when I come back into room.  I can’t bring myself to crawl in beside her, to dirty her further with my presence, so I pull on some sweats and stride out into the warm night.  I wander aimlessly down the deserted street of the small Mississippi town.  There are streetlamps, though most burned out ages ago and act now mainly as a nesting place for birds.  My feet scrape over the pock-marked sidewalk, equally as neglected as the streetlamps, occasionally stumbling on a particularly large hole.  Above, the moon is waning and sits low in the clouds, halfway obscured.  It casts little light by which to find my way, but I suppose that that is the purpose of an aimless wander. 

I think of nothing and of everything.  A long life gives one much to consider and I quickly become lost to memories.  They bleed into each other, warping and blending in uncomfortable ways.  I lay in bed beside Christiana, my hand on her abdomen, feeling the child that would never be born kick beneath my fingers.  When I look back at her, her face is twisted in pain as she dies.  I scream for Viro, whom I had cast out when I had left the Church, but he does not respond.  An unspoken covenant has been broken, the seraph is here to collect and Viro cannot intercede.  Next, I stand at Christiana’s grave, but the name on the stone is Emily Mabel Cornish.  Mabel had been a scholar.  We had met in the most peculiar of ways and her red hair had shone like wildfire in that dank crypt.  It’s 1942 and I follow Mable through a massive library.  She giggles, darting through the rows of shelves in a bit of a game.  When she peers at me through the books, she is replaced by Willa, a dark leather bound tome in her hands, her Book of Shadows.  I’m not allowed to read it, nobody but Willa is.  I help her gather books, each as cryptic and indecipherable as the last, filled with ancient, handwritten words.  It’s 2009 and she sits on the floor of the library in her mother’s massive manor, leafing through crushed pulp pages that look more like leather due to age.  The room is stuffy and hot so I find my way outside, leaving Willa to her research.  In the massive garden is Viro, leaned against a wall, smoking a cigarette.  When I approach, he tells me that he has to show me something.  He leads me inside of a hospital, onto the second floor.  It’s 1891 and Viro dazzles the police guards outside of room 202 into wandering away.  Inside the nearly empty room is a bed, and chained to the metal frame is a young man.  He sits upright, awake, and watches me as I come in. 

“Why do you torture yourself?” Viro asks me, suddenly striding along beside me down the dark street as if he’s been there all along.  I jump, feet stuttering to a stop.  I wasn’t expecting to see him so soon.  “There will be plenty of time for that once you descend.”

I roll my eyes.

“I’m Catholic, Viro,” I grunt, resuming my dejected walk of shame.  “It’s what we do.”

“Yeah right,” Viro scoffs, running a warped and scarred hand through his hair before shoving it back into the pocket of his jacket.  I eye the hidden appendage suspiciously.  It hadn’t been so damaged earlier. 

“What do you want?” I ask angrily, not in the mood for banter.  “I didn’t expect you back so soon.”

“You took another Mark today, Peter,” Viro hisses.  “For fuck’s sake, that’s not something I’m just gonna let go.”

I stop walking and turn fully to face him, face set in a mask of rage that gives him pause.

“Is it true?!” I demand, refusing to spoken to like a misbehaving child.  Viro’s jaw tightens but he doesn’t look away. 

“Is what true?”

“You know what!” I snap.

“Is poor, sweet Christiana burning in Hell?” Viro guesses garishly. 

“Do they all burn?!” I cry, patience wearing thin.  “Am I curse?  Am-am I damnation?” my voice breaks and my bravado fails.  I crumple on myself like I’ve been hit, suddenly wishing to be anywhere but here.

Viro’s mask slips as well and a look that nearly resembles compassion crosses his face for a prolonged moment.  It’s replaced a second later with composed disinterest, his normal state, and he shrugs.

“They might.  I don’t know,” he sighs.

Fury strikes me and in an instant I am charging forward, swinging a blind fist at Viro’s face.  It connects but does little damage, serving only to shock the beast.  I shove him back as hard as I can, again failing to do much, but I rage against him anyway.

This is your fault!” I scream.  “You did this to me!  You made me into this-this thing!”

Viro steps in close to me, fingers snaking around both of my wrists, his tremendous strength making me immediately immobile.  I still huff angrily though, but Viro ignores me and instead uses a burnt hand to shove up the sleeve of my jacket to reveal the many Marks on my arm.

No,” he hisses.  “You did this to yourself, you fucking fool.  You made the deals, you dirtied your own soul.  I’m simply a vulture, attracted to the scent of rot.”

The blood seems to drain from my body.  I stumble back weakly and Viro lets me go, watching me with a look of concern.  I drop my face into my hands, wishing to rip out my hair, to tear out my eyes and tongue, to simply disappear into a void of pain and darkness forever. 

“So that is all I am?” I sob through stuttered breaths.  “I rotten thing?  Stained and wicked.”  I look over my fingers at Viro who stands before me helplessly.  “Your pet.”

Viro’s hands land on my shoulders and suddenly the ground beneath my feet lurches.  The world around us spins rapidly, violently, making my entire body want to convulse.  I’m hurled through space with Viro, and he settles us somewhere a few miles away, throwing my back hard against a crumbling barn that appears.

“No, Peter, you are my undoing,” Viro snarls, face close to mine.  “You have unmade me.  Whatever I once was, whatever purpose I may have served, that creature is long dead, unraveled by careless hands.  You think that I changed you?  Ha!  A laughable concept.”

Viro steps away from me, pacing like a caged animal in the dirt a few feet away.  I stay against the barn, unsure what to say or do, unsure even what I’m being told.

“You think of yourself as a simply man,” Viro continues, though his voice is strained, no longer full of fury but of something else, “just a human.  You think that after all of these lifetimes, after everything you have seen and done that you are as faultless as the masses?  You may have once been a sheep, Peter, but you long ago left the flock.”

“Then what am I?” I cry.

“A human soul is not meant to last so long,” Viro continues darkly.  “Not meant to cohort with my likes.”  He looks me up and down.  “You are…supplemented.”

“What does that mean?” I snap, finally stepping forward.  Viro flinches even though I don’t come close to him.  “If I’m not human, then what am I?”

“I don’t know,” Viro replies.  When I open my mouth to retort angrily, he throws up his hands.  “I don’t!” he defends.  “I told you, I am also not what I once was…I no longer have a connection to my brothers, to my world.  I’ve lost that knowledge.”

There is defeat, maybe even shame in Viro’s voice.  My body loses its rage and I slump back against the barn, sliding to the dirt in a dejected manner.  I am exhausted, body, mind, and soul.  My head is pounding, there’s a ringing in my ears, and all at once the only thing I desire is a bed.  Maybe in the morning, with the new day’s light and a good night’s rest behind me, I can process this all better.  Right now though, it is only suffocating. 

“We are…inexorably linked,” Viro nearly whispers, taking a few cautious steps towards me.  I glance up at him.  “Cosmically bound.”

And deep down, I know that this is true, I can feel it inside of me, even now.  This bond, thrumming unhappily as Viro slides down the wall next to me.  How long it’s been there, when it was forged, I know not.  I don’t even know how long I’ve been aware of it, but when I think about it, I can sense it there.  It’s folded myself into my mind and into my fate, an immovable knowledge that Viro and I are tied together, possibly for eternity, however long that may last for either of us.

Viro presses something into my hand and I look down to find his rosary, the one that the beast had snatched away in Macey’s room.  I stare at it, filling with an emotion I can’t identify.

“We will never escape one another,” Viro sums, pulling away from me.

“I know,” I breathe.  But I am speaking to no one, alone again in the dark night.  Viro is gone once more but I know that he can hear me, wherever he has gone to.  “I know.”