A notorious criminal, a possessed woman, and the residents of a monastery experience conflict in the shadow of a dead city.
“Hold her down!”
Sweat stung at her eyes. Her exhausted muscles were beginning to flag. The Sanchez woman was in her third week among them at the monastery, and she continued to show no signs of improvement. Currently, she was thrashing and bucking, doing all that she could to fight off the priest and the cluster of nuns, all fighting to tie her down to the table. For Mary Elizabeth, it was her fifth time fighting with the woman. She didn’t feel battle-hardened. She felt defeated.
The Sanchez woman, as Mary Elizabeth preferred to think of her, was half of the age of most of the nuns in the room, and pretty enough when she wasn’t cursing them in some ancient tongue. Her olive skin, now slick with sweat and splotchy with exertion, was actually quite lovely. She spoke with only the slightest accent, and from what some of the people had told them upon her arrival, she could even do her sums.
If not for the demon that had taken residence in her, she would have been considered quite appealing.
A claw raked toward Mary Elizabeth’s face, and she flinched away, barely missing deep scars along her cheek. She gave the priest an exasperated stare and pulled tight on the rope, slamming the offending hand back down to the table. The possessed creature screamed, a chilling, ululating sound that sent half of the nuns into muttering prayers.
“This is hopeless!” Mary Elizabeth grunted, tying off the bindings and backing away from the table. She wiped sweat from her eyes and glared at the priest. He gave her a chiding stare that she didn’t back away from. “The demon in her is beyond us. We’ve done all that we can.”
Father Bermudez shook his head, eyes narrow. “Penance for blasphemy, Sister Mary Elizabeth. There is nothing beyond the power of God. Your lack of faith may well be what is keeping us from casting this evil from her.”
“Three weeks, father. Three weeks!”
“We do not determine the time that God places before us, Sister.” Bermudez shook his head and made a clucking sound. He combed back his silvery hair with his fingers and shook the sweat from them. He was a fat man with an inflated sense of self-worth, and he did well at reminding the people locally of how horrible they were for all of their sins. Mary Elizabeth dealt with his pomposity as well as she could, but when she couldn’t mind her tongue, she would find herself tending the fields or scrubbing pots. Of course, these moments would also include a reminder for her to read the book of James, to show her how wicked one’s tongue can be.
The thought of extra duties kept words from flowing, though nothing could contain her from glowering.
“Holy Water,” he snapped toward a couple of other sisters. They were younger are cowed much more easily than Mary Elizabeth. Neither of them dared meet the Father’s eyes, especially at this dark work. He sprinkled it, saturating the Sanchez woman. Her eyelids fluttered, and a soft, ecstatic moan escaped her lips. Bermudez eyed her, a frown curdling his features.
“Darkness…” the Sanchez woman hissed. Her mouth was turned up into an impossible caricature of a smile, and her eyes were all whites. “It comes this night….”
“Demonic heresy!” Bermudez snapped, pulling his cross from his chest, holding it before him like Excalibur.
“It will consume us….”
“Father, wait!” Mary Elizabeth shouted, and Bermudez froze, his face white and drenched in sweat. He was panting. The Sanchez woman twisted in her bindings leisurely, her arms and legs rolling in feline grace. Her hands flexed and rested.
“We cannot withstand….”
“I will not listen to this in the walls of my church!” Bermudez spat, and he pounced forward, pressing the crucifix into the rambling woman’s forehead. He seemed to move with enough force to push it through her entire skull. The Sanchez woman let out a low, pained moan, and it slowly rose into a high-pitched wail, keening and echoing in the dark room. The other sisters fell to their knees and crossed themselves, whispering desperate prayers.
“Begone from this place!” Bermudez roared. “Out, in God’s name! Leave this woman and leave this house!”
The wail subsided, and the Sanchez woman’s body tensed, then relaxed. A soft, relieved sigh escaped her lips, and she went slack. Bermudez blinked and swallowed. He glanced at Mary Elizabeth, and they shared a surprised glance. It quickly morphed into a look of pride for Bermudez. His face glowed with smugness, and he raised his eyebrows towards the kneeling sisters.
“It is done,” he said to them, his deep tones reverberating in the suddenly silent room.
“Praise Him, Praise Him,” the sisters replied in rapid, breathless whispers.
“Undo this woman and see that she has a place to recover,” Bermudez said, and it took Mary Elizabeth a moment to realize that he was speaking to her. He brought his hands together in two brisk, expectant claps. “Quickly. That poor creature needs rest.”
“I’d rather not untie her, Father,” Mary Elizabeth responded. She kept her distance. “Whatever is within her could be lying in wait.”
“Fear is for the faithless, Sister Mary Elizabeth,” Father Bermudez replied, raising an eyebrow. Is this some challenge? Does he mean to prove himself to the other sisters? When she didn’t move, Bermudez snorted and began undoing the straps around the Sanchez woman’s ankles. “I will require penance for abandoning your faith in the Almighty,” he growled. “In these dark times, faith should be our shining example, not something we hide away in a moment of weakness.”
Mary Elizabeth scowled and said nothing.
Bermudez shook his head. His fingers worked on the straps and knots holding the woman down by her wrists. “I really expected more from you. A woman as headstrong as you choose to be is normally not so easily accquainted with fear. You have seen how fruitless past efforts have been. We’ve had to wait for her lose herself to sleep. And now you exhibit a faint heart? Now, after seeing God’s hand at work?”
“She nearly scratched me before,” Mary Elizabeth grumbled. She looked away from his girth, away from all of the self-assurance that seemed to ooze from him and fill him with such obnoxiousness. “That is all.”
“God won’t allow this creature to harm you, Sister,” he answered. “Meek as a lamb, gentle as a kitten! Look upon her as she rests. Innocence.” He smiled upon the Sanchez woman, beaming like a proud parent. “She won’t harm a fly.”
“Father?” The Sanchez woman’s voice was thready, and her hands groped blindly. Bermudez drew close to her. Her hands found his and climbed to his shoulders, then around his neck. “Please, help me,” she breathed. Her fingers locked around his neck, and he lifted her easily. “Please…”
“All is well, child. You are safe in this house.” He turned to Mary Elizabeth. “Fetch water, and make haste. Get some stew warmed, too. She’s apt to be famished.” He cradled her, pulling her close and making shushing, assuring noises.
The pitcher of water was in the adjacent hallway, and when Mary Elizabeth returned, the Sanchez woman was still clinging weakly to Bermudez. “Shall I send word to the doctor in Millford? She’s bound to have family there, worried about her.”
He nodded absently. “Yes, yes. Good.” He stroked the woman’s hair. “Have some sisters come up and draw a bath. She needs proper rest.”
“Yes, my child?” He pulled back, looking down upon her over his nose.
“What did you call this place?”
“This is Monastery of the Order of St. Jerome, my dear. You’re safe here.”
Color returned to her face. Her eyes looked upon him with an intense, curious light. Mary Elizabeth tensed.
“That’s not what you called it,” the Sanchez woman purred. “Not before. Not when I was talking.”
His forehead wrinkled. He turned to Mary Elizabeth. His face went slack when he saw the look of fear upon the Sister’s face, and when he turned, the Sanchez woman’s eyes were full of darkness.
“You called it your church, you prideful, faithless worm.”
She clawed at him, creating crimson fissures into his cheeks and chin. He bellowed with rage and shoved her back, stumbling and falling hard onto his rump. He ran his hands along his face and glared at the blood staining his fingers and palms. An unintelligible grunt rose from him, mingled with fury and fright. Wide, uncomprehending eyes took up his entire face.
She crawled along the floor, loping and stalking, savage and amused. “In time, you will come to understand that God the Father does not share His churches and His praise with mortals as pitiful as the likes of you.” She twitched, her head turning to the side. Her lips pulled away from her teeth. “Perhaps soon.”
“Begone from this place!” he sputtered, reaching for and failing to find his cross.
“Oh, I think we’re past theatrics. Don’t you, Sister Mary Elizabeth?
Mary Elizabeth felt a scream catch in her throat. The Sanchez woman turned her gaze upon the nun, and the wide smile she’d been offering only to Father Bermudez was upon her, and the Sister felt certain that at any moment her bladder would let go. The woman cackled.
“The darkness is coming. Tonight. This gluttonous imbecile likes to wear his faith like a pretty suit, impressing those that happen to cast eyes upon him. But not you. No, I sense your faith. Your fear is there too, shining like a lone star in a cloudless sky, but your faith is there as well, lurking and prepared. So I warn you again of the darkness. I warn you to be prepared to do what must be done, else it will consume you where you stand.”
Mary Elizabeth swallowed. “I hear you.”
“And now…” the Sanchez woman rumbled, and she launched forward, her claws bared and gleaming, her mouth snarling. “…time for me to cleanse this filthy soul!” She was upon Bermudez, gouging him and spilling more blood, and the Father’s screams echoed in the darkness.
The Sister moved without thinking, her feet carrying her closer to the carnage, and not away, where she wished to be. Mary Elizabeth swung the jug of water with all of her might. It shattered upon the top of the Sanchez woman’s skull, and her shrieks and curses fell silent. She tumbled from the top of Father Bermudez. His scarred, bleeding, sobbing form trembled.
“Get the doctor! And get Father Rosario!” Mary Elizabeth screamed, sending feet scurrying in all directions. She looked upon the Sanchez woman’s prone form, waiting for it to spring to life in all of its cackling madness. “And to hell with ropes! Bring chains!”