Where Angels Die: Episode 1, chapter 2

A preview of my serial in progress.

 

The story so far:

The Summons

Chapter 1: The Taken


 

Chapter 2

A Battle of Souls

 

 

Jandi pressed the dagger harder against the Taken’s throat, drawing a drop of wine-red blood. ‘These monsters destroyed my village.’

‘He’s not a monster,’ the Badger said sharply. ‘He’s a human being. Getting possessed by a demon wasn’t his idea.’

Revel pinned the grey man’s right side, hands on shoulder and thigh, knee on the captive’s wrist. ‘I’m sure you mean well, Badger-brock, but this isn’t exactly the place I’d choose to deal with it.’

The Badger knelt to the grey man’s left. ‘Who said anything about choosing? —Hold his legs, Jandi, and put that toy away. You take the dice the way they fall, Revel. These horses won’t carry a possessed man. Would you kill him in cold blood?’

‘I would,’ Jandi muttered, but the Badger ignored him.

‘Have it your own way,’ said Revel. ‘Fix him if you can. But how will you keep him from going toes-up as soon as the demon is gone? Who’s going to give him his own life back? That’s an Angel’s job, and much as I’d like to say otherwise, I haven’t got one hidden under my cloak.’

The Badger eyed the younger man disapprovingly. ‘What babies the Order is sending out nowadays! Never done it in the field, have you, boy? Put a demon in a nice clean circle in a nice quiet room, with nice neat wards and an Angel standing by, and you can play knucklebones with it and make it jump through hoops. Well, this is how we did it in the last war, and you’ll do plenty more like it in this one. You stand in for the Angel.’

‘Me, an Angel of Life? I’m not even a woman.’

‘Just imagine yourself as the kind of person that you think you are Heaven’s gift to,’ the Badger told him drily. ‘Now listen. The Orders train women for that job because the power comes more natural to them, but that doesn’t mean that a man can’t do it. It’s like being a mother. If a baby’s mother dies, does the father leave the baby to die as well? No, he does the best he can.’

‘Can a man breastfeed a child?’

‘There are ways around that, and there are ways around this job. Do as I tell you, and it will all work out.’

The grey man was beginning to foam at the mouth, and Jandi was losing the battle to restrain his legs from kicking spasmodically. ‘Surin Brock!’ he pleaded.

‘I’m sorry, Jandi. Let’s get on with this. Hold him steady.’ The Badger threw back a corner of his cloak to reveal a battered satchel, hanging from his shoulder by a threadbare canvas strap. He tugged at the buckle till the strap came free, and pawed through the bag, tossing small objects in all directions – bandages, spools of thread, bits of wool and paper, small bottles. ‘Take these scissors, Jandi, we may need to cut his clothes. Quizzing-glass – lodestone – there’s my whetstone, I wondered where that got to. Great Ram! Who packed this thing? No chrism, of course.’

‘You mean this?’ Revel held up a small vial that the Badger had thrown aside in his hasty search.

‘Give me that. No, on second thought, you keep it. And take this.’ The Badger shoved a smooth reddish stone into the younger man’s hand. ‘When I tell you, smear a drop of oil on his forehead, and then touch the stone to the forehead, the lips, and the heart, in that order. Clear? Good. Here we go.’

The Badger cracked his knuckles and took a deep breath while Revel tried to open the vial with one hand. ‘Permit me, Surin,’ said Jandi, twisting the stopper till it came loose. The Taken seized the opportunity to kick Jandi’s shin. A cackle of demonic glee burst from the grey man’s mouth.

‘Stop that,’ the Badger said severely. ‘Hold him still, you two!’

‘Ten thousand pardons, Surin.’

The Badger took a firm grip on his stave just below the jade ram’s head, then bowed his head in a moment of silent prayer. After that, the rite unfolded with a speed that left Revel rather breathless. Done indoors, with Angels and acolytes and a warded circle, an exorcism took the best part of an hour: a sedate affair, unless the demon saw fit to be frisky. This demon was frisky, and there was nothing to restrain it but the Badger’s wit and will, and – Revel dared to hope – a trace of help from Heaven. They would need it.

‘Lord of the Triple Covenant,’ the Badger intoned, ‘hear the words of your servant, Valerian Brock. Ram of Heaven, save your sheep; All-Father, Merciful and Most High, deliver this, your earthborn child, in the hour of his affliction. Send him aid and strength, and restore him to life and freedom: met’ en-arai.’

‘Met’ en-arai,’ the other two repeated.

The Badger thrust the jade ram’s head in the grey man’s face, so close that the Taken had to cross his eyes to see it. The livid lips parted in a devilish rictus, and a hiss of pure hatred came from deep in the man’s throat. Revel let go of his shoulder and grabbed a hank of his long black hair to keep his head still.

‘Behold this sign, unclean spirit, which shall be to you for the Ram of Heaven, and hear the words of his servant. In the name of the Most High, the All-Father, in the name of the Ram, the Deliverer, in the name of the Breath of Heaven, which is light and life and truth in one, I bid you reveal yourself. Spirit, stand forth and be named by the name that is appointed unto you in Deep Heaven.’

The grey man tried to flinch, but only succeeded in jerking his head from side to side in Revel’s grasp. The lips worked soundlessly for some time before a dry, rasping whisper welled up from the man’s chest: ‘Ayaghazda am I, O dog of a priestling, servant of filth, and I deny you. This soul is mine.’ The words did not seem to be formed by the grey man’s lips, which were gaping and writhing in a pattern of their own.

‘Ayaghazda, the Ram of Heaven is nigh, and deliverance is at hand. In the name of the Most High you are answered: now be silent.’ Changing to the Anayan language, he said to the grey man: ‘Man born of woman, Earth-dwelling child of Heaven, hear me and answer. What is thy name called, and for what sin does this unclean thing afflict you?’

The Badger spoke Anayan slowly and haltingly, with an accent that made Jandi bite his bottom lip to keep from laughing; but the man seemed to understand. Almost as slowly, fighting against the will of his possessor, he answered: ‘Lim Nishon my name is called, and – oh, my God and master! Thy servant… is the most wretched of men. My affliction… is just. I have done murder.’

The Badger squeezed Lim’s shoulder with his free hand. ‘Deliverance is born of mercy,’ he said in the kindliest voice he could manage. ‘Whom hast thou slain unjustly?’

‘My child,’ said Lim, squeezing his eyes shut so that the tears ran down towards his ears. ‘My little child, my firstborn daughter. I was a poor man, and could give her no dowry. Life is a cruel gift for a dowerless girl – but oh! not half so cruel as the custom I was called to obey. I took her from her mother’s breast and exposed her—’

His voice failed; his chest heaved, struggling for breath. Again came the dry rasp of the demon: ‘See, O servant of filth. This soul is mine. It is right and just that he be punished. The blood of the innocent is on his hands, and cries out for vengeance in his dreams.’

The Badger took a deep breath and gave Revel a speaking look. ‘I’m going in,’ he said quietly. ‘You know what to do if I fail.’ He closed his eyes and touched the ram’s head to the grey man’s brow.

After that there was a ghastly silence, a stillness worse than the noise of battle, as exorcist and demon fought in the depths of Lim Nishon’s soul. The same pains, the same tears, the same soundless cries for help, formed on the grey man’s mottled face and the Badger’s weatherbeaten one. Then the silence broke. A horrible keening cry burst from the grey man’s mouth, and Valerian Brock came to himself again. His eyes opened, and he said in a clear but quavering voice: ‘Unclean spirit, by your name Ayaghazda, and by the true name that is appointed unto you in Deep Heaven, I command you, your minions and your spawn, and all servants of Hell now afflicting this man. By the Most High I conjure you, by the Ram I adjure you, by the Breath of Heaven I cast you out. Come out!’

The keening rose to an unearthly scream, and about six things, it seemed to Revel, began to happen at once. Black smoke shot out of Lim’s nostrils, as if the demon had just set fire to his innards. His legs jerked and kicked so hard that Jandi was thrown flat on his back in the snow. His head shot forwards, and his jaws snapped at the hand holding the Badger’s stave.

‘Come out!’ the Badger said again, trying to hold the ram’s head steady. ‘You filthy cannibal!’ That was not part of the ritual. ‘Come – now, stop that. He’s biting me, Revel. He’s biting me! He’ll chew my hand off.’

‘Well, and what do you want me to do? Kiss it better?’

‘Pry his mouth open!’

‘Using what for hands?’ Revel was trying to juggle the chrism and the stone in one hand. The other was still clinging to a hank of hair, but it was slowly sliding between his fingers as the grey man’s jaw improved its purchase on the Badger.

‘He’s drawing blood, Revel. Blood is not good, especially when it comes to demons.’

‘Oh, flay me! Stick a finger down his throat, that’ll stop him.’

‘Good idea,’ said the Badger. ‘Only he’s got all my fingers in his teeth. Come on, Revel!’

In desperation the youth popped the vial into his own mouth, trying not to spill the scented oil all over his tongue. He wrapped his last two fingers round the stone, and clamped the thumb and the other two fingers on Lim’s jaw. It was not a good grip, but it was enough to weaken the grey man’s bite. The Badger pulled his hand away, spattering Lim’s face with drops of blood and flakes of lacerated skin.

Revel yanked his hand away and fumbled for the vial again. There was not much liquid left in it by the time he got it out of his mouth. The Badger had lost his place in the ritual, and was yelling over and over, ‘Come out! Come out!’

‘Not by my weakness,’ Revel suggested, then stopped to spit out chrism. The stuff tasted like rancid goose grease with a hint of rotting fruit.

‘I know that,’ the Badger said crossly. ‘Come out! Not by my weakness but by the strength of the All-Father, I say to you, demon, come out! Begone, and depart into the void from whence you came!’

Somehow the words took effect. There was a noise like a small thunderclap, and smoke belched out of Lim Nishon’s mouth. The mottled grey began to fade from his face, replaced by a tired and bloodless brown. A puff of wind carried the smoke away through the falling snow. The screaming stopped, and Lim’s breathing along with it.

‘Quick, Revel! The chrism!’

Lim had gone limp; Revel no longer needed to restrain him. Clutching the vial in one shaking hand and the stone in the other, he splashed the last of the oil all over the unconscious man’s face. He knew he was supposed to say something. The Angel of Life always said something in this part of the ritual; he could not remember what. His mind was a jumble of words and gestures and awful-tasting oil, and it wasn’t fair. He had never had to say the Angel’s lines before, and the rite had gone so wrong, he couldn’t even remember how far along they were.

‘With this chrism,’ the Badger prompted him, wringing his bitten hand. ‘With this chrism, Revel!’

‘Oh! With this chrism, um. Ah. Chrism. With this chrism I anoint you, Lim—’

‘Nishon,’ said Jandi, who was back in the fray and bearing down hard on the man’s legs. ‘Lim Nishon.’

‘Lim Nishon, to, er, to new life and new freedom. The deliverance of the Ram be upon you, lamb of his flock, Earth-dwelling child of Heaven.’ He fumbled to switch the stone into his right hand and the empty vial into his left. Somehow he did not seem to have enough fingers for the job, but after what seemed like hours, he managed it. ‘Soul and spirit and flesh’ – he touched the stone to Lim’s oily forehead, his mouth, his chest still partly wrapped in torn and shabby furs. ‘Awake to the gift of Heaven, um, and the mercy of the Most High.’

‘All right, now kiss him,’ said the Badger.

‘Kiss him!’ Revel echoed. ‘Are you crazy?’

‘As the attending Angel, it’s your job to give him the first breath of his new life.’

Revel made a face. ‘I can’t.’

The Badger answered by making a fist. ‘If you don’t, your lips will never kiss again.’

Revel bent over Lim’s supine form and put his mouth against the man’s lips. They tasted like sour cabbage and rotting teeth, with the Badger’s blood and skin mixed in. He felt sure he would throw up in Lim’s mouth, but somehow he managed to breathe into it instead. ‘Ugh,’ Revel pleaded, turning away to spit out the taste.

Lim’s eyes fluttered open for a moment. A bewildered expression crossed his face, followed by a look of infinite weariness. He drew a slow, shallow breath, just enough to utter a single word: ‘Lumi.’ He sighed, and his head fell back in the snow.

Revel watched over him while the others rounded up the horses. He built a fire out of twigs and woody shrubs, boiled some water for Lim to drink, wrapped him in a saddle blanket to keep him from freezing. While the others stood guard, Revel fed the unconscious man broth infused with herbs, trying to strengthen the frail cord of his life. He recited prayers and incantations, trying to remember the Angel’s part in the after-rite; somehow it was not as clear in his memory as the bright eyes and carmine lips of the Angels themselves. He must have got some of it right, for he felt himself turn dizzy; his own life-force was pouring out of him, and some of it, he thought, was finding its way into Lim’s body. Some, but not enough. He was weakening fast, and Lim did not seem to be growing any stronger. He did all he knew how, but in that cold and cheerless place, exposed to the wind of the demons’ own winter, it was not nearly enough.

So Lim Nishon died. But not as one of the Taken, a grey man, a demon’s prey; simply as himself. A thin little man in tattered furs, a peasant from the hill-country in the north of Anai, torn from his home and his kin to serve an evil will that was not his own.

Revel felt his face twisting as he fought back tears. ‘We failed,’ he said dully. ‘I failed.’

The Badger laid a hand on his shoulder. ‘We never had a chance. The demon’s hold was too strong. He let it – he really believed he deserved it. I think it took part of his soul when it went. Don’t blame yourself, Revel. You’re no Angel, but you’ve got nothing to be ashamed of.’

The words were kindly meant, but they seemed to burn like acid in Revel’s ears. He was supposed to do better. What good was it to throw a demon out of a man’s mind if the man ended up dead?

All that was too painful to talk about; but he felt the need to say something. Anything. ‘Lumi,’ he said. ‘I don’t know that word. What does it mean?’

‘A flower that grows on the Mount of Cedars,’ said Jandi. ‘Perhaps that was the name of his daughter. Come, Surin. The ground is frozen too hard to bury him, and we have far to go.’

‘I hate the thought of leaving him like this.’

‘The demons only hunt living prey,’ said the Badger. ‘He’s safer than we are now. If we don’t make Sai Jilon before dark, they’ll Take us for sure.’


 

Next: The Food of Demons

 

Comments

  1. I have the perma-subscription but for some reason I didn’t get a notification about this one. Rest assured, we are watching!

    Well done, the dialogue is clever and entertains at the same time it exposes. A couple minor notes – the section near the beginning in which Badger tries to convince Revel to do his substitute job drags on with just one too many lines of repartee, I think: maybe not for Revel, but certainly for Badger, who seems like a tough, alert type and wouldn’t waste the time to explain things Revel already knew or make fun of him, in the cold in enemy territory with miles to go and night falling. The way “normal” exorcisms are done could be cut, that becomes clear later in the chapter, and the stuff about mothers I think could be dropped as well.

    And you mention the strap of the satchel and then him tugging the strap loose. I know that this refers to two different bits of strap but still, I mentally tripped over it. Just so you know.

    Pardon my presumption. As someone who’s bit my nails waiting for commentary myself, I know that useful advice is better than empty praise.

    The tone of this story seems quite dark, and after this chapter I’m a little nervous about the title… I am enjoying the ride and look forward to seeing what comes next!

  2. I meant to comment on this when I read it, but got carried away from it. Powerful, heartfelt, warm, and scary at the same time.

  3. Solid piece of writing, this.

    Keep going; you certainly know what you’re doing!

    (In other words: WEEE!!!)

    -T

  4. Andrew Brew says:

    Mr. Simon,

    This is very good, and I will look forward to checking back here often. The initial letter served well as a setter of the scene, and the balance since between revelation and action seems about right (giving so much framing material in the the midst of a messy field exorcism is no small feat – I salute you!). There is just one small point that nags at me, and that is your use of “stave” in the singular. It is used that way in music, but the usual form for a stick or baton is sing. “staff” and pl. “staves”. I am certain you do not do it carelessly, but your reasoning is not clear to me. Or is it my own ignorance over which I am tripping?

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