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Sever the Wicked, Part II: Demon Dust

When Father Clemont awoke, he was floating above St. Paul's church. Looking down at its sloped roof, his first thought was that the shingles would probably need to be replaced soon. Then his brain finished processing what was actually happening, but he did not flail. Instead, a strange calm washed over him.

This was it.

His ticker must have finally given out. The doctors had warned him, of course, but give up red meat? Watch saturated fat? No pizza? Screw that. He'd stuck it out with the vow of celibacy: something had to give, somewhere.

He sighed, wondering what would happen next. He'd always assumed that when you went, you just kind of ... teleported to where you were supposed to go. Beam me up, Scotty. Though he supposed for some folks it was more like, Beam me down, Satan.

He frowned, staring at the shingles on the roof. They had another couple years on them, but who was really going to take care of the church without him around? It wasn't like people were lining up to join the priesthood anymore. The diaconate, sure, but those guys usually had families and kids. They understood what it meant to take the church in as your family, but most of them didn't understand how important that became when you didn't have anything else.

Father Clemont sighed. He wanted to tap his foot against something, but it just wriggled in the empty air. He was surprised to see he still had all his clothes on. Did that mean he had to wear this scratchy collar for the rest of eternity?

He passed a few minutes entertaining such thoughts until an especially terrifying one occurred - what if he was stuck? What if this was limbo? What if it was just him and his thoughts, forever?

The more he considered it, the more it actually sounded like Hell. Beam me down, Satan!

He was starting to get really anxious when he felt a gentle tugging behind his navel, as if he'd been snagged by some ethereal fishhook. The force spun him smoothly around so that he was facing the sky, which seemed to stretch on forever, in a way he'd never appreciated when he was back down on Earth. Dreary clouds slouched along, none of them threatening rain, although there was an ominous stretch of thunderheads racing out of the west.

He worried for a moment about his outfit getting wet. Then he remembered he was dead.

The fishhook tugged a little more urgently against his navel -- certainly not uncomfortable, but definitely more noticeable than it'd been a moment before. The ground beneath him began to sink away a little more quickly. He would've been yakking, if he still had guts. Regardless, the sensation was still unsettling. Before long, he was moving fast enough that it was hard to get a breath. He thought it was odd that he was still breathing. Maybe it took a while to kick a sixty-ish year old habit?

Up and up he raced, the fishhook now definitely pulling at his flesh, eliciting sharp pains each time a blast of wind from the approaching storm buffeted the priest's incorporeal form. He fumbled around his potbelly, hoping to find some unseen filament, but stopped when 'I feel like an idiot' started to outweigh 'I'm going to find this thing' in his mind.

A plane zoomed by beneath him. He had just enough time to wonder whether it was on approach to Midway before his body punched through the clouds. But when he did, he did not see pleasant blue skies, as one does sometimes when flying.

In fact, Father Clemont did not see any sky, because the entire expanse of the heavens was covered by one enormous, unblinking eye, and he was flying right toward it.

He could not tell whether it was lidless or set into some impossibly large face, or what color the iris might have been. His brain had ceased processing all rational thought in favor of hysterical screaming and seeking any possible means of escape, because if this was God, if this was how one passed into Heaven, anything else seemed preferable.

Beam me down, Satan!

He fumbled again for the fishhook but of course found nothing. His eyes were watering from the speed of his approach. Just when he thought the fishhook in his navel might rip him in half, he heard a small pop that seemed to echo through the heavens, which were eerily silent except for his worthless screams and pounding heartbeat. Dimly aware of the dissipating pain in his navel, he wondered if the fishhook had been more like a slingshot.

In the face of what increasingly appeared to be his impending annihilation, Father Clemont wanted to bellow something witty or perhaps even cutting at the unblinking, uncaring eye awaiting him in the heavens, but all that came out of his mouth were froth and gibberish. Time dilated as he entered its pupil, which was so vast that he only realized he was inside it when he looked over his shoulder and saw that Earth had become a little pinhole of light. After a moment, it winked out, and he was alone, babbling to himself in the darkness.

Finally, abruptly, he slammed into something cold, solid, and smooth; it felt like polished stone. Before he could get any purchase, knobby fingers clutched his shoulders and yanked back. He heard chomping, lips smacking, and bones crunching, but he had no screams left.

This was good, because when he opened his eyes once more, Mrs. Kowalski was crouched in front of him, picking pieces of Werther's out of her molars with a shaking hand. She held up a small bag.

"Piece of candy, Father?"

He swallowed thickly and wiped sweat from his brow. "Thank you, Mrs. Kowalski, but I'm going to pass for now. What ... what are you doing here?" He was surprised to hear he sounded like himself, and not someone who’d just had their sanity obliterated.

"Oh, I left my shawl in the confessional." Clemont's heart leapt. Maybe the whole thing had been a bad dream. Maybe he'd just passed out in the confessional, and she'd dragged him over here by the altar.

"How long was I out?"

"About three hours," she said. "We tried to wake you so you could cancel Mass, but you were out cold."

Clemont thought about this. "Did I ... did I scream?" Mrs. Kowalski quirked a silvery brow.

"No."

"Well, that's -- wait, 'we'?"

"Revka," the old woman said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. "That sweet incorruptible girl from the coffin. We stood outside the church and told everyone it was off-limits, that something had gone wrong with the renovation."

His heart sank. It was real. All of it.

Frick.

"Everyone believed you?" he finally asked.

"The young lady can be ... very convincing. Which reminds me -- " She broke off, raising her head and calling over his shoulder. "Revka!" Then Mrs. Kowalski rattled off something in Polish that sounded almost musical despite the natural weight of the language. After decades of halting, perfect English, Clemont couldn't believe his ears.

The young nun's response sounded pleasant - chipper, even. It was a stark contrast against whatever she'd said to the demon before liberating its head from its shoulders.

Father Clemont leaned to the side so that he was looking down the aisle. There, near the midway point, was Revka, pushing a broom that was absolutely covered in demon dust. Mixed into the pile were what looked like human bones.

Clemont blanched. Did the demon's bones actually just look human, or had it possessed some wayward soul and used their body as its plaything? He supposed the cops wouldn't even approach that level of depth with their questioning and set the matter aside in favor of thinking about whether he'd ingratiated himself with any lawyers over the years.

He couldn't think of any in the brief time it took Revka to set the broom gently aside, pick up her cane, and stride toward them. Clemont forced himself to stand; to his pleasant surprise, his knees only wobbled slightly.

"Thank you for you help me in before time, Father," she said, bowing slightly. Something waggled near her forehead, and Clemont realized a few errant auburn curls had snuck out of her coif. The color suited her, he thought, watching her fish something out of her habit and present it to him.

Cupped in her upturned palms was the crucifix he'd used to burn the demonic stranger. He plucked it gingerly from her hands, frowning as he remembered breaking the chain mid-combat.


Glancing around the church, he supposed his chain had gotten off easy. Several pews were cracked and splintered: they would've looked less out-of-place barricading a door in a zombie movie. The lectern had gotten scorched, somehow. The candelabra he'd bonked the demon with was now a twisted heap of steel in the center aisle. There was so much more - but when Clemont realized Revka was still speaking, he stopped cataloging and started listening.

"What you did before time," she was saying, "With ... here --" She brought a hand up to her neck and made a hissing sound. "That not work if you not powerful believe. Demon would, uh ..." She trailed off, then mimed chewing on her arm. "They like the marrow," she added, smiling sweetly.

Clemont fought back a snort. As if he'd done anything of true value. He didn't know whether to shake her hand or ask for her blessing - without her, they'd be finding rotten little priest chunks for weeks. Thankfully, instinct took over: he made the sign of the cross in front of her, and the young woman deepened her bow as she received the blessing.

"Thank you, Father," she said. "I appreciate."

Clemont shook his head. "I'm the one who needs to thank you. And since when do you speak English?" She’d shouted something at him during the brief battle with the stranger – a language he now recognized as some form of Polish, entirely different from the one she’d spoken to the demon.

"I pray to God that I can speak on you," she said. "Tongue of fire come down, like Apostles. God give me okay English. Better soon."

He glanced at Mrs. Kowalski, who was already crunching on a new caramel. She nodded. "I could barely understand her at first, but I knew it was Polish hiding in there. Now we're ... oh, what does my little Hailey call it? Oh! Bee-eff-effs," she said, with nearly a full second of pause between each letter. Then she glanced at Revka, rolled her eyes, and said something in Polish. The young nun burst into a pleasant, melodic laughter that reminded him of his sister's grandkids.

He couldn't help but smile. Revka, seeing this, immediately clamped her hands over her mouth. She was able to stifle her laughter, but her cheeks remained flushed.

"So, Revka -- may I call you Revka?"

"Is fine."

Clemont nodded. "This business with that..." he trailed off for a moment, not quite able to make himself say ‘demon’ out loud. "What exactly happened here?"

Mrs. Kowalski coughed. Clemont turned and was surprised to see her looking somewhat nervous. "What did I say?"

"You might want to sit down, Father."

“After all this, I’m not sure I’ve got any shock left.” But even then, the battle with the stranger was nothing compared to that awful eye in the sky.

“Suit yourself.” Mrs. Kowalski glanced back at Revka. "Sorry, dear. Go ahead."

The young nun nodded. "God's creation very bad sin." Clemont frowned. That didn't really help him get a sense of the problem’s scope - sin was kind of humanity's thing, as the kids liked to say.

"Are we talking like Sodom and Gomorrah, or do I need to learn how to measure in cubits?" Revka shook her head.

"What mean ‘cubits’?"

"Sorry," Clemont sighed. "Ignore it. It's been a long day, and I'm getting a bit punchy." He made a show of locking his lips and throwing away the key, and the resurrected nun nodded.

"Sin make boundary weak," she said.

"Boundary?"

Revka held a hand flat out in front of her. She pointed to the space under her palm. "This Hell." She pointed to the empty space above her knuckles. "This here." With her other hand, she took her index finger and he began poking at her downturned palm.

"Like this," she said. "They planning bigtime attack. Pope splat, people, uh ..." She raised her arm as if to chew on it again.

"Pope splat?" Clemont asked, incredulous. Revka nodded.

How could this be? It sounded ludicrous, but he hadn’t anticipated meeting an in-the-flesh demon when he put on his collar that morning, either. And why here – why him, in this sleepy little shit-kicker southern Illinois town? Before he could wade any further into self-pity, Mrs. Kowalski rattled something off to Revka in Polish.

"Ah," Revka said. "I am apologize. I mistake.”

“Mistake?” For a moment, the tremendous weight on Clemont’s shoulders seemed to lighten. “That’s totally –"

“-- I mean say, Hell's army am already attack."

A dry wheeze escaped Clemont’s mouth. His legs abruptly gave out, and he fell backward onto his ass.

"See?" muttered Mrs. Kowalski. "Told you to sit. But don’t do it down there. Let’s walk to Dom Babci: I need to eat so I can take my back pills, and I’m dying for a smoke.”

“Dom Babci?” Clemont looked up at her, nonplussed. “How can you think about pierogi at a time like this?”

“She right,” Revka said. They both turned to look at her, and the nun shrugged. “What? Pierogi always make everything better.”



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