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Sever the Wicked, Part IV: Egression

Father Clemont’s ass was sore.

Again.

And they were still only halfway across the Atlantic.

The dull ache around his wrist wasn’t helping things either, but that was another matter entirely. As soon as he thought about his wrist, the little creature coiled around it pressed its fangs deeper into his flesh. The priest grunted. It felt like the damned thing was scraping against his bones.

At least the Bailey’s was taking the edge off. Even at seven dollars a pop, Mrs. Kowalski had given them enough cash for two lifetimes of overpriced cordials. Clemont brought his latest mini-bottle up to his lips with a shaking hand, drained it, then tried to find a place for it in the rapidly-expanding graveyard on his seatback table.

He couldn’t help but wonder if he’d find himself in the graveyard before everything was said and done. Sighing, he glanced over at Revka, eager for any help pushing the unwelcome notion from his mind.

The nun had her seatback table down, but it was empty except for the old iPod Touch he’d given her before they left Perkins. She’d bought a little tripod for it on their way through the terminal, along with a baggy sweatshirt that proudly proclaimed her love for Chicago. Eager to change out of her habit for the first time in centuries, she’d also procured some sweatpants and a pair of Crocs.

“Are you sure you’ll be comfortable wearing pants?” he’d asked her at the checkout, which prompted a snort.

“Are you joking on me? Only for the last century can women wear the pants. When I saw this on my wanderings, I could not wait to try them.”

Purchasing the outfit did have the additional benefit of giving them something else to put into the little reusable grocery bag that held Mrs. Kowalski’s cash. Her cane was leaned up against the window, and her combination crucifix/dagger still hung around her neck. It was a miracle that no one in security had thought to double-check it, but then again, it had been a day of unlikely occurrences.

As a result of all her shopping, the eternal spiritual warrior sitting next to Clemont only needed a frappuccino to blend in on a college campus without anyone batting an eye.

The notion triggered a small pang in his belly. In another world, he might have been an over-the-hill dad taking his daughter for the first of her college visits and fretting about the second mortgage he’d have to take out to finance her education. Instead, he was an increasingly-saggy priest whose overindulgence on Bailey’s was making him maudlin, and who might have to betray the young woman at his side at the behest of a demon.

The little creature wrapped around his wrist shifted its fangs at the thought. Clemont sucked in a deep breath and pushed the stewardess call button. Revka, her hair tied up in a tight bun, looked over.

“Really, Father? Another?”

“I hate flying,” he mumbled. “What are you watching?” Revka looked back at the screen.

“This one is called The Matrix.” Grinning, she held up her hands in a mock martial arts pose. “I know kung fu.”

The old priest chuckled. Had he been a bit soberer, he might have noticed the pain in his wrist receding slightly.

“Good God, you haven’t even been back for twenty-four hours and I’ve already exposed you to cable news, junk food, and pulpy action noir,” he said. “What else have you watched?”

“One called Dredd and another called The Raid. Next is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

Clemont nodded. No wonder she’d been so quiet for most of their trip. It could be worse, he reasoned - she could have come across his folder of Hallmark Christmas movies.

“Ready for me to take these for you, sir?”

Clemont rolled his head over to look up at the flight attendant. She was beautiful, moreso than he remembered, with a buxom build that was only barely restrained by her outfit. He was surprised to see her smoking a cigarette.

“I thought you couldn’t do that on planes,” he said.

“Oh, baby, I do what I want.” She took a deep drag and blew the smoke in Clemont’s face. It curled around him, enveloping him in a thick cloud that refused to dissipate, no matter how hard he waved his hands. Suddenly the full weight of his mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion hit him: his head drooped forward, and he had to fight to hold it upright.

“What did you do to me?” he asked, rubbing his eyes with his fingers. When he opened them again, the buxom woman had been replaced by a skeleton. The uniform, now tattered and grimy, hung loosely from its bones.

“I’m sending you back,” it hissed. “We lost sight of you for a while there, priest - let’s see what you’ve been up to…”

The creature attached to his wrist seemed to stiffen in anticipation. Too late, Clemont realized that the little demon which could sense his thoughts probably had access to his memories. It would enable them to see everything: Perkins, the church, his congregation.

Mrs. Kowalski.

“No!” Clemont tried to get out of his seat but the buckle drew itself tight around his waist.

“Oh yes.” The skeleton leaned down and blew another puff of smoke at him from between its chipped teeth. How it had taken a drag with no lungs was beyond Clemont, but that didn’t matter for long: everything suddenly felt like it was in freefall. Clemont shut his watering eyes and was about to say a quick prayer when everything stopped. Clemont opened his eyes and found himself standing outside his sedan. He’d parked by the Carbondale Amtrak station, which was little more than a black silhouette outlined against the hellfire orange of the rising sun.

The demon had made good on its promise.

Clemont tried to smack himself awake, but it was no good: his arms resisted the movement as if bound by marionette strings, doomed to relive the past exactly as he’d lived it the first time.

He jumped as the sedan’s rear door chukk-ed open behind him.

Their little trio, who’d been pretty chatty up to that point, had had a quiet ride from Perkins up to Carbondale. In Revka’s case, Clemont attributed it to the astonishing amount of cola she’d drank at the pierogi restaurant. For Mrs. Kowalski, he couldn’t quite put his finger on the problem until she started climbing out of the backseat. As she gripped the doorframe, Clemont realized that, for the first time since he’d met her, she really looked her age. When he reached out a hand to help, she batted it away.

“I’m fine,” she grumbled. “Just get your bag.”

Not wanting to press the issue, Clemont went to the trunk and retrieved his carry-on. Packing the little rolling bag with a few changes of clothes, his toiletries, and various priestly accoutrements as if this were some vacation had seemed ridiculous, but he hadn’t known what else to do. The past twenty-four hours had been anything but normal; maybe he’d been craving some normalcy in the one thing he’d been able to directly control since the stranger had walked into his church.

When he closed the trunk, Revka and Mrs. Kowalski were waiting on the curb. The old woman was holding out a reusable shopping bag full of cash she’d retrieved from coffee cans buried in her yard.

“You didn’t have to do this,” Clemont said, gently taking the bag.

“Neither do you,” muttered Mrs. Kowalski. Clemont couldn’t stop himself from smirking.

“Is this why you’ve been so ornery? You told me to go.”

“That doesn’t mean I have to be happy about it!” Before the nonplussed Clemont could react, Mrs. Kowalski wrapped him in a tight hug. She smelled vaguely of cigarettes and fabric softener. Just as he was about to reciprocate, she broke the embrace, gripping his forearms with her bony fingers and meeting his gaze. “Just come back safe. You still have work to do in Perkins.”

Clemont’s smirk grew into a smile. “Who else is going to hold the gum thieves accountable to God?”

Mrs. Kowalski let out a sound that was half laugh, half sob, then turned to Revka. “Don’t you get him killed. Or chewed up. Or whatever the Hell it is these demons want.”

The nun tapped the tip of her cane on the concrete, pressing her lips into a thin line. She finally huffed a little sigh. “I will try,” she said, not bringing her eyes up until the words had left her mouth.

Mrs. Kowalski took a step toward her. “You better do more than try, young lady.”

Revka managed a terse smile. “I will try hard.”

The words seemed to echo around in Clemont’s head, which suddenly felt very heavy once again. Everything started to swirl until it was one big black-and-orange blur. When it came to a stop, Clemont’s head lolled around on his shoulders. He wondered if this was how Raggedy Andy felt.

Someone was asking if he was alright. Was he back on the airplane? He got flashes of sunlight as he tried to steady himself from spinning out. When he came to again, he was seated across from Revka on the train, headed north. She was leaning across the gap.

“Father,” she began. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” Clemont said, forcing himself to sit up straight. He dragged his palms over his face. “Sorry, Revka. This is just a lot for an old man like me.”

“God will give us strength to see this through.”

Clemont scoffed. “Aren’t I supposed to be the one encouraging you?” The young nun shrugged in response. “How come you want to go back to Prague, anyway? I thought you couldn’t feel any of the other Sisters anymore.”

“I can’t,” Revka admitted, turning to watch the fields roaring by outside the window. “It just feels like the right thing to do.” Reflected in the glass, Clemont saw her scrunch her face up for a moment, as if fighting back tears. “I don’t know what else to do, or who to turn to.” She turned to him, her face bathed in the golden glow of sunrise. In that moment, she really did look incorruptible. “You and Mrs. Kowalski are the only people I can trust.”

Somewhere outside his cordial-and-Hellspawn-addled dream, the creature around his wrist redoubled its grip. He was vaguely aware of a sound like a wounded animal growling in pain, then realized it was himself in the waking world. The train seemed to shudder for a moment, its lights flickering. If Revka noticed, she gave no indication.

“For as much as I’m worth, I’m here for you,” Clemont heard himself say, smiling. A smile scurried across Revka’s face, only for it to dim once more. Now it was Clemont’s turn to sit forward. “What is it, Revka?”

The nun looked back out the window. “Before I slept, there was … situation. A disagreement with Mother Superior. I am not sure how she will receive me.”

Clemont’s first reaction was that prayer was the only way Revka was going to get closure on a centuries-old dispute, but he kept that to himself. “What do you mean, receive you?”

“In my time, Mother Superior was a powerful warrior. The strongest of us all. She meant me to be her apprentice, but she caught me in sin, and decided I was to be put to rest instead.”

The idea of Revka being caught in any kind of sin seemed somehow more alien than anything he’d experienced that day, but Clemont had to remind himself that she, like him, was a human; an imperfect vessel prone to temptation. So the priest offered her what he would’ve for any other human who seemed to have the weight of sin on their heart.

“Do you, uh … do you want to confess, Revka?”

The nun shook her head. “I …” Revka trailed off, her eyes still fixed on the corn fields blurring past. She looked like she was about to speak several times, then finally just shook her head and pulled out the iPod Touch.

Clemont took the hint and sat back in his chair, letting his gaze wander over the rolling farm fields of southern Illinois. That was when the realization hit him.

“Son of a bitch!”

Revka looked up. “What’s wrong, Father?”

Clemont balled up his fist and pounded it on the armrest. “We could’ve probably flown out of St. Louis!”

Then the train’s lights flickered again, and hands erupted out the back of his chair, grasping, clutching, pulling him into the fabric.

“Revka!” he cried. “Help me!”

But Revka stared at the iPod touch, her face impassive. Darkness enveloped the priest, and for a brief, terrifying moment, he was alone in space. Or was he back inside the enormous eyeball he’d seen in the sky above Perkins? The idea made him want to heave.

A voice echoed out of the inky depths. “…know he’s in there somewhere…”

“Yes!” he wanted to cry out. “Yes! I’m right here!” But the words wouldn’t come. Instead, he was tumbling once more, hurtling out of the sky like a meteor toward O’Hare airport.

“No!” he screamed. “No! God, please - anything but O’Hare! Not again!”

But his pleas fell on deaf ears, and as the darkness cleared, he was in the security line with Revka. Glancing around, he wondered if the line to get into Heaven looked anything like this, although Heaven didn’t seem like the kind of place where lines would be a thing.

By the same logic, there was probably a line to get into Hell.

Beam me down, Scotty!

“Sorry, Revka,” he sighed, rubbing his temples between his thumb and middle finger. “What was it you were asking?”

“I was asking what is business class,” she said.

Clemont smirked. “It’s the only way I’m going to survive twelve hours-plus in an airplane.”

Everything after the train ride had been duck soup, even purchasing the tickets. The sun was shining on their walk from Union Station to the Clinton Street L stop, and there were no delays on the way to the airport. Mrs. Kowalski had loaned Revka her ID card, and by this point, Clemont was no longer surprised when the woman behind the ticket counter looked right at Revka and wished Sister Kowalski a pleasant flight, even as she counted out several stacks of hundred-dollar bills. There had, of course, even been a flight to Prague with two business class seats available that very afternoon, which gave them plenty of time to get through security.

Except for the TSA line itself, which apparently even God either couldn’t or wouldn’t disperse on their behalf, even their security screening had gone smoothly. Revka’s various weapons raised no alarms, and several guards handled the bag of Kowalski’s cash without even batting an eye. Clemont, who’d forgotten to remove some loose change from his pocket, was randomly selected for additional screening.

“I hate flying,” he grumbled some fifteen minutes later, forcing his shoes back onto his feet. Revka offered no comment but tapped her cane on the tiled floor to a rhythm only she could hear. Once he was situated, the priest stood back up, a vague sense of anxiety gripping his gut: their trip had been almost alarmingly uneventful so far. Outside of a Super Bowl squares pool he ran for priests at a few other parishes, Clemont wasn’t a gambling man - but he wouldn’t have bet that him and Revka being on the move would’ve deterred the forces of Hell. Maybe the demons didn’t want to draw too much attention in a crowd? He couldn’t square it - but he wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth.

And so Clemont got a little careless.

“So - you want something to eat?”

Revka shook her head and pointed to a nearby gift store. “I would like to see what is sweatshirt. I am ready for change of clothes, I think.”

“All right. I think I’m going to hit the bathroom - I’ll see you back here.” Revka nodded, walking off with the bag of cash. Aside from the fact that it’d apparently been divinely camouflaged, she was the obvious choice to guard it. Clemont made his way deeper into the terminal, his little roller bag squeaking along behind him. It was worth going out of his way for a bathroom that was a bit cleaner. The crowds began to thin a bit, and through the window, he could see a few lazy clouds rolling in front of the sun.

When he found a bathroom with a large yellow cleaning banner across it, he felt awfully clever. Ducking beneath the fabric, he was pleased to find that he had the place to himself. If it’d been a little darker outside, he might have noticed the flickering lights, but instead, he sidled up to one of the urinals.

As soon as he’d finished his business, he heard a low growling behind him. But before he could turn around, an enormous hand gripped his neck, smashing him into the tile wall. The skin was calloused, deep crimson, and warmer than a human’s - but not uncomfortably so, to Clemont’s surprise.

“Jesus Christ,” Clemont groaned. His breath fogged the tiles as he spoke. “What is it with you guys and bathrooms?”

The demon’s low chuckle rumbled through Clemont’s body like a rolling pin filled with hot needles.

“Simple, priest: humans are at their most vulnerable whenever something’s leaving their body. And at least I let you finish.”

Something was different about this demon than the others he’d faced. Clemont knew it as certainly as he knew that Revka wouldn’t be coming to save him. Not this time.

“Who are you? What do you want?”

“You think I would tell you my true name? You’re even more foolish than you look. Call me Naranth. My proposition is simple: you help me, and I’ll let you live. I’m getting tired of finding new hosts for my lieutenants to re-posses every time that little bitch cuts them down.”

Clemont managed a strained laugh, which the demon cut short by smashing him back against the wall.

“Why would I help you?”

“Because your little nun isn’t who you think she is.”

“Who is she?”

“She’s not going to save the world. She and her ilk are going to end it.”

“That doesn’t make any sense. You’re the ones who want to end the world.”

“End it? We want a debauched bacchanalia of bloodshed and chaos. We can’t have that if everything’s gone.” The demon chuckled again. “If you don’t believe me, ask her about the Vault of Sorrows. See if she’ll tell you what’s inside.”

“I’m not going to help you.” Clemont struggled against the demon’s grip, but it was futile. He took a deep breath and summoned all his petty courage. “You might as well just kill me.”

“Too easy, priest. Too easy. You’re going to help me whether you want to or not.” Clemont felt a hot breath on his shoulder. He still couldn’t see the demon’s form, but he knew something had slithered out of its mouth, and cried out as he felt its cool, slimy skin against his.

“What is that?!”

The demon only chuckled in response. The thing wound its way down Clemont’s arm, shrinking as it crawled, until it finally wrapped itself around his wrist and sank its fangs into the skin. The world seemed to spin, and Clemont heard that far-away screaming again.

“You’re probably thinking you can run to the sister and ask for help. But you should know better than most that she won’t hesitate to cut you down if she thinks you’re corrupted.” The demon actually laughed, and the sound reminded Clemont of the stranger back in his church. It felt like several lifetimes had passed since Revka awoke. “So good luck with that. Besides, no one will be able to see my little friend except for you. All you need to know is that it will strike when you think the nun is most vulnerable. Without her, the Sisterhood cannot hope to succeed.”

“You know what, Naranth?” Clemont rasped. “Fuck you.”

The huge demon snarled and pulled Clemont off the tile wall. The last thing he remembered was the tiles rushing back toward his face.

He screamed, flailing his arms and sitting up. He was back on the airplane, sprawled out in the aisle. Evidently, at some point, he’d fallen out of his seat. Revka was leaning over the chair, her eyes wild with fear.

“Father!” she cried out. “You’re awake! Are you all right?”

Clemont groaned. Passengers all over were staring at him. A stewardess was leaning over in front of him, but she was looking over his shoulder. “Do you want me to get him anything?”

“He’s fine,” came a deep voice behind Clemont. He turned to see a man crouched behind him, closing up a medical bag. “Just a bit of air sickness. I see it all the time on these long flights.” The doctor looked down at Clemont and adjusted his spectacles. As he did, Clemont could see deep, black pits where his eyes were supposed to be. The lights all around them flickered, but no one, even Revka, seemed to notice. “My guess is you’re under a lot of stress, huh, Father?”

Somehow Clemont kept himself from screaming. Did the demon curled around his arm allow him to recognize its compatriots? As his nephew would have said, he couldn’t tell if that was a bug or a feature, though he suspected it wasn’t something Naranth intended.

“Yes. Lots of stress,” Clemont croaked, looking back at the stewardess. “Miss, if you don’t mind … I think I’ll switch to Coke.”

Before long, he’d gotten himself reseated, the doctor retreated to whatever black pit he’d crawled out of, and the gawkers had gone back to their various electronic devices. Revka, however, was still staring at him.

Clemont adjusted the sleeve of his coat that concealed the little demon. He still couldn’t bring himself to take the word of a demon that no one else could see it.

“Are you sure you’re okay, Father? You are acting … weird,” she said.

“I’m fine. It’s just been a long day, you know? Lots on my mind.”

Revka nodded, and a comfortable silence blossomed between them. Some twenty minutes later, Clemont broke it.

“Revka?” he asked, his voice shaking.

The young nun looked up from the iPod Touch. “What is it, Father?”

“I …” he trailed off. The words were there, but they wouldn’t come out. It should’ve been so easy to ask about the Vault of Sorrows. Was the creature on his wrist holding him back? Or had something Naranth said found a toehold in his mind?

He sighed. Friggin’ demons.

“Nothing, I … I just wish we’d flown out of Saint Louis. We could have probably already been to Prague by now.”

Revka smiled the kind, sweet smile a college-bound daughter might give her doting but well-meaning father.

“It’s all right, Father Clemont,” she said. “We’ll get there.”

Clemont swallowed. The saliva was thick in his mouth.

“Yes,” he said. “I suppose we will.”



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