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Sever the Wicked, Part V: Homecoming

As he walked into the main concourse at Václav Havel International Airport, Father Clemont remembered he didn’t know the first word of Czech. Czechoslovakian? Czech Republican? He sighed.

This was going to be a rough trip.

On the bright side, his concerns about Revka's inability to find her convent vanished when she stepped off the plane. It was like she’d reconnected with something deep inside: she moved through the terminal with decisiveness and confidence. Hustling behind her, Clemont felt vestigial, like a pudgy, flesh-colored rolling luggage bag.

After exchanging their American cash for korunas, they found a spot to hail a cab. Revka seemed to have a homing beacon for the convent, but Clemont didn’t want to risk zipping past it on a train ride. So, Revka ducked in and slid over to make room for Clemont.

The driver barked a question that the priest assumed meant “Where to?” but Clemont could only shrug and smile amiably in return. When Revka spoke, the driver did a double-take but did not question the directive.

And just like that, they were off.

As their taxi zoomed through town after town with names Father Clemont had no hope of pronouncing, he realized how quiet Revka had gotten. But each time he tried to make conversation, she gave only one-word responses, her eyes focused on something far away. Clemont knew it was the convent, but he didn’t press the issue. What had happened there to make her clam up?

When they reached the town, a storm was rolling in over the distant foothills, partially obscuring the afternoon sun. Clemont paid the driver, who sped off as soon as the door was closed, spattering both of them with jagged little pebbles from the unpaved road.

“What’s eating him?” he asked.

“Demons, if we don’t keep moving,” Revka said, shaking her head. “In my time, people were superstitious about this town, too. Funny how some things do not change.”

Clemont turned, taking a good look at the town. The village was uncannily quaint, like someone had asked a computer program to draw an idyllic hamlet in the foothills. Except for a few modern giveaways - cars dotted the streets, and he could see a Starbucks further up the path - the town appeared utterly unaltered since before Revka took her long sleep. How had it survived seven centuries of European strife unscathed?

The answer, he knew, sat atop the hill. Even from here, the convent was an imposing, fortress-like structure that projected itself over the town in every sense of the word. The shadow of the coming storm passed over it, dimming its gleaming crosses and intricate details. Right in the middle were two doors that must have been over four stories tall. Looking at them, Clemont knew two things instinctively: nothing had ever breached those gates, and many things had tried. The little demon around his wrist twitched at the thought.

“Come on,” Revka said, the sudden sound of her voice jolting Clemont out of his musings. He was about to ask her about the convent when Revka hefted her cane and started along the cobblestone path leading up the hillside.

The rain started in earnest when they were about halfway up the hill. Clemont was soaked within moments, but Revka’s I love Chicago! sweater remained bone-dry. Water ran downhill toward them: eager rivulets turned into churning, ankle-deep streams with enough force to knock an unwary climber off balance. As they trudged along the sodden streets, Clemont had the sensation of eyes upon them, but every time he tried to find whoever was looking, he found only closed shutters and drawn curtains.

Clemont’s little rolling bag bounced and bucked on the cobblestones as the priest dragged it along. When it got stuck in a particularly patchy bit of road, Clemont noticed a mural on one of the walls depicting what looked like a group of nuns fending off a horde of demons.

He almost asked Revka if they were her ancestors, then caught himself.

“Did this really happen?” he asked instead.

Revka turned and ambled back down the cobblestones, looking at the mural as if seeing it for the first time. She ran her fingers along a figure brandishing a terrifying whip, and her expression hardened into a frown.

“No,” she finally said. “We fought undead at Kitkekurst, not demons.” As she turned back toward the convent, Clemont eyed her cane and realized how little he still knew about the young woman. With the thought came a pang of disgust: the little demon wrapped around his wrist was probably feeding everything back to Naranth, including little moments like this one. But Clemont still could not bring himself to say anything.

When they finally reached the convent gates, Clemont wasn’t sure if he’d ever be dry again. He just hoped the outfits in his luggage weren’t waterlogged. There were probably some priests’ vestments at the convent, but whether European sizes could accommodate his American belly was another question.

Revka raised her cane and rapped it against the door three times. It clanged with each strike, and though Clemont wondered what it was made of, something told him that touching it with the demon on his hand was grounds for instant death.

The knock echoed behind the door.

“Who knocks at the Abyssal Gate?” said a small voice behind the enormous doors. A little slat slid open at eye level.

“A wayward warrior and her guest.”

“Present your proof.”

Revka held up her cane in both hands as if offering it to whoever stood on the other side.

The eyes fixed on the cane for a moment, then the slat clanged shut. Clemont heard a muffled boom from the other side, then the clanking of heavy machinery. The doors groaned open, swinging inward, and Clemont got a look at the owner of the voice. It was another young woman, blonde and lithe, though clearly some years Revka’s senior. An enormous lever was set into the stone next to her. It reached just about shoulder height; Clemont figured this must have been what controlled the door.

Behind her was an enormous courtyard filled with nuns scurrying about their daily chores. Many tended to the convent’s garden, but a few hurried by with little pails, brooms, or other tools. One carried a pneumatic nailgun and an air compressor, with several boards tucked under her arm.

As the doors clattered to a stop, every one of the sisters looked up. Several were slackjawed, as if they couldn’t believe what they saw.

Revka was not so awestruck, looking instead like she’d just returned from a grocery run with a carton of milk instead of being shipped to another continent in the middle of a centuries-long rest.

“Welcome home, Sister Calamity,” said the young woman from the door. She spoke in plain English, much to Clemont’s relief. “Steward Katrina, at your service.”

The steward bowed low, and Revka returned the gesture. When Father Clemont introduced himself, he stuck out his hand, but the steward bowed in response. He awkwardly followed suit, sure that he heard something pop either into or out of place in the process.

“You all seem very busy around here,” he said.

Katrina nodded. “Mother Superior believes an attack is imminent.”

“Would you believe me if I told you that’s why we’re here?” said Clemont. The steward smirked.

“I would not be that shocked. Let me close the doors, and I’ll take you to Mother Superior.”

“Sister Calamity?” asked Clemont as Katrina returned to the door lever.

“We are named after our weapons,” Revka explained. “Our Mother Superior is named Lament, after her longsword. The others …” she trailed off, glancing at Katrina, who was just letting go of the lever.

The steward pressed her lips into a thin line, then shook her head. “I am sorry, Sister Calamity. It’s only you, Mother Lament, and Sister Scorn.”

“Scorn?” The question was barely a whisper. “Yvonne’s alive?”

“Mother Superior woke her about two weeks ago.”

“I need to see her.”

“She’s around here somewhere.” Katrina smiled. “But follow me, if you please. Mother Superior won’t –”

Someone behind Clemont shrieked. He turned just in time to see a young woman with dark skin sprinting toward Revka.

“Yvonne?!” Revka’s cane - Calamity, he supposed - clattered onto the loose courtyard stones as the nun threw herself into an embrace with the nun she’d called Yvonne. “Oh, my God, when I couldn’t feel you in the ether, I thought — I thought you’d —“

Revka stopped short as Yvonne pressed a fingertip against her lips, shaking her head.

“Sister Scorn took a vow of silence when she awoke to find you missing,” Katrina said, grinning. “That noise just now must have been a hawk flying by.”

Revka let out a choked laugh and stepped back, breaking the embrace. At least, Clemont thought she had until he saw the nuns holding hands, with Revka running her thumb back and forth over Yvonne’s knuckles.

“By the eyes of the damned, Sister Calamity has returned,” shrilled a grating voice from the other side of the courtyard. “And how better to celebrate your resurrection than hurling yourself right back into the clutches of sin?”

Revka and Yvonne ripped their hands away from one another. The entire group turned to face the voice’s owner: a positively ancient, bloated, sagging mess of a woman waddling toward them. She was sweating profusely, swaying back and forth with each step. Her habit dragged along behind her like a wedding train.

“Mother Superior,” Revka began. “I – we were just – ”

“The first time I see you in seven centuries and you’re dressed like a common harlot,” the old woman snarled.

“My habit — ”

“I see you’ve discarded your weapon.”

“I — ” Revka stooped to retrieve the cane.

Mother Superior frowned. “I asked God to preserve my best, my fiercest warriors to face the unspeakable evil that lies ahead, but instead, he left me with you two,” She turned her withering gaze upon Clemont. “Who the Hell are you?”

“Father Clemont. I helped Revka find her way back from Perkins Diocese — ”

“I didn’t ask for your life story, padre. I want you gone by morning,” grunted Mother Superior. She and Clemont held each other’s gaze for a moment that defied time.

“Pah!” she finally exclaimed, turning her little walker around and shuffling down the hallway. “Supper is in thirty minutes. Be in the dining hall ready to eat, or I’ll send you to bed hungry.”

“She’s not kidding,” whispered Katrina once Mother Superior was out of earshot, though Clemont wondered if there really was such a place in the whole convent. “I’ll show you to your rooms. We’ll see you at dinner, yes, Sister Scorn?”

Yvonne nodded, gave Revka another quick hug, and ran back to whatever chore she’d been working on.

“Follow me,” Katrina said, but Revka bolted past them, heading for a staircase on the far side of the courtyard. “Or you could just run ahead! That’s fine, too,” Katrina called after the young nun.

Katrina led Father Clemont along a relatively simple path, pointing out markers of the convent’s storied past. Clemont realized that Revka had lived through much of it; maybe that was why she opted to skip the history lesson.

“Has anything ever breached those gates?” Clemont asked as they passed a painting depicting them on fire, with a bunch of nuns shooting arrows into a crowd of demons below.

“Not in the traditional sense,” Katrina said. The thing on Clemont’s wrist pulsed, and it took all his willpower not to clamp his off-hand over the little demon. “There was a corrupted nun who turned undead on the grounds. I’m sure there are others - maybe Revka will tell you about it sometime.”

“I’ll be sure to ask,” he said. They passed a narrow stairway heading down at a steep angle. It turned abruptly at the bottom, then disappeared into the darkness. The priest felt an unnatural chill emanating from the staircase that put him ill at ease; even the demon on his wrist seemed to shrink away from it.

“What’s down there?” Clemont asked, eying the darkened staircase.

“The catacombs,” replied Katrina softly. “We don’t go down there.” She led him up another set of stairs, away from the catacombs’ entrance and into a hallway with a thick red carpet resting in its middle. After a few steps, she gestured to a door. “Your chambers for the evening, Father Clemont. For what it’s worth, I’m very grateful to you for returning Sister Calamity to us. Let me speak to Mother Superior about you staying longer - something tells me young Revka still needs your guidance.”

Clemont followed her gaze down the hall to where Revka knelt, praying, in front of a door that must have been her quarters. When she stood and pressed her palm against the heavy wood, it swung open easily. Somehow Clemont knew she would find it just as she’d left it some seven centuries ago. He nodded his thanks to Katrina, opened his door, and stepped inside.

The room was sparsely appointed, but what was there was of master-quality craftsmanship. He knew the bed would be the most comfortable one he’d ever slept on, and he couldn’t wait to try it out after dinner. At least he would die well-rested: he had a sinking feeling the little demon on his wrist would punish him for trying to get too far away from Revka.

He was rinsing his face in the wash basin, trying to think of ways to get rid of the little creature, when he heard a most unwelcome voice.

“And here I thought you were finally starting to get it,” came Naranth’s guttural rumble. Clemont’s head snapped up. “If you remove my servant without finding it a new host, you’re going to have a bad time.”

“Where are you?” the priest glanced around for the source of the voice. “How can you speak to me here?”

“Wherever sin taints the human spirit, you’ll find me.” The voice was behind him. Clemont turned slowly, looking in the mirror above his wash basin. Instead of his reflection, he saw smoke clouds swirling around an imposing figure.

“Too afraid to show yourself?” Clemont asked.

“You’ll see my full glory soon enough, priest,” growled Naranth. “I’ll come like a thief in the night.”

“Spare me the scripture,” Clemont said, itching his wrist. “What are you going to do? Possess me?”

“Me, possess you?” The demon actually laughed at him. As it did, the little creature on his wrist shriveled and diminished; whether it was afraid of its master or turned off by mirth, Clemont couldn’t say, but he was grateful for the brief reprieve.

“You really don’t have a clue, do you?” Naranth asked. “I require a vessel that befits my power. A pathetic being like you would burst like a bloated zit.”

Clemont would never in a million years have thought he’d be offended in any way by a demon choosing not to possess him, but it’d been a weekend of firsts.

“Then who?” he asked. Naranth only cackled in response, receding into the smoke. A moment later, Clemont was alone in his chambers once more.

“Stupid asshole demon,” he muttered. The thing on his wrist dragged its teeth along his arm bones as if in response, and Clemont’s world started to spin. He resisted the urge to bat at it for fear of triggering some further retribution. “Leave me alone. You know it’s true.”

Clemont ran into Revka on the way downstairs. It was odd to see her back in her habit: it looked natural on her, of course, but there had been something about the casual clothes she’d picked up at the airport that had just seemed more … well, her.

Revka smiled, looking more at ease than she’d been since he met her. Her happiness spread to him, and he could feel the thing around his wrist writhing in agony.

“What is it?” she asked.

“Just happy to see you happy.”

Revka’s eyes widened. “What did you see?”

“Nothing that changes anything,” Clemont said, shrugging. “Now come on, I’m hu—” He stopped short as Revka threw her arms around him. He hesitated for just a moment before returning the embrace. Having never been so close to her, he was surprised to find she smelled faintly of lavender.

Just when it felt like the thing on his wrist might shrivel up and fall off, Revka stepped back. Clemont came closer than he ever had to telling her about the demon stowaway, but fear of how they might handle the problem held him back, as did shame at holding on to his secret for this long.

“Thank you,” she said quickly, touching her sleeve to an eye. “Now, let’s go eat.”

They made their way to the dining hall, wreathed on all sides by tapestries telling stories of the nuns’ revered feats and victories. Dishes full of simple but hearty fare had just started to come out of the kitchen when an attendant brought Mother Superior a cordless phone.

Her squinty, piggy little eyes widened enough for him to see their color before returning to normal.

“Then you know what I must do, Lemke,” she said. “The Vault of Sorrows must be opened. And you’re not going to talk me out of it, so don’t bother trying.”

She beeped the phone off, then slammed it onto the table with enough force to partially shatter it, sending pieces of plastic flying in every direction. The nuns around the table abruptly quieted, looking to Mother Superior.

“The Pope is dead!” she bellowed. “The forces of Hell struck him down in his sleep, and they’re massing to —“

An explosion echoed up from the town below. Two more followed it, along with unmistakable firecracker bursts of gunfire. Then the screams started.

“So it begins,” Mother Superior muttered. She pointed at Revka and Yvonne. “Make yourselves useful: go and retrieve Lament. I will have need of my blade before the night is over.”

Both sisters bowed, although Clemont had his doubts about how much difference the old woman could make in a fight, blade or otherwise.

“Where is it, Mother Superior?” asked Revka.

“The catacombs, you twit,” shrilled Mother Superior. “Where else would it be?”

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