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Sever the Wicked, Part VII: The Vault of Sorrows

Father Clemont blinked rainwater out of his eyes as a steady flow of sand drooled from the portal Sister Lament had ripped in the fabric of reality itself only moments ago. As it met the rain-soaked cobblestones of the convent’s courtyard, it turned into a brown paste, only to be washed away through the joints moments later.

On the other side of the portal was a tall, domed chamber made of earthen bricks. Near the top was a small hole through which Clemont could see the soft pink of a cloudless sunset sky. Raindrops from their side hissed and spattered as they landed on the sun-drenched bricks in the domed room.

It was a sight to behold, even after the weekend he’d had. But Clemont forced his mind back to the issue at hand, emerging from behind the sandbags that’d kept his useless backside hidden during the assault.

“What is the Vault of Sorrows?” he called after Lament.

The newly revivified sister whipped around to face the priest, pointing her sword at him.

“Who are you to utter its name, sinner?” she asked.

Revka stepped between them. “He is a priest, Lament,” she said. “He’s on our side! How dare you call him a sinner?”

Clemont gasped as the demon tightened its grip around his wrist. The pain shot up past his elbow each time it moved. He swore he could hear Naranth laughing somewhere out there. The demon had warned him it would kill him if he didn’t act, but he was determined not to betray Revka.

“We’re all sinners,” Lament said, lowering the sword. “You should know, Calamity. You’re lucky this demonic onslaught outweighs the debauchery and shame you and Scorn have levied upon these hallowed grounds. Otherwise, I’d judge you here and now.”

Revka’s grip tightened on her cane, but she said nothing.

“You still haven’t answered my question,” Clemont called.

“Inside the Vault is a weapon,” Revka said, turning to face him.

“A weapon? You three just ripped those demons a new one. I thought you were the weapons!”

“The Holy Father had some of the strongest defenses this side of Heaven protecting him,” Revka said. “If the demons got to him, no one can hope to stand against them forever. The Vault is our only option.”

“Enough chatter!” Lament barked. “On to the Vault. Now!” And with that, she leaped through the portal. After a brief nod to Clemont, Yvonne dashed in after Lament.

Revka lingered.

“Why are you hesitating?” Clemont said, stepping forward. “This is your moment. It’s everything you were … uh, were you trained for this? Or was this more of a ‘born-into-it’ kind of thing.”

Revka burst into laughter, wiping rainwater from her face. Or was it tears?

“Come with me, Father,” she said, reaching for his hand. “You’ve carried me this far.”

As her hand neared his, the agony in his arm began to recede for the first time in days, and Clemont realized the little demon was getting ready to make its move.

“No!” he cried, backing away from her touch and grasping his arm, hoping to hold the little demon in place. As if to punish the priest for keeping its meal at arm’s length, it shot its tendrils almost to Clemont’s shoulder. The priest cried out, his knees splashing into a puddle on the cobblestones.

It seemed like everyone left in the convent was staring at him, though the only person that made a difference was Revka. Her brow was furrowed in confusion.

“What’s wrong with your arm, Father?”

Clemont sucked in big, ragged breaths that seemed like they were half rainwater. “I don’t … something must have … “

“Sister Calamity!” Lament’s shriek erupted through the portal. “Every second you delay, hundreds more die! Their blood is on your hands!”

Revka glanced over her shoulder, then once more to Clemont.

“Please, Father,” she implored him one last time. “Help me finish this.” Then she, too, vanished into the portal.

Immediately, it began to wobble like a fan set on too high of a speed. For a fleeting moment, Clemont wished that any of the horrors he’d faced in the past few days had followed through on their various gruesome threats. Naranth was right: death would have been easier than holding out against this little terror.

Clemont felt there could be no words in this world or the (apparently, very real) netherworld for his exhaustion. But he forced himself to his feet and hobbled to the portal.

He flailed for a moment when his foot found an uneven cobblestone, and he would have fallen if not for a hand that grasped the back of his coat. He looked up to see Katrina, her face set and stern. Rainwater dripped from her dainty nose.

“Bring them back, Father,” she said, yanking him back into a standing position. Clemont hardly thought that was up to him, but it didn’t seem right to say so. He said a quick, silent prayer of thanks that she hadn’t touched the demon, then forced a smile.

“Even Lament?”

Katrina grinned. “If you must.”

Clemont figured it was as good of a sendoff as he was likely to get. He nodded, then stepped through the portal. His stomach leaped into his throat as his foot failed to find the floor, and he cried out, tumbling through.

As it turned out, the floor was only about a foot lower than the convent’s courtyard. Still, it was enough of a difference that he landed roughly on his shoulder, knocking the wind out of him.

Lament was upon him almost immediately. “How dare you…!” she sputtered.

“I asked him to come with,” Revka said. As she did, Clemont heard the portal close with a small pop like a soap bubble bursting. Revka grinned. “And now he is here to stay.”

“The stain of his death will be upon your soul,” Lament said to her. Revka shrugged.

“I don’t think he’s going to die.”

“Your brief time back on Earth has made you weak, sister,” Lament said, shoving her way past Revka and Yvonne. She disappeared down a staircase Clemont hadn’t seen on the convent side of the portal.

Yvonne offered Clemont a hand, but he shook his head, forcing himself to get back up. Landing on the stones had hurt, but at least they’d been warm. He glanced around the ancient chamber. Its walls were covered in crude carvings, but he couldn’t make heads or tails of any of it. Sand fell in small, constant streams from the aperture at the top of the room, which must have been at least thirty feet overhead.

He sighed, looking at Revka.

“I’m starting to think you should’ve left her as an old woman,” he said. Revka smiled sadly, glancing at the staircase.

“Do you know the difference between Mother Superior and me?”

Clemont shook his head.

“I’ve had seven centuries to rest my soul and expand my understanding of the world,” Revka said. “Returning Lament to Mother Superior has restored her youth, but seven centuries trapped with a scarred soul in an aging body have taken their toll.”

“And then some, if you ask me.”

Revka turned to face Clemont.

“Were I in her shoes, I doubt I’d fare any better. She’s witnessed countless wars, insatiable greed, and what she perceives as the depravity of a civilization in decline. Most of the Sisters she trained are dead, their spirits beyond our reach. Her failure to protect them weighs heavily on her soul, but what could she have done? Humanity’s faltering belief diminished our ability to remain tethered to our bodies while allowing the demons to grow strong again.

“And she’s right to blame humanity,” Revka added, “but not for the same reasons she does.”

“What do you mean?” Clemont asked, feeling humbled.

“The Church is failing humanity, not the other way around.” Revka frowned. “But her spirit is poisoned. Perhaps the Vault can restore it. Come and see.” With that, she turned and headed down the staircase. Yvonne locked eyes with Clemont, gave a perfunctory nod, and started down the stairs after Revka. Clemont took one more look around the antechamber and then went down the stairs.

If the carvings in the last chamber had been crude, then the mural in the room at the bottom of the stairs was a masterwork beyond compare. Even the demon on his wrist was diminished by its mere presence.

The oil-rubbed basrelief stretched most of the circular chamber’s circumference. Clemont figured that if the relief was the length of several boxcars set end to end. Within its expanse, it depicted the entire story of the Bible, from Creation through Revelation. A string of ornate Greek characters summarized the story. Though they were perhaps thirty feet deeper, a series of holes in the dome above ensured that no matter the position of the Earth, the sun would crawl across the entirety of the mural each day. Currently, the beam was situated on Jude’s fruitless trees.

At its center, a circular cut-out depicted the resurrected Christ standing in front of the cross. Beams of light radiated out from his chest.

It was here that Lament stood, running her fingers over the surface. Her sword was sheathed at her side, and she’d leaned her shield against an Old Testament portion of the mural.

“My God,” Clemont whispered. “What is that?”

“That,” Revka said, “is the entrance to the Vault of Sorrows. Salvation lies within.” She glanced over her shoulder. “I’m glad you’re here to see this, Father.”

“He shouldn’t be here,” Lament muttered. “None of us is worthy. And yet, the duty falls to us.” She hefted her sword, plunged it into a small slot in the middle of Christ’s chest, and then turned the blade. “A knife through the Savior’s heart, for his children who have befouled his sacrifice.”

Clemont was horrified but didn’t have long to dwell on the feeling.

With a deep rumble, the Vault of Sorrows began to open. The circular cut-out slid forward, pivoting with the throaty grinding of stone upon stone. Beams of light shot out all around in the same pattern from the basrelief, dissipating any shadows they met.

Clemont threw his arm in front of his eyes as what seemed like a miniature sun filled the chamber, drowning out the sunset. He could see the bones within his arm yet felt no heat. He closed his eyes against the light, but even so, the light filtered through his eyelids, turning the world a ruddy orange.

Then the rumbling ceased, and the orange faded from Clemont’s vision. The priest opened his eyes, glancing anxiously around the walls, but there was no sign of the supernatural light show he’d just witnessed. The light from the setting sun illuminated only one thing within the Vault: a sunken bowl, out of which ran small channels at various angles.

“That’s the weapon?” he asked. Even Revka and Yvonne looked disappointed.

“I wouldn’t expect you to understand,” said a voice behind Clemont. He spun to see Cardinal Lemke descending the staircase and nearly pissed his pants. The Cardinal had appeared large on television just a few days ago, but when he reached the bottom of the stairs, he loomed unsettlingly over Clemont, like a cat deciding whether it wants to play with a mouse it’s caught before eating it. His skin was loose, as if he were about to slough it off at any moment.

Had he been so pale on the television the other day? It was difficult to remember. Clemont reasoned that perhaps the Cardinal had been dealing with his own challenges following the apparent assault on the Vatican and the death of the Pope. As for how quickly he’d made his way to the Vault, well, it seemed that Clemont was the only member of the Clergy who’d missed out on the secrets of fast travel during seminary.

As if to emphasize the dire situation, two enormous Swiss guards entered the chamber behind Lemke, each clad in a heavy white coat that was totally inappropriate for what Clemont assumed to be some kind of desert. As they slid into position behind Lemke, a slight breeze lifted the corner of a guard’s coat, revealing a semi-automatic pistol.

“Well, this is certainly an unpleasant surprise,” Lemke said. His voice stood in stark contrast to his constitution. It was deep and rich, slick like oil. And, worryingly, very familiar, although Clemont couldn’t quite place it.

Lemke extended a crinkled hand toward the open Vault. It was trembling like he’d just seen his first drop of fresh water after a week in the desert. “My dearest Lament, I told you to leave the Vault sealed.”

“Yes, and I knew right then you’d been turned,” Lament said. When she drew her sword and held out her hand, her shield leaped into her outstretched palm. “The real Lemke would never have stood by while demons invaded.”

As Revka and Yvonne adopted fighting stances, Clemont couldn’t help but feel like he’d missed something, but that seemed beside the point now. He started to turn, intending to run away, but before he could, Lemke grasped a handful of his shirt, lifting him bodily off the ground.

“Don’t think for a moment I’ve forgotten about you, Priest,” he said. His breath smelled like fish that’d been left out in the August summer sun for a week.

Clemont stifled a gag. “Naranth?”

Lemke’s parched lips curled into an ugly little grin. Then the demon flung Clemont toward the mural. The priest slammed into it, crying out as multiple things snapped within his body. As he slid down into a sitting position, he was vaguely aware of Revka calling for him, but she seemed so very far away. All he could think about was how badly he wanted to lose consciousness, but of course, for what must have been the first time that weekend, he was totally aware of the complete agony that filled his body.

After everything he’d endured that weekend, the thought that the Cardinal’s rotten-fish smell might be the last thing he ever experienced seemed unnecessarily cruel.

“Kill the nuns!” shrieked Lemke. The two Swiss guards drew their pistols, and Revka drove her cane into the ground just as they started firing. The bullets whizzed around the Sisters on either side, redirected by some spiritual force. As the guard’s handguns continued to bark, Clemont worried that Revka wouldn’t be able to keep it up, but then the guards’ handguns clicked empty.

As they started to reload, Yvonne put a crossbow bolt through the forehead of one. He sank to his knees, a dumbfounded expression on his face, then burned away with a heatless blue plume of flame.

Meanwhile, Revka charged straight at the other, cracking him on the back of his head with her cane as she passed.

The guard grunted, dropping to a knee on the ground. The steel tip of Revka’s cane clicked along the chamber’s floor as she rode out her momentum. The guard got unsteadily to his feet, turning around just in time for Revka to punch her cross-dagger up through the bottom of his jaw. She followed this up with a roundhouse kick that sent the guard toppling into the Vault’s door.

The moment his form touched Jesus’ image, the guard exploded into a vicious, heatless blue fireball, his corporeal form dissipating before it touched the ground.

Through it all, Lament and Lemke did not move.

“I hope you’ve saved better for me, demon,” Lament said.

“I’ve been waiting centuries to rend your flesh,” Lemke said. “I’ll suck the marrow from your bones.”

“Who are you that you fear mere mortals, human beings who are but grass?” Lament was smiling. “Just as when we last met, I will give your corpse as a feast to the birds of the sky.”

Lemke’s eye twitched for a moment, then the demon-cardinal roared.

He fell prone as his skin began to lighten even further. His elegant robes stretched and tore as his limbs grew to a grotesque length that lifted the rest of his body several feet off the ground. His mouth and chin elongated into a snout of sorts, and his eyes turned a jaundiced yellow. Throughout it all, the chamber was filled with the popping and snapping of bones and joints contorting and rearranging into aberrant shapes.

He reared to his full height, preparing to bellow once more, when Lament plunged her sword into his gut, then leaped.

The result was a ruthlessly efficient disemboweling. Lament seemed to linger in the air in front of the shivering, sputtering demon, then swung her sword laterally, beheading the monster.

She landed neatly on the stone floor as Naranth’s headless body stumbled around the chamber. His head itself made a lazy half-turn in midair, thudding to a stop just in front of Clemont.

The priest never thought he’d see a confused demon, but there it was: Naranth’s inhuman visage was scrunched up into that essential nonplussed expression. He looked as surprised as Clemont felt.

Meanwhile, the demon’s headless body collapsed onto the ground, its black ichor splashing into the bowl and running through the channels. Apparently, demonic bigwigs didn’t erupt into flame when they died. Who knew?

“And thou mourn at the last, when thy flesh and thy body are consumed,” Lament said, walking into the Vault. Revka and Yvonne shared a concerned glance, but Clemont didn’t have long to dwell on it before Naranth spoke again.

“She’s not going to save the world, priest,” gurgled Lemke’s head. “She’s going to end it.”

No sooner had Naranth said this than Lament drove her sword into the middle of the bowl, shattering it. The chamber began to rumble and shake again, but the Mural did not move this time. Instead, an avalanche of sand fell into the enclosure as the dome above opened. The desert winds whipped the sand grains around like thousands of stinging insects. Revka and Yvonne cried out, raising their arms to shield their faces, but Lament and Clemont were unaffected, their gazes locked on the sky above.

But while Lament was smiling, Clemont was shrieking, clawing at his face as sanity slid from his grasp. Even the creature on his wrist no longer seemed capable of what little rational thought it possessed.

For there, stretched across the entire expanse of the heavens, was the enormous, unblinking eye from his nightmare.


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