Part 1 • Part 2 • Part 3
|Photo Credit: Keith Survell, Flickr (Creative Commons)|
A darkness flowed over and above the altar. “Must it come to this?” the voice whined. “Once I was worshipped as a god, and then I had a place under the glorious stars. And now? Now I languish in this swamp. Thy God has forsaken those whom I hunt on the darkest of nights, old friend. He has not sent any to replace Reverend Martin. Who, I might add, was most tasty.” It paused. “Ahhh. Is this thy consort, or have thou brought me a morsel to feed upon?”
“Get thee behind me, Satan,” Sally snarled.
“A saucy one!” the voice held a hint of amusement. “Joab, I’m surprised. All this time, I thought you preferred boys.”
Dower held up his sword. It glowed in the firelight—or perhaps of its own internal light. “Twice have I defeated thee, Tolet. And the Lord has allowed me to curse thee thus: for thy pride, thy name shalt be ever used for that which receives the unclean things that come out of a man. This third time I confront thee, and thou shalt be banished from this world forever!”
The darkness seemed to recoil, but regathered and grew. Even the fire seemed to dim in this great shadow. “Joab Gideon Dower, I entreat thee a final time,” it said. “Take this woman unto thee. Satisfy thy desire in her flesh, and I will withdraw to a far place where thy kind shall not come, unto the third generation.”
“Then give her to me. Look at her, Joab. See how she grubs in the dirt, like a pig rooting in the midden? She is not worthy of thy attention. Perhaps she might be worthy of mine.”
In a showy maneuver, Dower flicked the sword upward, and shifted his grip to the hilt. He brought it around in the same motion. “Thou hast twice tasted the sword of God’s wrath, Tolet. Now, thou shalt taste it for a final time!”
The whining tone returned. “Men such as thee never see reason.” The darkness coalesced into a shape like unto a man’s, and a sword took flame in its hand. “Then have at thee, Joab. But thou will not find the battle so easy this time!”
The demon Tolet sprang at Dower, who brought up his sword to meet the assault. Light and darkness met, clashed, recoiled.
Sally, casting about in the fickle firelight for what she’d seen in the twilight, spared a glance for the nearby battle. The demon pressed Dower hard, but the preacher seemed to be holding his own. Lord God, she prayed, let me find what I thought I saw here. Let it do what my grandmother said.
Dower held up a crucifix. Wielding it as a shield in his right hand, he slashed and thrust with the sword in his left. Where the demon’s flaming sword struck the crucifix, the flames guttered and flickered, but soon regained their strength away from the symbol of the Devil’s ultimate defeat. Slowly, slowly, Tolet gave ground, backing toward the pagan altar that had housed it for a time. Placing a hand on the stone where so much blood had been shed over so many years, it fed again on the power the altar contained.
“For thy pride!” Tolet shouted, and struck Dower’s sword a mighty blow. Dower was thrown, landing on his back near the fire, his sword falling out of reach. He yet clutched his crucifix, and thrust it at his adversary.
“Ah, Joab.” The demon stood over him. “Where is thy God now?” It brought the sword down, but not where the crucifix could stop it—instead, it laid the flames along Dower’s left hip. Dower gritted his teeth against the searing pain, but did not cry out.
“Oh, Joab, thou will scream,” said Tolet. “I will have that satisfaction. First, when I deal thee a mortal wound, one that will not kill thee right away. When I have done that, I will have my way with thee, and thou will scream again and again. Thou will beg thy God for release. But first, I will tell thee a secret, dear Joab. Thy God has forsaken the world of Man. He is disgusted with those who do my Master’s work in God’s name, and has abandoned thee—indeed, all men—to their own devices. So when I have sated myself in thy dying body, Joab, I shall tear thy soul from its moorings, and carry it to my Master. We have prepared a place for thee, where thou may forever preach to the other damned. And they will laugh in thy face, as the living now laugh behind thy back—”
Tolet’s blasphemous taunt ceased, with the flat report of a pistol shot. A great wad of—something—struck it in the face. It screeched and clawed at the wad, and screamed more as it drove the stuff into its smoky flesh. Dower wasted little time, rolling heedless of the pain in his hip, grasping his sword and slashing through Tolet’s legs, bringing it shrieking to the ground.
“In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost,” Dower snarled, “I consign thee to the depths of Hell, for all eternity!” He took the sword in both hands and drove it into the demon’s chest. Tolet’s final scream rang inside his skull, but the shadow faded and was gone.
“You—you got it?” Sally’s voice was shaky.
“By the hand of Providence,” Dower panted. He lowered himself to the ground, favoring his hip. “What saved me just now?”
Sally sat next to him. “My grandmother said this certain concoction of herbs would repel all evils,” she said. “I thought I saw what I needed to complete it, before it got dark, but then your demon came out. You kept it occupied long enough for me to find it again and make what was needed. It wasn’t enough to send that thing off, but it gave you enough time to get back on your feet. Now let me see to that burn.”
“Nay, woman, do not—”
“Oh, hush.” Sally reached through the remains of Dower’s trousers and laid a hand along his seared flesh. She lowered her head and whispered something, too low for the preacher to catch, but the pain faded.
“What witchcraft was that?” he gasped.
Sally laughed. “You think the devil would heal his mortal enemy? This is a gift that’s been in my family for generations. We can talk the fire out of a burn. It’s a certain Bible verse, that I can only pass on to a descendant. No witchcraft, only a gift from God. You won’t even have a scar.”
“If it is of God, why have I not heard of such a thing?”
“Are you so prideful, that you think you know all of God’s gifts to all His people?”
Dower lowered his head. “I accept your rebuke,” he said. “Now let us pull down this altar, that we may ever rebuke those evil spirits that would make it their home.”
With the altar laying in rubble around them, no stone left standing on another, Dower looked up. “Lo,” he said, “the clouds recede. The darkness upon this land is no more.”
“Amen to that!” Sally grinned.
“I am in your debt, Sally Harper,” the preacher said. “And frankly, I am at a loss as to how to repay it.”
“Well, let’s get back to town, first,” she said. “I don’t want tongues wagging at our spending the night alone in the swamp.”
“And how shall we do that?”
Sally pointed at the sky. “Follow the Irishman.”
“O’Ryan!” She laughed. “My mother was Irish, and she loved that jest. In June, his belt points the way out of the swamp.”
“Then we shall be on our way. But returning you home does not fulfill my debt.”
“Good. Because in the morning, I’m going with you.”
“You—what—I say thee nay—” Dower sputtered.
“Oh, hush,” Sally said again. “There’s nothin’ for me, here. And it looks like you could use a little help from time to time. You can teach me the trade, and I know more than what I showed you tonight.”
Dower followed her down the hill, and they struck out across the swamp. “I must pray about this,” he said. “And I suggest you do the same.”
“Oh, I will. But I’ll be up at dawn and ready to go. Now watch your step, the swamp is tricky at night.”
Oddities, now available in the Kindle Store and (for Prime members) the Kindle Lending Library. More than a collection of #FridayFlash, Oddities brings you, as book blogger Eric Townsend said, “one entertaining story after another.” Some flash fiction, some short stories, some stories which have never seen the light of blog. Helen Howell said, “what could be better than a nice cup of coffee and a good short story to read” — and at 99 cents, you can still afford that cup of coffee!