Father Purgeon stood just inside the doorway. He’d made Avalyn as comfortable as he could before transporting her to where she now laid, on a small but serviceable cot beneath the bowels of the church.
A lamp on a worn wooden nightstand opposite the cot lit the area. The priest ran his hands over the masonry; it was cool. He was glad he’d wrapped her in the linen sheets. At first, he’d thought of bundling her in a comforter, but she’d developed a fever and it was rising, so he’d decided against it.
Her tosses and turns troubled him; her moans were indistinct yet urgent. He wanted to help her. Nevertheless, conflict held him. It was an immobilizing and frenetic state. His concern almost made him change his mind. But then he remembered Roman’s warning and checked himself.
Yet he still doubted his decision. He should have taken her to the hospital. He looked around the room. She deserved better than this.
The small rises and falls of Avalyn’s chest were rapid and frantic. She thrashed and mumbled, lost in the throes of a dream. Her pale face glistened with sweat.
Father Purgeon watched in helpless anxiety.
Unbeknownst to the priest, there was another presence in the room, watching Avalyn from another realm. The scarce light shone tenebrous for the curious onlooker.
The Incarnation of Sleep had watched Avalyn since birth. Avalyn fascinated her. She was one of the few remaining mysteries left for such a being to speculate upon. The child was special. Sleep delivered few dreams to this mortal. She wasn’t responsible for the girl’s fitful slumber.
Sleep pondered this as she weaved dreams where she stood by the cot. In her hands, knitting needles blurred, fed by the eternal fabric of her iridescent gown. Her garments swirled with incandescent transparency. They scintillated, looked like silk dipped in liquid-pale silver. Within its seams man’s dreams flowed. A swirling mosaic of shifting scenes and colors.
Sleep and her emissaries weaved the dream world for all living things that slept.
She couldn’t read the child’s mind. It was locked, and only the Shadowy Man held its key, even though she was the one who made it possible for them to meet. She made sure that their meetings could take place. She made sure that none of the other Celestials could interfere. Not an easy task, even for a Neutral.
In time, revelations, to each and every all, Sleep thought, gazing one last time at Avalyn. Perhaps some other night she’d dream, but not tonight.
Sleep departed, weaving as she went.
“She’s dead! Why can’t you help me? You told me you’d help me,” the priest heard Avalyn say in her sleep.
She spoke to the Shadowy Man. She named him the Shadowy Man at the age of two. At least once a month he’d visit. For the last year, he’d been visiting her often, almost nightly. He appeared as he always did-an undefined shape of a man that leaned over her. The brilliant light behind him would’ve blinded her if he weren’t blocking it. She’d felt that familiar pulling sensation she always felt before his arrival, as if her soul were being towed from her skin. But it wasn’t her soul that was leaving her body; it was her astral form.
“I have helped you, Avalyn,” the Shadowy Man said. “I am sorry, but you knew it was going to happen. You knew it was her time. Events are now in motion.” Then, realizing how harsh that sounded, he said, “Sometimes, knowing cannot help with the dealing.”
“I want to go home.”
“Not now Avalyn, soon.”
“Never now, always later.”
“I know it is difficult, but they need you. There was no other way,” he said. “Others have risked much as well, and there are still those to come. What of the demon?”
“He’s filled with sorrow. His eyes are empty and cold. Yet he saved my life. He freed the souls of the dead children from that house.”
“Yes, I know,” the Shadowy Man said. “Those children, their souls were tethered to the horrors that the house harnessed. By killing Drake, Roman released their souls. They have moved on. As for the demon’s demeanor, it is as it must be, for now. He is at war with his nature. You must keep his essence out, Avalyn. Do not let him in. The priest must aid the demon now.”
“Why? What’s going to happen?”
“In time you will know more. Until then you will go with Sarah.” He stepped away from the light. The brilliance behind him blinded her. But as suddenly as the light came, it was gone, replaced with a deep and complete dark. “There is something that I must show you,” the Shadowy Man whispered. “Watch. Listen. It is one of the reasons why you are here.”
As if heeding his words, the darkness thinned.
She’s floating along the ceiling of a sphere shaped chamber. Beneath her, seven winged figures, robed in black, faces hidden by cowls, stand in a circle around a pit in the center of the room. Darkness moves about each of them, like waves of heat in a cold place, though no warmth exudes from them.
A stone door at the far end of the chamber slides open; granite grates granite. A demon enters dragging in a man and a woman by their necks. The demon is wearing black, plate armor beneath a red cloak. The visor of his black helm is shut. Carved on his breastplate, Lucifer’s sigil. Swollen bruises cover the captives’ naked bodies. They tear at the demon’s gauntlets squirming to free themselves. The man’s legs have been hobbled. The tendons of hers have been severed. Blood stains skin and streaks the stone floor.
The demon marches forward and bows to the Seven. They do not bow back. They part for him as he strides towards the pit. Three feet from it, he drops his cargo. The man cries out in a hoarse scream. The woman moans on her back. The circle closes behind the demon as he leaves.
Avalyn sees a faint white glow encapsulating each prisoner.
The Seven shift with mounting anticipation. Behind them, seven sigils embedded within the walls flicker once, then blaze scarlet. The sigils are demonic seals, representing each of the Seven demon lords in attendance, who rule Hell’s Houses. Within each seal, inscribed in Enochian, are the names of each House. Avarice. Envy. Gluttony. Lust. Pride. Sloth. Wrath.
The red intensifies. Seven hooded heads lift, revealing pallid waxen skin, onyx orbs for eyes, and ivory incisors. They raise their arms in unison. The sleeves fall back exposing the black sigils on every wrist. Outstretched arms end in clawed fingers. A low, droning, discordant melody escapes each mouth, then becomes a chant.
“Their souls are not theirs to keep.”
The black sigils on their arms now burn crimson.
Beneath Avalyn, the darkness expands around the pit’s lip, blacker and deeper than the darkness exuding from the Seven. Wide eyed, she stares. Shrilling shrieks scale the pit, rising and squealing. The seven diabolical conductors urge forth the finest notes of desolation from the abject orchestra.
“Their souls are not theirs to keep.”
The prisoners stare at the pit. Despite their injuries, they crawl away.
From the great below it comes. Tentacles reach over the well’s surface and grip the ground. They pull a massive mound of formless, blackened tar from the pit. It is twenty feet tall.
Avalyn marvels at its size, at its immense girth. What she can only assume is its head, almost grazes her ethereal form. As it stretches, screams cry from its taut skin. The skin breaks. Incorporeal, luminescent human heads try to squeeze through the slits, mouths agape, they bawl, high-pitched and shrill.
Avalyn knows what they are. “Souls,” she says to the Shadowy Man. “Pure souls. How is this possible?”
“Shh,” the Shadowy Man whispers. “They may sense us.”
The thing lurches forward.
The prisoners continue to squirm away, mouthing mute bellows, the man grabbing the woman’s hand, pulling her with him, away from the creature and toward the circle of seven. Fear drives them. Insanely, they crawl, gibbering as they go, scraping toward freedom.
The nightmare follows.
Reaching the Seven, they try to squirm between the gaps within the circle, make it past the robed figures, but the circle tightens.
Sticky, moist tendrils of blackened ooze shoot from the creature’s bulk and slither along the floor. The organic rope wraps itself about the prisoners’ ankles. As they kick and screech, the thing pulls them towards its flesh.
The chant continues. “Their souls are not theirs to keep.”
When the prisoners meet the creature’s tar-like skin, the tendrils release them, leave them adhered to its gummy flesh, where they struggle like mice on a glue trap.
Suddenly, the thing’s bubbling flesh churns and rents appear along its skin. The slits widen until they resemble open mouths. A vast sucking sound emits from those just formed maws. The humans become frenetic, spasmodic. They try wrenching free from the black pulp. Screams tear from their throats. Screams that seem to come from somewhere deeper than their lungs.
Again, the sucking sound.
Their skin becomes translucent, revealing a pristine brilliance underneath. Then, thin tendrils of wispy lambent light rise from their flesh, undulating with wave upon wave of benign luminescence.
The sucking sound escalates and becomes louder than the victims fading screams. The thin tendrils turn to thick streams of light, pour into the thing’s many mouths, and then disappear beneath oily-black waves, sucked down within its depths.
The prisoners’ eyes go blank. They fall to the floor, no more than vacant vessels.
The chant rises. “Our Father assures, their souls are not theirs to keep.”
The sigils ignite behind the Seven, and with that shine, the bodies of the dead rise, eyes blazing red. Though their souls are gone, their bodies will be used. They are now the property of the demon known as Legion. They turn their backs on the thing and shuffle toward the door. The circle of seven parts for them.
“We have to leave now,” the Shadowy Man says.
The chamber fades.
Outside, in the world of the waking, Father Purgeon was kneeling by Avalyn. He’d rushed to her side and was now checking her brow for heat. He yanked back his hand. Her skin was burning.
Father Purgeon got up and ran to the phone. If he couldn’t bring her to the hospital, he’d bring the hospital to her.