From this angle, Molly had a view only of his profile, but she knew who he must be. He wore the black suit and Roman collar in which he had been buried thirteen months ago. His white hair—once red—was tangled with filth, his clerical suit streaked with mud.
A moment after the light found him, the dead priest gripped fistfuls of the antependium, the embroidered cloth that draped the front of the altar, and jerked violently on it. The tabernacle crashed to the floor and burst open, scattering pyx, paten, and chalice.
They would have to pass by this specter to get to the sacristy. One such adversary, however, was less daunting than ten of them.
More tremors in the floor, more violent than before, shook the columns, climbed to the ceiling, made the extinguished chandeliers arc through darkness on the ends of chains that creaked and clinked, link to link.
The remaining candles on the railing fell off, rolled under pews, flames licking floor wax and brightening as they turned.
Neil switched on his flashlight and handed it to the heavyset man. “I’ll lead the way, you follow close on my right and keep the light ahead of me.”
Virgil bounded over the low chancel railing, and the five kids scrambled after him.
In the nave, the macabre parishioners approached unhurriedly, as if they could see the future and knew that their malicious intentions would be fulfilled whether they made haste or not.
PAST THE RACK OF VOTIVE CANDLES IN RUBY glasses, over the low communion railing, into the sanctuary, Molly followed the tall man, who followed the children and the dog, who themselves followed the flashlight-wielding fat man and Neil.
The first light swept left to right, right to left, ceaselessly scanning the way ahead, as Neil had instructed.
Molly used her beam to lever stubborn shadows out of suspicious corners, expecting to pry loose an atrocity of one kind or another, sooner or later.
Between them and the altar stood the choir enclosure. Stepped rows of chairs had been knocked askew by the tremors that had shaken the building.
On the inclined ambulatory, they passed beside and then above the choir box and the silent organ. The door to the sacristy lay to the south of the altar, ten feet beyond the top of the ramp, where the floor leveled off.
As they ascended with wariness but also in something of a rush, the abomination that had been Father Dan moved to intercept them.
Molly’s light revealed the dead priest’s face. Bloated. Livid. Split like the skin of an overripe plum at the corners of the mouth. Left eye sewn shut; right open, torn threads dangling from the upper lid. The blinkless milky eye reflected light with a silver sheen.
Because this, too, was an agent of despair, the sight of which seemed intended to drain hope and dilute courage, Molly wished to look away but could not. Dread and morbid fascination held her—and a sense of pending insight similar to what she had felt in the tavern, shortly after the encounter with Render. Here was death undone and life that was not alive. Here was the insane new world order imposed by princes from some distant star, miracles of darkest design that offended, fascinated, sickened, spellbound.
Abruptly the priest’s face blossomed, as though his features and the facial bones they overlaid were a fragile facade—less than a facade, an illusion. What nested within burst out, and the exterior at the same time folded to the sides and inward, so that under the shock of tangled white hair was revealed a mass of crimson tentacular forms stippled with what appeared to be six-and eight-inch thorns, or stingers, the whole of it simultaneously writhing and bristling, a thing suitably demonic to police the tenth circle of Hell if Dante had found more than nine levels.
Quarreling echoes of the shotgun blast chased one another around the groin-vaulted ceiling, vibrated saints and angels in the stained-glass windows.
Chest-slammed, the infested cadaver blew backward, crashed to the floor. It kicked the fallen chalice into a noisy roll and tangled in the rumpled antependium.
Evidently the thing that had taken residence in the corpse would not be dissuaded by buckshot. It thrashed, trying to cast off the altar cloth and regain its feet.
The cold congruence of Molly’s cupped hand and the butt of the pistol provided less comfort by the minute. Even an entire magazine of hollow-point 9-mm rounds, well placed at close range, might not stop this hag-ridden cadaver when the hag was perhaps a resilient life form more plant than animal.
The group kept moving in flashlight flares and swoops of shadow. They had taken only two steps, however, when the floor shook as never before: shook, splintered, cracked open.
Molly stumbled, almost fell.
Between Neil, in the lead, and the man behind him, shattered planks erupted in a jagged bouquet of oak.
A stench breathed out of the basement, and with that reeking exhalation rose a thing less than half glimpsed in the jittering flashlight beams.
Molly thought, Bug.
Quick impressions in bad light. Insectile. Enormous. Polished carapace. Beetle horns. Wickedly serrated mandibles. Armored abdomen. Pedipalpi. Numerous compound eyes, inexpressibly strange and vaguely luminous. Suddenly a yawning maw and a razored gullet to rival that of any shark.
Screaming, the heavyset man was plucked off the sanctuary floor and dragged into the basement.
In an instant the apparition had appeared, and in the next instant had vanished.
By the bucking of the floor, by the fat man’s kicking legs, by their own panic, the five children had been knocked together, three thrown to the floor, and one—the freckled girl with the auburn hair—had fallen into the hole. Having grabbed the jagged end of a plank, she hung by both hands, legs dangling in the basement.
From the darkness below the girl, the lost man’s tortured cries begged for death and pleaded mercy, for he was not at once broken and sucked dry, but suffered instead an attenuated death that didn’t bear contemplation.
THE MYSTERY OF EVIL IS TOO DEEP TO BE illuminated by the light of reason, and likewise the basement of the church, while no more than twelve feet in depth, presented to Molly a blackness as perfect as that you might find gazing outward to the starless void beyond the farthest edge of the universe.
The heavyset man had dropped his flashlight before being dragged into the chamber below. It had rolled against the ambulatory wall; and now it shone toward the sacristy, revealing little.
Molly dared not direct her light into the hole, for fear of exciting the creature that had risen from it—or a host of others. Instead, she thrust the flashlight at the tall man, instructing him to sweep the chancel and pinpoint, for Neil, any looming threats that might be checked even temporarily by a shotgun blast.
She dropped to her knees at the broken-oak rim of the pit and seized the dangling girl by her arms.
The ghastly screams rising from below did not motivate the girl to give herself to rescue, but froze her. She would not relinquish her grip on the shattered plank.
“Let go, I’ll lift you out, I’ll lift you up,” Molly promised.
Containing three greens in striation—apple-green, jade-green, celadon—the girl’s eyes were beseeching. She wanted help but had no trust.
Seeking some connection to break the ice that froze the child’s nerve, Molly said, “Honey, what’s your name?”
From below came shuddering, stuttering miseries of sound out of the lost man, a thrashing, a wet sucking noise—and underlying all the rest, a cold whispering as of a thousand voices expressing eager appetites.
The girl began to sob with terror.
Her twin brothers bent to the hole, and Molly warned them to get back, but one of them urged his sister to relent: “Bethany, she wants to help you. Let her help.”
Evidently the thing that wore the mortal coil of the dead priest had gotten to its feet again, for the shotgun boomed.
Through the layered reverberations bouncing back from groin vaults and stained-glass windows, Neil called out to Molly, “Hurry!”
“Bethany,” she implored, “let go of the plank.”
Another crash of shotgun, so soon, suggested that the cleric’s cadaver was not the only immediate threat.
Molly had the girl’s eyes now, and she did not look away from them to see what danger loomed, but said with all the passion that her voice could carry, “Bethany, trust me. I’ll die for you. If you fall, I’ll come in there after you. Trust me.”
A yellow radiance flared behind Molly, the shimmering brightness of thriving flames. The rolling candles must have found combustible material.
The girl’s gaze slid away toward something to the right of Molly, and her sobbing subsided.
The dog. Good Virgil had come boldly to the splintery edge of the hole.
Below, the fat man’s last cry spiraled into a groan and then into silence.
Holding fast to Bethany, looking past her, Molly saw nothing more than shades of blackness moving in the basement, different intensities and textures of restless darkness. The many whispering voices might have been angry urgent speech or only sound without substance.
For a moment Bethany seemed to be in communion with the dog. Then she said to Molly, “Help me,” whereupon the cloud of panic clarified in her green eyes.
Gripping the girl’s upper arms, Molly lifted, as though curling weights. The girl let go of the plank and, kicking as if something were plucking at her feet, came out of the hole, onto the floor of the ambulatory.
Reflections of flames now capered on the walls, whipped bright tails in salamander flourishes across the windows, added luster to wooden surfaces. Molly smelled smoke and saw it curling in greasy coils around her legs.
Urging Bethany and her brothers to move past the shattered floor to safer territory, Molly glanced back and saw real flames, not the reflection of them, in the nave, unfurling and billowing like the flags of a war-mad nation.
Opening the gate in the communion railing, a corpse in fiery clothes came forward, its hair ablaze, but resolute.
Molly turned from that walking tallow and followed the tall man, who followed Bethany and her brothers, around the broken planks, toward Neil and Abby and Johnny, toward the sacristy.
This time the tremors had the power of a seismic event. The floor leaped, fell back, rocked.
The tall man staggered, almost fell into the hole, windmilled his arms, kept his balance, but—
—that cousin to earwigs, brother to centipedes, sister to wasps, that beast which might have been the god of all insects thrummed out of the basement, skewered the man’s abdomen with a stinger as long as a knight’s lance, and took him screaming down into the pit.
Molly felt sudden blistering heat at her back. In her mind’s eye, she saw the fiery hand of the blazing corpse reaching for her hair. She ran.
TALL MAN SCREAMING IN THE DARK BELOW, crackle of combusting wood, hissing of undetermined origin, excited cries of frightened children, and Neil shouting words broken into meaningless fragments of sound by the pounding hammer of Molly’s heart…
He stepped forward, leveling his shotgun at her. She tucked and rolled into the low smoke, and he fired over her.
Although she held her breath, she tasted the greasy vapors and scrambled to her feet, gagging, spitting.
Out of church rows instead of corn rows, across this field where only souls were cultivated, the dead parishioners in their ragged grave clothes approached like scarecrows set walking by sorcery, some on fire and spreading flames as they moved.
The floor quaked, the walls shook, a stained-glass window cracked along a line of leading.
Virgil barked as if to say, Time to go.
The shotgun roared.
Johnny had retrieved the flashlight dropped by the fat man. He gave it to Molly.
All energy and instinct, flashlight in her left hand and pistol in her right, she disdained the knob and kicked open the sacristy door.
Although flapping a dazzle of bright wings behind her, firelight feathered into darkness just past the threshold.
She shouldered through the rebounding door, thrusting recklessly into the room, chasing shadows with the beam, ready to shoot anything that light alone could not banish.
The church rocked, cabinet doors flew open, and she fired two rounds into cassocks and chasubles just to be sure that they were only vestments hanging from a closet rod.
Virgil padded past her, unfazed by the gunfire, quick to the outer door.
Hollow haunting groans and semi-electronic yowls, reminiscent of the voices of whales, rose from the very bones of the church, as if out of a hundred fathoms. This time the floor both trembled and sagged.
Turning, shouting for the kids, Molly discovered that all five had already followed her.
Beyond them, Neil stood in the doorway, facing the sanctuary, prepared to defend their retreat.
The floor had turned spongy, quivering like a membrane with each step she took. She threw open the outer door, and the dog dashed from the church.
Alert for hostile forces—known, unknown, and unimaginable—she led the children into the rectory yard, where the purple light had grown no brighter with the progress of the morning. The ceiling of fog still hung low, so dense that the position of the sun could not be discerned.
Except for their little group, there were no signs of life, Earthborn or otherwise. Black Lake lay bound in stillness, wrapped in muffling mist, as ready for eternity as a pharaoh embalmed for the tomb.
As Neil backed out of the sacristy into the yard, a storm seemed to break inside the church. A hard clap of thunder shuddered the building, as violent as any lightning-chasing crash that ever shook the heavens.
Crumblings of loose mortar rattled out of the stone walls. Dust and paper debris plumed from the open sacristy door.
Surely the floor had collapsed into the basement. The roiling fire damped suddenly, briefly, then flared higher and brighter than before, flamboyantly illuminating the sacred geometries of the colorful windows.
Even this roar brought no citizens into the street. They were huddled in their homes with baseball bats and handguns, or gone to other redoubts—or dead. Or worse than dead: living farms for alien fungus, living egg cases for the entomological wonders of another world.
THE DRAMA OF THE BURNING CHURCH PLAYED bright upon the gloom, but Molly was surfeited with spectacle. Trusting that the collapsed floor and the storm of fire would eradicate the pestilence in the basement and reduce the hag-ridden cadavers to ashes and knobs of charred bones, she turned away and urged the children across the yard, toward the street.
Looking shaken but grimly determined, Neil joined them. “Where now?”
“If Virgil has more places to lead us,” she said, “we’ll follow him, but not until we’ve gone back to the tavern.”
Molly remembered Cassie, the nine-year-old girl with sapphire eyes, daughter of fence-sitters, left behind.
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