A Duel With A Devil

The hut’s interior was exactly as they had left it: the same stench defiled the air, and again Adelko found himself gagging on the foul atmosphere. The walls were daubed with dried faeces and blood; the young monk shuddered at the memory of the girl gouging strips of flesh off her body in a frenzy.

That had been three nights ago, when her condition was at its worst. He could not recall how many of the Redeemer’s psalms it had taken to compel her back into bed on that occasion.

In the faint morning light peering through the single covered window Adelko could see her lying in bed, only her head discernible above the soiled blanket. In the half gloom it looked as though she were sleeping, though the novice knew that Gizel had not done that for a tenday now.

Only when his mentor lit the first tallow candle on the makeshift table near the entrance did the thing inside her show any sign of life. Hissing resentfully it forced the girl’s head to look up at the two monks without moving the rest of her body.

The eyelids flicked open. Soulless orbs scrutinised the pair balefully. Her pupils were horribly dilated, the bloodshot whites flecked with an unnatural yellowish tinge. The suppurating skin on the girl’s face began to twitch spasmodically, as though a thousand nervous tics suddenly consumed her morbid flesh.

Unperturbed, Adelko’s mentor lit the second candle on the other side of the entrance. Turning to face the possessed girl, the adept brandished his circifix. It was a simple silver rood, depicting the Redeemer being broken on the Wheel – but there was power in such a thing, if wielded by a true initiate.

As it had done on previous occasions, the thing that was and was not Gizel flinched back, pulling up the dirty blanket to abjure the hated symbol.

With a deft movement of his other hand Adelko’s mentor reached into the folds of his grey habit and produced a silver phial, flicking several drops at her green-tinged hand. A piteous cry escaped the girl as the drops burned her fingers, causing her to let go of the blanket. To Adelko’s ears it sounded like an infant in pain, but he knew better than to fall for the deception.

Moving in swiftly, he presented his own circifix and before long the two monks had Gizel backed up against the wall, crouching feebly on the far end of the bed.

In a sonorous voice the adept began to recite the Psalm of Banishing: ‘O Reus Almighty, in thy heavenly kingdom, we implore thee: grant thy humble servants the power to cast out this denizen of the Other Side! Palomedes, sacred Prophet and Redeemer, broken on the Wheel in mortal form for our salvation, grant us now the strength of mind to resist this chimera of wickedness! In thy name, and by the grace of the Unseen, let the servants of the Fallen One be driven from the mortal vale!’

The thing that was and was not Gizel squealed louder, writhing around on the filthy cot and trying in vain to block out the hated words. Flicking more drops at her, Adelko’s mentor began to address the spirit directly.

‘No more shall you torment this innocent creature of the earth! Release that which is not yours to own! The works of Abaddon shall melt before the burning zeal of the righteous, as tallow melts beneath the flame! The deceits of Sha’amiel shall be blown asunder as mist before a keen wind! Look on the Wheel, the unbroken circle of our faith, devil-spawn, and despair!’

Recognising his cue, Adelko stammered the appropriate response from his copy of The Holy Book Of Psalms And Scriptures.

‘It is the power of the Redeemer that compels thee! His body was broken but through his death the Creed was born! The aegis of our faith shall turn aside the sword of Azazel!’

His young voice sounded reedy in his ears. Adelko hoped he had mustered the necessary conviction, as he had done yesterday. For the first three days he had struggled to channel the Redeemer’s words properly; exorcisms were a lot harder to conduct than he’d previously reckoned.

His mentor picked up the counter-response, again reciting scripture flawlessly from memory: ‘It is the power of the Redeemer that commands thee! The fleshless horsemen of Abaddon shall turn and flee before the bright wings of the Archangels! The honest man shall not fear, though the stings of Ma’alfeccnu’ur assail him! Tell us your name, foul spirit, that we may encircle it with words of holy prayer, and send thee back to Gehenna!’

Over and over they repeated the litany, and the fifth morning of their clash with demonkind grew old. As the candles burned down, Adelko felt his strength waning too. Despite the brisk weather the hut grew steadily warmer until it was stiflingly hot; the sweat poured from his body, soaking through his brown novice’s habit.

Throughout the ordeal the thing that was and was not Gizel continued to toss and turn frantically while screaming piteously in a thin high voice that was not her own. It sounded to Adelko like the noise a burning child would make.

He felt an unseen presence fighting him with unearthly weapons; a thousand doubts and worries that had never entered his mind before the exorcism gnawed at his soul. Were it not for the Redeemer’s words he knew he might well have succumbed to the spirit’s power and been driven mad.

But today he noticed a difference: that power was growing weaker, the unclean voices in his head fainter.

It was shortly before noon when they finally broke the spirit’s will. Brandishing his circifix, the older monk bellowed for the umpteenth time: ‘By the Seven Seraphim and the blood of the Redeemer, through his agency as the Lord Almighty’s right hand, I command thee, demon, TELL US YOUR NAME!!!’

Suddenly sitting bolt upright, the thing that was and was not Gizel stared at them again, face and limbs contorting horribly, her skin undulating across her flesh with a sick life of its own. From deep inside her young throat an awful and ancient voice spat out a handful of words: ‘My… name… is… BELAACH!’

The older monk’s eyes widened in horror. For one brief but crucial second he was robbed of his composure. His grip on the circifix loosened slightly, his psychic hold on the fiend inside the headman’s daughter doing likewise.

Seizing its opportunity, the demon called Belaach propelled Gizel’s body forwards. Even at the best of times, she was only a slight thing, but the strength of ten bears was in her now. With a malignant hiss, she struck the rood from the older monk’s hand, breaking its chain and sending it skittering against the wall.

With her other hand she grasped the adept’s that clutched the phial, whilst raking at his face with a savage strength. The two fell to the ground grappling, the monk desperately repeating the Psalm he had so calamitously broken off from uttering. The holy words instantly weakened the demon’s grip on the girl, but even so it had recovered a temporary advantage not easily dispelled.

Letting go of his own circifix, which hung by its chain around his neck, Adelko fumbled for his holy water.

He had to risk not being able to keep the thing at bay with his own rood, because he couldn’t abandon the scripture book – he still didn’t know every word by heart. Though they had recited little else for the past four days, the Psalms of Banishing and Abjuration were lengthy and complex passages – they had caught many a journeyman out before, his mentor had said. Never mind a mere novice like him.

He had to hope the thing would keep attacking his mentor long enough to give him a chance to help him…

Producing the phial while continuing to read aloud, Adelko rained drops down on Gizel’s back. The thing inside her howled, causing her to shrink away as her body responded to its tormentor’s diabolical instincts. Seizing his chance, the older monk broke her weakened grip and scrambled frantically across the rubbish-strewn floor towards his circifix.

With an ugly hiss the possessed girl turned to face Adelko. Instinctively, he dropped his scripture book and reached for his circifix, giving the possessed girl another splash of holy water as he did.

Faced with the hallowed drops and the holy rood, the thing that was not Gizel screeched and flinched back again towards the cot. Even so, the loss of one recital might have allowed Belaach to regain enough strength for another lunge.

But to his elation, Adelko had not dropped a syllable. The words he’d once feared he might never learn now came to him flawlessly – correctly pronounced and spoken with perfect conviction. He did know them after all!

By now the older monk had recovered his own circifix – and his composure – and working fluently together again they forced the possessed girl back on to the cot.

Now for the endgame.

Adelko’s mentor uttered the final verse of the Psalm of Banishing, inserting the demon’s name in the appropriate places: ‘Belaach, denizen of the Third Tier of the City of Burning Brass, by the power of the Seven Seraphim, the Redeemer and the spirit-father Reus Almighty, I compel thee to return to thy tower!

‘Belaach, let the hellfires there engulf thee, let darkness enshroud thee! Return now to languish in the prison to which thy black betrayal condemned thee aeons ago!

‘Belaach, pollute this mortal vale no more! The Third Tier awaits thee! Go now and seek thy infernal master, crawl to his feet like the serpent thou art, and trouble mortalkind no longer! It is the heavenly powers that compel thee!’

‘It is the heavenly powers that compel thee!’ chimed Adelko. At least this part of the exorcism wasn’t hard to remember.

The demon gave vent to a horrid shriek as it reluctantly exited Gizel’s body, which convulsed frightfully before collapsing in a still heap on the bed.

As the spirit left her the shriek did not diminish, but seemed to hang in the air, disembodied.

And then Adelko heard it speak one last time, pronouncing voiceless words that echoed in his mind: So ye have cast me out of this wretch’s body, and won a skirmish! Well done, wise monks, well done! Ye have earned yourselves a prophecy, so mark this:

Hell’s Prophet shall reawaken/the Five and Seven and One shall lead the hosts of Gehenna to victory
Silver shall be tarnished black as night/the fires will rise and consume all in their path/the righteous shall moan beneath the scourge
Those who oppose us shall scream for eternity/the flesh shall be broiled from their bones/their souls shall be bound in burning brass
For the war of worlds is coming…

Which side will you be on, my clever friars? I bid thee a fond farewell, until we meet again…!

A gust of rank air suddenly swept through the room; the low-burning candles went out and the hut was plunged into gloom. Gradually, light from outside began to penetrate again. All was silent now but for the sound of Adelko’s master intoning a blessing over Gizel, the customary closing ritual for a successful exorcism.

At his bidding Adelko went over to the window and pulled back the curtain. More light spilled into the room; weak and grey though it was, he felt glad of it. Looking back he saw his mentor drawing the blanket over Gizel, who appeared to be in a deep exhausted sleep.

Her face was deathly pale and bore the marks of her self-mutilation, ugly red grooves caked over with encrusted blood. But it had at least lost its ghastly hue and looked like mortal flesh again, albeit torn flesh.

Adelko’s mentor walked over to the entrance and pulled the hide flap aside. Two timorous peasants were standing outside guarding the hut – village folk had been known to take matters into their own hands where the possessed were concerned. Ignoring their startled expressions, the adept addressed them in a flat weary voice.

‘Summon the elders. Our work is done.’

An anxious crowd of village folk was soon gathered around the hut to hear Adelko’s mentor break the good news. It being Rest-day, no one had gone to graze their flocks in the highland valleys below, and most of the four score inhabitants of Rykken had chosen to stay indoors and add their prayers to the friars’ pious exhortations.

Foremost among them was their headman Lubo, beside himself with relief and desperate to look upon his daughter, now free of the dreadful spirit that had possessed her so cruelly. Adelko’s master gently but firmly insisted that rest was best for Gizel, to which Lubo reluctantly assented before inviting the pair back to his hut to break their fast.

At the mention of food Adelko’s ears pricked up. It had been a long and challenging morning, and he was rightly famished – even the prospect of poor peasant fare sounded like a feast fit for the great banqueting halls of the Free Kingdoms.

Presently the two friars were taking their much-needed meal in Lubo’s hut as Adelko’s mentor gave him a full account of Gizel’s condition. The headman’s watery grey eyes held a mixture of relief and gratitude at his daughter’s salvation, mingled with sorrow for her suffering. He was a short rustic fellow in late middle age with skin like the gnarled bark of an old tree.

His rotund, flaxen-haired wife Lara had managed to stop weeping tears of joy long enough to busy herself with putting a fire on and feeding her child’s saviours. The adept had had to stop her throwing herself on the ground and kissing the hem of his grey habit as though he were the Prophet himself.

Adelko was too busy with his second bowl of gruel to pay much heed to his mentor’s post-exorcism counsel. It wasn’t aimed at him, although strictly speaking he was obliged to listen as the adept might test him at any time on his knowledge of the Argolian Order and its ways. Thus far he had proved an able student, or at least he hoped he had. But few novices at Ulfang Monastery were lucky enough to be seconded to its most celebrated adept, and true to his reputation Horskram of Vilno could be a stern taskmaster.

‘Master Horskram, may the Redeemer be praised!’ exclaimed Lubo. ‘A poor mountain peasant like me can never hope to repay you, except with humble prayers that the Almighty grants you a long and blessed life! But tell me truly, will my poor Gizel ever be… right again?’

The adept met the peasants’ anxious stares with a reassuring smile.

‘She will live, though her body will take time to heal and her mind will not recover immediately from such an affliction,’ he replied. ‘Keep her fed and warm, and above all be vigilant at night – make sure she doesn’t fall asleep with the candle on again! Devilspawn are drawn to such signals – for an unguarded flame reminds them of the hellfire they use to torment their victims on the Other Side. Before we leave I will daub the sign of the Redeemer on her – that should help her if there are any further attempts to claim her body and corrupt her soul.’

‘You think there will be… others?’ The faces of the peasants grew anxious again.

But Horskram shook his head. ‘It’s just a precaution, never fear. The denizens of the Other Side sometimes return to inhabit the recently possessed while they are still weak, but it’s rare. It’s more likely that, having been cast out of one person, they seek another where the prayers of our Order are not so fresh. Reus willing, no further harm shall befall your daughter.’

‘The Redeemer be praised!’ Lubo exclaimed again. ‘And thanks be to the Almighty for the friars of St Argo!’

‘I thought I’d lost her forever, master monk,’ said Lara, breaking into tears again. ‘I can never thank you enough! Oh, glory be, what a day is this!’

Horskram smiled graciously and stretched briefly on his stool, before taking another sip of goats milk. Despite the recent ordeal he showed little sign of physical fatigue – during their past six months on the road Adelko had noticed that his mentor rarely seemed to tire. Although he must have seen sixty winters, his robust frame remained gifted with the vigour of youth.

Adelko could not help but reflect somewhat ruefully at how much this contrasted with his own chubby body. But then he had seen only fourteen summers, and he supposed he had time left to grow yet. He certainly hoped so – a little more height and a little less puppy fat would suit him well.

‘No need to thank us,’ Horskram was saying. ‘Our reward is the work we do – every soul saved is a stroke against the Fallen One, as the Prophet sayeth. Now, I will put the sign on your daughter while she is sleeping, and then we shall be on our way. There is just one more thing I would ask you – are you quite sure, as you said before, that Gizel had not fallen into any… trouble before she was taken?’

They had been through this four nights ago, when the pair of them arrived at Rykken in the pouring rain after word of Gizel’s plight reached them at the nearby priory where they were staying. Lubo had answered this question as candidly as he could – or so Adelko thought – along with all the others the adept had asked him as part of his preliminary enquiries.

Hearing the matter brought up again now, in a more relaxed atmosphere, gave the adept’s words a more pointed slant. For a moment no one said anything, and the fire crackled loudly in Adelko’s ears.

Then with a bemused shrug Lubo replied: ‘Master monk, what more assurances can I give? As Reus sees all, to the best of my knowledge my daughter was – is – a good and virtuous girl. She prays on Rest-day as a good Palomedian should, and on all the others you’ll find her helping her ma, as a good daughter ought. Until now, that is.’

The village headman gazed at the dirt floor of his hut, sadness creeping over him again.

‘A more dutiful child you could not hope for, Master Horskram,’ said Lara in a voice that now betrayed a mother’s pride. ‘Why, since she was a little lass I’ve barely had a day’s trouble with her! And as for the menfolk – if that’s what you’re gettin’ at – well she’s had no want of offers, but she’s turned them down, every one! Said her duty was to her family, and she’d have no business marrying a man and takin’ up with his kin. I ask you, sir, what more could honest folk expect from a good daughter?’

Horskram nodded, giving the kindly couple another reassuring smile. ‘I quite understand. Please don’t be offended by my asking again. I am sure Gizel is indeed as pure of heart as you say she is. It’s my job to make sure of these things, that’s all… and now, I’ll look in on her once more before we depart. Adelko, put aside that bowl and come along!’

Taking one last mouthful before reluctantly leaving Lara’s watery gruel, Adelko did as he was told. Their leave-taking of the grateful peasants was cordial enough, but as they rejoined the trail outside Adelko noticed that his master’s face had darkened again.

While Horskram was daubing the sign of the Wheel on Gizel, Adelko went back to the hut where they had slept to pack up their things and ready their horses. He had just finished loading on the saddlebags when his master returned. The village was quiet; the peasants had returned indoors to spend the rest of the day giving prayers of thanks for Gizel’s deliverance.

Slinging their iron-shod quarterstaves across their backs, the two Argolians took to the saddle and followed the trail out of Rykken at a brisk canter. A thick mist had begun to fill the valley, nestling against the knuckled crags of the highland ranges as afternoon slid inexorably towards dusk.

Resigning himself to a night of snatched sleep under open skies, Adelko consoled himself with the thought that he would soon look upon the home he had not seen for nearly five years – Narvik was a day’s ride away and Horskram had said they could stop there on the way to their next assignment. The thought of his long-missed family and friends was a welcome antidote to the cheerless road they now took.

Once or twice before they stopped to make camp he glanced sidelong at his mentor, but the older monk had fallen into one of his brooding silences. The dark expression had not left his face.