Dust and Sand – Chapter 24 – By Sean P. Wallace
Father Kilkenny leant against his lectern and took a deep breath before continuing. “For they are wholly given unto me from among the children of Israel; instead of such as open every womb, even instead of the firstborn of all the children of Israel, have I taken them unto me,” he said, speaking slowly, purposefully, saving his energy as much as he could.
Still, sweat poured from his brow as he read chapter eight from the Book of Numbers, not a popular choice but powerful nonetheless. The changes that Dust had made to his net of holy protection had made the chapel safer but sustaining it required even more from him than before. It was nothing he couldn’t handle for one evening but he would need a good rest after this.
His flock were laying down before him, peaceful as the saved, getting as good a night’s sleep as possible. The hope that this would be their last night here had settled them more than any promise the Father could have given. Even Emmett had decided to use his hospitality, though he shot Father Kilkenny the occasional dagger as he lay beside the chamberpots.
“For all the firstborn of the children of Israel are mine, both man and beast,” Father Kilkenny continued. “On the day that I smote every firstborn in the land of Egypt I sanctified them for myself. And I have taken the Levites for all the firstborn of the children of Israel.”
A deep howl, much like a wolf’s, heralded the coming of the Devil’s children. The Father was up to chapter seventeen when the horrible thudding of dozens of feet echoed out between Crucifix’s hills and the demons of the Badlands roared down and clashed against the chapel’s walls.
Instantly the Father’s protection flared and it did so with an ascendant grace that brought sweet tears to his eyes; his heart rose in his chest and he felt the strength of the Lord crackle across his skin. Golden energy poured into the chapel from each of its windows, so ubiquitous that no shadows were cast by the press or resting believers, and choruses of angels sang out the Lord’s praise. The influx of power and its golden light overcame his senses and surrounded him with a sweet world of the word of the Lord. The drumbeat of the demons’ assaults were the only sounds he could hear that he didn’t make himself, a deep and caustic rhythm.
In their time of need, He had come through. His joy overwhelmed any weakness he had been feeling and In this paradise, the Father roared out his faith and each word echoed into an endless golden plain.
Over time, the number of demons assaulting them reduced and the profane pounding lessened, presumably Dust’s work. The drumming had seemed like an intrusion into this heavenly golden sphere at first, something untenable in a small portion of rooted on Earth, but when the drumming disappeared entirely the Father found that it had sustained the rapture; the golden world faded in its absence and he found himself in his chapel once more.
Weakness and mortality flooded back into him. He had to catch himself to not fall to his knees now the Lord no longer propped him up. Gripping his lectern, his vision blurred and his ears rang. Copper covered his tongue as he caught his breath and when he wiped his mouth with the back of his shaking hand he saw crimson amidst his spittle.
“Are you okay, Father?” someone asked.
He looked up and saw Grammy Ridgewell, she who had screamed at a surprise scorpion, sat up in her make-shift bed. She was not the only one; his whole flock were awake now, unable to sleep through such brightness. The pale torch the Father read his Bible by cast them in deep shadows but he could see the mixed reverie and concern in their eyes.
The Father wiped his hand against the black material of his cloth. “I am.”
“I tell you what,” Jimmy said, looking round at Emmett in particular. The bar owner didn’t have his hair oiled as he preferred to so it hung loosely around his head. “I think many of us owe you an apology, Father.”
“What…” The Father couldn’t give a whole sentence without a second breath. “What… makes you say that?”
Jimmy stood. He picked up his bowler hat, a once-expensive thing battered by time, and held it against his chest. “Some amongst us have been making… comments about you Father. Such people have not trusted the way that you’ve been doing things around here.”
“Hey now!” Abel Ridgewell shouted. “Don’t talk like you weren’t amongst them, Jimmy.”
Jimmy turned red. “Well, I suppose I have questioned you as well. And I won’t hold myself out as a better example; I should’ve trusted you more, as should many of us. So I guess we all owe you an apology. I’m sorry Father.”
Many of his flock agreed, their apologies echoing around his chapel. The Father watched them beg his forgiveness and tears formed in his eyes. His flock had accepted him, come to trust him not only as a protector but as someone with the authority to talk about the Lord. As much as the strength and power of the Vatican’s magic had proved God was with him, this apology confirmed it even more; the Lord wanted him to know he’d done the right things, that protecting the Word was as important as he’d thought it was.
His cheeks twitched beyond his control, threatening to drip this expression of his joy onto his Bible. Before this could happen, he closed the book.
“I can’t tell you how much that means to me,” he said, wiping his eyes.
“Well, I ain’t apologizing,” Grammy Ridgewell said, crossing her arms. “I never doubted him for a minute. Not one minute. The church has always looked after us and ours and I didn’t expect anything less from Kieran.”
“Oh hush up, Emma,” said Liam Ridgewell, her husband of fifty years.
The Father laughed. “And I thank you as well, Emma.”
“I noticed you didn’t say anything, Emmett,” Mary said pointedly.
The drunk shot her a dirty look but continued his silence.
“Ignore him, Mary,” Jimmy said, casting a sly glance backward. “He doesn’t have quite so much to say when he doesn’t have a drink in him.”
The Father was too weak and too grateful to point out where said drink came from.
Grammy Ridgewell, though, had the gumption to say what he wouldn’t. “Well, you’re a time kind to talk when you’re the one who serves him all those drinks.”
That shut Jimmy up. He sat back down, shamefaced and quietened for the time being.
Father Kilkenny tried to step away from his lectern and his drained legs betrayed him, pitched him forward. The wooden stage rose to meet him like an ascending angel and smacked him. Hard. Air flew out of his lungs, taking a cry of pain with it.
His whole congregation got to their feet and rushed to help him, gasping and calling his name. Weakly, like a newborn, he tried to push them away but they helped him to his feet despite his protestations.
“You… you don’t need to…”
“You hold your tongue now, Father,” Abel Ridgwell said. His strapping form had wasted away during these troubled times but he was still as broad of shoulder as he was of accent. “You’ve spent long enough looking after us. It’s time we look after you.”
“Liam! Don’t you curse in the house of the Lord!” Grammy Ridgewell exclaimed.
The Father smiled. “Thank you all. I… well, thank you.”
Though they too were drained, his flock carried him over to a pew and lay him down like a fallen hero. It was an honor he scarcely deserved but maybe it was time to rely on his flock for a while. He closed his eyes and felt himself begin to slip away, fall beneath a restful sleep he felt the Lord had sent as a reward.
But then he realised Dust was still out there, was still fighting to protect Crucifix. He wouldn’t be able to rest until he’d asked after him.
“The… Wanted Man…What’s happened with… him?”
“You’re asking about him at such a time, Father?” asked Emmett, his tone poisonous and sly.
“Hush up!” Mary hissed.
“What’s happened?” the Father pressed.
He opened his eyes and caught Abel sharing a look of concern with his wife, Susanne, across the crowd huddled over him. He’d known his flock wouldn’t approve of Dust but that look showed a fear and unhappiness that he hadn’t expected.
“Can… one of you… check?”
“Please? He… he chose to protect you. He… didn’t have to. He and his charge. A young woman, Susanne,” he said, lolling his head over to the young Mrs Ridgewell. “A young woman who… I want to know… is safe.”
Susanne Ridgewell, a small woman but a tough one used to hard work and graft, looked at the floor. “Go and check, Abel.”
“They’re probably okay,” Abel complained. “We can’t hear nothing.”
Abel was right; the town was silent. The Father didn’t know if that were a good thing or a bad one. And not knowing gnawed at him. What if Dust was wounded, in need of aid that Naismith couldn’t provide? What if they were dead and the demons had merely halted to consume their corpses? He couldn’t rest until he knew how the battle had gone, until he knew it was safe to.
“Then I’ll… do it myself,” the Father said. He tried to sit up but half a dozen hands pushed him back down onto his pew.
“No, Father,” Liam Ridgewell said. “Abel’ll go and check. Go on, son, take a look.”
The tower of a man looked from his father to his wife. His shoulders sagged. “Okay,” he said before lumbering away to do as asked.
In the silence and the waiting, the Father felt the world float around him. He hadn’t known fatigue like it since he’d been out on patrol for the Texan army thirteen days out of fourteen during a period of heavy Mexican bandit activity. He wasn’t yet a Father then but he’d learned the importance of God when that thirteenth order came in and he rose onto bloody feet to do another sixty mile circuit. On their return, he and his unit had saluted a superior officer who cared little for immigrants then fallen into bed for a whole day. A similar period of rest would be needed now, no doubt.
Someone started speaking. The Father shook his head and tried to return to the present. With intense concentration, he brought the chapel back into focus and saw Abel Ridgewell standing over him like he were a toddler.
“Pardon?” he said.
“I said, there are a hell of a lot of demon corpses out there, Father.”
He smiled weakly. “And the… Wanted Man?”
“No sign of him. Or his… ‘charge’. It’s dead out there. Silent.”
That was probably a good sign. The Father took a deep breath and felt some tension leave his body; Dust, Naismith and Shadows Fade would be out there now, clearing up the last of the demons or interrogating the harriers. They might even find the nook where Penelope was being held by themselves, not need to bring out a drained old priest to rescue her.
Which, he realised, might have been Dust’s aim all along. He thought back to the strengthening of his chapel; whilst he couldn’t disagree that it had worked, it’d dramatically drained the Father. He wouldn’t put it beyond Dust to have over-blown the protection to incapacitate him, ensure that he wouldn’t run out and risk himself to protect Penelope Chalmers as well.
His smile widened. “That cheeky git,” he whispered.
“Pardon, Father?” Abel asked.
“Nothing,” he said, closing his eyes and giving himself over to his tiredness. “Nothing at all.”
Then he realised that Abel hadn’t gone to the front door to check the outside world but the rear of the chapel. The thought swam through the fatigue’s thick waters but wouldn’t sink and let him go to merciful sleep.
Slowly, he opened his eyes and rolled over to face the back of the room. Shock jolted him; there was a great rend in the rear wall, one torn open by cruel fists while the Father was lost in his magic. One of the demons that had done the damage was still visible through the gap, a hunched mass of black muscles and sinews. It was motionless, a corpse, but horrifying nonetheless.
Father Kilkenny sat up quicker than he should and was assaulted by dizziness. No one noticed, his flock too busy tearing bits of wood from the other repairs to cover the hole. That wouldn’t be enough, not if the cult came back, decided to have another go when the place was unguarded. Or even if a wild demon wandered by; Crucifix’s wider wards were atrophied now, could easily be surpassed.
Unevenly, he got back to his feet. His clothing was lead around his shoulders, dragging him down and making his skin cold. The Father took a deep breath and stepped away from the pew.
“Sit down, you fool,” Grammy Ridgewell said.
“I can’t.” With a shaking hand, he pointed to the great rend. “Not while that remains.”
“We can defend ourselves,” Abel said.
The Father shook his head slowly. “I’m afraid not. The demons could be interested in us still. We can’t risk it. I can’t risk it.”
His flock shared looks of disbelief, of discomfort, as he took delicate steps over to his lectern. He hadn’t taken so long to walk somewhere since he was old enough to have his own teeth but he kept going and gripped the wood of his stage tightly when he was near.
“At least wait until we’re under attack again,” Mary pleaded. ” Please.”
He looked at her big soulful eyes, the eyes of someone scared that they would lose a friend. The Father supposed she might; he’d always known the Vatican-approved magic was extracting something vital from him but what he didn’t know was how much more of it he still had to give. However much it was, he’d gladly sacrifice it for his flock, to make up for the mistake that killed Margaret and so many of his flock, to make up for ruining their lives and their homes.
But… maybe he could wait a little. He held out his arm. “Alright. We’ll do this your way, Mary. Help me up.”
She gave him a small smile as she took his hand. “Sure.”
Mary took his weight and carried him up the small set of stairs beside the stage. The Father let her set him down by his lectern and he rested his head against it. Then he closed his aching eyes. It wouldn’t be for long. He promised himself that just before he fell asleep.