In his dream, Father Kilkenny saw last Sunday happen again.
It had been quiet. The beasts and demons always keep their distance on Sundays and that continued even during the troubles; it was the Lord’s day after all, a day when they had no power over the hearts of men. As a result, the Father found himself with precious free time the last few Sundays, time he often used to catch up on his sleep or preach to his flock.
But not last Sunday, no. Last Sunday he’d been angry.
This was just after the winged children had appeared again, after he’d spent hours placating grieving parents, telling them their children were safe in the Lord’s Kingdom. Seeing his flock weep so made the hothead in him want to act. So he’d headed out into the Badlands, into the eighth circle of Hell, to find a cause for the troubles. ‘God helps those who help themselves,’ after all.
What a fool he’d been.
His dreams were usually irrational – a likely by-product of his once-great thirst – and this one was no exception; he was ten again as he left Crucifix, a wiry Irish boy with more hair than strength and more freckles than brains.
The Badlands seized him immediately, a dusty wasteland that sipped at his strength and ground down his resolve. It was dark and strange tastes seasoned the air. Keeping low, he climbed up hills that jutted like broken bones. His fingers bled from invisible bites whenever he touched the ground and the foul reek of corruption, sin and hatred filled his nose. He could hear nothing but the furious frenzy of his heart.
Time jumped forward and he was sharing a great plain with him; the murderer, the dark man. Tall, a horror in black leather, the dark man walked as though accompanying a pretty woman through a verdant park. The spurs on his grim old shoes echoed like hammer blows.
Though he stood only six feet tall, the deep shadow he cast was maybe a mile long. It was no natural shadow, more a deep marsh of decay that promised horrible diseases and parasites. Father Kilkenny watched as the shadow crawled to meet him and his feet sank into that murk which filled his boots.
Then it began dragging him at the dark man’s gentle pace.
Father Kilkenny quaked. The dark man was death, horrible death by pale skin and slim hands. He struggled to free his feet from the shadow but his every struggle drew him further and further into that terrible mire.
He tried screaming but his mouth refused to move. He put his small, bleeding hands to his face and found that his mouth had disappeared. No, he realised; he’d left it behind in the chapel, where he’d absent-mindedly used it as a bookmark.
Through his nose, the Father heaved great panicked breaths.
His discomfort seemed to please the dark man. Father Kilkenny didn’t know how he knew that but he did. He again thrashed about like a caged animal to free himself but to no avail; wherever the dark man was headed, Father Kilkenny was going too.
Someone screamed in the distance. Father Kilkenny tried to find them but the landscape shifted before he could; now he and the dark man were at opposite ends of a deep valley, facing each other. The dark man’s long shadow plunged down the sheer rock now, not able to reach the Father. No, it had another target now; a mile or so below them stood fifty men in familiar uniforms, Texan soldiers, who were ankle-deep in darkness. They surrounded the Virgin Mary, had their rifles nestled in the hollows of their shoulders and they looked panicked. And who wouldn’t be if they were protecting so precious a cargo?
The Father could move now he was free of the dark man’s shadow so he knelt and put his hands together in prayer. Those soldiers had an innocent to protect, perhaps the most innocent human to have ever been, so the Lord must be entreated to protect them. Eyes closed, the boy Kilkenny sent his prayers to Him.
But there was only a soft laugh in return, a deep and disbelieving sound.
When the Father opened his eyes, his hands were tied together by a rope of thorns that dug into his flesh, brought welts of blood to the surface. The thorns bound his hands and his struggles only made them tighten.
He looked around for support, left and right, up and down, as the thorns’ grip on him intensified but found none. The dark man had disappeared, though, which left him hopeful until he was the dark man at the base of the valley. Fifty crucifixes surrounded him and he clutched the Virgin Mary. The Mother of God dangled like a rag doll from his bony hands and wept blood.
“No!” Father Kilkenny screamed.
And that was when he awoke panting. He was on his feet, hands pressed together. For a moment, he was still in the dream, still ten, and could not understand where the dark man had gone or why had he been brought to a small dark room that smelled of old paper. Then his senses returned; the dark man did not have the Virgin Mary and his hands were not bound by thorns.
Feeling foolish, he sat on his bed. The sheets were soaked with sweat. So were his bedclothes.