Dust felt rude for entering the house of a God he was sure didn’t exist, like he’d broken in. Especially after someone who had dedicated their life to ‘Him’ had invited him in. But this chapel was different to others. Impressively so. With so many spells and wards carved into the walls, some of which he’d never felt before, he soon felt at ease; they were strong, had been set by a man of sincere power, and that strength reminded him of being in the Solution. They also confirmed the rumours that members of the Church were learning magic, which heartened Dust even more; it was about damn time the Vatican brought their power to bear.
Comforting as they were, the wards wouldn’t be enough to hold off concerted attacks from harriers. If the town were in as much trouble as the Father said, there must be something else keeping the danger at bay. Dust scrutinised the chapel and felt channelling and amplifying spells around the pulpit; if he guessed right, the Father was fortifying the chapel with his soul, a very dangerous magic.
The Father stepped in front of Dust. “This way,” he said.
Dust cast another glance at the pulpit then followed. He was led into a hovel at the back of the church, a glorified cupboard with a small bed, a swollen bookshelf and little else. Light struggled into the room as the small window set into the wall was boarded up, like every other pane of glass in the chapel. A faint, warm breeze from the broken window hit Dust the moment the door was opened for him.
Dust went in first. Father Kilkenny squeezed in after him. There wasn’t enough room for the two of them to stand comfortably so the Father sat on his bed. Not that priests bedroom needed room for more than one.
Uneven joints closed the door. Then Father Kilkenny’s face gained a decade; fatigue soaked into dark pools beneath his eyes, eroding deep wrinkles down his cheeks and causing his face to slacken. He couldn’t hold himself together now he didn’t have to. If he had been fortifying the chapel with his soul then it was understandable; he’d been almost killing himself night after night.
“Tell me about the harriers, Father,” Dust said kindly.
The priest took a minute, gathered his thoughts. “It started only recently and without warning. Jesus but we were unprepared. Crucifix doesn’t get attacked, you see; the Lord’s power has kept us in the Badlands but not of them, if you catch my meaning. The hills help as they’re filled with iron, the Lord’s metal.”
That was a common superstition. In Dust’s experience, iron was just as good as steel. “How did the harriers attack?”
“They command demons. That first night, their monsters descended onto Crucifix like a plague. They came in the guise of children; a host of them walked into Jimmy’s tavern, scaring the Hell out of the locals even before foul wings burst from their bodies. Then they started to… to feed, to eat.” Hot anger gave him energy enough to hiss, “They ate my flock.”
“The first thing I knew of it was when people started pounding on the chapel door. I was able to get most of the town in before the demons could get to them and fended off the damned things with prayer.” Shining tears formed in the corners of his wrinkled eyes. “We lost six people that day. For a town like Crucifix, that was a massacre.”
So the Father thought prayer was fending the demons off. Dust saw no need to dispel that notion either. Besides he shouldn’t waste time, regardless of what he’d said to Naismith. “Go on.”
The priest’s tears fell through the deep grooves in the Father’s face like tumbling corpses. He idly wiped them away and continued. “The next day, I put wards up and promised people that they would be safe. So they slept in here. And the demons came again. I didn’t see what guise they wore that time but I didn’t need to; they were violent and sickening, twisted and determined as they battered my walls. The Lord’s protection barely held but it did hold; the demons left at sunrise without tasting blood.
Dust didn’t want to sit through Father Kilkenny’s whole life story. But the thought of hurrying him along caused his tattoo to warm; he had to listen to this.
Father Kilkenny sighed. The sun must have disappeared behind a cloud because the room darkened further. “Then, on the third night, the harriers came along with their demons. They sounded human – angry, arrogant, cruel – and brought big irons like the one you carry.” The priest pointed to Dust’s normal gun. “They shot the bejesus out of the chapel as those demons attacked. Two more people died. Good people. People I knew…”
Dust put a hand on the priest’s shoulder to soothe him. But his mind was elsewhere. Why would harriers only attack at night? Why not constantly hammer the chapel with their ‘demons’? But then, if Dust were pulling at loose threads, how could mercenaries even control the Father’s ‘demons’ in the first place? They had to be cultists rather than harriers to do so. Except, again, cultists would have battered the church until their skin was raw and their bones broken, would kill themselves to earn the favour of their Gods. Cultists would never allow the town a whole day to recover.
Dust decided to yank that thread. “And they didn’t ask for anything?”
Father Kilkenny looked up. Though he was framed in shadow, Dust saw his eyes were filled with pain, his face pale. The hands that had held his head quivered. It seemed the priest was about to let go of something that had been gnawing at him. “They did. That night they asked for something, demanded it, and they’ve been after it all this time. Thankfully no-one else understood the demands but this whole town has been pummelled for it. The people I tend have died for it. It was only that third night that they worked out I have it and they’ve tried to get at it, and me, ever since. I think that’s the only reason more people haven’t died…”
“What’re they after?” Dust asked, curiosity rising as the same rate as his dread.
“A Word. Perhaps the most powerful Word ever taken.”
All thoughts of Penelope left Dust. He had to quell a strange sense of excitement. “How’d you get a Word?”
The Father took a deep breath. “A woman snuck into Crucifix and came straight to the church to claim sanctuary. Margaret, her name was. It was the Lord’s will that she came to me. She was covered in a large black cloak, a pale face staring out from dark velvet. As soon as I closed the door behind her, she dropped the cloak. Dust, I’ve never seen anything like it; she was covered in fresh scars and patterns, forms that I know to be sinful and ungodly. She was bleeding from her groin. And something… bulbous and demonic had been grafted onto her shoulders, something that shook and writhed as she fell to her knees and screamed for forgiveness.”
Dust knew what the self-mutilation meant. “She was a cultist of That Which Sins.”
To his surprise, Father Kilkenny shook his head violently. “No, this was much bigger than that. Have you ever heard of the ‘Vessels of the Gods’?”
“No.” It didn’t sound good though.
Father Kilkenny gave him a small nod. “I’m hardly surprised. I doubt that… Never mind,” he said. Dust wanted to press him but his tattoo warned him not to. “The ‘Vessels of the Gods’ are people invested with the essence of the archdemons of the Triangle; they are the opposite of Saints, who know the Lord. Through painful ritual, long-term prayer or some horrible sacrifice, a cultist or a priest or whoever can become a Vessel.”
Dust turned his head to one side. “Why?”