Battle Cat vs. The Nightmare Child

The noon bells of St. Francis were already ringing by the time I walked up the steps to the great doors that opened on the old church’s sanctuary. It was a late start to the day for me, but after spending most of the night tracking down an imp that had nearly caused a panic in Long Island, I deserved it. I was surprised to see Brother Allen sitting on a pew near the door, staring up at the stained glass windows decorated with images of the last supper.

When the monk heard the door open he jumped up, his big belly jiggling beneath his brown robes. “There you are Father!”

“Is everything okay?” I asked. The monk was rarely up and around before noon himself, and even then he was usually downstairs doing whatever he did on the bank of computers that took up a large part of the basement.

“It’s the vicar, he’s here.” I frowned at Brother Allen, looking around. Brother Allen just shook his head. “He’s in your office, I told him I’d send you straight in.”

“Does he know…?” I asked

“Not exactly,” the monk cut me off before I could bring up St. Francis’ demon-hunting mission out loud. “He just knows that you have the Vatican’s trust.”

Did I? When I left seminary my assignment at St. Francis was treated more like a punishment than any reward. Rumors had swirled about why St. Francis, one of New York’s oldest churches, wasn’t being assigned to a senior priest. Of course, none of us knew the real reason at the time – that a senior priest wouldn’t want to stick his neck out fighting the literal forces of evil in New York alleyways.

The vicar, a hearty-looking older man with thick white hair and a strong jaw, was sitting in one of two chairs lined up in front of the big oak desk that had once belonged to Father Andrews. I still hadn’t cleared off all his paperwork, and there was still more of him there than there was of me. “Good afternoon, sorry for making you wait,” I said as I sat down in the comfortable leather chair behind the desk.

“Sometimes God’s work takes us away from His house,” the vicar responded with a warm smile, sipping on a styrofoam cup of coffee in his hands. “I’m sorry I haven’t been by sooner, I had meant to welcome you to the church personally but business called me away.”

“I understand,” I said returning the smile. It was my first time meeting anyone in a position of authority since I took over for Father Andrews, and it was more than a bit nerve-wracking. For a month and a half, I’d been running services by day and tracking down demonic leads by night without a word from anyone. Was I doing the right thing? Did the church even sanction our actions? The thought that this might be the legacy of Father Andrews’ private war had occurred to me before; in the presence of the vicar those doubts were magnified. “Are you here on business, then?”

The vicar sat down the coffee and leaned back in his chair, taking me in with the measured eye of a man used to making judgment calls on sight. “Under Father Andrews, this church had a certain reputation for solving problems.”

“And I do my best to continue Father Andrews’ work,” I said in response to the long silence that followed his proclamation. It was clear that whatever the vicar did or didn’t know, he suspected quite a bit.

“That’s good,” the vicar put his hands down and leaned forward, “And do you believe possession, father?”

“The church teaches that…”

“I didn’t ask what the church believes,” the vicar cut in, “I asked you, Father. Do you believe in possession?”

Back in school, I would have happily told anyone who listened that possession was superstition brought on by a misunderstanding of human psychology. These days the church mostly agreed with that. Exorcisms required a long and thorough approval process that included psychological examinations beforehand. I still hadn’t seen anything to convince me demonic possession was a real thing but given what I’d seen my answer was a little less blindly confident than it would have once been.

“I try to keep an open mind,” I said.

“I can appreciate that,” the vicar said, “In fact, I’m counting on it.”

“Father Quinn,” afraid that I’d say too much if this kept going, I decided to get straight to the point, “What can I do for you?”

If the vicar was put off by the abrupt question, he didn’t show it. Instead, the warm smile returned to his face and he pulled a small card from a pocket. “I have a friend, his son is…not well. I would appreciate it if you could see him.”

“I’m not an exorcist,” I pointed out what he had to already know, “And a solemn exorcism would require the bishop’s blessing, which I certainly don’t have.”

“If it were as simple as an exorcism,” the vicar said, “I would have gone myself. The things this boy can do…I haven’t seen them with my own eyes, but I trust this man. We grew up together, I’ve known him my entire life.”

“What can he do? And why come to me?” I asked, trying to carefully pry without giving away too much about my own extracurricular activities.

“It’s better if you hear it from someone who has seen it. As for why I’m here? St. Francis’ reputation for solving problems includes a reputation for extreme discretion that goes well beyond the confessional booth. Some might even say secrecy.” The vicar stood up. “Once you see the name I’m sure you’ll understand why that’s desirable in this situation.”

He wasn’t wrong. I took the card from the vicar’s outstretched hand and examined the name and address. “Anthony Gilbert? The U.S. senator?”

“This isn’t Church business Father, and I can’t make you go. I’m asking for a favor, please. See if there’s anything you can do to help Andy’s boy,” the vicar’s voice was soft and sincere. What could I say?

“I’ll do my best.”

After the vicar left I headed downstairs where Brother Allen had retreated back to his oversized swivel chair and bank of blue monitors. Brother Cat was in his usual spot, laying in the corner pretending he was napping instead of listening intently. Brother Allen turned around to face me as I came through the door.

“Father, should I let everyone know you’ll be unavailable?” he asked.

I thought about it. The senator’s home was just south of Baltimore, which was at least a three hour drive away. If I left right soon, I’d be there well before dark. “Looks like it,” I said, “Then pack your things. We’re heading to Maryland.”

Brother Allen’s face fell like a cartoon character who just found out he was going to face a firing squad. “My things? Father, surely I…”

“You know a lot more about what’s out there than I do, and I might need your expertise,” I told him.

“But you’ll have Brother Cat.”

“And if I need something stabbed, I’m sure he’ll be happy to help. But I’m not planning to stab a senator’s son today.”

For a moment Brother Allen looked around like a cornered animals trying to escape, “You could always…”

“Fifteen minutes,” I said and turned to walk away. As I reached the door I looked back at the cat, now standing and stretching away another day-long nap. “And leave the armor. We don’t want that getting back to the vicar, do we?”

Brother Allen and Brother Cat met me at the car in ten, the monk lugging a large case with him. “A few necessities,” he said in response to my raised eyebrow. “Just in case.”

Together, we climbed into the blue Oldsmobile and began the journey to the Senator’s house. On the way, I called to let them know we were coming. The woman on the other end of the line sounded relieved to hear it and said the Senator would be there to meet us. I also explained the situation to Brother Allen and the cat, though from the lack of reactions I suspect they had been listening. I made a mental note to check the office for bugs just to be safe.

I said house, but the Senator’s suburban home was more of a mansion with a big gate, dark-suited security guards, and a driveway that seemed to go on forever. The colonial style house at the end of the driveway had a wrap around porch that overlooked the well-tended lawn where the senator no doubt held parties for the rich and famous in happier times.

The man who answered the door was immediately recognizable. Silver hair neatly cut and combed, a well-made suits that fit to perfection, and a smile that must have cost a fortune would have been enough to paint him as a politician by themselves, but with rumors swirling that he might be next in line for Secretary of State anyone who watched TV would know Senator Andrew Gilbert on sight.

“Father,” he said in a strong voice, “I’m so glad you could come.”

“Thank you, Senator,” I shook his outstretched hand, “This is my associate, Brother Allen.”

The big monk was half-hidden behind me, his eyes cast on the ground and the big black case held in front of him like a shield. When I mentioned his name he squeaked and nearly jumped. “N-nice to meet you.” He said.

The Senator gave the monk a long look, before nodding an acknowledgment and guiding us inside. The scarred tabby cat that followed at our heels barely received a glance. “My son is upstairs, in bed. I don’t know how much Alex told you about his…problem.”

“Father Quinn said it was best if we heard the details from you.”

The Senator nodded, guiding us into a room next to the central stairs. The room we walked into was the perfect picture of old-school masculinity, full of leather-bound books and crystal bottles filled with expensive-looking liquors. The senator walked over to the bottles, pouring himself a glass. “I don’t suppose you’d be interested?” I shook my head. “No, I didn’t think so. Alex won’t even drink with me these days.”

After taking a long drink, the senator turned toward the large window and began to talk. “Three months ago my son, Jason, started having these dreams. He’d wake up screaming, terrified out of his mind that something was after him. At first, we ignored it, but after a few weeks we did the responsible thing and took him to see a psychologist.”

“That seems reasonable,” I said, “So what changed?”

“A couple of weeks ago, a maid reported seeing some kind of giant rat running through the house. Then one of the guards nearly shot a hole through the front door when he confronted what he described as a giant clown with shark teeth. We tried to ignore it,” The senator grunted, looking over at a large oil painting of a stern looking woman, “ but then I got attacked by my great grandmother there. She crawled right out of the painting and started throwing things.”

It sounded more like something out of Poltergeist than any possession I’ve ever heard of. “What does all of that have to do with your son?”

“What else could it be?” The senator poured another drink, eyeing the amber liquid that tumbled into the glass like a dying man looking at a pool of water, “Jason’s terrified of clowns, always has been. As for the painting, there was a year where he wouldn’t even come into the study because he was convinced it was watching him.”

“And he’s always asleep when you’ve seen these things?”

The senator looked confused, “You mean Alex didn’t tell you? It’s why I finally called him. Two weeks ago Jason went to bed and didn’t wake up. The doctors say it’s not like any coma they’ve ever seen. He screams sometimes, from the dreams I think, but he doesn’t wake up.”

I considered what little evidence I had. If the boy was manifesting dreams it could be demonic possession, strange powers were one of the signs of possession certainly, but putting the boy into a coma seemed counterproductive.

“I think we should take a look at the boy now,” I told the senator. He refilled his drink, pouring a double for the trip upstairs, and led the way.

In the boy’s room, wires ran across the floor and hung on the wall leading to complicated looking medical equipment. An IV ran into the pale young boy’s arm, no doubt the only thing keeping him from starving. “They wanted to put a tube in, but I didn’t want him to wake up that way.” The senator said, confirming my suspicions.

Brother Cat looked up at the bed, his eyes locked on a spot just above the sleeping boy’s chest and hissed in a way that I knew meant something even if I wasn’t quite sure what. It was followed by a deep growl that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Brother Cat seemed to have a talent for detecting the presence of evil, and he was clearly seeing something that the rest of us weren’t.

“Senator, we’ll do everything we can,” I assured him, “If you want to wait downstairs, I’ll let you know if we need anything else.” The senator glanced at the growling cat then over to his son. It was clear he wanted to stay, but it would be harder to talk freely with him around. “Please.”

With a final look for his son, one that was surprisingly soft for the stern senator, he left the room.

“There’s something there,” the monk said peering at the same spot where Brother Cat was focused. “I can’t see it, but it’s like I can see where it should be.”

I took a long look, not seeing what the monk was talking about. The space above the boy’s body was like any other, just empty air. Motes of dust floated through the air and settled briefly just above the boy’s body before swirling back up again. I waved my hand through the spot almost expecting to hit something unseen. The spot was cold, almost freezing compared to the rest of the room, but my hand passed through unimpeded.

“Any ideas?” I asked, “I don’t think an exorcism is going to get us very far.”

The monk seemed to be searching his memory, muttering and darting his eyes back and forth looking for something unseen. “Maybe,” he said at last and rushed out of the room.

When he finally returned, the monk was carrying a small cross on a thin gold string. The cross looked to be made of some kind of bone and glinted white beneath the bright artificial lights.

The monk launched straight into one of his now-familiar history lessons. “There’s an old legend of a knight who prayed to St. Thomas Becket to save him from a demon who was giving him nightmares. The legend goes that Thomas Becket slew the demon, freeing the knight from his bad dreams.”

Relics were an old tradition in the church, especially pieces of saints, but they were generally kept safe in the care of the church. “What should I do with it?”

“Just put it on.”

The small cross was hot to the touch, whether from being in the trunk of the blue Oldsmobile or for some mystical reason I couldn’t be sure. I slipped the gold chain around my neck where it hung alongside the crucifix my mother had given me the day I left for seminary.

“Now what?” I asked a moment before the world changed.

White walls melted away like paint running in the rain and behind them was an empty blackness. A hot wind hit me square in the face carrying with it a stench of decay. Brother Cat and Brother Allen had vanished, along with the boy and the bed. In the distance, I could hear the whimper of a child, though the flat world revealed nothing in sight. Cautiously I took a step forward, then another. I took a guess at the direction the sound was coming from and began to walk. I kept expecting to run into a wall, but there was just more emptiness.

As I walked new walls grew up around me, turning into a multicolored zig-zag hallway. Soft circus music reached my ears, coming in the direction of the crying child.

At the end of the hallway a big door with a laughing clown painted on it opened to a big room filled with balloons. On the far end of the room, a white-faced clown with teeth too big for his face loomed over a small boy. “There you are,” it said in a high-pitched voice that couldn’t have possibly come from its mouth, “If you stop running I won’t need to chase you!”

“Get away from him,” I screamed at the monster.

The clown looked up, confusion painted on its nightmarish face. “You shouldn’t be here.” When the clown turned away, Jason darted from his spot on the floor and disappeared through a small door that appeared out of nowhere in the back of the room. “Now look what you did! Oh well, maybe you want to play?”

In an instant, and clown vanished and the big colorful room went with it. I found myself back in a featureless black void.

“Is this what you’re afraid of?” A familiar voice said from behind me.

I turned around, my hand darting to the silver dagger I’d taken to carrying almost everywhere. The face staring back at me matched the voice. Blue eyes, dark hair. Even the scar on my chin where I fell off my bike in middle school and hit the pavement face first. It was like looking into a mirror, only the clothes were different. The creature wore green BDUs with “Cpl. Carson” stitched into the chest.

“Not what I was expecting, but it’ll work!” It said. The monster leaped at me, and we went tumbling. As we fell I stabbed upward with the dagger, putting it between me and the monster. If it had a plan I couldn’t see it, because it fell straight onto the blade. Hot red blood soaked my hands and clothes and I fell on top of the creature, shoving the dagger in with all my weight.

My heart was racing, a deep staccato thumping that filled my ears and drowned out the sounds of our struggle. I wasn’t thinking about how much the creature looked like me or why it chose to dress like that. I wasn’t thinking at all; I was running on an instinct that until recently I didn’t even know that I had. The light of the creature’s eyes faded as I twisted the blade buried in its gut.

There was a loud pop and the creature vanished along with the blood that soaked my hands and clothes as it died. I feel flat on the floor face down, the hilt of the dagger jamming painfully into my ribs.

“Well look at you,” a man’s voice spoke from behind. No. It couldn’t be. “Mr. Peace and love finally grew a pair.”

“Shut up,” I screamed and jumped to my feet to face him.

Dad looked just the way I remembered him from my childhood, all hard edges and hate. He was wearing his dress blues, his chest adorned with the awards he’d accumulated over twenty years of service in the marines. “Don’t talk back to me, boy. You aren’t tough enough for that.”

“I’m not like you,” I said. It was stupid – none of it was real. Dad was in a nursing home, barely able to remember his own name anymore. It was just another distraction.

“I saw that look in your eye just now, seen it plenty of times. You got a taste for blood, and you liked it.” dad’s voice filled with pride – a sound I haven’t heard since the time I lucked into a winning touchdown in peewee football.

“I didn’t…” I tried to say.

“Sure you did, boy. All those years of looking down on me for being a soldier, all that talk about turning the other cheek. But look at you. You didn’t come here to talk, you came here to kill something.” Dad wore a cruel, smug look I knew too well. “You and that boy aren’t so different. Both of you afraid of turning out like daddy, both of you here because you are your father’s sons. Only difference is the boy got here because his dad screwed up; we both know you’re here ‘cause I did right by you.”

“I’m not like you,” I screamed at him, “I’m not going to be like you. I help people.”

“You think because you’re fighting monsters it doesn’t count?” The creature wearing my father’s face laughed, “You think you can fight a war and hold those lines in the sand? You’re weak, not stupid. Only a matter of time before you start making excuses. You’re protecting people, they made their choice, it was kill or be killed. When you drop that first human body, and you will, there won’t be any coming back.”

He was right and I knew it. It almost happened against the Piper. For a moment I was sure Brother Cat was going to kill him, a human who just happened to have access to a magical relic of his own, and I had thought about it a lot since. If he cut the Piper’s throat instead of just cutting the flute’s cord would that have stopped me? Would I have quit my job, quit my faith, and left St. Francis?

Maybe, but I didn’t think so. I would have found an excuse to make it okay.

“Father!” Brother Allen and the cat came running out of the darkness, interrupting silence that had stretched out as the creature’s words wormed their way into my head, “The cross, take it off!”

“The shadow man is coming for the boy. You get in the way, he’ll take you too,” my father’s voice grew gravelly, “Go home, priest.”

I jerked the gold chain over my head and threw it aside.

Then I opened my eyes. The three of us were lying on the floor of the boy’s bedroom and except for the echo of the creature’s laughter in my ears, the world was normal. Brother Allen grunted and sat upright with a groan.

“Thank the Lord,” he muttered. “I’m sorry Father, I didn’t know it would work like that.”

“You don’t have anything to be sorry about,” I said, remembering what the creature wearing my father’s face had said about why the boy was there.

I climbed up off the floor and raced downstairs to the study. The senator was there, having what could have been his tenth drink of the day for all I knew. Outside, the sun had already set.

“Finally,” the senator said, “Did it work? Is he awake?”

“You lied to us. You know exactly what’s happening up there.” My heart was still racing, adrenaline pumping through my veins. All my life I’ve been a peaceful man, but what I saw inside the dream had reminded me I was changing – and not necessarily for the better. I’m not proud of it, but I grabbed the senator by his well-tailored suit jacket and shoved him against the wall. “What did you do?”

I expected him to lash out, to shove me away and tell me to out of his house. Instead, the senator’s face fell and tears shone in his cool gray eyes. “I thought I could protect him. Protect us.” He said.

“Father, let him go,” Brother Allen said from behind me, his breath coming out in short gasps from running to catch up. I looked down at my hands, balled around the senator’s jacket so tight that my knuckles were white and heat rushed to my cheeks. Was the dream figure right? If I stayed at St. Francis, would I become as mindless and cruel as the things I hunted?

“I’m sorry,” I said and stepped back and turning my face away from the senator, “No, he’s not awake. If we’re going to help him, we need to hear the truth.”

The senator leaned back against the wall, gathering himself before he went on. “It was during the midterms. Some hotshot rising star was running against me and the polls weren’t looking good. That was when he showed up.”

“The shadow man?”

“I don’t know,” the senator sighed, “Yes, probably. That’s what Jason called him before he slipped into the coma. He looked normal enough, but he promised he could make my problems go away.”

“What did he ask for?” Brother Allen said. I was so surprised to hear him speak that I barely registered the question at first. A price, of course. There always had to be a price.

“Nothing serious,” the senator straightened up, his tone defensive. “There was a small vote coming up in the next session. Some government land out west that an oil company wanted to drill on. The guy, he wanted me to vote against the deal.”

“You said yes?” Brother Allen sounded shocked, as if he couldn’t believe a politician would cheat.

“A few days later pictures of my opponent in a compromising position with bis assistant leaked to the press. His male assistant,” the senator at least had the decency to look guilty, “After that, I ran basically unopposed.”

“You broke your deal,” I spat, the embarrassment of my earlier actions burned away with a fresh wave of anger. “Not bad enough you sold a vote and ruined a man’s life, but you couldn’t even follow through with a promise?”

“Why would I?” He asked, looking genuinely confused, “If I’d known what he was planning I would have never said yes.”

I didn’t believe that for a second. But, did it matter? The only thing I needed to worry about was the boy and the monster that was hunting him through his dreams. “Did you keep the letter?”

“I was getting to that,” the senator reached inside his jacket and pulled out two letters, “The first one is the original letter. The other one is a letter I received just before Jason started having the dreams.”

The letters were held inside heavy, high-quality envelopes devoid of stamp or address.

“Hand delivered,” Brother Allen said.

“They were slipped under the front door,” the senator confirmed, “Security never saw a thing. Neither did the cameras on the perimeter.”

I unfolded the first letter and read the note out loud, “Remember our agreement,” it was short and sweet, with a neat scrawl at the bottom of the page. “It’s signed JGF.”

The second note was already out and in my hands when Brother Allen collapsed onto a nearby sofa and began muttering prayers under his breath. The fat monk had his head down and the rosary he wore around his neck clasped tightly in his hands.

“Is he okay?” the senator asked.

“Brother Allen?” He didn’t respond. “Sigma? What’s wrong?” I hated using his ‘hacker’ name, but it always made him happy when I did and I hoped he’d respond to it now.

He crossed himself as he looked up at me, his eyes wide and skin even paler than usual. “Father, we should go.”

“Now wait just a minute,” the senator said.

I threw a glare at the senator and held up a silencing hand, “Can you give us a minute senator?” Senator Gilbert’s eyes darted between me and Brother Allen and, after a long pause, he nodded and walked out of the study leaving us alone.

“Father I know you have questions,” Brother Allen said, “But I can’t answer them here.”

“Why not?”

The monk stood up and stepped close to me, lowering his voice to a whisper. “He might hear us.”

“Who?” I asked, thinking “he” could refer to either the senator or the mysterious JGF. The monk just looked up toward the boy’s room. I felt like grabbing him and telling him to spit it out. Instead, I took a deep breath, looked him in the eye and smiled – though maybe with a few too many teeth. “The boy’s in a coma, he can’t hear us.”

“Not him,” the monk lowered his voice further, to the point where I could barely hear him, “Brother Cat.”

I laughed. I had grown used to the idea that Brother Cat was smarter than your average feline and he seemed to be making a habit out of saving my life, but the idea of keeping secrets from a cat was still too much. Instead of his usual jovial response to my skepticism, though, Brother Allen’s round face grew stony.

“I know you don’t always take this seriously Father,” Brother Allen’s voice was icy, “But this once I need you to listen to me. Do not let Brother Cat see these letters, please. Don’t even mention JGF anywhere near him.”

The monk didn’t blink as he stared at me, waiting for a promise. “And you’ll explain everything after this is over?”

He nodded.

I needed more information, but it didn’t look like I’d be getting it from Brother Allen. “Okay. But you’re going to tell me everything the first chance you get.”

“Thank you, Father,” the monk breathed, his lips curving up toward their usual happy position, “The other letter, what does it say?”

I looked down at the second letter, still clutched in my hand. It was written in a dark red ink with thick lines that seemed stabbed into the paper. “The sins of the father…” I read out loud.

“Shakespeare. ‘The sins of the father are to be laid upon the children’” the monk quoted, “What do we do now, Father?”

At that moment Brother Cat appeared in the entrance to the study, his tails swishing back and forth. Brother Allen snatched the letters out of my hands and stuffed them into a pocket in his robes, his eyes pleading for my silence the whole time.

I looked down at Brother Cat and thought about the boy lying on the bed, his face covered with sweat and his eyes twitching beneath closed lids. If the monster in the dreams got him, he might not wake up again. It didn’t really matter why or how the boy had been trapped inside his dreams, I couldn’t leave him there.

“You’re going to help Brother Cat get dressed,” I said, “Then we’re going after the boy while you keep an eye on things here.”

The monk looked over at the big case he had been lugging around with a sheepish grin, undoing two heavy latches and opening it up to reveal Brother Cat’s sword and armor. I left them to it and went to find the senator to let him know that we were staying.

A few minutes later, the cat and I stood outside the door to Jason’s room. The cross was in my hand, the warmth definitely mystical this time. “We need to stay focused,” I told the cat. “We find the boy then we get out.”

Brother Cat just looked up at me and growled deep in his throat as if to say he already knew what to do. I hoped he was right.

“Okay, let’s go,” I said, putting on the cross as we walked into the room.

The change was faster this time. One moment I was staring at a room filled with medical equipment and the next I was in a dark forest and Brother Cat was nowhere in sight.

“Jason!” I yelled, hoping the boy would come to me, “Jason I’m here to help.”

Nothing. Not even a cricket chirping in the dark. I picked a direction, not sure if the actual direction even mattered in this place, and began to walk through the thick underbrush. Vines and branches grabbed at me, scratching my arms and grabbing at my clothes – but if the creature was around it didn’t seem to want to show itself.

Something bounded out of the bushes, brushing against my leg and sending me jumping out of the way. I tripped over a fallen log and fell face first onto the wet leaves on the forest floor. When I looked up, Brother Cat was watching me. If a cat can be amused, I’d swear he was.

After I managed to get back on my feet the cat let out a sharp meow and walked off stopping to look back at me every few feet.

“I get the idea,” I said and started following.

We walked for what felt like hours through a forest that changed into a desert then into some kind of burial crypt right out of a Tolkien story. Brother Cat led the way seemingly uninterested in his changing surroundings.

A blue sun was rising over a vast ocean ahead of us when I saw the boy. Two walls stood on the beach and between them a perfect replica of Jason’s room in the waking world. The medical equipment, the shelves covered in trophies, and the boy. Unlike the waking world, though, the thing that sat on his chest was very much visible here.

It was a squat, red creature with pointy ears and long dark nails that looked wickedly sharp.

That was when something big hit me. The air rushed from my lungs and I landed on my back in the sand looking up at a night sky that was too bright, too full of stars, to be real. The cat yowling somewhere nearby, and I heard the clink of steel rubbing on steel. I took in a deep breath, trying to judge how much damage was done. Nothing felt broken, but breathing hurt and when I stood up my ankle didn’t want to hold my weight.

When I stood up the gold chain around my neck slipped and fell away, broken in the creature’s attack. Panicked, I tried to catch it as it fell. It didn’t matter anyway. The cross, made out of the bones of a long-dead saint, had shattered when I hit the ground. Destroyed. I groaned, and closed my eyes expecting to open them again in the real world, but nothing happened. We were still inside the dreamscape, and without the cross to help us leave again.

Brother Cat was locked in combat with a three-clawed demoness covered in white fur. His sword gripped tight between his teeth, flashed in the morning light but everywhere he hit the wounds healed a moment later.

“Forget her,” I yelled. If the cat heard me, he didn’t listen.

The silver dagger had fallen out of my hand when I was knocked over, and I leaned over to pick it up, sending white-hot pain shooting through my body. Nothing was broken, but a cracked rib was a real possibility. The creature sitting on his chest didn’t move, it simply crouched over and stared at the boy as if in a trance of its own.

Brother Cat continued his fight, darting back and forth between the demon’s legs and jumping to slash at its throat and face. It wasn’t working, but it was keeping the creature distracted. I made my way to the boy’s bed as fast as my injured leg would allow.

The ugly creature had thick skin and beady black eyes that didn’t blink or move as I approached it.

“Stop,” a boy's voice spoke, “You’ll kill us both.”

The boy, Jason, was standing next to the bed looking down at his own body. He looked pale and frightened as if he wasn’t sure what he was seeing. “Then what should I do?” I asked.

“Leave,” the boy pleaded, “Just go.”

I didn’t have to think hard. I lashed out, driving the knife into the demon’s thick neck. The boy standing next to the bed and the demon raised their heads to the sky together and let out a long, shrill scream before fading into mist. On the bed, Jason’s eyes flew open.

“Come on,” I said, “We’ve got to get you out of here.”

Brother Cat wandered up behind me, his panting giving him away well before I noticed the clink of his armor.

“Help,”the boy whispered, his voice cracked.

“That’s right, we’re here to help.”

Jason raised his head and looked around and the room faded away, leaving only an open door standing on the beach attached to nothing. Through the door I could see the boy’s room. “I guess that’s our exit.”

The boy went first, stepping through the doorway and vanishing as he went.

As soon as Brother Cat stepped through, the door slammed shut.

“Leaving already?

The figure behind me was a tall, faceless thing made of pure darkness. Its shape was human, but its flesh, if you could call it that, seemed to dance and move like shadows before a flame.

“So you’re the priest who stopped my piper,” the shadow man said, “And now you’ve gone and killed one of the world’s last dream demons.”

The thing’s body began to shift, turning into individual shadows that unwrapped themselves and then slithered away to reveal a dark-haired, middle-aged man with sharp features. He wore a tasteful navy suit that made even the senator’s suit look cheap in comparison. His prominent chin pointed out ahead of him and tilted up to give him the appearance of looking down on you. At his height, well over six feet tall, he probably was. Was it his real face? Or another illusion like the shadows that had turned him from a man into a monster?

“The Piper? He worked for you?”

He offered a shrug of his broad shoulders. “If you like. He was a useful tool, and the object you took from him was not easy to obtain. You’ve caused me a great deal of trouble, priest. That is unwise.”

Behind me, the door was fading fast. If it vanished would I be stuck here? Would I be able to find another way out? If I had questions, I needed to ask what I could. “You’re JGF, aren’t you?”

“In the flesh. So to speak. And you’re Father James Carson. New York’s latest hero priest.”

He was stalling, trying to get me talking. “We’ll have to continue this another time,” I said.

The door was almost gone, a mere outline. When I grabbed at the handle my hand nearly passed through it and my fingers slipped away. It was like trying to grab jello. I looked behind me, expecting to see JGF making a move while I fumbled with the lock but he had vanished. I grasped the handle with both hands, feeling it squish between my fingers as I did, and turned the handle hard.

And fell through the door into the hallway outside the boy’s bedroom, sending jets of white-hot pain shooting through my injured ankle. My hands were covered in cuts and I could feel the bruises underneath my clothes blossoming. The injuries I picked up in the dream had followed me out.

“Father!” Brother Allen came over and helped me stand, “You’re back!”

The senator rushed into the hall from the stairs, stumbling on the last step as he went. It was clear he had kept drinking while I was inside the dream world.

“Senator,” I said before he could rush to his son, who was sitting up in his bed for the first time in weeks, “Your son should be better now, but I can’t promise…” Brother Cat was sitting in the hall staring at me and I stumbled over the words. “That your friend won’t try something else. I don’t know for certain that it will help, but I suggest you send your son somewhere far away for a little while.”

“Thank you, Father,” the senator said, “I will. His mother is assigned to the Beijing consulate, maybe he could spend a few months there.”

I nodded and stood on shaky knees, gingerly testing my ankle. Everything hurt, and I knew the scars from my fight with the demon would take a long while to heal. With Brother Allen’s help, I made my way downstairs and to the car.

The sun was coming up by the time I stopped the car in front of St. Francis.

“Father, you should get some rest,” Brother Allen said as he wrangled the big black case from the back seat, “I’ll bring those papers to your apartment tonight.”

“Papers?” My mind was cloudy, and for a moment I almost asked what papers he was talking about. Then it hit me that he was keeping it vague to stop the cat from getting suspicious. Could he do that? Reason? Investigate? Just what was it about Brother Cat that made him different, and how far did it go? “Oh, of course. I'll see you tonight, Brother Allen.”

I drove home and fell asleep with those questions and a thousand more still weighing on my mind.

A knock on the door pulled me from a fitful sleep where a dark-suited figure without a face chased me through a cemetery. I was happy for the interruption. I opened the door to find Brother Allen dressed in an oversized black t-shirt and jeans. It was the first time I’d ever seen him in anything besides his monk’s robe.

“Come in.”

“Thank you, Father,” the monk stepped in, glancing nervously around the small room.

“Please, have a seat,” I said, sitting down in a comfortable chair across from the sofa. The monk accepted, his fingers tapping out a rhythm against his leg. A nervous tick? Not one I’d ever seen, even when the vicar showed up Brother Allen’s nerves came out in his usual hyperactive way.

“I know you have a lot of questions, I’ll do everything I can to answer them,” he said.

“Okay,” I said, not sure what to ask first, “Let’s start with one I know you know the answer to. Who is JGF and why don’t you want Brother Cat to know about him?”

The monk swallowed hard and crossed himself, but he answered. “JGF stands for Johann Georg Faust. The man who murdered Father Andrews.”

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