Mikey though the Duomo was about as ugly as any building he had seen in his life. It jutted from the center of it’s rain-soaked plaza in a confusing collection of twisting spires and statues, looking more like the residence of a disney villain than one of the oldest churches in Milan.
He stood in front of the massive cathedral with his hands in his pockets, staring at the galoshes his mother had bought him for his birthday last year. He didn’t like looking at the church; something about it looked sharp. Angry. Instead, he listened to the steady drum of the heavy rain that hammered against his hood, and Antoni argue with the security guard.
He wished he was back at the hotel playing Fortnite, but he knew he had to be here. It had told him so.
Duomo was one of the words his father had made him practice back home in New York; ‘due-ohmo’. He had told Mikey so the kid ‘had a little understanding of where this family came from’, but Mikey privately (and silently) suspected it was so that he didn’t embarrass his dad. You did not want to embarrass Vinny Salviatorini, not if you were one of his employees, and especially if you were his only son.
Yesterday when they had pulled around the square, Mikey had seen thousands of people packed into the square through the tinted windows of the black Mercedes that had picked them up from the train station. Taking pictures with the church with their ridiculous fuckin’ selfie sticks. They were so packed together if one of ‘em sneezed, ten people would breathe it in.
Mikey snickered. That was pretty funny. He wished Luca was around so he could tell him. The big fat dummy would have cracked up, laughing so hard he had to grab his gut so he wouldn’t split in two. But Luca was back in Brooklyn, enjoying his summer break. Mikey would pretty much give his left big toe to be back at their apartment in Manhattan playing Fortnite with Luca. The boy was crap at duos but he made up for it with his colorful commentary.
‘Mutha-fuhkin ASSHOLE! D’jyou see that bullshit, Mikey? I’m tellinya that sonovabitch got hacks. One shot and BAM. Psssh, just like that, dead. Yella-assholed shitferbrains retard. I bet he lives in a trailer park and his momma got the cancer.’ The worse he lost, the more egregious his insults were. He killed Mikey every time with that shit.
Luca talked a lot like his dad, Mr. Mutaglio. Mr. Mutaglio worked with Mikey’s father, and the two boys had known each other since kindergarten. They liked the same flavor of pudding from the school cafeteria (banana), had sworn to think girls were gross until they both died, and at the beginning of summer (before Mikey’s dad had dragged him on this stupid trip) they had taken a blood oath to be best friends forever. Mikey bet Luca was having the time of his stupid life back home.
But Mikey had something Luca didn’t have. Mikey had a secret.
The big dumb square in front of the gaudy and unnecessary cathedral was probably empty because of the rain. It was positively pissing now; what had started out as a spattering of droplets after breakfast had turned into a proper afternoon storm. His galoshes and coat kept him dry, but Mikey was cold and bored and thought the Duomo pretty fuckin’ stupid.
But it had to be here.
Antoni, by comparison, looked like he had been taken for a dunk in a pool somewhere; he was positively dripping. He was speaking to a man in a black coat with a gold badge pinned to the lapel in rapid-fire Italian, leaning forward and yelling in the man’s ear to make himself heard over the storm. Antoni had offered to take Mikey to the Duomo when he had expressed interest in it, saying he hadn’t been inside either and had always been curious. Mikey didn’t give two shits about the Duomo, but whatever got him inside worked. His father had shrugged.
‘That’s fine. I’ve got a meeting with big Tony and his canal goons anyway. Take the kid.’
That was Mikey. ‘The kid’. A nuisance.
Mikey thought the man in the coat was a policeman at first, but he didn’t have a gun. Not like the policemen guarding the square by the barricades; they had M-16’s tucked into their elbows with what Mikey was pretty sure was live ammo. He had mashed his face into the glass of the window when he saw them.
‘Dad! Dad look!’
His father had snapped at him not to interrupt, and had gone back to talking with Antoni, the man who looked more like an accountant than anyone Mikey had ever seen in his life, about their stay with Mr. Giatorini on the coast. His father spoke slowly, saying things like ‘our interests have not been kept under a close eye’ or ‘too much expansion without proper instruction’. Antoni didn’t look like he was enjoying the conversation. Mikey adjusted his grip on his backpack and had gone back to staring out the window. He had an idea what his father did anyhow–he wasn’t fucking stupid. Coming into the living room to see strange men, dangerous-looking men, sidling out of his father’s office. He had seen the gun his father kept in a shoe box above his suits. He had seen him hurriedly washing blood from his hands coming home from ‘a long day’.
This trip was his father’s idea, because everything was his father’s idea.
“You’re moping too much.” He had said, checking his watch and grabbing his briefcase. ‘You need a change of scenery. I’m taking a business trip to Italy this summer. You’ll come with me.”
The door had closed behind him before Mikey could voice a protest or agreement. And that had been that.
Mikey and his dad had flown into the Milan airport, where another black town car had been waiting, and had driven for four hours to the coast to stay with Mikey’s father’s friend, Mr. Giatorino. Mr. Giatorino looked like the Crypt Keeper and smelled like a pair of gym shorts, but the old man and his father were always locked up in Mr. Giatorino’s study talking ‘business’, which at least left Mikey to his own devices. The downsides were, of course, he was stuck in a house with a single television–it even had a tube on the back, he saw in disgust–and no wifi. It took him about ten minutes to walk through each of the rooms, looking for anything interesting and finding nothing. Mr. Giatorini had a library, but Mikey hated reading. He would rather watch TV. Not that Mr. Giatorino’s TV showed anything other than early 00’s shows dubbed in Italian. He mostly wandered around the house drinking soda and poking his head through doors.
That was when he discovered the stairway. It was behind an ancient door behind the kitchen, cut into the stone of the house and warped heavily in it’s frame. It took all of Mikey’s strength just to budge it open to squeeze through.
The staircase was dark, and narrow, and cut into the cliff rock beneath Mr. Giatorino’s house. Mikey followed it, curious. It was cold; the wind whistled in irregular bursts that rose from the beach below, and water dripped from overhead. Mikey nearly tripped twice, barely catching himself on the wall. Falling would have been bad–the stairway was steep enough to promise broken bones at the least, or a crushed skull. Mikey began to feel like maybe he shouldn’t be here, like maybe this was what Mr. Mutaglio sometimes referred to as ‘not a place for ‘gli bambinis’, but he was dead curious. He felt like maybe there was something super cool at the bottom; he had a feeling. A gut instinct.
Antoni and the man in the black coat appeared to be having an argument about something, because Antoni kept pointing at the cathedral and the man in the black coat kept shaking his head, pointing towards a line of dripping and miserable tourists wrapped around the flank of the church. Finally Antoni threw his hands in the air and Mikey heard his last name–’Salviatorini’–shoot through the stream of Italian. Like magic, the barrier was moved, and they were let in. Mikey wasn’t impressed; back home, his father’s last name did much the same thing. He sat court-side at a Knicks game for his birthday last year.
But it was important. He knew it was important. It had to be here.
There were actual military just inside the huge doors that led inside the Duomo, with more M16’s. A bored-looking woman in a green uniform waved a wand over Mikey’s outstretched arms while a bored-looking man unzipped his backpack and gave it a cursory inspection. Mikey’s heart quickened–but the man saw what he wanted to see; a sweater, a pair of sunglasses…
and an empty soda bottle. Well, almost.
The inside of the Duomo was massive; the ceiling almost disappeared a hundred feet over Mikey’s head, supported down the length of the hall by massive pillars, easily six feet thick. Antoni went to go grab them a pair of audio guides from the kiosk selling them near the entrance.
Everything was made with polished marble–the floors, the walls, the arched things that supported the ceiling–buttresses, his mind recalled from Mr Limpnicki’s European history class–and even the pillars themselves. It almost seemed impossibly, big–like the building didn’t limit itself to the confines of human construction.
Shifting. Nebulous. In a word, untrustworthy.
Mikey’s mother had loved going to church. Sundays were her favorite day of the week; she stayed up late the night before over a tiramisu, or a batch of cannoli, then she would wake up early and agonize for hours over her outfit–she liked to match with the liturgy, purple in Easter, crimson and gold in Christmas. When Mikey was little she would sit him on her lap and whisper to him little tidbits about the mass. That was Mikey’s first Sunday school, before he was old enough to be enrolled in St. Josephs. Later, after the incident with Morgan Smithfield, Mikey would realize how much he missed those Sundays spent bouncing on his mother’s knee.
Hey but ain’t your momma gone now, Mikey, sorryboutit? Luca would pull a face when he said it; the bouncing, cheery Luca had no time for sadness.
Huge tapestries loomed overhead between the pillars, casting oblong shadows along the patterned marble floors. The air was cool in here, and smelled of spice and incense, heralding hundreds of years of ceremony and power. More power than Mikey believed he could imagine
But Mikey noticed none of this. At least, not right away. The first thing Mikey noticed were the statues.
They surrounded him on all sides, all cut from the same pale grey stones, so pale it was almost white. To Mikey it looked like the faces of the gathered angels and saints were carved from bleached bone. They clung to the walls on pedestals wielding scepters and crosses, they scaled the pillars and stood in judgement eighty feet above the ground. Scenes on the marble walls were carved from anger and betrayal, bearded men with grim faces standing under winged angels, armored and wielding swords. There were faces of monsters with their mouths open, exposing teeth that even time couldn’t dull. Some were frozen in mid-gesticulation, fingers outstretched as if they were swinging to point at him, point at him in accusation.
And all of their eyes were open, staring. Unblinking.
Keep on walking Mikey and don’t look up if you’re feelin’ a pussy. Luca would say. One step, two step, hey lookit–now we’re dancing. Just don’t look up.
Mikey set his audio guide to Dutch, and turned the volume all the way down for good measure. He needed to be able to think clearly right now. Antoni was listening to his intently, staring at a painting of the virgin Mary with baby Jesus up on the wall.
He could practically feel the weight of all the eyes, staring down at him as he walked away from Antoni, along the left side of the cathedral. Was it his imagination, or were the statues staring at him?
He felt the beams of his courage begin to shift minutely. Should he even go through with this? His pack seemed to weigh several pounds more than it did when he had been walking through the plaza. Why was he–
Chill the fuck out Mikey. Jee-sus you’re such a schizo. Luca would say, rolling his eyes like a ventriloquist’s dummy. Mikey would punch him in the arm.
Nu-uh Lukey-duke. The only voice I hear in my head is yours.
The stairs emptied out onto a beach. It wasn’t like the pretty sunbathing beach like the one outside his dad’s house in the Hamptons–there was no wide strip of white sand with umbrellas in case you got too hot. This beach was a fetid strip of tide-soaked sandbars cut into the black basalt cliffs that towered high overhead. The staircase must have dropped at least a couple hundred feet.
The tide must be going out, Mikey thought numbly to himself. There were bits of algae strewn inside the lingering pools of clear water, and even a starfish here and there. It seemed to be difficult to think; the gut instinct that something cool was down here had turned into a hook located just behind his navel, pulling him forward. It wasn’t painful, but it was insistent, dragging him onto the beach.
He spotted something sticking up from the sand, down where the tide was receding in a hissing white froth that stank of dead fish and worse. It was long and thin, slightly bulbous around the end, kind of like a sword handle. Before he had left, he had read an article on reddit about sunken treasure in the Mediterranean that sometimes washed up on shore, found by local fishermen. They probably spent it on some stupid shit like a new boat. He would buy a pink Humvee limo, just like Post Malone.
Only about four inches of whatever it was stuck up from the wet sand, but Mikey thought it might go deeper. He didn’t know why he thought that, he just did. He walked towards it, draining his Fanta. The sun was starting to set on the horizon, but it was still ‘hot as all fuckin’ get out’ as Luca liked to say. He poked the spar, and it wiggled ever so slightly. It was slightly buried beneath the sand, but not by much. He could dig it out…but that seemed like it would take a lot of time.
Mikey threw his soda bottle away and grasped the spar with one hand, anchoring his feet as well as he could on either side. Whatever the thing was, it was freezing cold.
Yeah no shit sherlock it spends twenty hours a day beneath the ocean.
“One…two…three!” He pulled up on the spar with all his strength. In the following split second, Mikey learned three things.
First of all, the thing was buried a lot deeper than a few inches, because it didn’t so much as budge after he yanked on it.
Secondly, it wasn’t made of metal. It shattered with an ugly splintering sound, like the sound Morgan Smithfield’s science project had made after Mikey slapped it out of the small nerd’s hands.
Thirdly, whatever it was made out of was sharp, and brittle, because as soon as it broke he felt a piece slice into his hand in a sudden rush of ice-cold pain, which was followed immediately by a current of warm blood.
But he didn’t scream in pain, or yell in frustration. Because he saw something, and it all of his immediate attention. It was small, tiny almost, and lurked in the depths of the spar, which he now saw was hollow, and smooth.
Like the inside of an egg. It was about three inches long and cylindrical, maybe like a cute little baby snake, freshly hatched. He had seen a baby corn snake break it’s way out of it’s shell when he was in the fourth grade; this looked a little like that. A little…but at the same time some basic instinct in the back of his mind was shrieking at the top of it’s lungs that it wasn’t like that at all.
A hint of swift color
flashed from it’s depths, batting curiously at him. It looked so small and fragile.
Fragile, yes, and needs to be protected and kept, needs to be taken somewhere safe and strong so it can grow strong it is the seed of the world and from it’s branches life will spawn and be free, trust it young boy, listen to us for we are the true angels–
He felt a heat slide through him in a rush, like he was simultaneously flying and falling. The voice was in his head, ringing like clear church bells, like a choir singing. It was so lovely. The cut on his hand grew warm, warmer even than the blood dripping out of it. He noticed distantly that there was a single drop of his blood on the inside of the shell, and that whatever It was had made a little trail of it as it slid tentatively through. It did look like a snake, a baby one just hatched, and Mikey knew that it needed help–the tide was going to come back in a few hours. It had a single slitted yellow eye on the center of its face like a tiny cyclops, and it blinked at him helplessly, perched on the end of its shell.
It needed help. It was all alone, and Mikey was the only one who could offer anything. He felt dimly that he was a good choice, a fine vessel; his mind was still mold-able, not yet fully set.
It was a secret, though, and needed to be kept. Kept until the right time.
And what was he supposed to do? Put it in his pocket?
The Fanta bottle! Mikey retrieved it from where he had dropped it in the sand, holding it tentatively to the edge of the shell. The little baby guy slid in with a gentle plop. Maybe Mikey was crazy, but the little guy looked reassured. Safe.
Mikey Salvatorini could be called a lot of things, but paternal wasn’t one of them; but even he felt a strong urge to protect the little thing.
Then his father’s voice rang down the cliff, looking for him. Mikey tucked the Fanta bottle into the back pocket of his jeans, and lit up the stairs towards the house, already concocting a reason for his bloody hand.
A secret, yes. And one to keep.
Even being in the church, breathing the cool air scented with the heavy scent of incense, made him feel…small. Insignificant. Breathing in the air, he suddenly felt that it almost had a weight. The air in the cathedral was heavy, heavy with the history that was chiseled in every cold mouth and imperious gesture. Hundreds and hundreds of years the Duomo stood, rooted through famine, disease, countless wars, both petty and enormous. Mikey wondered if anyone had actually died in the hall of the cathedral itself.
Don’choo forget it Mikey. Luca would say, this big fuckin’ thing? Soaked in blood. All of ‘em are. Remember Limp-dickie’s class? Religion is the number one killer, historically. It kills more people than people! I bet they burned non-believers at the stake right where you standin’. Know what you call a group of people that get together, chant and worship something? A cult. Only reason the church gets away with it is ‘cause it’s a cult numbered in the hundred millions. It’s the biggest cult in history, Mikey-boy, and a fuckin’ dangerous one at that.
Overheard, the saints stood in judgement.
He needed to go…somewhere. He didn’t know where. He walked deeper into the cathedral, trying not to look at the sightless eyes of a nameless martyr, being slaughtered on the wall. With each step deeper into the enormous building he felt he was going the right direction, but he needed to go somewhere specific. He walked, and he waited. He would know the right time when it came.
Mikey didn’t question this instinct that had brought him to the Duomo, or moved his feet deeper into its vaulted halls. It was almost a compulsion, and itch on an primal level. The actual species and identity of the little guy seemed immensely unimportant to Mikey. Trivialities, that’s what they were. He dismissed them. What mattered, what was really important, was that he follow that driving need to find a place to stash the little one. It would know, and it would tell him.
He continued walking, waiting for his moment.
The far section across from him was the only part of the Duomo that wasn’t bustling. It was full of pews; not the cushioned, soft kind that Mikey had seen at churches in the states, these looked ancient, weathered. The wood looked hard as iron. Mikey cocked his head, curious. A man in a sober uniform stood by a velvet rope, politely turning away tourists and allowing access to old men who limped with canes in hand, and old women in black. Mikey saw faces creased with age and broken with loss, gnarled fingers crossed beneath bowed faces. They knelt with great difficulty and pride, their mouths moved silently, voicing prayers that would never be heard.
For some reason, they scared Mikey. It was like the apprehension he felt for the statues, but more pointed, more acute.
They’re the only ones that can call us out, Mikey boy. Luca whispered, only this time his husky voice held only the barest hint of a joke. The most unpredictable are the most devout. Faith blinds, Mikey. Watch them. Watch them and be wary. They’re flies in the ointment, wrenches in the works. They could spoil everything.
As Mikey was looking, an old man opened his eyes and looked up, across the church. He held a rosary in one hand.
Looked directly at him.
“Fuck.” Mikey whispered. No one could know about the secret. Not yet.
The old man frowned and bent his head again. Mikey waited for a second, but his head remained down. Maybe he had been imagining things.
His eyes froze on the altar as he turned, between the massive pillars of marble.
That was the place. Not on top of the altar itself; it was too soaked in the love of the faithful. The site of countless blessings, consecrations. He needed something deeper, darker. A curl of shadow.
Shouldn’t be too hard to find in here.
“Antoni.” He said. His voice echoed unnaturally through the oppressive silence, and a family of tourists turned. Like he was talking to them?
“The fuck you looking at?” He asked. The father ushered them away, shooting him a glare that Mikey ignored. Antoni hurried over from a tapestry, his brow creased.
“What’s beneath the altar?”
Antoni blinked and even looked rather pleased, like perhaps expecting a snarky response or sarcastic comment. He still had the headphones from his audioguide in his ears.
“You know, I don’t actually know. I think there’s a sacristy of some kind–”
“Why don’t you go find out?” Mikey interrupted, forestalling what he was sure was going to be a long and involved blowing of hot air. He was in no mood for vapid theories. He had a hunch. A pulling, from deep down in his gut. And, in the end Antoni worked for his father. Which meant that Antoni worked for Mikey.
The thin man’s mouth creased slightly, and for a second Mikey though the was going to say something, but in the end he did what everyone did. He bent.
“Sure thing kid. You got it.”
He strode off toward the entrance of the church, the wooden heels of his expensive shoes clicking as he went.
Everyone bent to Mikey, sooner or later, just like they did for his father. When he walked through the halls of St. Joseph’s, even the older kids didn’t give him any shit. And those that tried…well, he and Luca had a special spot in the playground at recess that the Sisters couldn’t see from their office. Luca giggled when he gave people indian rugburns. Mikey thought it was funny too. Their little face squinched up like someone poured ants in their pants. And if there was one thing he had learned from his father, it’s that you didn’t take shit from anybody.
Remember Morgan Smithfield, Mikey boy? Luca would laugh. Mikey could practically see his pudgy best friend standing beside one of the massive pillars, arms of his hooded sweatshirt pushed up over his beefy forearms and a big shit-eating grin on his face.
Mikey was too busy thinking about the eyes of the statues, or the faces frozen in grim judgement to hear the subtle rumble that had begun to slip into Luca’s voice, or see the faint shimmer of something that was certifiably not Luca in the boy’s laughing and cheery face.
He did remember Morgan Smithfield, though. The little nerd was in their year, and Mikey had caught him at the end of a rumor that he and Luca were gay for each other. Then, he had gone to the sisters and squealed about Mikey and Luca’s corner. Maybe he thought it would make him safe from any possible repercussion.
Mikey and Luca had taught him a lesson, then. They had caught him on the way to the A train, where the Sisters couldn’t help him. He had spent an hour scrubbing blood of his Nike’s after he got home.
Suddenly, Mikey thought of his mother. A pang of hurt slipped into his lungs, cold as ice in midwinter. His mom had been home when the nuns called to tell his parents about Smithfield. He still remembered the look on her face–the surprise he had expected, but there was also pain. Not anger–no, anger came from his father, always from his father–but his mother had also looked inescapably…broken. She had told the nuns that she and Mikey’s father would come in, of course, and first thing tomorrow, hung up the phone and looked at Mikey, who had come into the kitchen for a fresh soda. She had looked at him like she was trying to puzzle something out. And then she had burst into tears, her knees failing her as she sank to the floor. She couldn’t raise her head and look at him, even when he walked over to ask her what was wrong. Eventually he had shrugged and went back to his room.
A week later, she left died in a car accident. Drunk driver, the policeman had told them. Mikey thought back a lot about that day, and he found that he couldn’t even remember how he had felt. Wasn’t that a son of a bitch? He was sad at the time, he was sure about that, but that was about all he could say. The worst thing that had ever happened to him and now he felt…nothing. A faint taste of sorrow, like a ring around the tub after the plug has been pulled.
He shook himself. Why was he even wasting time thinking about her? She was gone.
Because you miss her. A voice from the very back of his head whispered. She was light, and she was laughter. And what you did to Morgan Smithfield broke her heart.
The image of his father, standing over him, fists clenched. He shook that away, and quick. Mikey didn’t want to miss her; his father would think that was weak. Mikey wasn’t weak.
But sometimes, in the dead of night after everyone was asleep…sometimes Mikey would wake up after a dream about her and cry silently into his pillow.
The beams of his courage began to shake again, this time accompanied with a single flash of clarity. He felt like he had been drowning, and this was the first time that his head had broken water. What had he found, down there beneath the cliffs? And why did it urge him here? Why was he thinking of Luca so much? He felt the urge to drop his backpack and run, run as fast as his legs would carry him. The shaking grew, and suddenly he was terrified. He didn’t know what Luca was–or even that it was Luca, now he had a sneaking suspicion that he was thinking about a Luca who wasn’t really Luca, just something using Luca, wearing his face like a mask.
“Good morning, boy.” The voice behind him, and he spun around.
It was him. The old man. His eyes were a startling shade of blue, and watery, and his hair was fluffy, sticking up in patches from his head like popcorn. He held a rosary of black rock in one hand.
For some reason, Mikey was terrified of the old man. His heart started pounding like a trip-hammer. Luca had fallen silent.
“You speak English.” He managed.
“I do. Irish, actually, living in the sunny shores of Italy for the last thirty or so.” The old man smiled, but there was something pointed in those shimmering blue eyes. Mikey shrank from that look. It flayed him, left him exposed.
“How are you enjoying our cathedral?”
“It’s…it’s very nice.” Mikey lied. In fact, the more he thought about it, the cathedral made him intensely uncomfortable. The old man laughed. There were black spots on his teeth, like pitted iron.
“What brings you here?”
Step by step, forcing him backwards.
“I’m–I’m here on a school trip.” Mikey grimaced internally. A bad lie.
“Is that so?” The old man didn’t even bother to look around. “I don’t see the rest of your school friends.” He cocked his head; the flabby skin beneath his throat wattled, making him look like a chicken. “I think you’re here for something else.”
“What do you mean?” His pulse was palpable now, seeming to rise to the surface of his skin and send a shake through his body with each huge, squeezing beat of his heart. He couldn’t know. He couldn’t. It was a secret. Luca had said so.
“I’m not sure.” The old man said, and he looked to the rosary, as if for assurance. “I was over there, and I–” Twin lines of consternation grew between his eyes. “I thought I heard something…something that told me to come over here and talk to you.”
“They say hearing voices is the first step towards senility.” Mikey said the first thing that popped to mind.
The old man’s face wrinkled and he laughed again, this time a good belly laugh–the kind that Luca made. It reverberated against the stones of the church, bringing a measure of warmth to the lifeless stones. People turned to stare, scandalized, but the man paid them no mind.
“Indeed! Senility, quite so. No, my boy I’m afraid I’ve another few years left in these old bones yet. Very quick of you, though, I’ll give you that.”
“Thanks.” Mikey said.
“So how about it?” The old man asked easily. “Something I can do for you?”
“Me?” Mikey’s mouth dried out like he had been chewing sand. “Why did you–why come over to me?”
“Do you know, I’m not sure of that either.” The old man smiled, but Mikey found no reassurance in the flash of those pearly dentures. The warmth from his laugh had left the air entirely now, and it was cold and heavy again.
“Do you have something on your mind, son? If not, I’m just another doddering old fool, and I’ll be on my way. But if you do…”
Mikey thought of his mother, and then of himself in something akin to rising horror. Providing that the events of the last three days weren’t some kind of nightmare, that he actually had found something down on the beach…he couldn’t listen to whatever it wanted with this church. It was because of his mother that he wore the cross of St. Thomas around his neck. He had bounced on his mother’s knees during mass, had sat intently through countless masses, had taken his first confession and first communion seriously. In the spring, he was due to be confirmed by Bishop Alvieti, in St. Marks. Maybe this was a sign. He was being thrown a rope. A way out.
“Son?” Whatever silent question the old man had in his eyes grew sharper, more dangerous. “Come on my lad, you can talk to me. All are safe in His house. Except those wish Him harm.”
He shot a glance to Mikey’s backpack.
He knows. Mikey thought, and a wave of panic rose inside him.
“I appreciate the rhetoric, old-timer, but you’ve got the wrong kid.” He turned, looking around. Where was Antoni? Did he leave to take a shit or something?
“I don’t think I do.” The old man said. “Out with it my boy. You can still walk away. We’ll do it together, eh?”
There was something hard in his tone now, something obstinate. He looked like one of the statues overhead, actually. Frozen in mid-gesticulation, rooted to the floor by stone.
Faith blinds, Mikey. This time Mikey heard the deep, not-Luca rumble that hid in his friend’s voice in his head. This time he heard the anger that licked at every word. A hunger that wasn’t human. Not by a long shot.
His arms went numb and his backpack slipped and it fell to the floor with a heavy thud.
A clear thought popped immediately into his head, the first in what felt like ages. Holy shit, what had he been about to do?
“We need to get that thing out of here.” He nodded at the backpack, sitting on the flagged marble floor. “It’s dangerous.”
“What’s your name, then?”
“Ambrose McEntire, Michael, and a pleasure. Is it an explosive? Who’s putting you up to this?” His watery blue eyes flicked across the dim depths of the cathedral. “Can they see us right now?”
“Is it–what? No, it’s…” Mikey almost laughed before he stopped, failing for words. How could he possibly explain what was really in the bag? He wasn’t even sure that he understood. “…well actually, something like that, yeah.”
“Right.” Ambrose straightened. “Right. Well, then, this is a matter for the police I think, Michael. I should say the soldiers at the gate would likely be decent aid, wouldn’t you say?” He sounded calm, but Mikey noticed the rosary beads slipping one by one through the man’s thumb and forefinger.
Hail Mary, full of grace…
Ambrose held his hand out. “Come along chum. We’ll go talk to them together.”
“Ambrose, please, Michael. I haven’t been called ‘Mr. McEntire’ in almost twenty-five years. What’s on your mind?”
“Is my father going to hear about this?” The weight of the cold air crushed his words, made them insignificant.
Mikey’s father was not a patient man before his wife left him. Afterwards…it was like his father, already a hard man, had solidified all the way through. He went to the office every day now, sometimes not coming back until after dinner, which Mikey made and ate by himself at the big table in the living room. On Sundays, his father left almost before sunrise, and never came back before eleven at night. It was like there was no time in his life for anything beside work. No time to grieve for his dead wife, and certainly no room for Mikey.
Ambrose almost laughed; Mikey saw it rise in his face, but the gentleman took one look at the misery brewing in Mikey’s face and swallowed it. He turned and knelt (both knees firing like dry pop-guns), placing his hands on the boy’s shoulders.
“Not if you and I fix it together. How about that, eh? We take care of it, and no one’s the wiser.”
He winked. Maybe it was Mikey’s imagination, but he felt a kind of strength radiating from those gnarled hands, choked with thick veins pushing up from the skin that was beginning to show signs of thinning. Even if it was his imagination, his words made Mikey feel better.
“Michael?” Antoni was standing about ten feet away, looking surprised. A length of silver chain hung from his right hand. “What are you doing? Who is this man?”
Mikey opened his mouth, but Ambrose spoke first, standing quickly. “I’m Ambrose McEntire, sir, and how do you do? I’m sorry for the intrusion, but I couldn’t help but notice this young man leaning against one of those pillars there. He looked quite not himself–you’ll notice he dropped his pack entirely, there, see–and I thought I would take him to the front for a few sips of water.”
Mikey did his best to sway slightly on his feet. He needed to get away from the thing–he felt it screaming through the halls of his brain. His legs shook with the effort of not booking it straight for the exit.
“Michael? Is this true?” Antoni asked. He looked concerned. Concerned, or worried about what Mikey’s father would say if he let the man’s only son pass out from dehydration.
“Well that’s very…eh…christian of you, Mr. McEntire, sir.” Antoni said after only a moment’s hesitation.
Ambrose laughed again and waved the rosary. “I’ve been trying to quit, but it just didn’t seem to stick.”
“Mike, I slipped the rector a couple hundred and borrowed the key to the sacristy–” Antoni opened his hand displaying an ancient bronze key. “–when you’re done. I’ll grab this.” And then, much to Mikey’s horror, Antoni took three steps, bent, and swung Mikey’s backpack over his own shoulders. “Actually, if there’s–”
The words froze on his lips. Antoni blinked, as though confused. Mikey, already keenly attuned to what the thing inside was capable of, saw Antoni’s eyes go suddenly empty, immediately replaced by something…else. Something that was capable of seeming almost human, but definitely wasn’t. To everyone else, it would have looked merely like Antoni simply forgot what he was about to say. But Mikey knew. This time, Luca hadn’t been content to whisper in an ear, had entirely claimed his host. Antoni had been replaced.
“Antoni, was it? Is everything alright, my man?” Ambrose asked, but his hand tightened the rosary.
“Fine, fine.” Antoni said, shrugging with an entirely humorless smile. “You two go on ahead. I’ll catch up.”
He turned on his heel and quick-walked towards the back of the cathedral. To the altar.
“We have to stop him.” Mikey whispered, looking up at Ambrose.
“My boy, I…” The beads whispered through Ambrose’s fingers a little faster. His face had gone slightly pale. “I think this is a matter for the soldiers out front, I really do…”
“What? No, come on!” Mikey pulled at the old man, but he was once again rooted to the floor, frozen, but this time in fear instead of faith.
“I don’t really–Michael, wait!”
But Mikey was already walking swiftly away, heedless of the hard squeaking and slapping sound his galoshes made on the marble.
Antoni was already around the eastern arm of the Duomo, and walking swiftly for the altar–there was something beneath it, Mikey could see a few small, dirty glass panes set into the marble wall. And there was a door. It was old, ancient almost, set at the base of three steep stairs.
Whatever it was, it wanted what was under those stairs. Mikey had to stop him; he thought about screaming, crying for help but that would just complicate things–and his father would hear about it. Whatever happened, he had to deal with it himself. There was no question of turning around, not anymore. He knew what the thing wanted.
Blood, and power.
Mikey got to the door maybe fifteen seconds later, but he felt each and every one of those seconds like they were exacted from his skin. People were turning and staring at his hurried duck-walk through the cathedral. Ambrose was behind him, stammering excuses to the Duomo guards to keep them in place.
His hand closed on the brass doorknob, and he flung the door open, falling face-first down the flight of steep stairs hidden behind it, scrabbling and catching his balance after ten very painful feet.
Around him was a squat, round room, like the inside of a drum. A ring of perhaps a dozen slim red pillars framed a single huge basalt rectangle, squarely beneath where the altar was. A glass pane, set into the smokey black rock, illuminated the grinning, chattering face of a long-since decayed skeleton.
A tomb. There was a tomb under the altar.
The fine hairs on the back of Mikey’s neck stood up.
What had he needed to find? A curl of shadow.
Antoni turned, rotating slowly on one heel. “Welcome, Mikey.”
His face was stretched into a huge, psychotic grin, so wide his lips were cracked and bleeding. In one hand he held Mikey’s Fanta bottle. Something small and grey writhed a tentacle in the depths of the thick glass, like an obscene greeting. In the other hand he clutched a small black revolver. Just like the one that his father kept in a shoe box at the top of his closet. It was pointed at Mikey.
“Nice of you to fall in.” Antoni gnashed his teeth, shaking with a sudden spasm.
Mikey stood and raised both hands over his head. He couldn’t take his eyes from the dark barrel of the revolver. Any second now it would spark red, and that would be curtains for him.
Phissh. Just like that, dead.
He wasn’t ready. There was still stuff he wanted to do. He didn’t want to die. He had been–
Cruel. He heard the voice that he had thought belonged to Luca echo clearly in his mind, and the sick grimace on Antoni’s face widened. He stared directly at Mikey, and there was a hunger in those eyes.
Like father like son, eh Mikey boy? Damn, wouldn’t Vinny Sal be proud that his boy was just as much as carrion-corpse as he was? Remember that new xbox that was waiting on your bed after you sent that Smithfield kid to the hospital? What, you think that was for making the honor roll? Your pop’s approval, weighed out in blood.
Antoni was gone, consumed or shoved to the back seat–whatever was behind that laugh was in charge now. Insanity, or a close approximation to it, blazed in hollow expression.
“It starts here, Mikey-boy. Show these tiny humans what true power looks like., what a true god is. They’ll line up to be burned in the sacrificial altars, and their screams will shake the foundations of the whole, diseased thing.” The voice deepened, choking on a deep, wet gargle.
Mikey was dimly aware of a warm patch growing down the front of his pants. He had pissed himself. At this moment, he didn’t particularly care.
He’s still in my head. God oh my God, he’s still in my head.
Mikey struggled to think, to move, to run, to do anything, but panic rose like a diseased rat through his throat and now he couldn’t breathe…
“Michael?” Ambrose’s voice echoed from the door .
Don’t come down, don’t come down, don’t come–
One of Antoni’s eyes actually bulged outward as his face twisted in a grotesque, dusty laugh that caught in his throat. “Don’t piss yourself on my account, boy. This is for him.”
And before Mikey could scream in terror, Antoni raised the gun to his own temple and pulled the trigger. There was a crack like the loudest thunder Mikey had ever heard, so loud he instinctively clapped his hands to his ears and collapsed backwards.
The booming voices of the armed guards roared down the flight of stairs.
“Michael? Michael, are you alright?” Ambrose shouted, panicked, and over the ringing in his ears Mikey heard him fumbling down the stairs, still shouting his name.
Antoni was still standing. His eyes were still open.
A whine built in Mikey’s throat.
Blood was splattered in a thick puddle over the side of the basalt tomb, dripping from the funnels formed in the rock. It was spattered on the smeared windows. Mikey could see through the hole that had appeared in Antoni’s head, it was big enough to eat a lemon and oh my god there was something grey oozing out of it, Antoni was just killed he was just murdered, but he was still standing there like a puppet but who was pulling the strings…
“Witness the birth of one who will rule all.” Antoni whispered. A waterfall of blood accompanied his words, gushing down his chin.
The whine in Mikey’s throat turned into a scream.
“What the hell is going—Mary, mother of God.” Ambrose froze on the steps, and his watery eyes were huge as he stared at Antoni. He clenched the rosary in a death-grip, his knuckles white and shaking.
The thing left Antoni in a rush, like a candle being snuffed. Mikey watched it leave, and saw the vacuum that replaced it. The muscles in the poor man’s face fell slack and his eyes rolled into the back of his head. He collapsed on nerveless knees. The Fanta bottle in his hand tumbled from his grip and shattered, sending slivers of blood-soaked glass flying into the air.
And now we rise, stronger and greater than before we rise on ashes borne from the flames of war, we start here at the axis of faith we’ll rend it and tear it and show them what a true master feels like–
Ambrose was screaming Mikey’s name. Mikey’s gaze was fixed on the little grey curl sliding through the puddle of blood, screaming ‘Kill it, kill it’’ but the voice in his head was booming now, it was growing…
The grey curl writhed and twisted, splashing little droplets of blood as it slapped against the marble floor. It was growing, Mikey saw, growing so fast that he could see the muscles bulging and expanding beneath sinewy, rubbery flesh, like the skin of a halloween mask.
Mikey and Ambrose were shoved to the side as a flood of Italian soldiers pounded down the stairs, guns held up and ready.
“Shoot it, shoot it!” Mikey yelled at them, but his voice was lost beneath their shouted questions and confusions, eyes wide as they either yelled at him or stared in horror at another appendage slipping beneath the twitching bulge of muscle and skin. It was thin and frail but already stretching with muscles, quivering with power, delighting in it’s warm bath of the sacrificed, already growing stronger.
‘And here we start, here is the first step, the shadow of the grave as the night rises–’
The voice was out of Mikey’s head now, rolling in the small room like fresh summer thunder, and Ambrose fell back against the wall, screaming in pain. He raised the rosary in front of him in a shaking fist, scrabbling helplessly at his ears with his free hand, skin paper thin now and lined heavy with veins. His fingers were stained red as they tried to claw the voice from his head. He, too, was screaming.
“Mary mother of God, protect us, help us, Jesus son of God please–”
The thing lashed out so quick that it was just a blur, shattering the heavy plastic that covered the black grin of the skeleton in the tomb. The soldiers roared and opened fire.
‘Ah the instruments of death, how they chatter and squeak, their anger feeds us, it feeds us and can’t hurt us, witness the birth of the one who will rule all–’
The thing was the width of a tree trunk now, the size of a small car, roiling with wet slimy skin. It heaved and rolled in huge
twisting unnaturally. Another appendage that had so far gone unnoticed seized the legs of one of the gunmen and whipped him in a semicircle, hurling him through a small pillar that exploded in a spray of marble dust. Mikey heard the man’s back snap as clearly as if the room had been silent. He didn’t get back up.
Outside, people were screaming.
Inside Mikey’s head, Luca was howling with laughter.
He got up, knees shaking and trembling from head to foot. He scrabbled at Ambrose.
“Get up! Run!”
The old man’s red face was slick with tears, but he nodded and seized the railing, hauling himself up the stairs.
With a huge crack, the tomb sheared entirely from it’s base. The beast flipped entirely over and the huge piece of basalt made an unearthly whistling sound as it flew through the air and crushed the rest of the gunmen against the far wall, splattering them against the wall. Mikey saw a severed arm fall and twitch twice, and he collapsed on the stairs, his breakfast forcing it’s way up his throat.
The beast in the basement was the size of a minivan now, hunched over the ruins of the basalt crypt. It stank like ammonia and hot iron.
It smells like blood. The thought burned bright in Mikey’s head as he heaved, his stomach tensing over and over.
The enormous basalt tomb had become an appendage, pulling the beast forward in long, thrusting lunges. Another arm was formed from the shattered remnants of a red marble pillar, ending in slivers of deadly-looking rock. The grinning, chattering black skeleton, twisted and out of order, formed a center cluster of mass.
It’s using the church.
As Mikey heaved, the beast writhed in a burst of motion and shattered another two pillars, undulating and stretching, growing another appendage of broken red marble that slithered like a snake.
In the center of it, between broken marble and shattered basalt, was an enormous eye, the only sign of the beast that had been, easily two feet wide and slitted vertically. It cracked open, and burned with a fevered yellow light. The voice spoke doubled in Mikey’s head, brimming with joy.
‘Witness now, little one, as we bring to dust the cult of followers, as we reduce their ritual and their useless ceremony to so many scattered piles of burning bones. And then on the altar of bones everyone shall die, pierced through the heart and howling.’
The voice shifted and suddenly it was the high voice of Luca, laughing.
The basalt tomb swung and cleaved through the plastic sheeting and marble walls, hammering it again and again. With each swing, a hole grew in the wall. It was going to escape. It was going to get out.
Then Ambrose was grabbing at his shoulder and hauling him to his feet, and they were on the top stair, staggering for the exit. The air of the duomo was filled with screams. A woman toting a prada backpack was slapped casually against the wall as she leapt over a fallen rock, her head sounding like a egg being dropped on the ground.
The beast was already half-out of the crypt.
The soldiers with their M16’s were already firing, already spreading out in a wide fan. The terrible voice drowned out their guns.
Ambrose was lifting his rosary to a statue of a man with a sword in one hand and a book over the other, screaming over the chaos. Blood was still trickling down his ears. His popcorn-hair and cheeks were covered in rock dust.
“Help us!” He cried, but his voice was no longer quavery and old, it had the rich timbre of a voice from a much younger man. “The house of your master is under attack! Please!”
His eyes, blue like brilliant flame, were suddenly dry and unlined. Mikey grabbed fistfuls of his anorak, urging the old man to come, run, they had to run and tell someone. But Ambrose McEntire stayed rooted to the spot, fist clenched around the rosary and lifted to heaven. It was as if the old man had gained three hundred pounds. He didn’t even budge when Mikey pushed him.
“In Nomine Patris!” Ambrose bellowed.
A splintering roar came from the back of the church as the beast began laying waste to a row of pews, growing sharp, splintered spars around its center. The basalt tomb slammed against the floor, and the shattering of marble sounded like glass. At least three people were lying on the cold marble floor.
Mikey was about to say fuck it, to turn and leave Ambrose to his own stupid devices, when the statue moved.
It fucking moved.
Mikey almost swore it was a trick of the light, or his imagination, already keyed to a fever pitch, that was now just wildly inventing things for him to gibber at.
The statue’s head rotated, almost with imperceptible slowness at first. His cold, lidless eyes regarded them austerely. Mikey almost passed out. He couldn’t believe what was happening. This wasn’t real. None of this was real.
The statue stepped forward into empty air and landed with a crash that seemed to shake the very foundation of the church, lifting the sword it held in one hand. It moved with the effortless grace of a person, fingers tightening around the sword hilt and toes flexing to stand. The only thing that remained lifeless was it’s face–still frozen in peremptory judgement, still lofty and cold. It swiveled on one heel, facing the beast.
“What the fuck is going on?” Mikey screamed. Statues come to life, how could the statues be coming to life, what was powering them–?
Mikey felt the beast sneering in his head and heard it speaking aloud.
“This changes nothing we are the true beginning and end, the true masters and we will reduce these still-faced guards to as much dust as they came from–” The voice rose in a babbling howl of anger and hunger.
But there was something else in that high, awful voice. He had heard it once, when he first saw the iron-wood pews full of the kneeling penitent.
It’s afraid of the faithful.
The swordsman state was walking towards the beast, slowly, one foot in front of the other. It walked with a kind of implacability, a threat in economy of motion.
More crashes, from the walls around them and the pillars behind. More statues fell to earth. Saints with their scepters, angels with their swords and wings outstretched, guards bearing halberds with faces half-lost to erosion and time, each fell to the marble and rose to face the monster that threatened their home–
But no, that wasn’t quite right, Mikey thought hysterically. The statues weren’t defending their home. They were defending the home of their master. Angels and saints, martyrs and supplicants…all rising in stone to defend the house of God. Their faces were still blank, eyes still devoid of a soul or any emotion, but still the fell from their perches above the pillars or fell as though released from the altars they fought over, each risen with a purpose.
The soldiers shouted with surprise, recoiling from the moving statues. Some even fired on them, to little effect. The resurrected saints paid them no heed and marched straight for the monster.
Ambrose was crowing with triumph, the rosary jabbing the air as he spun in a circle. Mikey took a step backwards, then another. He kept waiting to snap out of it. Maybe he would wake up in a cold sweat in his bed at Mr. Giatorini’s. Or shit, even strapped to a bed in a loony bin back in New York. He’d take a loony bin at this moment. He bumped into something solid and flinched–but it was just one of the pillars.
“Ambrose!” He yelled.
“Do you see them?” The old man yelled, seizing Mikey by the shoulders. His face was radiant.
The first statues were approaching the beast, but it was ready for them. It loomed at fifteen feet tall, easy, slamming the basalt hammer and howling. A pair of wooden pews, splintered and snapped formed rough outlines around the burning eye. A dark void lined with teeth of broken marble yawned just beneath. Limbs that still shuddered and bulged with growing strength spat from it’s torso–half-supported, half dragged along the cathedral floor–in dizzying angles.
A statue leapt forward, swinging at the beast, but was clawed away with ease, thrown bodily into a wall. The beast threw itself forward with a swing of the basalt tomb, turning a statue of a robed saint into so many pieces of fragments. It sliced a tapestry hanging between two pillars in half, slammed a tail-like appendage through a row of pews, sending them hurtling into the air. It was surrounded on all sides by statues now, and still more were stepping from their pedestals, dropping from the wall. There were hundreds, some no taller than Mikey’s knee and others that were almost eight feet tall. How were there so many?
An angel darted with astonishing speed beneath a forked claw and sank an axe into the center of the thing. Mikey’s heart leapt with excitement, and beside him Ambrose pointed and yelled with glee. But before the angel could swing again, it exploded in a shower of stone shards as the basalt hammer came down diagonally on a shoulder.
The rest of the statues closed in on the beast; they climbed atop it’s back, stabbing with spears, they swung at it’s belly with swords and scepters…some even charged at it head on, dragging halberds that sent shining sparks into the air. The church-beast dispatched them all with hammer, claws and tail, dragging it’s stone and marble torso through piles upon piles of rock and marble–and still the statues came.
The policemen were shouting, and gunfire bellowed in peppered bursts. The beast screamed and threw what was left of a statue at one of the soldiers, sending him skittering down the church like a marionette with cut strings. The soldiers closed in, shouting. The statues hammered and stabbed. The beast shrieked.
“It’s slowing!” Ambrose yelled. It was, Mikey saw, but he didn’t know if it would be in time. The tide of statues grew weaker with each wave, and disembodied hands and heads of statues littered the marble floors. The church-beast, however, grew taller and broader with every statue it dispatched; the dark mouth grew wider and a second row of teeth grew behind the first.
The church was in shambles. The wide slab of white marble that had served as the altar was gone, replaced by a crater easily five feet wide. Shards of broken iron and chunks of rock were all that were left of the decoration and carvings that decorated it. Two of the massive pillars that supported the ceiling were broken and jutted down like broken teeth.
Everything it killed made it stronger.
Then he heard the voice again, only this time it was just in his head.
Nope. No, I’m not listening to you, you bastard.
Mikey, bro. Take a second. Breathe. Look around you, buddy.
The shattered church. The broken statues.
He knew it wasn’t Luca. It was, but it was the false reflection of his friend, a vacant skull with the beast operating the mouth like a puppet’s. He knew it.
But it was speaking quickly now, speaking just to him–and in Luca’s reasonable voice, the one he used when the sisters at St. Joseph’s had busted him one time too many and he had to walk on the side of grace, at least until lunchtime.
You’re making a lot of hasty decisions here, Mikey. Which side you wanna be on when the chips are down, huh? Look, like your pop’s always sayin’ Mike, Life’s hard as rocks, and this is the reality, this right here. But hey man, why are you on the wrong side? You’re the one that made all this possible. You’re our saviour, man. You’re the prophet.
The beast continued to lunge through the detritus that began to surround it, beating away the saints and statues that continued to strike and hammer at it, but for a second Mikey swore he saw that great golden eye blink stare directly at him, calm and placid. Then he saw it.
The dawn of a new era–his era. All mankind, brought still beneath his hand. He could wield absolute power. He would be the judge over all, the voice of the new master. He would be the Prophet. Anything he wanted, any whim or craving or possession, his. All he had to do was accept it. Forget about Post Malone, he was being offered the opportunity of a lifetime.
Come on, Mikey, think about it. Luca whispered. What would your pops want for you, eh? Think of how proud he’d be; Mikey Salviatorini, saviour of mankind.
Oh, and Mikey was thinking about it. He had been the one to save the thing and now it offered him a path to glory. His father would be proud. He would sit in the position of consigliere, offer Mikey wisdom. And it’s not like Mikey would be an evil ruler. He would be tough, but fair. A gentle touch when needed, a fist when only called for. All it would take was a few concessions for the Big Guy every now and then, no big deal.
What would I have to do?
It told him.
Mikey wasn’t even able to articulate a response. All he felt was a sickening, bone-deep disgust that spoke louder than words.
Hey, Mikey, what’s the big deal? Luca wheedled. He knew it wasn’t Luca, but it was easier than considering what he was really talking to. Come on, face facts. We’re in the face of big change–you can either get with the program, or get ground under the wheel. Today, this church. Tomorrow, all of Milan. It’s started, and there ain’t shit that you or anyone else can do about it. Them’s the roads, bud. Which one are you walking down?
The church shook with another crash, then silence, heavy as a thick fog. It was done; no more statues. It had destroyed them all. One tiny little wriggling tendril, against hundreds of frozen-hearted saints and angels.
Which side you wanna be on when the chips are down?
Whatever it was, it bordered on colossal, now; it consumed the weak light coming through the windows, it dwarfed the altars and frescoes which looked stark and bare without their heavenly populace. Luca–or whatever–was right. This was big change, earth-changing big. And he could have way in. A way to the winning side. All it took was a choice.
A terrible choice. He reminded himself viciously…but it seemed like the immediacy of the horror was already fading, melting away. Yes, it was terrible but…did it matter what came after that but? Once you added it, once you admitted there was a chance it would be fine, did it even matter anymore? Once you’ve admitted that it was beyond awful, that it would give you nightmares for the rest of your life but…it let in that tiny ray of doubt, that quiet voice that spoke with dead reason.
‘Beyond awful’ is pretty subjective, Mikey boy. What Hitler did was ‘beyond awful’. Compared to that, this isn’t even a blip on the map.’ it might say for one, or ‘it’ll give you nightmares for a few weeks, sure, but the rest of your life? You can’t even remember what you felt like on the day your momma died like–let’s not give that memory of yours more credit than it’s due.’ Once you said but, the everything before it quietly slipped away.
Then Mikey thought about his mom. God, what would she say about this? She had always believed the best in Mikey, thought he was just as good as his grades said he was–she used to always introduce him so proudly, with one hand tight on his shoulder. ‘This is my son.’ she would say. Like it was a big deal to be her son. Like her son wasn’t a bullying piece of crap. If what happened with Morgan Smithfield had hurt her…
She’s fuckin’ dead, Mikey! Luca yelled in his head. She can’t feel a goddamn thing! How long you gonna carry around a ghost and fuckin’ ask them how they feel about everything? Why don’t you ask your pops what he thinks, huh? He’s the one that’s still got a pulse!
His father…the man with the gun in his closet, the one to whom all things went, all people bent. His father who had spoken about him like an afterthought, a loose end. The man that had rewarded him for sending a kid to the hospital. What would he do when his son took the next step in his father’s footsteps?
Mikey had to do what would make him as strong as his father. He would save the world in the process, become the most powerful person of all time. There was only one thing standing in the way. A gruesome, forbidden thing.
Beside him, Ambrose clutched the rosary to his cheek, eyes tightly shut. He was praying, but praying for what? His big party trick had failed. Suddenly Mikey noticed how old Ambrose was. Had to be seventy, at least. One step away from the grave.
Just one more step, Mikey. That’s all it’s going to take. Luca promised.
The church was still. The beast, for the first time, stood absolutely quiet. The world froze, held on a razor’s edge. He was surrounded by dead soldiers and crumpled statues–the birth of a legit, bible-worthy miracle right in front of his eyes, laid to waste with little effort. There was a stone hand on the ground by his feet. He picked it up.
“Ambrose.” Mikey said.
Ambrose slowly opened his eyes, taking in the empty church, the shattered statues and fallen corpses of the soldiers. He saw the beast standing in the center of the church, silent. The old man turned towards him, rotating slowly on one heel. He saw the stone in Mikey’s hand. He took a sudden, shuddering breath, looking between Mikey and the beast towering over them. He knew. He knew, and he was afraid. So was Mikey, come to think of it. But this was the last hurdle, the last hard part before he was spared.
“I don’t know what deal you’ve made, Michael, but–” The old man’s lip trembled and he stopped suddenly, heaving a deep tear-choked sob. “I sincerely wish you wouldn’t.”
Mikey squeezed his eyes shut, feeling his own tears begin to choke him. He had to.
Your father’s approval, weighed out in blood.
Maybe this would make his father like him. Maybe this, above all else.
“I’m sorry.” Mikey said, and his voice rumbled from the beast’s splintered-glass mouth. He wasn’t surprised. He had made his decision. “It’s either this, or…” He involuntarily looked at one of the dead soldiers.
“Please, Michael.” Ambrose whispered. The hand holding the rosary was white-knuckled and shook with strain. “You know not what you do. The devil lies, boy.”
“I’m sorry.” Mikey and the Beast said in unison.
He did what needed doing, and Ambrose didn’t lift a hand to defend himself.
The old man collapsed like a sack of grain, a delicate rose of carmine blooming beneath his head. The jet rosary was still clutched tight in his hand.
Mikey fell to his knees and let the tears come.
You’re a real son of a bitch. He thought.
A bargain is a bargain, boy. The laugh and the taunting, mocking voice was high-pitched and ugly, like glass caught in a trash disposal. The real voice of the beast. He opened his eyes and saw a glow of fever-yellow.
He felt his consciousness crack open like an egg, and the thing flooded in, wholly alien and invasive. It was an unpleasant, cold feeling, like being dropped into ice water, only in his mind, and not just in his mind but all over, spreading through him like an avalanche. First, he lost his sense of smell, then his mouth went dry as a ball of cotton, dry like his tongue was made of sandpaper. His balls shrank to hard raisins.
He looked down with wide eyes and watched his hands begin to twist and hear the bones stretch like horrible taffy. His fingers melted into one another and then flowed into his forearm, shrinking into one slithering limb. His skin turned rubbery and brown, and he began to shrink, either he was shrinking or the cathedral was growing, but no it was him, his feet were breaking and shifting into two slimy tentacles that merged into one. Mikey fell on his face. He opened his mouth to scream, but his lips stitched themselves together and his nostrils closed one by one. He had time for one more thought before his lungs began to burn for air and the great cathedral overhead began to waver and spots danced before his eyes.
The devil lies, boy.
10.31 start 500
11.1 start 2049
11.3 start 4114
11.4 start 5853
11.5 start 7385
11.6 start 8424
11.7 start 9761
11.8 start 10965
11.9 start 10865
11.10 start 11430
11.11 start 11634
Final end: 13,000 Goal: 11,700