evoted to his preparations, Father Antonio Molinari weathered the bumps and sways of a moving coach while attempting to decipher the rather rushed handwriting of Pope Pius IX. The task would’ve been daunting even in stationary surroundings and without the horrors of Vienna still fresh in his mind. Whenever he closed his eyes to sleep, he found himself surrounded by it again: the chill upon his back, the smell of death, and the sound of fear―a pounding heartbeat in his head. His work for the Order of Saint Michael brought him face to face with sights that defied the science of mankind to explain, and the soul to withstand.
When he could no longer tolerate staring at blurry smears masquerading as words, he wiped at his eyes and sighed. Crumbled bits of red and white wax flaked onto his black pants as he rearranged the pile of missives in his lap, a modest parcel of cloth in the facing seat his only traveling companion. Warm air streaming through the window carried the scent of meadow grass and pollen.
He grasped the red-padded wall when the wheels hit a rough patch. Two lanterns hanging outside the carriage swayed and thumped against the sides. His surroundings pitched and rocked, and the tall grass rushed by, dotted here and there by white sheep and goats. Two teenaged boys and a dog attempted to keep them grouped; the sheep seemed compliant, but the goats went wherever they pleased.
Once the road smoothed, he settled against the plush bench and spread open the letters. The topmost, he had already read four times. A man, Henri Baudin, claimed his daughter suffered the harrowing of Satan. His words were terse, earnest, and packed with desperation. The condition of the paper, worn and refolded, supported the story it had been passed through many hands.
Beneath it laid two replies from local clergy to an inquiry Father Molinari had sent in response to the man’s request. The first, penned by a Father Michaud, claimed the young woman appeared normal to him, and showed little sign of external influence. A deacon from an outlying chapel also wrote to say he believed the woman was only seeking attention. While no one claimed to have witnessed any arguments, the deacon believed she wished to delay or avoid an imminent wedding.
Somehow, the case had been elevated to a bishop who had seen fit to refer it to Molinari’s immediate superior, Cardinal Benedetto.
He’d barely set his bundle down in his room before the summons came.
“No rest for the wicked… or the righteous.” He rubbed fatigue from the bridge of his nose, offering a halfhearted smile at his belongings, as if the lump might answer.
He could learn nothing new from the letters, and tucked the papers into his sacred book. The pope had gotten wind of what happened in Vienna and, at least from what he had been able to discern from the overly fancy writing, wanted assurances he had dispatched the creature back to Hell. It had little bearing on the reason for his current journey, and could at least wait until he had the luxury of a solid chair and a table bereft of bouncing.
The wagon lurched forward and right, forcing him to grab the seat to avoid tumbling off.
“I am sorry, Father,” yelled the driver. “Did not see that hole.”
Molinari waved at the windowless wall above the empty bench. “No harm, Paolo. When do you expect we will arrive?”
“Within the hour, Father.”
He reclined, braced his arm against the wall, and closed his eyes until a sharp forward lurch snapped him from his brief rest. Outside, horses nickered and shifted. The coach had stopped a few paces from the front of a sizeable but not extravagant house. He stretched, grabbed his book, and reached for the door. The driver opened it from the outside before he could touch it.
“We are here, Father.” The grey-clad man removed his beret and bowed. “Welcome to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne.”
Father Molinari eyed the front door, plain and brown like most of the façade. Gnarled wood pillars blotched with dark stains and flaking white paint supported the roof overhanging the porch. Walls of stacked stone seemed at peace with the environs, as though the house had always been here. He lost a few seconds studying a thread of moss growing in the cracks, entertaining the momentary hope that Satan surely could not have influenced such a pastoral place. Perhaps, as in the claim of stigmata in Luxembourg, this would also prove false.
The man stood from his bow. “It is a pleasure to assist the Church. How is your French?”
“Ah, a little rusty.” Father Molinari chuckled. “Enough to get me in trouble, I suspect.”
An older man in a loose white shirt appeared in the doorway, skin darkened from many days in the sun. He ambled out to the edge of the porch wearing an expectant look.
“What have you learned from the locals along the way?” Father Molinari tucked the book under his arm and headed to the house.
“Rumors, Father. They circle like buzzards over a dying man. Some say Josephine is taken by madness. A few believe the Devil has touched her.” The coachman gestured to his left at a distant cluster of buildings, the town proper. “Father Michaud thinks she is seeking attention.”
Molinari raised an eyebrow at the modest steeple overlooking the town. “So he does not believe the case to be genuine? Curious that Cardinal Benedetto took such a keen interest.”
“That is strange, Father?” asked Paolo.
“It is, my friend.” Molinari smiled. “It often takes four priests, a bishop, and an act of God to get his attention. Not until a dozen witnesses were confirmed in Vienna, did he send me.”
“Grace of God,” said the coachman. “You returned in good health.”
Father Molinari blessed himself and offered a slight bow. “He was with me.”
Paolo walked with him to the front of the house, but stopped short of setting foot on the porch step. “Two priests say there is nothing here. No bishop is involved. That leaves one reason for his eminence to send you.”
Molinari mumbled to his side as he took the porch. “Indeed. I was in the area.”
“Father,” said the older man in French. “Thank you for coming so quickly.”
“C’est la volonté de Dieu.” Father Molinari smiled. “Henri Baudin?”
“Yes. The will of God.” Henri backed up, holding the door for him. “Please, come in.”
He stepped through the foyer to a family room of white plaster walls and humble furnishings. Amateur oil paintings of the surrounding countryside lent touches of green, orange, and yellow to the otherwise earth-toned dwelling. Thick, dark-stained wood trusses across the ceiling seemed to shrink the room, invoking an urge to duck his head. The scent of dried flowers mingled with another odd, earthy fragrance he couldn’t quite place right away.
Henri approached, hesitated, and ran his fingers through a short silvery-black beard. “Father…?”
“Antonio Molinari. You look troubled.”
“Oui. Non. I…” A nervous smile played upon Henri’s lips. “I had expected someone… older.”
Ahh, but for the things I have seen, I am old. “I am older than I look, Mr. Baudin.” He glanced about at the room, an archway to an interior hall and the kitchen, stairs on the left leading up, and a passage on the right to a studio full of easels. Ahh, paint… that’s the smell. It is quiet here. Not the chaos one would expect from such a report. “Please, tell me what troubles your daughter.”
Henri gestured to a padded chair and took the metal one beside it. Once Molinari sat, Henri leaned forward, elbows to his knees, and spoke in a somber half-whisper.
“Three months ago, Josephine disappeared. What they say is true enough. It was the night before her wedding. We were to have the ceremony on her seventeenth birthday. She returned two days after her wedding date, devoid of clothing and sense. It is my belief my daughter had been wandering the woods and fields for some time.”
Molinari nodded. “The local priest, Father Michaud, believed she may be nervous about her wedding? What happened when you found her?”
“Josephine fainted in my arms. I brought her home and put her in bed. She awoke the following morning as though nothing happened. When I asked her where she had been, she denied ever leaving. She is… too insistent on resuming the wedding. Marcel called on her and left somewhat abruptly. He claims she is not herself. I, too, can see it. My Josephine is… not so bold.”
“Oh?” Molinari eyed the dark beams overhead and the numerous small oil paintings of nature scenes.
“She has always been a quiet soul, lost to her own world. Kind.” Henri shook his head. “She has never been… excited about anything.”
“Hmm.” Father Molinari tapped a finger to his chin, thinking. “Do you recall anything strange or traumatic happening to her in the days before she ran off?”
Henri looked up, steel-grey eyes searching the air for answers. “She was emotional the week before the wedding would have occurred. She kept asking her mother if she approved of Marcel.”
“Went to God during childbirth.” Henri made the sign of the cross. “She was too old, yet we were gifted with a daughter. Despite her age, Olivie thought of a baby only as a blessing.”
“You have my condolences.”
Henri bowed his head. “Thank you, Father. Josephine was obsessed. All her life she has lived as if under the burden of guilt. Always with her head down. My daughter became increasingly distraught in the days leading up to her disappearance. She said she had to know that her mother would approve of him. Father Michaud thinks she is seeking attention.”
“It would indeed be kinder if that were the case.” Molinari exhaled. “May I see Josephine?”
“Of course, Father.” Henri gestured at the archway in the left wall. “She is in her studio.”
Father Molinari stood. He shifted around to face behind him, but grasped the chair at an onrush of sudden vertigo. The distant wide arch wavered and pulled away. He blinked and shook his head; when he opened his eyes, everything appeared normal.
“Father, are you all right?” Henri grasped his arm as if to keep him from fainting.
“I…” He rubbed his head. “Have not been obtaining sufficient rest these past few days. I am fine.” He smiled. “In there, yes?”
Five strides brought him to an archway twelve feet wide, separating the front room from a secluded area filled with sunlight and eight easels. Two held blank canvases, the rest paintings of fields, flowers, and a river in various stages of completion. Red spots on the floor by one of the easels resembled blood, though looked more like the castoff from reckless strokes.
A thin, barefoot girl with thick jet hair down to her waist laced through with green ribbons stood with her back turned. Paint smears adorned the sleeves of her plain white dress, which looked on the threadbare side. She held a wooden palette in her left hand, a brush in her right, and flitted over the canvas like an excited sprite, dabbing bright green paint onto the scene of a meadow.
Molinari stilled, watching her. She made triumphant grunts and happy squeaks, with the occasional ‘a-ha’ or giggle when paint seemed to strike the canvas in a way that pleased her. A number of older canvases, half covered by grey cloth, lay on the floor against the wall at the far end. They appeared to be attempts at portraits, all of the same middle-aged woman, though her impressionistic techniques that lent themselves to the landscapes did not translate well to the human figure. Based on the lack of portraits in the house, and the attempt to cover these, he assumed she considered them failures.
“My dear, there is someone to see you,” said Henri behind him.
Josephine whirled. Her large grin flickered through alarm to embarrassment. “Father! I am in rags. This is my painting dress; it is not for guests.”
“I am pleased to meet you, Miss Baudin.” He approached and rendered a slight bow. “I am Father Antonio Molinari. Your father is… concerned about you.”
“He should be concerned about manners.” She gathered some yellow paint on the brush and poked some flowers into the grass. “Well. I suppose you are already here. I’m sorry my father’s letter has taken you so far away from where you would rather be.”
“You are quite gifted.” He clasped his hands behind his back and approached. “The scene comes alive with light.”
“Thank you, Antonio.” She kept dabbing, not looking back. “I have been painting since I was twelve.”
Henri stifled a gurgle and made an apologetic face.
Molinari ignored the informal address. “Your father seems to think you have suffered an ailment of the spirit. Disappeared into the woods for days.”
“He is worried and does not wish to be alone when I marry and go to live with Marcel.”
Pink paint, more flowers.
“He tells me Marcel is worried too.”
“I know you think the ones in the back look like a twelve-year-old made them.” Josephine sighed. “I wished to give Henri a picture of my mother, but none are fit to see the light of day.”
Father Molinari raised an eyebrow.
“What do you think, Antonio?” Josephine stepped back with a smile. “Should I add a goat or sheep?”
The crisscross lace up the front of her dress hung open enough to expose a little skin, also daubed with paint. Her emphatic work left her breathing hard, and the way she’d angled herself gave him a clear view of her cleavage. That the area between her breasts was as tan as the rest of her caused him to shift with awkward discomfort. He snapped his gaze up to her wide brown eyes. She grinned.
“Do you like?”
Father Molinari coughed.
“The painting?” Josephine tilted her head, nothing but innocence in her eyes.
He surveyed the line of a white stone wall through rolling grassy fields, and a small church tucked against the side of a grassy mountain at the top of a long trail. On the left, the hint of a distant village spread over the deep part of a valley. “It is quite pastoral. Have you been there?”
“Non.” She giggled and spun about. “Usually, I paint what is outside here, but today I let my imagination go.” Josephine gasped with sudden inspiration and dabbed in a small, plain building at the other end of a garden opposite the church.
The same wobbly sense of vertigo came over him as he stared at the painting.
“Father?” asked Henri.
“The fumes.” He smiled. “The windows are not open.”
Josephine glided to a table and set the palette and brush down before wiping her hands on a scrap of cloth. “I am so sorry my father has bothered you. There is nothing wrong. I am excited for my wedding and cannot wait for the day. Oh, Henri, you shall not be alone. Soon, I shall have two boys and you will be sick to death of the screaming.” She giggled. “Marcel’s house is not so far away that you can never visit.”
Father Molinari furrowed his eyebrows. This girl struck him as exuberant, animated, and a little odd. Not at all like the somber creature Henri had described. Never mind her continued use of ‘Henri’ to address her father, or her utter disregard for his title. It again made no sense to him how the letter could’ve made it to Cardinal Benedetto’s desk. Aside from the brash impropriety of youth, she seemed fine.
She grinned, bounced on her toes, and clasped her hands behind her back. “Father Molinari, will you be joining us for dinner?”
He forced away a yawn. “I should not seek to impose upon you any further. I believe I will spend the night in town before returning to Rome in the morning.”
Josephine nodded at him and glanced at Henri. “I must clean up. Good evening, Antonio.”
Hmm. Odd. She did not insist I stay for dinner. It is only polite to decline at first.
Both men turned their heads, following the dainty sprite as she all but skipped out of the studio and vanished into an inner hallway.
Henri opened his mouth, but Father Molinari raised a hand. “It is no bother at all, Henri. Think nothing of it. I do not see anything that gives me suspicion that Satan is involved.”
“Please, Father.” Henri teetered on the verge of tears. “This is not my Josephine. This is not how she has been for seventeen years. A girl does not change like this overnight. Is there nothing more you can do?”
Molinari paced about the easels. It did seem strange that she failed to finish so many… or started one on a whim as if taken by a random muse. As his gaze swept over the stack of paintings against the wall, the dizziness came on again—enough to cause a swoon, which Henri caught.
“Father, are you unwell?”
He raised a hand in a delaying gesture and stumbled to the back of the room. “I do not mean to insult your daughter’s ability, but do you recognize who this is supposed to be?”
Henri shrugged. “Perhaps Olivie, but it could be any woman with brown hair. The features are…” The man waved his hand about as if trying to pluck a word from the air.
“Indeed.” Father Molinari chuckled, hoping Henri did not take offense. He tugged at the cloth covering the stack, catching himself after the fact with no idea why he had done so. A strip of color in the back attracted his attention, for the painting there appeared done by a different hand altogether. “What is that?”
He took a knee and pulled the canvases forward before extracting the one, which seemed to have been placed in the back to hide it. Henri gasped as it came into view. The painting depicted a garden fountain surrounded by dark crimson roses. A beautiful woman well into her forties stood before the basin, arms extended in welcome. She wore a black dress one might expect to see at a funeral, and her smile held as much sadness as joy. At her feet lay the bloodstained body of a young man, stabbed in the chest and with his heart removed, dropped on the ground at his side like so much offal. Two male infants, both their throats cut, had been posed in his arms in a mockery of paternal cradling.
Josephine knelt beside him, gazing up at the woman with a worshipful expression. She held a gleaming dagger in both hands, which she appeared about to thrust into her own chest.
Henri clamped a hand over his face to stifle a horrified shout. Tears streamed down his face. When his shaking fingers slipped away from his mouth, he pointed. “T-that is Olivie… my wife. And Marcel. Who has painted this?”
No sane student of art would imagine the same hand created this piece as everything else here. What he held could stand against the great masters, so realistic the fabric sprang from the canvas. He glanced back at the red spatters on the floor, which matched the horrible gore at the bottom.
Henri dug his fingers into Molinari’s sleeve. “Forgive me, Father. Do you believe me now?”
He tucked the painting out of sight as soft footfalls scuffed outside, and flipped the cloth back in place not a second before Josephine, now in a much newer-looking green dress, poked her head in and smiled.
“Still here, Antonio?” She looked at Henri. “I’m going to the river to fetch meat.”
Father Molinari patted Henri on the shoulder. “Josephine, would you mind if I walked with you?”
“Are you not tired from so much traveling without a proper bed?” She shrugged one shoulder and spun to face the back hallway. “If you wish.”
After a meaningful look to Henri, he followed her out onto the back porch and down a few steps to grassy meadow. Perhaps a hundred yards away, a creek cut through the green. Josephine headed toward a tiny wooden shack on the bank.
“Why did you become a priest?”
He smiled. “It is my calling.”
She turned, walking backwards while smiling at him. “Oh? Did you not want a family of your own? Children?”
He held back a pang of doubt. True, if he had any regrets in his life, it was that.
“Is that why you came out here on such short notice?” She whirled forward, swishing her dress around like a girl half her age. “You wanted to protect an innocent child? Does it make you feel less guilty?”
“I have nothing to be guilty for.” He tried not to hear the grumbles of his mother, lamenting being denied grandchildren.
Josephine stopped at the shack, which turned out to be only waist-high like a doghouse, and lifted the roof. Inside, several cuts of meat hung on ropes in the water. “My mother would approve of Marcel if she were alive, don’t you think?”
“Henri likes the lad. I dare not say what your mother would think, but I trust your father’s opinion.”
She reeled up a lamb shank. “I think you waste yourself on the Church, Antonio.” She closed the hatch and smiled up at him. “Do not take this the wrong way, for I am betrothed, but you are quite handsome. You should have no trouble at all finding a woman to bear you the children you so desperately want.”
He took a breath and held it. “Not all men desire families. Some desire to serve God.”
“Oh, stop lying to yourself.” She giggled. “Lying is a sin, no? How did your mother feel when you told her you were to join the priesthood? Crushed, I bet.”
Father Molinari stood in stunned silence for a few seconds as she skipped off in the direction of the house. He hurried up behind her.
She stopped. “Why did you join the Church?”
He gazed out across the meadow. “For years, it was everyone’s opinion that my mother was barren. My parents had tried for a long time to have a child, and they thought it impossible. Mother prayed to God every night for months to grant her a baby… and He finally saw fit to answer.”
A wry smile curled her lips. “Are you so sure it was him? If the same thing happens to two different people, one who prays and one who does not… the man who prays thinks it God’s doing, while the other thinks it luck.” She twirled a lock of ebon around her finger. “Henri did not pray for a child, and yet here I am.”
“It was Him. I have felt the calling since I was young. I knew I would dedicate my life to His service to thank Him for what He did for my family.”
“And by doing so, deprive your line of heirs, deprive your mother of her wish for grandchildren. You are being cruel to her. She is devastated. Why else do you imagine she indulges in so much wine?”
“How…” Molinari grabbed her arm. “How could you possibly know?”
Josephine’s face drooped with sorrow. “It is how I would feel if one of my sons did such a thing. To throw his life away. You should give her what she wants, Antonio. She doesn’t have much time left.”
He stared at her, unable to think of anything to say before she resumed walking to the house.
Again, as he caught up to her, she stopped. “You are handsome, Antonio. I am too young for you, and engaged, but there are at least six women in this town alone who would adore you.” She sighed. “But I suppose you find your work too important.”
“What I do is necessary. It is His will. There are evils in this world―”
She rolled her eyes. “You really believe that, don’t you?”
Warmth rushed over his face. “I have seen―”
“People like you see what they want to see. Anything to keep up the lie.”
“What lie?” He scowled.
“God.” She smirked. “Fat priests sit back and take taxes, just like any other government. It’s all for money. But there’s more. You’re proud of what you do. You think you’re better than the others because you work for the Vatican.” Josephine puffed her chest up. “That little country priest couldn’t possibly know anything. But you, you’ve seen things. You think Michaud a simpleton.”
He drew in a breath to deny it, but… he had thought ill of the local priest. The ride back from Vienna had left him triumphant. A vampire destroyed. He’d outsmarted the fiend―as well as his poor information―and come out alive. “It’s God’s work. I protect the innocent. The creatures I have destroyed dwell in the shadow of Satan. They―”
Josephine traipsed along. “You enjoy it, Antonio. You covet the thrill of the chase as much as a rich man covets gold. You could not bear the thought of life as a normal person, without access to the secrets of the Vatican. It makes you feel superior to everyone… and you love it.”
He followed, eyebrows furrowed together, mulling her words. How does this girl know these things? My mother’s fondness for wine… my―he gazed at the clouds―forgive me, Father, pride. He resolved to confess to Cardinal Benedetto as soon as he could. The young woman before him was right. He had been prideful. Surely, he could allow himself a little glory? He had done God’s will. He had destroyed an abomination. He had been called to serve. Father Molinari narrowed his eyes. She seemed to know him too well… the lack of courtesy… the painting… she didn’t want him to stay for dinner. In fact, she appeared quite eager for him to depart.
Josephine stopped at the steps to the porch. “I did not think it possible, but that dark look upon your brow has made you even more handsome. You should go to town before I become unable to keep my promise to Marcel.” A playful wink hinted at exaggeration. “Or do you wish to be in your own bed as soon as possible? Really, you should not worry about me. My mother cannot wait to see my sons.” She beamed.
“Oui?” She paused with one foot on a step.
“May I see your hand a moment?” He secreted a phial of holy water from his pocket.
She offered her left, the one not holding the dripping piece of meat. “I am not wearing a ring.”
He examined her palm.
“What, now you are a mystic reading life lines?” She giggled.
Father Molinari poured a bit of water into her hand. In an instant, her skin reddened and bubbled to a blister. Josephine dropped the lamb, shrieked at the top of her lungs, and shoved him away.
He flailed his arms, unprepared for the strength behind the little woman that flung him airborne. He crashed into an array of boxes and tools propped against the porch railing, dragging most to the ground with him. Not until his gaze fell upon a streak of dark crimson did the lance of pain searing through his flesh reach his consciousness. Father Molinari stared in horror at a three-inch rake tine protruding through the back of his hand. He gasped.
The soft thuds of her running fell silent.
“Josephine, what has―” Henri yelped as if he too was shoved aside.
Father Molinari wheezed through his teeth and shifted his weight to his knees. He grasped the rake and worked his hand up the iron spike; every muscle in his back locked at the sensation of it grating through flesh and scraping across the bones inside his palm.
Henri tromped down the three steps and grabbed his shoulders. “Father! What happened?”
“You are right, Henri.” He cradled his left hand to his chest, forcing it into a fist. Again, he sucked air through his teeth. “She is… possessed.”
A door slammed upstairs.
Henri helped him up and brought him to the pump where they washed his hand. After wrapping the wound in linen strips, Father Molinari made his way to the coach, past a snoozing Paolo on the front porch. He rifled through his belongings, collecting a purple stole with two crosses in gold trim, his sacred book, and a large eight-inch crucifix amulet.
He returned to the house, where Henri waited at the bottom of a stairway to the second floor. Molinari followed the man up to a narrow hallway with a curved ceiling that ran the length of the house. He halted at the top and braced his hand to the wall to fend off another, stronger, pall of vertigo. The narrow corridor seemed to twist, as if the far end drifted away, walls stretching. Blur obscured the ceiling as paintings darkened. A small vase perched on a sky blue table along the right side felt as though it watched him. Dryness parched his throat, and trickles of sweat slipped down from his armpits. He steeled his mind against the disorienting spin, remaining still until the hall shifted back to rights.
Henri, oblivious to the strange energy in the air, stopped at the third door on the right and knocked. “Ma Fille, we’re coming in to see you.”
Both men jumped at a heavy slam from behind the door.
Henri gestured as if to say ‘you first.’
Father Molinari grasped the knob and flung the door open. Josephine sat on a cushioned bench on the far side of the room, back turned, running a brush through her long, black hair. She looked over with a curious expression, as though nothing unusual at all had occurred. Her hand still bore the red burn where the water had touched, the only thing that made Molinari not feel like he’d talked himself into giving purpose to his visit.
He opened his book, cradling it in his left hand while raising his crucifix pendant in the right. “I command you, unclean spirit, along with all your minions now attacking this servant of God, by the mysteries of the incarnation, passion, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ, by the descent of the Holy Spirit, to flee this child of God in whom you have unjustly resided.”
Josephine let out a soft huff and continued brushing her hair.
Blood oozed from the wound, trickling down Father Molinari’s arm as he raised the book and launched into a recitation using a voice a touch short of a shout.
“I command you, unclean spirit, along with all your legions now assailing this servant of God, by the mysteries of the incarnation, passion, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, by the coming of our Lord for judgment, that you release this humble servant of God. I command you to obey me, I who am a minister of God, despite my failures. Nor shall you be emboldened to harm in any way this creature of God, or her family, or any of God’s children. Begone, unclean spirit.”
She stopped brushing long enough to roll her eyes at him. “Perhaps you are the one who is possessed, Antonio. Believing in such nonsense.”
He caught a glimpse of unease in her expression. Fear. He advanced, letting the crucifix dangle on its chain, and produced the holy water flask from his pocket. He eyed the door, which Henri moved in front of. Molinari took another step forward and used his thumb to turn the flask into a sprayer as he flung it back and forth, repeating his chant.
Josephine screamed as though he pelted her with boiling oil. She hurled her brush at him, which missed, and crossed her arms over her face. He continued spraying and chanting, raising his voice to shout over her wails.
She drew her knees up and spoke in a tiny child’s voice. “Daddy, please make him stop!”
Father Molinari repeated the chant, adding, “May the blessing of almighty God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, come upon you and remain with you forever.”
She hissed, flinching from the spray. “Your pitiful God is not here, Antonio.”
“Begone, unclean spirit!” He returned the flask to his pocket and held up the crucifix.
The voice of a man issued forth from the slender girl. “You will die before the month is out. Leave France and scurry back to your self-righteous hole in Italy, little priest.”
He held the crucifix higher and drew a breath to repeat the invocation.
A small mirror leapt off the bureau behind her and smashed across his forehead. He staggered back into Henri’s arms, dazed from the hit. Josephine cackled.
“Your blood will spill, Antonio. What will your dear mother say then? Go home and take what you desire most. God is not listening.”
The hairbrush floated off the ground and hurled itself at him from behind, striking him between the shoulder blades. He let out an oof and fell to one knee. Small statues, music boxes, and three paintings launched themselves at random while Josephine alternated between the giggles of a child, a young woman, and the deep laughter of a man.
Father Molinari let the crucifix drape against his chest and clutched his book in both hands, trying to shield his face from the onslaught.
“We drive you from our sight,
All infernal minions,
All wicked legions,
All of Satan’s servants.”
“Go away!” roared Josephine.
A great invisible force smashed into Father Molinari, flinging him out into the hallway. Henri landed next to him on his back, legs in the air. A second later, the door slammed hard enough to crack the plaster around it.
“Josephine!” yelled Henri, clambering to his feet.
“Pleaca! Nu vreau să-l văd!” shouted a woman’s voice. “Scoate-l afară din casa mea!”
Molinari took a few breaths and got up. “Romanian, I think.”
Henri wept. “My daughter is lost.”
“No.” Molinari hurled himself against the unyielding wood. “I will not rest until she is saved.”
He bumped the door again. Josephine shouted something else in Romanian that sounded decidedly less polite.
Henri gave him a nod, and the two men charged the door at the same time. It gave under their combined strength, and they stumbled in.
Josephine hung in the air, extending her arms up to the side. The tilt of her head mocked the crucifixion. She laughed. Two windows, one on either side of her, exploded inward in a torrent of glass needles. Molinari ducked, letting off a wail of pain as a dagger shard stabbed through the rake wound, pinning his hand to the sacred book. He looked up after the rain of glass subsided. Henri grasped the piece of glass and pulled it loose. Molinari winced, but nodded his thanks.
Both of Josephine’s eyes had gone black from corner to corner, and her gaping mouth held a cloud of ebon vapor.
“Unclean spirit, I command you,” yelled Father Molinari.
Josephine gurgled and moaned, twisting and trashing in a parody of Jesus on the cross. Wailing became laughing. “What powerful God could not climb down? You worship a pathetic fool.”
Molinari shouted, “In the Name and by the power of Our Lord Jesus Christ, may you be driven from the sight of God and from the souls made in the image and likeness of God and redeemed by the mercy of the Divine Lamb.”
“She is mine. She gave herself to me willingly.” The same man’s voice, deeper still, echoed from the mouth of the girl.
Father Molinari flipped pages. “Lord, have mercy.”
“Christ, have mercy,” said Henri.
“O God the Father of heaven,” said Molinari.
“Have mercy upon us,” said Henri.
Josephine moaned and squirmed. “Go away! You cannot have this vessel! I’ve seen your death, Antonio. If you do not leave, you will die. Your precious God leads you to your doom.”
Molinari raised his voice over her. “O God the Holy Ghost have mercy upon us.”
“Have mercy upon us,” whispered Henri.
Father Molinari sprayed Josephine with holy water. “Holy Mary.”
“Pray for us,” said Henri.
“Holy Mother of God,” said Molinari.
“Pray for us,” repeated Henri.
Josephine wailed, gliding around in the air in an effort to evade the relentless spray. Father Molinari recited the Litany of Saints, grateful for Henri responding where he knew, but continuing despite the gaps when the man’s reply was a guess. With each saintly name, Josephine’s wails intensified, alternating between anger and taunting laughter. Henri put himself in the path of several books launched at Molinari. After a second recitation, Josephine ceased floating and collapsed to her knees, slumped forward as if inebriated beyond coherence.
Father Molinari advanced and placed his hand on her forehead.
“God, by your holy name save me, your lowly servant. By your might, defend my cause.”
Josephine went limp, a tendril of drool hanging from her lower lip.
“I command you, unclean spirit. Leave this place and do not return.” He closed his eyes. “Christ, God’s word made flesh, commands you!”
She shuddered, emitting a voice both male and female. “Mine.”
“My daughter…” whispered Henri. “Fight it. Come back to me.”
Molinari held the crucifix high and moved it up to down, left to right. “The sacred sign of the cross commands you!”
“Our Lord Jesus Christ commands you!”
She gurgled. Two crucifixes on the walls―the only items in the room that hadn’t flown about―scratched as they rotated, inverting themselves. Henri trembled. Furniture downstairs rumbled, as if every chair, table, and bureau in the entire house jumped up and down in place.
“All the Saints command you!”
Josephine flopped over sideways, sprawled on the rug. She lay as if dead for a few seconds, and burst into normal-sounding tears.
Henri looked up with hope in his eyes. Molinari shook his head.
“This is the house of a child of God. Begone, unclean spirit.” Father Molinari took a knee and set down the book. He placed his right hand on Josephine’s head and pressed the end of his stole to her throat. “See the Cross of the Lord. Begone you hostile fiend! Lord, heed my prayer.”
“Please, God,” whispered Henri.
“Away,” rasped Josephine. “Go away.”
The upended crucifixes whirled about on their nails, racing clock hands. Dread gathered like a leaden weight in his stomach. Something unnatural had entered this house. The reek of hundreds of bad eggs washed over the room. Henri gagged; Father Molinari’s eyes watered from the awfulness of it. He palmed the young woman’s listless head, and repeated his invocation, commanding the spirit out in the names of God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and all the saints in turn.
Josephine’s back arched. She coughed and sputtered as if drowning. Thick, black liquid splashed up and out of her mouth. It splattered on her dress, but then exuded as a vapor into the air. The vestige of a human face with horns and glistening glass-like teeth manifested at the top of the cloud, gazing at Molinari with sheer hatred. It receded from the crucifix in his hand, and rushed off to the corner, where it cowered against the wall.
Henri quivered, pale as a corpse. Josephine appeared to have fainted.
Molinari advanced on the black fiend.
“We drive you from our sight, unclean spirits, all infernal minions, all wicked legions, all of Satan’s servants. Begone from this house and never return!”
It rose up to a height of nine feet, baring claws and hissing. Father Molinari stood his ground, confident that God would protect him. He raised the crucifix.
“May God banish you back to the abyss where you and all of your unclean servants have been condemned to dwell for eternity. I cast thee out from this place!”
The shadow entity collapsed inward, emitting a howl of anger as it melted into a cloud that seeped into the floorboards. Seconds later, the house seemed… different. More youthful. Cleaner.
Father Molinari slouched, again grimacing as the wicked pain in his hand flared.
“Mmm,” muttered Josephine as if waking from an endless sleep. “Father…”
“My daughter.” Henri fell to his knees and gathered Josephine in his arms.
Father Molinari approached and poured holy water over the back of her hand. It ran without effect over her skin and dribbled to the floor. He smiled and offered Henri a comforting nod.
“Father,” yelled Paolo from outside in Italian. “Do you require assistance?”
“It is gone,” said Molinari in French. He stood, favoring his wounded hand, and moved to the shattered window. “Dio ha prevalso.”
The coachman bowed and made the sign of the cross.
Josephine curled in a ball, clinging to Henri and sobbing. “Father, please forgive me.”
“Worry no more of it,” said Henri.
“No.” She glanced up at Molinari, tears streaming down her cheeks. “Father… I must confess. I went into the woods wanting to talk to my mother’s spirit. I opened myself to the Devil.”
Father Molinari put his good hand on her shoulder. “Do not let your grief for your mother be a doorway for Satan. Trust in God that He saw fit to bring her to Him when He did. You are the blessing she had asked for. Rejoice in the life you have been given.”
Henri helped Josephine to her feet.
“Thank you, Father.” Henri bowed his head. “I shall be forever in your debt.”
Father Molinari gathered his book. “Be forever indebted to God, for it is He whose light banishes the darkness.”
He let himself out as Henri tended to his daughter.
Once Molinari reached the porch, he took a great breath of sweet, fresh air. Paolo met him at the steps and followed him to the coach.
“Have you ever seen such a thing?”
Father Molinari removed his stole and folded it into a neat bundle before glancing up at the broken windows. “Too many times, my friend. Too many times.”
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