he coach glided to a halt in the shadow of a stone church set atop a craggy shelf overlooking a town sprawled through grassy hills. Mountains to the west blocked the setting sun from view, peaks aglow beneath a pinkish sky. Firelight flickered within the windows of homes down the grade; the only sign of life on the winding road up to the church had been an old man and a pair of mules.
Father Molinari descended from the coach and took a deep breath of cold air laced with the fragrance of pollen. Some aspect of this place haunted him, quickening his heart, though he could not set his gaze upon any obvious cause. Indeed, he was right to come here as much as he feared for his life. He clasped his crucifix, tracing his fingers over the cold metal. Something about the vista before him seemed familiar, the church, the modest farm, a small outbuilding beyond. He stared at it, gripped by an inexplicable dread. As if to let go of the coach doorjamb would commit him to a fate inexorable once set in motion. His heart pounded, and he forced himself to look away.
Yea though I walk through the shadow of the valley of death, I shall fear no evil.
The local priests dismounted their horses, handing the reins to a tow-headed boy of about fifteen in a pale tan tunic. He cast a wary glance at Molinari before leading the animals around the left of the church. Near the back of the side yard, a long rickety roof covered four stable stalls. One bearded black goat in the shadow east of the building chewed something while staring at him. Molinari studied his hand as if mystified by it, and released his grip. The uneasiness in his belly intensified. He lowered his arm at his side.
The Lord my God is my savior. I trust in Him to guide me.
“It is no grand affair like you are used to.” Renault gestured at the front doors. “But it is what we have, and we are thankful for it.”
Callini trotted over, all but bouncing in his boots. “Father Molinari, would you care to rest the night or see it right away? It is quite an honor for us to have a visitor of your stature.”
Paolo set about unhitching the horses. “By your grace, Fathers, may I avail of your stables?”
“Of course,” said Renault.
“May as well lay eyes on the beast immediately.” Father Molinari started for the church, but halted at a hand on his arm.
“My apologies, Father.” Callini indicated the smaller building a hundred yards west, on the far side of a garden patrolled by chickens. “We could not bring the fiend onto consecrated ground.”
“Yes, yes.” Renault nodded. “The beast gave off smoke and screamed when we tried to bring it inside.”
“Very well.” Molinari set his belongings back in the coach. “Lead the way, Fathers?”
They crossed through fields of cabbage, carrots, and beets to a masonry structure built in a similar, but less ornate style than the church. Most of the inside space contained farming tools and bags of seed, as well as a small hand-operated grist mill. Father Renault made his way to the opposite wall and opened a door, which led to a spiral stairway down.
“There are rooms below intended for monks.” Renault paused at the opening. “We have confined the creature in one, where it can do no harm and is away from the sunlight.”
“The Devil shall miss no opportunity to deceive.” Father Callini held up a finger. “Do not trust thine eyes.”
Father Molinari blessed himself. “For even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.”
Renault, lantern in hand, led the way down seven turns, and opened a door at the bottom. Beyond laid a narrow hallway with four doors on each side and one at the end, all but one open. Two metal hooks held a thick wooden beam to the door, nailed in place by an amateur’s hand. Only the closed room had such a bar. He trailed the two priests into the hallway, entering a cloud of thick, moist air permeated with the stink of must.
The hair on the back of Molinari’s neck rose. With each step deeper into the earth, his unease mounted. Renault stopped at the closed door. Flickering lamplight wavered on the walls, casting the man’s jowls in grotesque shadow. He hesitated at touching it, as if petrified of what lay inside. Up close, it became clear they had nailed the hooks in place themselves. The nails looked more bent than driven. Father Molinari’s throat tightened with worry. Any vampire he’d tangled with could rip the door open with ease.
The heavyset priest glanced at Molinari as if seeking counsel.
Father Callini sidled up at his left, terror warring with eagerness in his countenance. At Molinari’s nod, Renault lifted the bar from the hooks and set it upright against the wall. He unlocked the door with an iron key and gave it a push.
Molinari, hands clenched to fists to keep them from shaking, approached the creaking portal. The sight within the eight-by-ten foot cell took the breath from his lungs.
Huddled at the center of the rear wall, shivered a tiny wisp of a girl. Pale, with dark chestnut hair and the face of an angel, she clutched a ragdoll to her chest. Her white silk nightdress bore smudges and dirt where her knees had pressed it to the floor. Bare toes peeked out from the hem. A length of chain emerged from between her feet and curved around to the wall at her side where it secured to a ring.
Molinari’s heart beat in long, labored thuds as he glanced at a frayed bundle of rope on the right side of the room, and to a red velvet cord a little more than two feet in from the door. The child drew herself in tight. Faded bruises circling both wrists tugged at his heartstrings. Too-wide green eyes seemed to stare straight into his soul.
“What in the name of God is this?” Molinari caught himself yelling.
He made to rush in, but the priests grabbed his arms.
“Father, no,” yelled Renault. “It is a deceiver.”
“Do not step past the line.” Father Callini indicated the red cord. “That is as far as its claws can reach.”
Molinari threw them off, but held his ground. “What have you done? She is a child!”
“It is a beast.” Father Renault made the sign of the cross over himself.
“I will not be part of this madness.” Molinari again tried to approach, but the younger man held him back. “Release this child at once.”
“Father, look,” whispered Renault. “She smells your wound.”
His struggle with Callini ceased. Molinari glanced at his bandaged hand, at the blood soaked into the fabric. The child stared with rapt attention at the cloth. He moved his hand from side to side as if waving a treat at a dog. The girl tracked it as an earnestness took over her features. She shifted her weight, a light clatter of chain on stone accompanying the slight movement.
Father Callini took note of his testing the girl’s reaction and let go. Molinari entered the room, but stopped where the velvet rope crossed from wall to wall. He held out his injured hand. The child’s expression fell to a sad pout.
“Please, help me,” she whispered in French.
“It tries to deceive,” whispered Callini. “God will give you strength.”
Father Molinari’s face warmed with anger. “This cannot be. You are mistaken. What crime could such a small child have committed to be treated in such a manner?”
Callini reached in and unwound the bandage. The girl appeared transfixed by the dripping wound. Such silence permeated the room that the pat of a droplet striking stone seemed loud. She set her doll down and braced her hands flat against the stone on either side of her. Weak red luminescence lit her eyes. Her lips twitched and tiny fangs extended.
“No…” Molinari stared in horror as the child balanced up on her toes and slid forward onto her knees.
The chain dragged behind her as she crawled; small shackles intended for a woman’s wrists bound her ankles. She sniffed at the air for a second before she lunged, emitting a mixture of childish pleading mewls and angry canine growls. Her fingertips came within a half-inch of the demarcation after the tether cut her leap short. She could not get her face close to the droplets. After a few seconds of futile straining, the girl wiped at them with her hand and licked her palm.
Molinari took a step back, covering his mouth. Tears rolled from his eyes. Images of an arrogant Viennese man in a frilled collar, pale as death, cruel, and responsible for dozens of murders flashed through his mind. His laughter echoing at a party―the arrogant disdain with which he flung a dead woman from a bridge into the river, fanged mouth gaping open in the last seconds of his existence. How could God allow such a fate to befall an innocent?
The child whined and whimpered, reaching for Molinari. Glowing eyes faded and surged, as if a child and something else warred for control. She begged for help―it demanded food.
“It wants you to feel sorry for it,” said Renault. “We have been providing it cow and pig blood, but only enough to forestall a second death.”
“It looked startlingly close to alive when we found it.” Callini puffed up his chest, proud of himself. “We have determined that their power diminishes when they are deprived of the ability to gorge themselves.”
She whined, grabbing the stone and pulling herself into the tether a few times. Father Molinari glanced at the abandoned doll and crumbled a fist into his mouth, unable to stop crying. He lowered himself to a squat and reached his unhurt hand forward.
“Careful,” said Renault in a stern tone. He grasped Molinari’s shoulder as if ready to pull him back at a second’s notice.
The girl placed her tiny hand in his, skin cold as death. She gripped two of his fingers and stared into his eyes. “Please help me.”
He held her hand for a few minutes, unsure what to think. Every so often, she leaned in the direction of his wound and struggled at her chains. Molinari released her hand and stood.
“This defies all understanding. This cannot be. I wish to try an exorcism. Perhaps there is enough innocence left within her.”
“She’s d―” Father Renault withered away from Molinari’s glower. “Of course, Father.”
The girl shuffled backwards, chain jingling, and gathered her hands at her chin, cowering like a waif about to suffer a beating. It was the same pose she had been curled in when the door opened.
Father Renault closed and locked the cell after they backed out. Muted sobbing echoed through the stone hallway, clawing at Molinari’s heart.
Less than an hour later, Molinari led the way back to the cell in full mass regalia, flanked by Fathers Callini and Renault, also in their vestments. Renault bore a thurible, already lit and exuding incense. Callini carried an aspersorium of holy water. Frantic clattering in the cell silenced as their steps resonated through the underground passage.
Again, Renault removed the bar and unlocked the door. The girl sat closer to the right rear corner, hands clasped about the chain between her ankles. She stared up at Molinari with such need in her eyes that he could not bear her gaze. He looked down. After a moment, he knelt upon the cold stone, as close as the other priests permitted to the red cord, and set out three candles. Callini held an aspergil over his head, and flung holy water on her. She shot him an annoyed scowl.
Molinari raised an eyebrow.
“It resists the touch of God,” whispered Renault.
Callini stood at his left, dunked the aspergil, and flung more holy water upon the girl. “Should it not burn and writhe?”
“The one in Vienna did so,” said Molinari. A spark of hope filled his heart. “As did one in Genoa. Perhaps this one is not lost to us.” He kissed the OSM embossed in the leather-bound prayer book and set it on a cloth in front of him. “Our Father, who art in Heaven…”
She hid most of her face behind her knees, staring at him as he recited the Lord’s Prayer. Throughout the recitation of the rites of Exorcism, she occasionally cringed or shivered, but maintained a fearful, if not unimpressed, look.
Father Renault shook the thurible, creating a rhythmic clattering of tiny chains on the brass vessel. The cell soon filled with incense smoke, which seemed only to make the living cough. Molinari led into a repetition of the rite that had freed Josephine Baudin. All the while, Father Callini flung holy water at the child. She gave him sour glances and wiped her face whenever it hit her there, but her skin did not blister or smoke.
Impending futility fueled Molinari’s resolve. He powered through a third recitation, his voice rising, despite resignation clear in the hearts of Callini and Renault.
The girl stood and crept forward with tiny, shuffling steps. She waved her arms to keep balance when the tether went taut, staring at Molinari with a forlorn expression. Even if she were to lunge, her hands would only find the sacred book, which he assumed she could not bear to touch. Once more, the weight of guilt crushed his soul, and he averted his gaze to the tendons rising from her too-pale feet. The sight of such a small child in shackles infuriated him, even if she was… tainted.
God grant me the strength to ensure whatever fiend stole this waif from her bed in the middle of the night will suffer an eternity of Hell.
“It ignores your prayers, Father,” said Callini with a trace of a sigh. “The rite is not working.”
Molinari clenched his jaw, barely resisting the urge to sigh. The man had a talent for stating the obvious.
The girl managed to kneel without falling, and folded her hands as if in prayer.
Father Callini growled and worked the aspergil as if a lash, throwing holy water on her while tracing an X pattern in the air. Her eyes shut harder as if she fought to hide pain.
“It mocks us,” yelled Callini.
“We are wasting our time.” Father Renault stopped waving the censer.
Molinari raised a hand to quiet the priests, watching her lips move. The girl recited the Lord’s Prayer in French at a level beneath a whisper. All three men waited in silence until she finished and looked up, defeat plain on her face.
The child lowered her hands into her lap. “Il ne écoute pas.”
“God does not listen to creatures from the depths of Hell.” Renault rattled the censer at her. “You who are a fiend in the guise of innocence. You who have stolen the flesh of―”
“Enough.” Molinari blew out the candles. “I have been sent here for a reason. I will find it.”
She covered her face with her hands and sniffled.
Callini and Renault backed out of the cell and waited for him to gather his things. Molinari avoided looking at the distraught child; his mind raced for something―anything―he could do as he walked out into the hall.