Mysteria Nights, Page 2P. C. Cast
The demon gasped in shock. It was as if his very core had wrenched open, releasing all he carried within him. The vileness, the blackness, he realized. The evil.
For half a breath he was so frighteningly hollow, he wondered if he were about to implode; then into the vacuum rushed something so sweet, so indescribably wonderful, that he nearly sobbed. What was happening to him?
“I’m sorry,” the demon whispered on a ragged breath. It was the only way to express what had boiled up inside him. “I am so very sorry. . . .”
“You don’t look sorry,” Lucifer hissed from high above.
The demon glared up at him. “Ah, but I am. Sorry for all the centuries of sowing doubt, of turning back those beings better than I. I am sorry for the evil I accomplished in your name. In fact, I hereby repent!” Aye, take that, you gutless stinking mountain of dragon offal.
“You . . . re-what?”
“I repent. R-e-p-e-n-t.” Was that not an Aretha Franklin song? Or was he confusing his tunes? The demon gave his head a shake. There they went again, his thoughts wandering. One thing was certain, something had happened—was happening—inside him, and he was helpless to stop it.
To stop the emotion, sharp and pure, filling him with anger, resentment, shame at his past. And hope—hope despite the completely overwhelming odds against him. Now you are just like the humans, he thought.
“I ask forgiveness for all the deeds I ever did in the Dark One’s name,” he said quietly. “Aye, I truly do.”
Lucifer’s voice was deadly. “I never forgive. You should know this, my minion. You of all the demon high lords should know.”
“It wasn’t of you that I made my plea.”
Lucifer’s molten eyes pulsed and glowed, his fangs glinting in the cast-off light. “What?”
“You heard me.” Angry now, the demon flicked his gaze upward—heavenward—to make his point clear.
Only the fretful twittering of goblins interrupted the shocked, appalled silence. Then, a strange noise stuttered past Lucifer’s parted lips. The demon marveled at that. It was the first time in all of history that he could remember hearing the Great Satan sputter.
Then, all hell broke loose.
Two jets of searing red lava shot out from the Devil’s eyes and hit the slab where the demon crouched. Rocks exploded, pummeling him as he fell backward. The air was on fire, something that the demon should have been used to—Lucifer lost his temper often; they’d all been charred now and again—but this was different.
This was worse.
The demon spun in the center of a tornado, wrenched and torn in every direction, inside and out. He could no longer see or hear. And, after a blessed while, he could no longer feel the pain that wracked him.
Bathed in white light, he floated. Is this what it feels like to die? If so, perhaps he would not mind. But he knew, even as he tumbled into oblivion—or, rather, into the forested slopes of Colorado—that Lucifer would never let him get away as easily as that.
In a clear, sweet voice, Harmony Faithfull concluded her Sunday service: “Now, go in peace and enjoy this beautiful day the Lord has given us.”
The sound of her six-month-old puppy’s tail thumping on the hardwood floor was all that broke the perfect silence.
“Thanks, Bubba.” Harmony looked up from her handwritten sermon, which had taken all of ten minutes to read to the six rows of pews. Six rows of empty pews, lined up like abandoned soldiers on the pristine, knotty pine floor.
There should be scuffs marring those planks, she thought longingly, lost buttons in the corners, and crushed Cheerios. And under the pews, wadded-up Kleenex, handbags, and colorful hats . . .
Harmony sighed and neatened the lectern. “It’s nice to know someone appreciated the homily today.”
You’re talking to the dog again.
“Yep. And when you’re not talking to the dog, you’re talking to yourself.” Crossing her eyes, Harmony shut off the halogen reading lamp and the microphone. Sometimes, she wondered what she possibly could have been thinking—her, a city girl, relocating to Mysteria, a tiny hamlet in the Rockies, assuming she’d make churchgoers out of the locals here, who, um, weren’t like any people she’d ever met anyplace else. There were supernatural happenings in the town, you couldn’t miss them, really, and she had her suspicions that more than a few of the townsfolk had supernatural abilities. But God loved all creatures: great or small, good or bad, moral or immoral. Mortal or . . . ?
Harmony stopped that train of thought before it jumped the track. She was here because after two tours as an air force chaplain, she’d been looking for a new challenge. It looks like you found it, girl. In spades.
Six months ago, the church had been a tumbledown farmhouse with a barn on five overgrown acres. With the help of her father and brothers, she’d renovated the house, which now did double duty as a public place of worship and her personal living quarters, a cozy little home located in the back. She’d even stitched the white eyelet curtains herself in a spurt of delirious domesticity. Then her family had returned to Oakland, leaving her to grow her flock. Except that, aside from a few curious townspeople, no one had showed up.
Have some faith. Give it time.
Time . . . she had plenty of that lately.
Well, she’d simply have to drum up a little of the faith in herself that she’d always seemed to be able to drum up in everyone else. After all, she was Harmony Faithfull, the daughter of Jacob Jethro Faithfull IV, Oakland’s most famous, and often infamous, but always ebullient, pastor of South Avenue Church. Daddy was a man who could fill football stadiums and concert halls with worshippers, who often traveled hundreds of miles to hear him speak. Charisma and the good word, it was a potent combination.
Harmony thumped her fist on the podium, and the puppy jumped. “It’s in my genes,” she said out loud. “I can’t forget that. God sent me here because I have a job to do.”
Bubba seemed to agree, a long pink puppy tongue draped over one side of his open mouth.
Harmony crumpled one of the sheets of lined paper she’d used for her sermon, crushed it in her fist, and aimed the ball of paper at the wastebasket across from the pulpit. It clipped the rim and spun inside. “Two points!”
She tapped a finger against her chin. “Maybe we can start an after-school basketball team. What do you think of that, Bubba-licious?” The puppy wagged his long black tail.
The idea of an after-school basketball team had worked for her father and some inner-city kids when he was fresh out of divinity school. The hoops had brought the children, and then the mothers, who’d dragged the fathers and the boyfriends, and within the year there was an entire community with Sunday potlucks and a fifty-two-member choir. Not that she could picture any of the O’Cleary great-grandkids shooting hoops, but it’d be a start. It was all about getting people through the door.
MYSTERIA COMMUNITY CHURCH. ALL FAITHS WELCOME. That last part she’d painted onto the sign as an afterthought when weeks had gone by and nary a lost soul tromped through the door. Well, save Jeanie Tortellini, the town sheriff, and sometimes Candice, the high school English teacher. They’d drop by to see how she was settling in, staying for chitchat and coffee but not the good word. But then, Harmony firmly believed everyone was welcome here, for whatever reasons they chose to come. If they preferred their so-called magic, fine, but Harmony’s calling was to let them know God watched over them as well. As a child, her parents had taught her that a true heart excluded no one, and that the church was the heart of the village.
Except in Mysteria, where that honor was held by Knight Caps, the local bar.
Harmony sighed. How could she convince the townspeople to congregate here instead? At least on Sundays. What did she have that they couldn’t find anywhere else? Well, besides the obvious, she thought with a vertical glance.
“God, I need your help. Show me how to fill up this church, and I’ll do the rest. Please.” Harmony squeezed her eyes shut and prayed. Pr
ayed until her head throbbed and her eyes hurt. Prayed until she was all prayed out. And then she started wishing, plain old wishing, like you would on a four-leaf clover, or a star, because sometimes, even in matters of the spirit, and maybe especially in matters of the spirit, you just had to stack the deck. “Show me how to bring the townspeople here,” she whispered. “Give me a sign.” I’m waiting, watching, eyes wide open, Lord.
The floor rumbled. Was that the old furnace kicking on? No, it was warm today, too warm for the heater.
The earth moved again. Harmony frowned at her drinking glass still sitting on the podium. The water was rippling like San Francisco Bay on a windy day. No, the rumbling definitely wasn’t from the furnace. It was coming from somewhere outside. Strange. Everyone knew a major fault line ran through Missouri. But Colorado?
One good jolt almost threw her to her knees. Then it was quiet.
Bubba started barking. In an instant, he’d transformed from drowsy puppy to barking, fur-covered projectile. Zero to sixty in 2.8 seconds, nails scrabbling for purchase on the hardwood, he flew out the front door.
“Bubba!” Grabbing the gauzy cotton of her skirt, Harmony hurried after the dog to the flower garden she’d planted near an ancient, gnarled apple tree. THE GARDEN OF EDEN, according to the ornamental iron garden sign that her sister Hope had mailed her as a housewarming gift. “Bubba! Bubba, come here!”
Three women jogged past on the road fronting the church. They were feminine confections coated in spandex, bling jingling, ponytails bouncing. One woman carried a broomstick gripped in her hand. Hmm, that was a little different, but maybe it was good for the arms. They waved, and Harmony, smiled, waving back. Now she remembered them—the Tawdry sisters. They had the most brilliant hazel eyes that almost seemed to glow. There was something else unusual about them, too, but Harmony couldn’t place her finger on exactly what. But they, like the rest of the women in town, were always nice, if a little racy.
Black lace bra types, Harmony had dubbed them in private. Not meaning any disrespect. Her own sisters were black lace bra types. Not that Harmony had anything against a woman knowing her own charms or being confident about sex. God had never dissed procreation. In fact, He encouraged it—within the context of a committed, monogamous relationship, of course. Nothing you need to worry about, given your current state of isolation.
“Ain’t that the truth?” Harmony followed the puppy across the lawn. Birds chirped; bees buzzed. The sky was a pure, clear blue. And the sunshine, the scent of pine, she could almost taste it. Face lifted to the sun, she inhaled deeply and became so carried away by her appreciation of the outdoors that she swept right past the naked man who was the target of Bubba’s frantic barking.
The naked . . .
. . . man?
Harmony froze, the skirt falling out of her hands. There was no naked man.
Oh, yeah? Then how do you explain the afterimage that just seared itself onto your retinas?
Heart thumping, Harmony whirled around. Yep, there was a man there, and he was most definitely naked, sprawled on his side among the flowers, one thick, muscled thigh thrown forward, the sunshine bouncing off his butt.
Wow. Eyes wide, Harmony stood there, staring, rooted to the ground, as if her foot were locked in cement. She’d asked God to send her a sign. But she’d never expected anything like this! The best naked man she’d ever seen, she decided with no small amount of half-crazed, hormone-driven, lust-fueled objectivity. And she’d seen her share of naked men.
Hmm. That didn’t sound right. But it was true, naked men in her life had been a buck a dozen. Only she just hadn’t slept with them. Her one affair, in college, was a pleasant but distant memory, and since then she’d spied naked men, fairly frequently, glimpses here and there, in and out of locker rooms, military field hospitals, and in the desert, where there hadn’t been much privacy when she’d served as a pastor in Iraq....
Focus, Harmony. There is an unclothed hunk-a-love lying in your flower bed.
Right. And what in the name of heaven was he doing there? Men didn’t just fall out of the sky. Ask and ye shall receive.
“Harmony,” she warned herself.
She dropped to her knees, her fingers going to the unconscious man’s corded neck to feel for a pulse. His skin was tanned, perfectly smooth. Midnight black hair curled long and loose around his neck. Taking a closer look, she saw he appeared flushed, as if he were sunburned or had stood too close to a fire. More likely, he’d collapsed after a night of carousing. He was going to be pretty embarrassed once he realized he’d left wherever he’d been hanging out without his clothes.
Bubba growled, low and deep. “Shush, boy,” Harmony soothed. “It’s okay. I know martial arts, and you have sharp teeth. If he turns out to be the town serial killer/rapist, we’ll team up and put him away. Until then, Bubba, you behave.”
Harmony pressed her fingers to the man’s neck. There . . . she felt a heartbeat . . . slow, distant, almost forlorn. It was if he’d grown tired of living.
She sat up straight. Gosh, that was a weird thought. Tired of living? Where did that come from? If anyone was a mind reader, it was her great-grandmother Eudora, who was said to be a “seer.” But as a child growing up in the Faithfull clan, the mere mention of Eudora’s psychic talents would have earned Harmony the threat of having her mouth washed out with soap, if not the real thing. Yet, as Harmony studied the stranger’s face, the resignation there, the weariness, she could almost believe it true that he was ready to surrender.
Well, she’d fix that. No one was giving up the ghost on her watch, especially not dressed in his birthday suit and crushing her best zinnias!
“Hello? Sir? Are you okay?” Bubba’s brown eyes were wary and huge as Harmony tapped the man on the shoulder. “Come on, up and at ’em. You can’t sleep here all day. People will talk.”
Not even an eyelash twitched. She took hold of his solid shoulder and shoved. “Okay, Sleeping Beauty, time to rise and shine. I’ll even brew you a pot of coffee to help things along. I make a mean pot of java, too.”
No response, not even a snore. He was dead to the world. As a last resort, she switched to her air-force-officer voice. “Wake up, soldier! Now. Move, move, move!”
The man cracked open one eye, and then the other. At first she thought she saw a red glow, but it seemed to be a trick of the sun, because his eyes were beautiful, reminding her of the mellow gold of good scotch, the kind her father would reverently pour out in a glass once each week, late on Sunday night. “Now that God’s work is done, Harmony,” he used to tell her.
“Hell’s bells.” Sleeping Beauty frowned, squinting as if the bright sunshine hurt his eyes.
“It lives,” she teased.
He peered at the Garden of Eden sign, his parched lips forming whispered words. “I’m dead.”
“You’re not dead. Not even close.”
He turned toward her voice and his confused eyes filled with curiosity, maybe even wonder. “But . . . ye are an angel.”
“Thanks for the compliment, but no. I’m a flesh-and-blood woman.”
His head fell back to the dirt with a soft thud. “Dragon offal . . . goblin scum, he is.” His accent was strong, a cross between a Scots burr and a bad Captain Hook parody. “The bastard did it, he really did, and now I’m here. Aye, and mortal, too. Mortal in Mysteria.”
“Is that kind of like sleepless in Seattle?”
Groaning at her joke, he flung his arms wide and rolled onto his back.
Glory be. Her mouth went dry as she looked him over. For injuries, yes, that was it. Before she administered emergency caffeine, she’d better make darn sure he wasn’t wounded.
She gave him a thorough inspection. After all, it was her citizen’s responsibility. Her pastor’s duty.
He was built . . . incredibly, amazingly, enormously, and that’s all she’d let herself think on that subject, dragging her eyes away from where she shouldn’
t have been looking in the first place. There wasn’t an ounce of fat on him. Or a single scar. He was as sculpted as a statue of a Roman warrior, except with body hair, the perfect amount, too, short and coarse and dark.
Something drew her eyes back to his face, where she discovered he was watching her with something close to amusement. “You seem, uh, to be all in one piece,” she quickly explained.
He flashed a blinding grin. “You like what you see, then.”
She stopped her blush before the heat of it could reach her cheeks. She’d grown up with four brothers, two older, two younger. Like heck, she’d let the fact that a man was sprawled naked in her garden in all his admittedly very magnificent glory distract her.
“As a matter of fact, I don’t like what I see.” Was that the hurt of a wounded ego that flashed in his eyes? Certainly it was surprise. “I don’t care for the sight of a man facedown drunk in my flowers on a Sunday morning—butt naked. But considering that I just got done praying for a sign, I suppose I shouldn’t complain, because I didn’t spell out the specifications!”
She tugged off the butter yellow sweater she’d been wearing over a matching shell and thrust it at him. “Here, put this on.”
Sinew and muscle corded his arm from wrist to shoulder as he peered curiously at the sweater dangling from his fingers. It looked tiny grasped in his hand. Clearly, he didn’t know what do to with the thing.
She waved her hand. “Cover up.” Your huge wing-dinger, she almost shouted. “For modesty’s sake.” Although modesty was way more her issue than his, it seemed.
He pushed upright, clods of dry dirt sprinkling down as he sat up. Tight, defined stomach muscles brought new meaning to six-pack abs. She almost sobbed with relief when he spread the sweater over his private parts.