This story contains themes or mentions of suicide or self harm.

Walter’s breath poured before him in a haze, goosebumps scaling his skin. A demon was here, and it had to be Zalagoth. Jean tried the lights, but none of the switches worked.

“The chill freezes the wiring,” Walter said as he opened his bag, sifted through it with a hand, then produced a long wax candle and set it into a candlestick with a bridged plate. A second later came the matches, and then– light. Or as much light as they were likely to get. The glow extended about three feet, depending on which direction it was aimed. For the foyer, it, therefore, did not illuminate much; the first few steps of a staircase to the second story, beside it the beginnings of a hallway, to the left and right open door frames.

“Is there somewhere your mother usually stays? A bedroom?” Walter’s voice once again seemed to slap Jean from thought, the girl appearing frantic for a second before calming down. Her eyes were glossy in the candlelight, and for all it was worth, Walter rested a hand on her shoulder. Jean wore a long sleeve dress of burgundy and burnt orange, a dark shaw slung over her shoulders. Her eyes were dark, as was her hair, styled long, loose, and wavy. A black hat rested on her head, a dozen bracelets wound up and down her arms, and a dozen rings consumed her fingers. She wore two necklaces, one with a small, light pink rock entwined in wire, the other… empty, void of anything, just loose wire Walter assumed had once housed another stone. This girl was not the type he usually consoled, but he knew she needed someone’s hand. He had needed it when he was her age, before the exorcism. “A bedroom?” he asked again, and this time Jean gestured to the stairs.

“Her room’s to the left, mine’s to the right, either end of the hall,” Jean said, her voice hoarse. “Why?”

“We need one room we can contain her in, where she can’t hide, can’t flee,” Walter said. Jean nodded, returning to that timid, overwhelmed appearance. “Zalagoth taunts, Jean. It plays games, manipulates, gets into your head, and tries to make you a puppet. Don’t let it. It–”

“You’ve never won against him, have you?”

“I–” Walter couldn’t speak.

“You know so much about him, you must have fought him before, but from what I’ve read, when you exorcize a demon it goes back to Hell, trapped forever. If Zalagoth is still on Earth, that means you’ve never won, never fully exorcized one of his victims.”

Jean stared at Walter with those dark eyes, ripping away at his facade, peering into his soul. He looked away. He couldn’t face her.

“Is my mom going to die?”

Those words lingered, the question out in the open now. Would Zalagoth be triumphant again? Would Walter be able to save this girl’s mother? Margaret, bloody, her face weaved into a desperate, silent plea above him.

“Zalagoth is the only demon I have failed to cast back to Hell,” Walter said after a long moment. “I’ve met it twice before, once in my youth when I was about your age, then years later, after I was already down the exorcist’s path. It–” Walter clenched his jaw closed. No– Margaret, tears still streaming down her cold face, blood-filled eyes staring into eternity. That familiar pain shot through him, through his heart, through his soul. It made his legs tremble, knees nearly buckle, tears flowing freely down his cheeks. No, his tongue was incapable of forming those words, mouthing that truth.

He looked at Jean then and felt a certain kinship with her. Kin of suffering, of loss. They at least had that in common, if nothing else, just as their tears had salt in common, and pain in common. He had hunted this creature his entire life, had thrown away so much for the sake of the pursuit… Had made so many mistakes. Walter wouldn’t wish the same fate onto Jean if this should fail– if he should fail again.

Walter began to speak, but Jean nodded. “Okay.”


She smiled. It was faint, just the corners of her mouth slanting upward, but far more than he had managed when faced with the same situation. “Okay.”

Jean took the candle from his hand and started up the stairs.

Walter followed closely, up, up, up each carpeted step, a hand clutching his bag, the other gripping his rosary tight.

“Jean?” A feminine voice said ahead of them. “Is that you? There’s dinner in the fridge, I didn’t know when you’d be home.”

Jean hesitated before reaching the top step. Her knuckles were white from her grip on the candlestick. She glanced back at Walter. He gave a nod. You’re strong, Jean. You can do this.

Jean stepped into the second-story hallway and stared, pale, down the left. The door was closed, no light shining from beneath it. Walter stepped toward it, but his eyes followed Jean, brow furrowed, as she turned to the right, toward her bedroom. She handed Walter the candle, then started down the hall.

“Where are you going?” Walter whispered. His head whipped back to Lily’s bedroom door, but it remained closed. His chest was taut with adrenaline, his breaths quick, shallow.

“I need to get things,” she said, halfway down the hall.

“I have everything we need.”

“No, you don’t.” Her words came as a disembodied whisper, traveling across the void before him, Jean having disappeared into the darkness. Walter started after her… But the candle went out.

“You’ve come, finally.” The voice was gruff and of an ancient accent, the words slithering inside Walter’s head. He stopped. A chill expanded like a wave over his body, a feeling of spectral hands gripping his shoulders causing him to tense.

“Zalagoth,” Walter said, the name dropping from his lips with a weight he had never felt before. It bore down on him, forcing him to slouch, his mouth dragging itself down until he was gaping, his jaw feeling like it would snap from its hinges, and then– nothing. Walter took the reprieve to gasp for air, a hand coming up to grip his throat as his esophagus burned from its chill. A moaning creak behind him–

Walter spun, rosary extended, to Lily’s door. It was open, the maw to Evil expanding until it encompassed him. It sucked him in, gripping him, strangling him. The sheer force of the darkness would kill him. He closed his eyes and sealed them shut. He couldn’t do this, he couldn’t face this creature. Oh God, sweet Lord, save him, protect him, he couldn’t do this. Margaret– Susan– Walter shook his head.

A low, rumbling cackle pulsed around him. Walter opened his eyes. He didn’t know why– it was stupid of him, he should’ve stayed in the emptiness, but he opened his eyes anyway. Walter stood in Lily’s bedroom, starlight trying to pry at the drawn drapes, emitting a halo of dim light along the edges of the window. A figure sat on the bed, her knees pulled to her face, cowering like a frightened girl.

Jean! Walter lurched forward, but stopped himself at another glance. No, this woman was older, in her thirties maybe, with merely the same dark hair as her daughter. Her eyes, however, were a sickly yellow.

H-Help me.”

Lily jolted into the air, striking the ceiling, white popcorn flakes raining down like snow. Walter brought his rosary to his heart, staring at Lily as she screamed, convulsing. He trembled, his entire body wobbling, off-balance, terrified. Margaret– Her hair of deep red flames licking at the air around her, her emerald eyes vandalized in agony, her body snapping to pieces before him. Zalagoth had taken Margaret from him, could Walter let it do the same to Jean?

No, he couldn’t. Walter steeled himself, then extended his rosary toward Lily and began reciting the Litany of the Saints.

Lily knelt before Walter, sweat dripping from them both. A low whimper dragged from Lily’s lips. Jean stopped beside Walter. She set the Dog-Tooth amethyst down before them, the crystal stained with blood. Jean steeled herself, her jaw set. Blood dripped from her palm, staining the carpet in crimson spots. Jean worked through the pain, setting the smokey quartz crystal to its left, the clear quartz to its right.

Jean closed her eyes, hands clasped together, breathing deeply. Walter shook his head. She had gone to her room for rocks? He hadn’t even noticed her come into the bedroom until she was right beside him, now… Praying? Walter pressed the rosary to Lily’s forehead, the cross searing her flesh.

“They shall lay their hands upon the sick and all will be well with them.” An unnatural wind whipped at Walter’s face, lashing him, causing thin streams of blood to run down the contours of his cheeks. “May Jesus, Son of Mary, Lord and Savior of the world, through the merits and intercession of His holy apostles Peter and Paul and all His saints, show you favor and mercy–”

Lily’s yellow eyes shot up.“Amen,” she said with a grin, then leaped onto the bed, and into the air and stayed there, suspended. Walter stared for only a moment, then went right back into chanting. The image of this woman melded and interchanged with that of Margaret– the same taunts, the same experience. He wouldn’t let Zalagoth kill her, not this time.

Walter jumped at the crack of lightning that split before the window, bathing the room in a pale, flickering light for a single, fleeting heartbeat, then returning it to darkness. He was no longer in Lily’s room, or Jean’s house, but one from a memory. Margaret writhed before him, speaking in Zalagoth’s ancient language, hair outstretched in greasy locks, blood soaking the bed sheets, dripping from between her legs, her stomach overcome with child. A girl. Lightning from the window painted her features, showing Walter her agony, then taking her back to darkness.

Walter backed against the wall. No, he couldn’t be here again. He brought his rosary to his heart, but felt it squirm in his grip. He looked down and dropped it with a start, a slender snake slithering away, beneath the bed’s safety.

“God cannot save you,” Margaret said in a deep voice. It reverberated against the walls, shaking the room, the house, the very Earth. Walter lost his balance and slid to the floor, staring at his wife as she loomed. Her eyes rolled into a yellow shade, her demeanor altering from an agonized timidity to that of an immortal more ancient than Jesus Christ himself. “He is dead in this place, and has no sanctity here.”

“Margaret!” Walter was young again, fully engulfed in the vision, his exorcist robes and stole ironed neatly, ripe with the fresh scent of new clothes. Walter racked his mind, trying to think of the rites he’d recently memorized, but he’d drawn a blank. He couldn’t think, only watch. She laughed in hideous belches.

Walter looked up at her. No, this wasn’t real, it couldn’t be. A dingy bathroom materialized before him, and Walter witnessed himself, older, laden with wrinkles, weighted shoulders sagging, a razor pinched between his fingers, sitting in an empty bathtub. He looked away before the swipe.

“You will act in my name, Walter. Your hand will execute my command.”

“Never,” Walter said, word biting at the demon. But Walter had, hadn’t he? Margaret smiled. Yes, years later, on the dogged pursuit of Zalagoth. He– He had… Susan Barnett. His eyes fell upon his body in the tub, crimson cascading down its worn blue side in a brilliant waterfall, pooling on the floor, seeping between the tiles.

“This isn’t real,” Walter said. “This isn’t real.” They were back in his bedroom. Walter began to pray, trying to focus on his plea to God, but Zalagoth spoke over him, interrupting his thoughts, diluting them with visions of Margaret when he closed his eyes. Walter’s voice broke in a tremble, eyes clenched closed, but still witnessing his daughter churn inside Margaret’s stomach as her skin boiled.

Then, with a smile, “Sum ensis inferni.” She crumpled.

Walter knelt before the bed, his wife strewn on its sheets, laying still in a pool of blood. He didn’t return to Lily’s bedroom, he remained staring at Margaret. Zalagoth had retreated to the corner, not from fear or Divine Intervention, but merely to observe, to let Walter’s pain fester. Tears no longer escaped Walter’s eyes, there were no more he could give, his cheeks slick enough. Instead, he continued to stare silently at the woman before him, sirens still too far off to hear. He chuckled despite himself, doubting that in this place of eternal anguish, the hearse-like ambulance would ever arrive.

He had just lowered his head in defeat when Zalagoth cocked his head. Walter opened his eyes and studied the Earl in the corner, his grotesque features all too familiar. The demon looked… Uncomfortable, like something jabbed into his ribs. His head cocked further, twisting unnaturally, face becoming distraught, even terrified. A ring of light encompassed him, and like that he was gone, and Walter stood once again in Lily’s bedroom, Jean beside him with eyes closed and face scrunched in concentration, and her mother before them both, seizing in the air.

Walter’s very soul sagged with ancient exhaustion, a feeling only those within Death’s grasp understand. But he was not dying. His heartbeat was frantic, yes, and his entire body tensed and shivered, but Walter was not dying. Not yet, not for a long time to come.

Lily screamed in a final surge, back arching, then fell onto her bed. Walter rushed to her side, finger to her throat, checking for a pulse. Nothing. He moved it just slightly. Still nothing. He wouldn’t lose her, not this time. Walter repositioned his finger again. He glared up to the sky, to Heaven.

“Please, Lord, save this woman. Protect her, give her your life. I beg of you, my Lord, please.” He couldn’t lose Lily, not Jean’s mother. Not another mother taken by Zalagoth. He–

Walter froze, his heartbeat pounding in his ears. Yes. Yes, he felt it– bum bum, bum bum, bum bum. Lily lived. By God’s Grace, she lived. Walter shot toward Jean, who had just begun stirring from her strange self-induced trance.

“Jean!” Walter grabbed hold of the girl by her arms and shook her, his excitement unbearable. “We’ve done it! Jean!”

Her eyes met his with extreme lethargy, and it took another extended moment before she focused on him. “What happened?”

“It’s done, Jean. Zalagoth is cast out. Lily is alive.”

Realization seemed to strike the girl all at once, and her head whipped to her mother. She hadn’t yet stirred, but was alive, nonetheless. Jean stared, then took a step toward the bedside.

“Mom?” Jean’s voice trembled. Walter turned from Jean and studied Lily. She lay motionless, a pool of sweat darkening the sheets around her, her long dark hair strewn about her. Color had returned, her skin a golden tan, her features supple. Then her eyes fluttered open. Dark eyes, like her daughter’s.

Walter rested a hand on one of the bed posts and leaned, watching the mother-daughter pair embrace with a smile. His smile shriveled into a quivering chin and downtrodden eyes. It was done. Margaret could rest. Their daughter could finally… Rest. A vengeful weight disappeared in an abrupt jolt, leaving him limp, wispy. Walter's breath quickened. It was done. His mission was complete. Zalagoth was cast to Hell. Yet, a name roiled in his mind, refusing to be banished. Susan Barnett. Nausea gnawed at his stomach, bubbling into his throat. Susan Barnett.

Walter shook himself, then swept back the curtains, and morning light poured into the room, flooding its occupants in golden glory. Walter let that light, that warmth, bathe him, closing his eyes as he still clutched the curtains. It was done. Zalagoth was finally cast out. The pain of his actions churned inside him, sinking his stomach, plunging it into an endless abyss, dragging his chest down with it. But it was done, regardless. Walter turned back to the bed, to Jean beaming at him with dark eyes speckled with amber he hadn’t noticed before, entangled in Lily’s arms.

He smiled, then, for her sake. “And behold, they cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?’”

Walter knelt, knees burning. Yes. With God’s blessing, yes.

July 01, 2023 12:53

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