The Wintrose Chronicles IV: Brother Wintrose Collars the Devil
"Just when you think you know what’s going to happen, Mesling pulls the rug out and down the trapdoor you fall, spiraling into expertly crafted nightmares. I’m already looking forward to Pete’s next offering!"—Robert Essig, author of In Black and People of the Ethereal Realm
Iesvs Nazarenvs Rex Ivdaeorvm
He was far too old to be climbing up and down the mountain, but this had been an important quest. Pausing to wipe rainwater from his brow, Brother Wintrose pushed the hood of his cowl higher up on his head with his crook and eyed his mountaintop destination through wind-whipped rain and pale moonlight. The abbey loomed impossibly high. His body hitched in a kind of laugh. Maybe this was the end. Maybe he was to make it no farther than the rocky slopes that served as ramparts to his beloved abbey.
But the box he clutched against his side wasn’t as easily put out of mind as his own well being. It was the last of the three relics to be brought to the abbey. At least he hoped Brother Drear and Brother Gabbin had already returned with theirs. If not, something had gone wrong. Regardless, he had to deliver his, and if either of the other two boxes hadn’t arrived yet, he would need to send more men out. Then he could die, if Death was so eager to have him. But not before.
Even as he thought it, his sandal turned on a slick boulder and nearly launched him into swirling blackness. But he was nimble for his age, and he managed to avert catastrophe by ramming his crook into a patch of mud and pushing off of it with his weight. How the box remained under his arm through it all he had no guess, but it did, and he was grateful.
Up he wound, scaling the rock outcroppings of Scratch Mountain to heights that never seemed to bring him any closer to the hermitage. He hadn’t eaten or slept for many hours, so he was unsure what hidden reserves of strength he was calling on to proceed. It was as if the stinging rain, blustery winds and low visibility were fuel to him now, as if his soaked cowl urged him on rather than weighed him down. Not that it should have been a complete surprise to him, this surge of willful endurance. At the heart of all that he taught and preached was a strong belief in the human spirit’s ability to overcome the limits of the physical world. If he was anything more than another hypocrite in holy raiment, now was the time for God to prove it by allowing him and the box safe passage to the abbey.
Coming over the lip of rock that put him on the same level as the abbey was like stepping into a dream. Though his tired legs threatened to buckle under him and his arm ached from cradling the box mile after lonesome mile, Brother Wintrose paused in the deluge to behold the holy place that bore his name. It had never looked more perfect to him than it did now, with heavy clouds sailing in and out of the moon’s persistent glow, rain lashing at its walls and steeple. On this side of the abbey, the mountain dropped down into woods, which in turn gave way to a sprawling valley. The other side was almost butted up against the final rise of the peak. The monks of Wintrose Abbey couldn’t have have found a more ideal location, or done a more impressive job on the architecture and construction of the edifice. They’d steadily grown in number over the years, it being easy to recruit men to dwell high on a mountain when the lowlands were every day crawling with more of hell’s effluvium.
The demons refused to scramble any higher than the last thinning stand of evergreens that encircled the mountain. Wintrose believed the reason for their wariness was twofold. Brother Glendow had been the first to theorize that they didn’t want to abandon the hiding places that tree cover provided, and there was likely something to the idea. The monsters were certainly smart enough to consider the consequences of such a disadvantage. But Wintrose knew in his heart that it went deeper than that. Just as he had chosen the loftiest location possible for the abbey—all the better to honor and exalt his one true God—might not the devils have feared the very same closeness to divinity? He felt sure of it, and took strength from it.
Brother Licton answered soon after Wintrose sounded one of the bronze cherub knockers adorning the main doors. He looked disheveled, agitated.
“Oh, Brother Wintrose! Praise God, it’s you.”
Wintrose waited a moment for the pale young man to offer to take the box and see him in. Brother Licton only stared into the abbot’s eyes.
“What’s the matter?” Wintrose asked. “Why do you not let me in? Have Brothers Gabbin and Drear returned?”
“Yes, yes. Oh, I’m sorry, Brother Wintrose. Forgive me. The reliquary is now complete, yes?” He gingerly took the box from Wintrose and stepped aside to let him pass. “It’s just that… Well, I really should let Brother Drear be the one… He’s the one who saw it.”
Wintrose closed the door, lowered his hood, and drew patience from a deep inner well. Laying a hand on Brother Licton’s shoulder he said, “Tell me where I can find Brother Drear.”
“He and some of the others are down in the winery. There has been much talk amid the casks tonight.”
“Mmm, and not a little tipping of the mugs, I suspect.”
The uneven, spiraling stone steps that hugged the wall on the way to the basement were as treacherous as anything Wintrose had navigated on his way back to the abbey. The men always chose to imbibe down below, thinking they went unnoticed. But such a charade was folly in Wintrose’s view. The threat of a deadly fall for a drunk man climbing the demanding flight was very real.
He passed through the cellar and its stores of wine to the cozy winery beyond. At a short rectangular table sat Brothers Drear, Gabbin and Glendow. They looked up as he entered, children caught playing an adults’ game.
“Brother Licton made it sound as though I’d find more of you down here,” Brother Wintrose said.
“And so you might have,” said Brother Glendow in a roaring voice, “if you’d come an hour sooner. What you see here is the wheat, good Brother Wintrose. The chaff have gone to bed.” He said this with a flourish of his arms, and laughter trickled around the table.
“You have the gift of humor,” Wintrose said, smiling despite himself. “I hope it survives the coming days.” His smile faded, and a hush fell upon the monks as they stared down at their half-empty mugs of wine. “Brother Drear, may I have a word?”
As soon as the two men were out in the hall, Glendow’s chatter resumed. Wintrose could tell Gabbin had wanted to greet him, but he was always so afraid of falling out of favor with Brother Glendow. Brother Wintrose smiled despite himself as he and Drear retreated upstairs in silence and stepped outside, into the cloister at the rear of the abbey.
“It’s wonderful to see you again, Brother Wintrose.”
“You as well, my good Brother Drear. You as well. Brother Licton has collected my relic.”
“That is excellent news,” said Drear. “We can begin.”
“Brother Licton also said you have something to tell me. He seemed out of sorts about it.”
“It’s good news, on the one hand, I assure you.”
“Let’s have it, then, by all means.”
“I’ve seen the devil prince.” Wintrose said nothing. “Twice I’ve seen him. Once where the trees begin their descent and once on Kneeling Ridge.”
“That’s much higher than we thought they ever came.”
“Just him so far, Brother Wintrose. He appears to be as bold as he is ferocious looking. He’s at least half again as large as his subordinates, and his hide is a more sickly color.”
“How can you call this good news, Brother Drear?”
“Perhaps the fly has come to the spider and spared her the hunt.”
“We still have to catch him.”
Drear fell silent, unable to deny the assertion. Rain poured into the courtyard, but the monks kept dry as they walked the covered perimeter.
“Do you think this will work?” Drear asked at last.
Wintrose stopped and turned, startled by the question. “I must. And so must we all. Have you doubts, even after the lengths to which you’ve gone to procure one of the relics? What, if not faith, saw you through such a difficult mission?”
“We’ve known each other a long time. If I express misgivings, it’s only because I know I can bare myself completely to you. Please, let us continue walking.”
“I don’t deserve your loyalty. I try to be strong for you and the others, so I pretend not to fear the worst. But we’re up against a great foe, one that’s grown strong alongside us these many years. I have no right to ask any of you to go one step further in this.”
“You needn’t ask. We are beside you, and beside you we shall remain.”
Wintrose clutched Drear’s forearm. “Then we must melt down the relics—tonight. All must be in place before we capture their prince, as you call him.”
“I’ll fetch Brothers Gabbin and Licton.”
“Good, we’ll meet in the chapel, and all are welcome. I’ll be there soon.”
Wintrose took several turns around the cloister after Drear left his side. Of the entire brotherhood, only Brother Licton seemed terrified enough. The others knew what they were up against, knew what was at stake. But they didn’t feel it. Even after years of playing cat-and-mouse with the hundreds—maybe thousands by now—of hell-spawn demons that scavenged the Rocky Forest by night, the monks of Wintrose Abbey deluded themselves as to the seriousness of the task at hand.
The things could be seen in the sky just before dawn, which was a new development. They’d always had wings and occasionally left signs of recent flight—such as the horrible business with the Daggets two decades ago—but lately murders of them were sometimes seen circling the lower flanks of Scratch Mountain. And now their crown prince, whose presence had been rumored for years, was creeping around at higher elevations. The monks should have been out of their heads with fright. God knew Wintrose was. But he had the considerable responsibility of holding it together before his flock. It wasn’t quite Armageddon the holy men of Wintrose Abbey were up against, perhaps, but it was nothing less than a battle between good and evil. There was great strength on their side now, with the holy relics in place, but much was still to be done—and sacrificed—before they could pronounce themselves victorious.
The chapel was thronged when Wintrose arrived, a chattering tide of gray cowls and mostly bearded faces. Even the drunk and the slumbering had been called to bear witness. Each row of men quieted as he passed, on his way to the altar.
“Men,” he spoke. “Brethren, the day has arrived. Brother Licton, the reliquary, please.”
It was an awkward thing to carry. Shaped like a simple church, it was made up of panels of hammered metal soldered together. The roof was hinged along one of its longer sides, and the whole thing was meticulously festooned with decorative studs and painted icons. Brother Licton carried it in outstretched arms to where Brother Wintrose stood and laid it carefully on the altar.
“Open it,” Wintrose commanded.
Brother Licton undid a latch at the front and swung the roof back.
“Here reside three holy relics, brothers. Brother Gabbin has retrieved a bridle from the Provinces of Ire. Brother Drear has fetched a spear point from Mount Blood. And only tonight I have returned from Witch’s Hollow with the crown. All three relics are made of iron, but not just any iron. It is time you know the true significance of these sacred objects.”
A swell of hushed conversation passed among the congregants but was short lived.
“Brother Licton, the bridle.”
Licton withdrew a box from the reliquary and set it aside. He lifted the lid of the box and removed a dullish bridle, which he handed to Wintrose, who held the item up for all to see.
“And the spear point.”
Licton removed the second box and handed Wintrose the spear point from inside.
“And now the crown.”
Licton removed a crown from the third box.
Wintrose held all three items above his head and addressed the monks once more.
“These relics aren’t important because they are bridle, spear point and crown. You’ve probably guessed that much. They are important because of what they once were. Each of these objects, my brothers, was one of the nails driven into the flesh of Jesus Christ.” He handed the relics back to Licton.
Gasps he had expected. Maybe even a cry or two. And he wasn’t disappointed on either account. But there was also a startling shout of, “Blasphemy!” from somewhere at the rear of the chapel. Wintrose took a moment to lower the relics and find his words.
“The only proof I can offer you is in the completion of our task. Some of you know more than others about what is afoot. We shall all have the same knowledge soon. Tonight we melt the relics down and form them into manacles. Then all that will be left is capturing the demon commander—the devil prince…” He winked at Brother Drear in the front row. “… clamping the manacles about his wrists, and chaining him to a wall in the winery.”
“Like plucking a cherry from the mouth of a babe!” Someone hollered from the back. It took Wintrose a moment to identify the speaker as Brother Glendow.
Wintrose smiled weakly. “Yes, well, maybe not quite as easy as that. But if we can get him inside the abbey, he’ll weaken considerably. We should have little trouble shackling him and getting him down to the winery.”
“Then what?” someone shouted.
“For as long as he is bound by irons forged from the nails used in the Crucifixion, this region will be free from evil. Only if someone sets him loose will evil and corruption take hold again in the Rocky Forest. We could kill him—maybe—but that would only enrage the others, not deliver them to perdition. But enough talk. Brother Licton, kindly take the reliquary down to the forge. Brother Slaggert will cast something other than cask rings and wine-making apparatus tonight.” He eyed a large man several rows from the front as he handed the relics to Licton. “Won’t you, Brother Slaggert?”
“It will be an intense joy to do this work,” Slaggert replied.
“Fine, fine. I’ll want to know as soon as the fetters are ready.”
Brother Slaggert stood, twisting the waist cord of his cowl. “Brother Wintrose, it will take time to cool the iron if we want to avoid imperfections, weaknesses in the finished product. We should also rustle up some limestone or salt peter to use as flux. Any impurities in the—”
“You will melt down the relics, form them into a pair of manacles, and quench them in water. These bonds will have a hold over the prisoner far beyond the strength of iron. Let me know when it is done.”
The chapel was silent as Brother Wintrose took his leave.
In the narrow corridor that led to his chambers, he felt a tap at his shoulder. Turning tiredly on his crook he saw by the light of a nearby wall-mounted candle the unmistakable long hair and tall, skinny frame of Char Fasserby. He glanced around for Char’s brother, Hayt, but saw no one else in the gloom.
“Welcome, Char. Do you still think you can tempt the devil onto holy ground this night?”
“I’m as sure as I was this afternoon when you and I spoke at my home.”
“Your Abigail seems a fine woman. I was surprised and gladdened to learn of your good fortune. I didn’t have time to express myself earlier, but I regret that circumstances have forced you and me to keep our distance from one another. It’s a wedding I should have liked very much to attend.”
“Attend? Had things been otherwise, it would have been you who married us.”
Wintrose didn’t know how to respond, so he showed Char into his room and offered him a cup of wine.
“Where is your brother,” Wintrose asked.
“He’s with Kurg, coaxing him higher up the mountain as we speak, I don’t doubt.”
“Kurg. This is the name of their leader?”
Char bowed his head, nodded slowly.
“An ugly name for an ugly beast. I wish you hadn’t elected to mix with such low company for our cause. But there are few outside of the brotherhood who can be trusted these days, so I am grateful. When you and Hayt offered to accompany me on my pilgrimage to the Wizened Isle, I saw the opportunity you acted on, but I wouldn’t have dreamed of asking you… I knew we would be watched along the way, and I didn’t know what to expect when I got to Donen’s Temple. There was some sense in you and your brother coming back to set things in motion here. I can’t deny it.”
“We would do it again in an instant. We had to get them off your scent. But the biggest piece has yet to be dropped into place.”
“Very true. I must ask your assistance one last time.”
“It’s yours for as many last times as necessary.”
“Bless you. Then we best get started.”
“Does everyone know—”
“Only that the time has come, and what we plan to do with Kurg once we’ve got him. Have you done as we discussed?”
“Yes, the rope is piled between the abbey and the mountain’s peak. How do I get on the roof? I saw no ladder.”
“Come,” Wintrose opened a drawer, removed and pocketed the small glass spheres from Donen's Temple and led his friend back into the corridor, “I’ll show you. There’s a ladder built into the wall, near the last chapel window.”
The rain outside the main doors came down like guillotine blades, but compared to what the night still held in store, what was the loss of a head? They trudged through mud and chill wetness to the side of the abbey where Char’s rope lay in a soppy coil.
Wintrose pointed farther along the wall. “There’s the ladder. Brother Slaggert forged it and attached it to the wall. I can give it no stronger endorsement than that.”
Char nodded, reached down to take up one end of the rope and climbed with it up the ladder. Wintrose stared after him for a moment before beginning his own climb up a steep path etched into the final rise of Scratch Mountain. The going was treacherous, even with his crook, but he’d practiced the route, knew exactly where to step—and where not to. In minutes he’d reached a flat-topped outcropping. Here he sat with his legs crossed and looked on as Char struggled to keep his balance on the narrow strip of flashing that ran the length of the roof. When he reached the steeple, Char tied the rope securely to the base. He almost lost his balance once or twice on his way back to the ladder, but eventually he made it down.
The other end of the rope was fashioned into a loop, which Char picked up and carried to the front corner of the abbey. There he let if fall to the mud and with a broad wave to Brother Wintrose headed straight for the drop-off fifty yards from the main doors. Wintrose watched him clamber out of sight before turning his attention to his own role in the coming drama. Char knew Wintrose would take over once Kurg was snared, but he had no idea what methods the old abbot intended to use. No one did.
Wintrose reached a hand inside an interior pocket of his cowl and fingered the two smooth orbs. He couldn’t believe it was nearly time to make use of them. Since acquiring the weapons seven months ago, he had dreaded this moment, longed for it. Now that the time had arrived, he found it impossible to believe that events would play out as he intended. The procession of time had made it too easy to put faith in a triumphant outcome. Now he feared that the devil would win the day. Perhaps somewhere in the middle lay the truth.
He looked to the moon for comfort and was almost surprised that it gave him some. Then Hayt was hauling himself onto the far ledge. He helped Char up, and the two of them waited, staring down into the dark drop-off from which they’d emerged. With dramatic flourish, Kurg shot out of that darkness, some twenty feet into the air. He was massive, fully three times Char’s height and Hayt’s girth. He halted in the air, batting his wings powerfully against the sky, rotating his monstrous head this way and that. It was a clear display of dominance and gall, and it made Wintrose despise his enemy anew. The damned thing was laying claim to the abbey.
Finally, Kurg came to rest on the ground near Char and Hayt. The brothers immediately started walking toward the abbey, and Wintrose saw hesitation in the beast at last. Kurg hung back, all bravado gone from his movements, which now had something of dread in them. He was afraid of the very abbey he hoped to conquer, Wintrose noted with a chuckle.
It wasn’t clear to Wintrose how, exactly, Char planned to trap his prey. Presumably he had some clever ruse in mind. Perhaps Hayt would divert the devil prince’s attention while Char came up from behind and threw the loop over its long, flat head. There would be no second chance if Char missed, so Wintrose watched with great agitation as the action unfolded below.
Hayt disappeared from view, but Char came around to the corner where he’d left the end of the rope. Kurg’s head and neck, as well as the tips of his wings, were clearly visible as he followed Char. Wintrose’s fist tightened around the glass orbs. His own chances with the devilish brute were limited, too. His timing would have to be well chosen, and his aim true.
When Char tilted an arm toward the looped end of rope, pointing it out to Kurg, Wintrose rose to his feet. A pang of suspicion coursed through him. Could Char be in league with the satanic horde after all?
Char retrieved the loop, handed it to Kurg. The creature took it in a huge claw of gnarled talons. Char appeared to be telling him something. Suddenly, in defiance of all reason, Kurg pulled the loop over his toothy snout and broad skull, then pulled it tight around his throat. Wintrose could hardly believe his eyes as Kurg turned away from Char and ran back toward the cliff’s edge. He took to the air before covering half the distance, however, only to be snapped back violently when he reached the end of the rope. He managed to stay aloft, but it was a struggle. They had him. He was too dumb to realize it yet, but they had him.
Wintrose was still puzzled by what he’d witnessed, but at least his trust in Char was restored. He must have taught the monks a thousand times that trust was as binding a compact as marriage to God or spouse, that judgment against a trusted friend must always be forestalled until all evidence of his innocence has been disproved. And yet he’d needed only the most circumstantial clue to convince him, not for the first time, that Char was in service of the enemy. Hypocrisy would be the subject of his next sermon, if there was a next sermon.
At length, Kurg became aware he’d been tricked, and his anger was terrifying to behold. He circled and thrashed, squealing insanely. The rope wrapped around the steeple until he was almost forced to land on the roof, only to unwind again as he flew in the opposite direction. Would he tire? If not, Wintrose doubted the steeple would hold. A dozen iron pegs held it to the roof. They couldn’t last forever.
Wintrose plucked an orb from the palm of his left hand and cocked his other arm. He glanced down at Char, who gestured wildly for him to act. He looked back at Kurg, who had yet to notice his presence against the slick black stone of the mountainside. He had no idea how much fire the spheres were capable of loosing when they struck a target. It couldn’t hurt to aim for the head, in case the explosion didn’t amount to much.
Though that’s exactly where he aimed, the orb fell short of its whirling target entirely, instead striking the base of the steeple. Fire erupted where the ball hit but quickly subsided, leaving a tongue of flame that licked all around the steeple mount before igniting the devil prince’s tether.
“No!” Brother Wintrose screamed, horrified by the prospect of Kurg’s being set free by such an idiotic blunder. The fingers of his right hand found the other sphere. This time he didn’t bother to aim. Kurg’s eyes were on him now, and filled with fire as bright and hot as what crawled up the rope. The wings beat faster. Wintrose flung the orb with every whit of strength and will he possessed.
He had no idea where it would connect, probably the far side of the abbey, maybe light Hayt on fire. But no, it caught Kurg under his right arm. Again there was a blinding flash. When it died out, Kurg’s wing on that side was alive with flame. The demon flapped furiously, flying at Wintrose with terrific vengeance—unholy vengeance.
The rain had all but extinguished the rope fire, but Kurg’s wing burned strong, the flames no doubt enlivened by his carbuncled flesh. Wintrose knew the rope wasn’t long enough for Kurg to reach him, but all the demons of the Rocky Forest had such convincing, conniving eyes. Kurg’s, like everything else about him, were more devilish still, and Wintrose half believed the devil prince might find a way to stretch the rope, allowing him to get his hungry jaws around Wintrose’s throat and hurtle him off the mountain with a wrench of his neck. Or the rope might simply snap where it was now black and brittle from the fire.
Instead, Kurg came to the end of his tether in great pain, a dozen feet from Wintrose’s perch. His energy depleted and his wing useless, the leader of devils dropped like a pendulum. Following the arc determined by the rope, he crashed through one of the chapel windows. As if it had held out only long enough to do its job, the rope broke free of the steeple and trailed to the ground below like a ribbon in a breeze. Their only hope now was that the interior of the abbey would be holy enough to further immobilize Kurg until he was properly chained up in the winery.
Wintrose inched his way down the crooked mountain path to meet Char near the ravaged window. They stared at each other, both searching for words that wouldn’t come. Char threw his arms around Wintrose, who returned the embrace with gusto. At arms’ length once more, Wintrose finally said, “Forgive me, but again I doubted your loyalty when you showed Kurg the rope. What in the realm did you say to convince him to tie it around his own neck?”
Char laughed. “Oh, that. Well, we’ve been trying to convince him that his only chance for dominance in this region is to overthrow the abbey. That’s why he’s been venturing closer lately.”
“So you mentioned this afternoon.”
“Well, he thought he was going to use the rope to bring down the wall of the abbey. Little did he know it was a leash!”
“Ha! Well done, Char. Well done. And where did Hayt run off to?”
“Oh, he slipped inside to make sure no one came out during our little pageant. Kurg may have gotten wise if the monks had started filing out to see what was going on. We should make sure no one was hurt.”
The inside of the chapel was a charnel house. Kurg writhed on the floor. His eyes rolled dazedly back and forth, and his ruined wing twitched in the air. Underneath the devil prince was pinned at least one of the brotherhood. Whoever it was didn’t move an inch. Other monks lay scattered around, and splatters of blood decorated many pews. It was a place of groans and candlelight. And blood.
All movement and sound seemed to be slowed until Wintrose spotted Brother Gabbin, sprawled over the back of a pew, his cold, dead eyes staring upside down at Wintrose. Instead of going to the man’s side, Brother Wintrose stepped briskly to the gigantic head of Kurg. He knelt, ignoring a flash of pain in his knees.
“You,” he whispered angrily into the thing’s ear, “have arrived at the worst night of your false life. This is a place of God, and in it you will find no pity, no love, no mercy, no hope. We have lured you here to suffer, and suffer you shall.” Hauling himself up by his crook, he called out, “Where is Brother Slaggert? Tell him to bring in the manacles!”
Hayt approached Wintrose from the rear of the chapel. “I know not what to say. I thought the chapel would be a safe refuge. I—”
“Hayt, you were very wrongly named. Your intentions tonight were good ones. But there is time for neither praise nor grief at present. All things must have their hour.” He heard footsteps behind him and turned. “Ah, Slaggert, good. I see you have the manacles.”
“I have them, yes. But they both cracked during quenching. I would advise against—”
“When your advice is required, Brother Slaggert, I assure you it is melodious to my ears. But now it is your duty to listen to me. Cuff this son of a whore and let us lead him into the basement.”
Slaggert nodded, visibly shaken by the reprimand, and did as he was told.
Getting Kurg onto his feet was the worst part, but once he was upright and the remains of Brother Hazen were peeled away from his underbelly, he was as docile as a pup. Halfway down the winding stairs to the wine cellar, Wintrose stopped the procession. The manacles were clamped tight around Kurg’s enormous wrists and connected to each other by a length of chain. Wintrose pulled the connecting chain until Kurg’s head swung in his direction and their eyes met.
“I think you can find the way from here,” Wintrose said as he slammed the curved end of his crook into the Devil Prince’s throat.
Kurg tried to regain his balance, but it was a wasted effort with his wrists bound. His good wing flickered to life but was incapable of preventing the fall. Down he twirled in a slow revolution that was cut short when his body connected with the hard earthen floor below, sending up a soft plume of dust.
“I’ll be upstairs when you’re through chaining him to the wall. I have something to tell you all.”
Without another word, Brother Wintrose retraced each arduous step back upstairs to the chapel.
He was humbled to see that the bodies had already been removed, the toppled pews righted, the most garish blood stains washed clean. Brother Licton and some others were piling timber from broken pews, but Licton must have heard the tap of Wintrose’s crook, even over the wind and rain that howled through the shattered chapel window, for he spun as if startled and quickly approached the abbot.
“Was it worth all this, Brother Wintrose? Have we done any good here tonight?”
“I think so, yes. Gather everyone around, would you? I have something for all ears to hear.”
He climbed to the pulpit, and soon the damaged chapel was filled with silent, sullen ranks of men.
“Why so glum?” He tried to smile. “Brothers, we have already paid dearly for victory, and we have one more price to pay. But victory is ours. We snared the Rocky Forest devil tonight, and though we’ve never located the sore in the earth from which he and his vermin originally seeped, I have no doubt the horde, even now, is crawling over itself to get back into its hole. We’ve cut off its head. It can only return to the unthinking place that eschews all wisdom, beauty, light, love and compassion. There it can go back to dwelling on its hopeless plight—a sinking ship with stone oars.”
His speech had risen to a fevered invective, yet the congregation barely stirred.
“What is this additional cost you speak of, Brother?” someone called out.
Wintrose took a moment to regain his composure. “This abbey, my brothers, has been a good home to us, and to God. For years I dreamed of its completion, and it’s been all that I ever hoped. But there must be an end to all things. It is not for us to stand in the way of God’s work now. Let Him train the power of this place on nothing other than the devil prince, for if that mountain of dung should ever be set free, woe to the people of this region. Woe to the people of the world.
“And there is another reason, too, that we must leave our sacred abbey to the whims of fate. Men—even men as good as all of you—are susceptible to temptation. I would sooner perish in flames than see one of the brotherhood succumb to any devilish tricks and set Kurg loose. If we leave him to his solitary throne, there’s a better chance he’ll remain a prisoner. Forever.”
There was no rebuttal, no complaint, no challenge to Brother Wintrose’s heavy words. Only quiet acceptance. If this night marks an end to one cycle of the brotherhood’s existence, the silence seemed to say, what plan do you have for leading us into the next one, Brother Wintrose?
The truth was that he had no solid plan at all. For so many years his prayers and schemes and desires all had revolved around vanquishing the infernal invaders of the Rocky Forest. There had been no future looming behind that all-encompassing objective, no thought given to the bright new day that might dawn after such a long spell of darkness.
“First, my good brothers, let us go down into the forest and see with our own eyes what effect our work has had. Perhaps it is our calling to bear witness to this great event, to let people know to throw open their shutters again. Let them know it’s okay to sleep through a summer’s night with every window in the house wide open. The time has come for us to readjust our thinking. Our message has changed from one of terror and caution to one of boundless hope and rejuvenation. I say we embrace the change and let ourselves sing for once, instead of delivering warning after warning.”
The silence broke apart at last in an eruption of cheers and applause as the humble brotherhood of Wintrose Abbey gave voice to its collective, though tarnished, joy. Far below, in the winery, a sickened groan could be heard but dimly.
From every corner of the forest, and from the valley beyond, the creatures took to the skies. Brother Wintrose and the others had to go no farther than Kneeling Ridge to behold the spectacle. The rain had stopped, and the wind had fallen to a calming breeze, so the moon’s glint had a good reach across the wooded slopes below.
A terrible squawking filled the air as the devils circled in erratic descent. The mountain itself seemed to be swallowing them, and Wintrose eventually saw the jagged cut into which the things drained. In minutes it was over. The screeching, the flapping of wings, the ugliness… all gone.
Wintrose fell to his knees, not out of pain or exhaustion but out of the profoundest joy his heart had ever known. Perhaps, in an odd way, he owed the demon horde some small thanks for allowing him the deep thrill of their undoing.
Brother Drear was at his side in an instant, helping him back to his feet. Char was nearby as well. And Hayt.
“Brother Gabbin’s death was not in vain,” Wintrose said to Drear. “It will be answered with a million gestures of kindness and humility that wouldn’t have been allowed to enter the world if the demons were still among us.”
Drear’s large black eyes, framed by his equally black hair, said more than any words he might have mustered had he been capable of speech at that moment. And they spoke for everyone.