Lambs Chapter 3: Sheep in the Midst of Wolves

“It’s a demon. David, it’s a fucking demon.”

My second cousin is a fucking lunatic.

There are a lot of reasons for this. His heavy drinking, which comes from his family. His bizarre choice of career. And statements like these, which always come up during Thanksgiving. He started out as a meteorologist, and turned into a conspiracy theorist. We don’t often see him, because he lives halfway down the state, working as a teaching assistant for some damn school in Binghamton.

“First, it’s Devon now. His name is Father Steer, and he’s some hippy priest. He’s a bit rough around the edges, maybe, he’s got some strong views about modern society, but it’s all just a bunch of metaphors. I’ve been there for six months, and it’s not some sinister cult. And he sure as hell isn’t a demon. Look, I- I know that things have been tough for you lately-”

Michael squeezed his forehead. He was definitely hung over, from the red in his eyes. I’d seen Derry’s mom enough times to know what it looked like.

“But I didn’t agree to meet you so you could start on this crazy paranoia trip, damn it. You said you were getting help.”

“This isn’t an intervention, David.” He stared at me for a couple of moments.

The two of us sat in the small trailer. This was where he’d grown up, before he’d escaped from this shit-heap town. His family… Well, we didn’t talk about them. About what happened to them. My family just tried to be grateful we didn’t end up the same way. He sat in his disheveled jacket, and I couldn’t help but notice the half-empty bottle of bourbon on the table next to him.

“Oh, fuck you,” he growled. “Paloma.”

The bird perched atop the nearby cabinet, slowly shredding the old journals that had belonged to that section of the family. I rolled my eyes. There had been a whole legal brouhaha about the damn thing. It had been in the papers, and it had embarrassed the hell out of us. I turned back to my second cousin, leaning back in the chair. “It’s a bird, Michael. Not even a well-trained bird. Please, you’re not well-“

“That’s what I keep telling him.”

I nearly fell out of my chair, spinning back to face the cabinet. A young woman crouched there on her hind legs, her arms folded up against her sides. She wasn’t smirking, her lips set in a neutral expression, her eyes unsettlingly fixed and sharp. But she gave the impression of smirking, which was almost as insane as her being there at all.

“That’s a- You-“ I opened and closed my mouth.

“Demon,” growled Michael. “She’s a demon. Like mother-fucking Father Steer.”

I stared at him for a moment, and took the bottle of bourbon. He snatched it out of my hand. “Look, I just had to grow up a lot, I think I’m entitled to a drink.”

“I’m not going to let you have a drink for the same reason that I never told you about this shit before. The supernatural has a way of… infecting your life. Once you start learning about it, it’s very hard to stop. Once you get a taste…” He shook the bottle. “There’s a reason I drink so much. Last night, I dreamt about your ‘harmless Father Steer’. I dreamt about you, heart tossed on the floor, chest ripped open, a knife in some kid’s hand. I dreamt a lot of messed up shit I don’t want to share with you because it disturbs the hell out of me. I see the future.”

I stared at him. “So, what. I’m going to get killed, there’s nothing I can do about that?”

“Okay, not quite-“ He rubbed his forehead. “I see what could be the future. That’s one way things could go. This guy, he’s a demon, I suspect. He doesn’t have a past beyond about twenty-something years ago, where he just sprang up out of nowhere, fully formed. He’s also more powerful than he has a right to be. I haven’t been able to track down his location. And last, there’s the feeding.”

“What. He steals souls?”

“Not exactly. Demons aren’t predators.”

“Thank you,” said Paloma, glowering.

“You know what I mean. You can’t just… rip the soul out of someone. The soul is your connection to other people. It’s the way we nourish each other, as far as I can tell. My research suggests that generally, a demon feeds off it parasitically. When you have a relationship with a person, you give, and you take. You get fed, and you feed. You both benefit, ideally. But a demon can’t give, they can only take. So, how does it feed from you? It makes you dependent on it.”

I cast a suspicious look at Paloma. “You know, you stopped visiting family much after you got her.”

“That’s because our family is a garbage fire, David. Focus! Think about the people in the cult. Think about how, exactly, your Father Steer makes people act. Even if he’s reasonable, even if he doesn’t act like a lunatic, what does he make people do?”

I wanted to tell him he was full of shit. That this was another of his hairbrained conspiracy theories. That I had no idea what he was talking about. That Derry stealing from his mom was just his way of getting back at her. That Holstein was acting out because she was a spoiled rich girl, that the dip her grades had taken, the way she was hanging out in suspicious areas, all of those little things that were so unlike her, were the result of her problems at home. That something else was responsible. “He doesn’t- He doesn’t ask us to do things like that. He tells us to be decent and hard-working-“

“But who does he favor? Who does he reward? Demons are natural cult-leaders. Natural drug-dealers. They thrive on obsession. Think about what he preaches. I read that pamphlet. Society is a machine meant to grind up people?”

“You think any different?” I asked, staring at him. “You’ve seen where we grew up, right?”

“It doesn’t matter whether I agree with him; The point is, it’s about breaking down bonds. Breaking down bonds between families, between anyone except him. The way he changes your names, the way he makes you distrusting of authority figures, everything about it is designed to turn you into a meal, David. And the thing is, demons feed that way. They can be symbiotes, or parasites. Paloma here, she’s a symbiote. She takes from me, it’s true, but she also helps me, protects me. Demons aren’t necessarily evil, any more than humans are, because they’re a reflection of us.”

I shook my head. “Alright. Assuming I take any of this for granted- And that’s a big assumption here- what do you even want me to do? What do you think he’s doing?”

“Demons are big on power. Again, they’re a lot like us. They’re usually classified in one of four ways; an Imp, a Familiar, an Adversary, or a Prince. This is mostly just a measure of how much power they have over their surroundings. A demon who hasn’t made any connections is an Imp; little more than a clever animal, often pretty vulnerable. A Familiar is one like Paloma, who’s made a connection with one single human-“

“Wait. When you say ‘usually classified’- Is there, like, an organized principle, here? Are demons organized?”

Michael looked away, and coughed into his hand. Paloma leered with her attitude more than her eyes or mouth, which remained fixed in a predator’s expression. “He likes to make these things up. It’s broadly applicable.”

“Fuck me, David, don’t encourage her. Familiars can get fairly strong depending on the person they bond with, but they’re fundamentally acceptable parts of society, because they have a human working together with them. Adversaries are the scary ones, because they don’t make pacts. They just take. They’re the ones who are really trying to grab power, to make a big push.”

“And a Prince?”

“A Prince is a demon who’s able to make every other demon within an area pay fealty to them, and who is too powerful for any other demon to subjugate. They’re the big ones. They’re…” He coughed. “We can’t really do much about them, besides negotiate with them. The thing is, most of them are happy with the status quo. They like things the way they are, gently spiraling down towards them. And we like them like they are, because two Princes getting into a fracas would be incredibly bad for the humans who are involved. That’s why we’re here. The Prince of Binghamton took me seriously. He thinks that this Father Steer is going to try to make a play to become a Prince, challenge him for authority. The bastard sent us here to shut things down before it gets any crazier. But, again, Father Steer is a clever asshole.”

“We can’t find him,” said Paloma. She saw the look Michael gave her, and shrugged. “Come on, the kid clearly didn’t respect you before, learning you sold your soul for some tail isn’t going to make him think you’re any cooler.”

“Wait, what-“

We can’t find him,” said Michael, firmly. “That’s why we need your help. We need to be led to him, by someone in his confidence. We need someone he trusts to tell us where he is. The reasons are… complex, but-“ He sighed. “It’s about driving a wedge into his power. He relies on humans connecting to him, trusting to him, loving him, in order to maintain his power. You either need to get him to trust you, then betray him, or convince someone else to betray him.” Michael sighed. “Look- I hate to do this to you, I hate to draw you into all of this, but-“

“Heart, bleeding on the ground, horrific nightmare visions. Yeah.” I sighed, leaning back in the chair. “You couldn’t have just come asking for money or something?”

He smiled wanly. “How’s your mom doing?”

“Fine,” I said, a little more sharply than he really deserved. “Just- You know.”

“Yeah, I do.”

“Is it his fault? All of the stuff that’s wrong with this town? Is it because of this guy? The drugs, the alcoholism, what happened to your family, what happened to us?”

Michael was silent for a long few moments, his eyes a bit hollow.

“Can’t you even lie and say it is?”

“I wish I could. It’d be nice if everything that was wrong with the world boiled down to some horrible enemy that we can fight and beat up. If it was that simple. But… Growing up is learning that most of the time, the reason things are shit is because the universe is shit. If Father Steer dies, it’s not going to clear up the drug addiction in this town. It’s not going to make the world all better suddenly. But having a Demon Prince here is going to make it worse.”

“How do you know, huh?” I said, suddenly feeling heated. “Maybe he’ll actually make things better! Maybe-“

“How much has he improved the lives of the people around you? How much do you trust him? He talks a lot about tearing things down. What does he offer up in exchange, huh?”

I looked away.

“Yeah. I thought so. Demons are a reflection of us, David. Not good, not evil, any more than we are. But that can cover some pretty nightmarish things.”

“How do you know that we’re the reflection?” asked Paloma, her head tilted, an eyebrow quirked.

“What?” asked Michael, distracted.

“I mean, what makes you so certain that we’re the reflection? Maybe we came first. Maybe you’re the reflection of us, our good our evil.”

“You take the shape of humans,” said Michael, with the rote recitation of someone who’d had this argument many times before.

“Ah, but we both took the shape of humans. You just forgot how to change back.”

“Ignore her,” said Michael. “She tries to make people angry. She’s good at that kind of thing. Remember. Demons can’t lie. They can only tell the truth sarcastically, philosophize, and do a bunch of other shit that’s very close to lying, but isn’t quite there. Think about the way he answers questions.”

I’m sixteen years old. I shouldn’t know about things like an overdose, or what it looks like when someone chokes on their own vomit, or the signs of drug abuse, or what a person acts like when they’re suffering from meth withdrawal. I shouldn’t know there are actual demons who actually torment people and parasitize their souls. And I sure as hell shouldn’t know that they’re not the reason the world is a piece of shit.

What kind of raw deal is that? Demons exist, and no, it’s not their fault things are awful? Why even have them in that case?

“A guy,” said Holstein, an eyebrow raised.

“Yeah. It’s- Look, he asked if I knew someone-“

“And you said you did.” She shrugged. “Alright. What’s his name?”

“Gr… Gay.”

“Gay.”

“Yeah.”

“In the trailer park.”

“Yeah.”

“If I get knifed trying to deliver meth to your buddy, I am going to haunt the shit out of you,” she said, though she was smiling a bit. “What’s up? I know you’ve never been big into this stuff, and now you’re wanting to meet with Father Steer?”

“I just… You know. Tomorrow’s a big day. I want to get more involved. I’ve been slacking, and I’d like to change that.”

“Huh.” She nodded slowly, staring at me. My heart rate quickened, and I was sure I was flushing. “Well, he said it was okay- Oh, speak of the devil.” She smiled, as the door back into Father Steer’s back room swung open. “So, what did you two talk about?”

I stepped past Derry as he emerged, slipping into the back room.

We’d all heard the rumors about what went on back here. But how could you hide evidence of things like that? How could you keep anyone from finding out about all the misdeeds you’d performed? Animal sacrifices, drug dealing, prostitution, orgies. How did you hide that much stuff?

Maybe through magic.

Michael had always been so fond of that quote. “The loveliest trick of the Devil is to persuade you that he does not exist.” That probably should’ve been a hint, but- What was more likely? That he loved that quote because demons were real, or that demons were fake, a part of some psychosis that had been just a little bit stronger in his side of the family, and his love for the quote was a way to justify that? It’s so easy, once you know something, to say that it should have been obvious, but of course it wasn’t.

It wasn’t obvious what had been happening.

It wasn’t my fault that people I considered friends had been getting turned into… cultists, or whatever the fuck was happening to them. It wasn’t my fault all of this had been happening. It wasn’t my fault that Derry was getting beaten by his mom for stealing. It wasn’t my fault that Holstein was circling the drain.

How was I supposed to know-

“Devon?”

I jumped. “Uh?”

“You’ve been sitting there for nearly a minute, staring at Daisy. Are you alright?”

I shook my head. “Yeah. Sorry, I’ve just been… thinking. A lot, lately.”

“Always a dangerous occupation.” He smiled as he saw my expression. “I’m kidding. What’s been on your mind? You seem troubled.”

“I was just…” I tried to think out how to say this.

“You want to show me you’re trustworthy,” he said, his tone level.

I stiffened, though I tried not to.

“You want to learn all of my secrets. You want to know the truth behind what I’m planning, behind the church, all of those important secrets. All the things that Michael Gray wants to know.”

That one nearly made me choke on my tongue. “I-“

“I’ll tell you what he wants to know. You just have to do one thing.” The man stood up, and walked over to the cage. “All of that, all that you need, all that you are seeking to understand, in exchange for a single act.” He smiled, as he opened the cage. The small lop-eared rabbit hopped up and into his hands, as gentle as a lamb. He lifted her up to his chest, and carried her over to me. He placed her in my hands.

“Break her leg.”

I stared down at the rabbit. That little demand, that statement. I understood, in an instant, what he was doing. “No, you sick fuck.” I set the rabbit down on the bench, and turned away.

“You know, there are three kinds of people, Devon. Three kinds of reactions I see people show when they are pushed to hurt another by someone they respect. Some refuse, some do it. Some walk away.” He ran his fingertips down Daisy’s back. “But the kind I loathe the most, beyond any other- The kind that disgust me the most- They’re the ones who walk away, who refuse to bloody their hands, but leave the victim to be hurt again. They see that something bad is going to happen, and as long as they’re not responsible, they don’t care. You know that I will pose that question to others, but you left Daisy with me.” He softly stroked her ears. “Did you think you were doing the right thing, leaving her here? Or did you simply not care?”

I didn’t answer. I just walked out the door.

He was a monster. Maybe he wasn’t exactly what Michael had said, but he was something awful. I needed to do something. I sat in the living room of my home, staring at the door. At about two AM, I went upstairs to the gun safe, and opened it. I took out the Smith and Wesson revolver and the box of rounds that my mother kept around, just in case my father decided he wanted to argue about custody with his lawyer, Jack Daniels. She was at work, working the night shift at the clinic, trying to keep more people from dying. She’d never know about any of this, with any luck.

I walked. I lived near to the slaughterhouse, our home on the edge of the city’s old industrial zone. The trees hung high over the street, blocking out the wan moonlight. I stared up at them as I walked, feeling the cold wind running through the city. My fingers tightened on the handle of the pistol, and I wished that it made me feel more capable. More protected. I walked through the exposed bones of the city, the shattered buildings rising around me. This city had been great once. Had it been the monsters that had torn it down? Or was that just a part of it?

I walked into the slaughterhouse in the gray pre-dawn light. Father Steer was standing in front of the office door. He smiled. “Hello, Devon. Trouble sleeping?”

I lifted the revolver, pointing it at his face.

“Ah. Quite a lot of trouble sleeping, I’d wager.”

“You’re a demon.”

“Oh, Devon.” He smiled softly. “A demon is just a word. A way for people to justify what they do to each other. ‘The devil made me do it’. ‘A demon possessed me’. They don’t actually mean anything. There are no demons, not really.” He smiled broadly. “Why don’t you put that gun down?”

“All the harm you’ve done to people. Derry getting beaten by his mother, Holstein and everything that’s happened to her- Do you care at all about them? Did you ever care about them? Can you even care about things? Or do you just stare at us and laugh at the way we dance when you say the right things? You said you were going to make a god. It’s some sort of sacrifice, right? You’re going to make yourself into a demon prince for… fuck knows why. It doesn’t really matter.” My arms shook slightly.

“Of course it matters. Power always has a reason. It is never for its own sake. It is based in fear. Fear of loss, fear of pain, fear of death, fear of others.” He smiled. “You sought the power in that gun, based in fear of me.”

“Shut up. You’re a demon. You lie.” I saw him let out a sigh. “I know what you are. What you’ve done, you inhuman motherfucker. What you’ve got planned.”

“Devon. I haven’t lied to you once-“

“No, just omitted the truth. Yeah, that’s what your kind are like. I heard about that, too.” He gritted his teeth. “You-“

I opened my eyes slowly, my head spinning. I could barely keep my head up, the pain radiating through my skull. I lay on the ground, in the midst of a large silver circle. I was in the back office. An unfamiliar woman stood over me, her skin midnight black, her eyes warm and brown. She was slowly grinding some unfamiliar, aromatic root in a mortar, a pestle in one hand.

“Good morning,” she murmured softly, before throwing the root in my face. I coughed as the spicy stuff spread across my face, trying to lift my arm up to wipe it away from my eyes. My arms didn’t respond. They were bound under my back, pinning me to the ground. I turned my face away, eyes burning. “I am sorry for the pain. We have to make sure you don’t interfere during the ritual.”

“Who the hell are you?” I asked, and the spicy-dusty taste of the root fell across my tongue. It fizzed a bit, almost reminding me of a spicy rootbeer.

“Oh, you know me.” She smiled. “I understand why you did what you did. I know he can be harsh towards you humans, but he has his reasons, and they are good. Though I know that will not be much consolation to one who is about to die.”

“Die?!”

“Chances are very good,” she said softly. “It’s not what I want, but sacrifices must be made.” She took out another root, and began grinding it, pouring small measures of distilled water into the mortar as she did. “Death happens to us all eventually, child.” She smiled. She looked very young, but something about her voice seemed terribly old and wise. “But that young man- He could change the world.” She looked up. “Do you eat meat, child?”

“What? I- I guess. Would you seriously not kill me if I was a vegan?”

“Vegetarianism is not much protection for animals, is it?” She smiled softly. “The weak are meat for the strong to eat. This is the nature of our world. Those who are weak are devoured by those who are strong. Whether it is physically, or metaphorically, or emotionally.”

I leaned back on the floor, staring at the ceiling. “Father Steer. He’s a demon.”

“Yes.”

“He wants to become a Prince.”

“A prince?” she asked, an eyebrow raised.

“A… stronger demon. One strong enough to challenge the other demons here, and win.”

“Oh, no. Goodness, no.” She laughed softly. “The strongest demon in the world is like the strongest rat in the sewer. Demons, no matter how powerful, cannot confront humanity, society. Even a prince of demons would still have to work within the constraints of humanity. But…” She was quiet for a moment. “Are you familiar with a bell-curve?”

“Uh. Outside of the context of bells?” I asked, as she poured a dye across my chest, dabbing it slowly across the shirt. My heart was pounding. I strained my arms, but there was absolutely no give.

“Heh. In a population, traits are often distributed in a bell curve. Intelligence, strength, longevity. Most of these are at the center, while there are fewer and fewer the further you get from that average. Your useless invalids, and your paragons. But the interesting thing about a bell curve is that there is a floor, but no ceiling. There is a certain level below which living beings cannot fall- or they would die. Death, violence, predators, they cut off the bottom of the bell curve.” She smiled as she took out a small needle. “But there is no limit to how high potential can rise.”

She gently pressed the needle against my chest. My heart raced, but there was no pain, the dye numbing the skin as she gently tapped the back of the needle, pushing it into my skin. I shivered at the sight of blood welling, mixing with the blue dye, turning a strange purple, and trickling down across my stomach. “So what?”

“So, I believe he is capable of what no demon has done in hundreds of years.” She sighed. “The world has become so limited. Once, humanity believed fiercely. Humans had such faith that gods could arise. That disappeared at some point. Slowly, so slowly nobody even noticed it happen. All the innocence, all the faith, all the passion, it bled out of the world.” She smiled. “Everyone wanted things to stay the way they are. They saw that it was spiraling down towards oblivion, but they didn’t care. We are simply… accelerating the situation.” She sighed, and stood up. “I am sorry you have to die. But your kind taught us this truth. You cannot complain about the reality of the world when you have used it to your advantage so much.”

She stood up, running the water over her hands, cleaning them, and stepped over to the cage. She paused for a moment, and looked over her shoulder at me.

“The young are interesting. They are not yet too wounded, too jaded, to believe they can change the world. They have not yet accepted their cages.”

“What would you have done, if I tried to break your arm, when Father Steer told me to?” I asked, softly.

“I would have let you. He wouldn’t have. That is the difference between us.”

Then she was gone. Daisy, the small black and white rabbit, sat on the table. She hopped twice, into the cage. I stared at her, and began to struggle with the bindings. I had to get free. This was insane. I didn’t want to die like this. I didn’t want to be another fucking casualty of this city. I-

“Only animals are innocent.”

I looked up. Father Steer stood in the doorway. In front of him was Derry. Father Steer placed a knife in Derry’s hands.

“You… You told me I should do what’s right,” said Derry. I stared up at the two of them as Derry walked towards me. Derry, who was kind of a dork, whose mom drank too much and hit him more than she ever should, who my mom constantly talked about taking in, but she could barely afford to take care of me.

“Indeed. That’s why I’m going to share my reason.” Father Steer walked around me. “I am a demon, Derry. A monster. I was made by men, but I am not a man. And I can change this world. I can tear down the structures that imprison you. I can free us from the meat-grinder. It is a terrifying thing, freedom. Being cut free from the confines of the slaughterhouse, there are a thousand ways we can go. It means fear, and suffering, and pain. But they are the fear, suffering, and pain that we choose. It means that you finally have the freedom to succeed.”

“Why do I have to do this?” Derry asked.

Why do I have to do this. He was committed. He was buying into it. I was going to get sacrificed like some kind of animal on an altar. I began to struggle a bit more.

“Because, Derry… You are truly innocent. You are a good person, Derry. I did not think I would meet one, but you care. You believe.” Father Steer shook his head. “I had hoped Elizabeth would be the right person. But she simply did not have the stomach.”

“She was going to kill herself,” murmured Derry.

“A choice she made. One I am sorry she has to make, but people cannot change their nature.” Father Steer smiled. “She chose that. I am asking you to make this choice.”

Derry stood over me, his eyes on mine. “Devon-“

“It’s David,” I said, softly. “I’m not going to die in this fucked up church. I hope you aren’t, either.”

He stared down at me. His fingers tightened around the hilt of the knife. It was a knife from a steak house, I realized. A wooden knife, like the kind we’d used when my mom had gotten that gift certificate at work. We’d taken the day off, me from school, her from work. We’d gone to the Outback, and had a meal together. We’d laughed, and sat together, and had a good time. All the time devouring the flesh of something that had lived its life in a cage, and had been murdered for that good time.

In that moment, I guess, I decided that I’d probably had this coming, for everything that I’d done, and more importantly, everything I didn’t do.

“Put the knife down, kid.”

Three men stood in the doorway. Michael stood, a bit unsteady as always, his eyes nervous, as his gaze flickered from me, to Father Steer, to Derry. The man on his right was clutching a small wax doll, his eyes nervous, his skin a light chocolate brown, an absurd top hat on his head like some stage magician. The man on the left was carrying a shotgun, sighted at Father Steer, stringy blonde hair hanging across his eyes under a weird looking old-style hat.

“This doesn’t have to end in violence, demon,” said Michael, his voice tense. “We can find you a human. We can offer you sustenance without destroying people. But if you let that boy lay a finger on my cousin, I am going to rip your arm off and beat you to death with them.”

The demon smiled slowly. “Do you think you can stop me?”

“You’re not the first rogue demon, ‘Father Steer’. You’re far from it. There have been a lot like you that I’ve met over the years. Full of passion and excitement. It didn’t save any of them.” He narrowed his eyes. “You don’t know how big the world is.”

“No. No, I suspect that you’re the ones who don’t understand. You talk about your petty politics, about demons, about fitting in. You want to keep the world the way it is.” Father Steer smiled.

“Silver bullets. These will hurt horribly if they break the skin,” said the man with the shotgun.

“Derry. Do you see what they do? Do you see what they have planned?”

The man with the shotgun turned the gun towards Derry. Michael didn’t move to stop him. I saw Derry freeze, his eyes wide. “Father Steer-“

“Derry. Have a little faith.”

The gun fired, and Father Steer grunted, falling back against the wall. He slid to one side, a brilliant starburst of blood and a long arc reaching the floor. It began to spread around him. The cage exploded, as Daisy, in full human shape, leapt at the three men. Her foot came up in an arc that sent the rifle-wielding man spinning backwards, hitting the ground with a heavy and sickening thud. Michael stumbled back from her.

Paloma dropped from above, knives in her hands, as Daisy went through the doorframe, landing on her shoulders. A spray of blood rose into the air, and she let out a scream as she reached up, flipping the eagle down onto the ground, grabbing at her neck. A massive hulk of a man swept in from the side, slamming her out of view.

“Derry,” murmured Father Steer, as the sounds of destruction erupted from the next room. “You have to do it. Please. For me.”

Derry stared down at me, back to Father Steer, and back to me. His eyes brimmed with tears.

“I’m not going to forgive you if you do this,” I said, my voice hoarse, my fists clenched. “You can go fuck yourself, Derry.”

“Son, don’t do it. Please.”

The man with the doll was casting glances over his shoulder as he approached. He was the one who had spoken. Derry crouched down next to me, placing the knife over my heart. “Don’t get any closer.”

“Alright, kid. Alright.” The man wiped his face. “Look. This doesn’t have to get any worse than it already has, but you do need to consider. What’s your end-game here? Do you think that Father Steer is going to help you? He’s a demon.” He took off his hat, wiping his brow. “He’s using you.”

“Yeah,” said Derry. He lifted the knife. “At least he’s honest about it.”

Something black and red erupted from the tophat, clucking wildly as it swept out. It scythed through the air in a way that was simultaneously wild, clumsy, completely uncontrolled, and perfectly precise. A black cockerel slashed off a hunk of Derry’s hair, and fluttered back, landing on the man’s head. Derry’s eyes widened, as he brought the knife down.

It never reached my chest. I watched, my heart pounding, as the tip rested against my chest, not quite cutting. The man wiped his face, breathing hard.

Father Steer stood up slowly, grinning.

“It’s over,” said the man, the black cockerel clucking, its red comb and wattle flashing in the light. “You’re beat. Your friend picked a fight she can’t manage. You failed to sacrifice the kid. You’ve got a silver bullet-“

Father Steer lifted his hand to his chest, and his fingers dipped in. He extracted a small handful of silver shot, and let it tinkle to the ground. The man’s eyes widened. “It works on demons. Not gods.” Father Steer chuckled. “It wasn’t spilling blood. Blood is easy to spill. Blood is spilled every day. But a human’s innocence? That is the stuff godhood is made of.”

The man turned, and ran. Derry gasped, and fell to the side, the knife clattering from his hands. Father Steer stepped forward, grinning as he bent down towards me. I closed my eyes.

The bindings tore easily under his hand, and my arms and legs were suddenly free. I opened my eyes, my heart pounding. Father Steer smiled softly. “I am sorry, Devon. I would have sacrificed you if it had been necessary. But I am infinitely grateful that it was not. Derry, I am sorry for what I made you do. But all has worked out for the best.”

“That’s not my name,” I gasped, my heart pounding.

“It is the name of the boy who has been a loyal part of my church. Who even in his betrayal, fulfilled my plans. You did everything just right, Devon. And this is your reward.” He stepped towards the wall. “You will see my glorious ascendancy. You shall be one of my priests. You shall spread my word. You shall spread the word of what happens today.”

With a swing of his arm, the wall tore away. It was swept aside, though he’d barely grazed it, bricks shattering in the room beyond. Paloma and the big grizzly-like man were locked in a fight with Daisy, Michael trying to maneuver around them with the shotgun, the blonde-haired man who’d been carrying it before sprawled across the ground. The man with the black cockerel was pulling him up. Everyone stopped as Father Steer let his eyes run across them.

“Kneel.”

It hit like a blow, right at the back of my knees. Suddenly my palms hit the ground, and I was staring down at them, stomach churning. The world spun around me, and I lifted my head.

Everyone had fallen to their knees. Derry and Daisy’s expressions were rapturous. Paloma looked as angry as she could, with her expression fixed. Michael’s eyes were wide with terror.

“This is the state of humanity,” murmured Father Steer. “On its knees. Sheep-“

“God,” said a new voice. “Do you ever get tired of your own bullshit?”

Everyone turned, myself included. A man stood in the doorway to the slaughterhouse. He stepped in, taking off the rather gaudy fedora, and tossing it carelessly to one side. Holstein stood behind him, her eyes wide at the scene, the blood splattered across every surface, the wall shattered and fallen.

“Kneel, human,” said Father Steer. Holstein fell to her knees. The man smiled.

“Fuck you,” said the man. He took off his jacket, and I saw the way his jaw was tensed from here. His knuckles white. Under the jacket, he was all wire-hard muscles, lean, messy black hair hanging over his face. He stepped forward.

“Ah. You are not human, are you? You must be the demon prince of Binghamton. An honor to meet you, your majesty. But you are not the only one with such power. Daisy?”

Daisy leapt forward, going from kneeling to a spinning backwards kick, levelled at the man’s head. I closed my eyes, not wanting to see someone die from that kick shattering their skull, pulping it like a watermelon.

There was a gasp, and I opened my eyes to find Daisy on the floor, the man’s boot on her neck, her arm stretched painfully in his almost casual grasp.

“He’s not with us,” murmured Michael. Father Steer’s face went dark.

“Sleep.”

I felt a wave of sleepiness pass over me. I heard everyone else thumping to the floor at the same time.

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