A crowd had formed, the innermost circle raving about whoever was in the center, though they were many feet away from their object of concern, and held weapons normally used for intimate murder. They covered their mouths, partly because of the smell of the thing in the middle, mostly out of terror. Another chorus of cries, and they came from the nude man that lay bare at the heart of the mob. Wim and Claiborne’s pace remained steady; they pushed to the front.
The man was chalky white, with fingernails filled with dirt and bulging purple veins that stretched down his arms and his neck. His eyes were bloodshot. His teeth chattered as he shouted, as if he was fighting to close his mouth, and was being managed by some other force. He raked and drove his head into the stone path, knocking it against the road, then turning his face to the sky, speaking some infernal jargon that could not be interpreted by human ears.
“He’s possessed,” a resident announced, an axe set on his shoulder. He spit on the man. “He’s a filthy mutt. He’ll get the rest of us next, there’s no doubt in my mind. Let’s kill him.”
“No, no,” Wim exclaimed, entering the ring with the demon behind him, hand held up as a blockade. “That’s murder, we don’t want murder here. We’ll cast it out. Does anyone here know this man?”
“He’s a penner!” said a woman, kitchen knife at the ready. “A deadbeat bastard!”
“He’s still a person,” said Claiborne.
“Deadbeat bastard,” laughed the haunted vessel. “Kill me, I’m a deadbeat bastard. Only filth for you to clean. You wouldn’t want to get dirty, would you, pastor?”
Wim turned to confront the man with narrowed eyes. He was being addressed.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
The man choked once more, his lips trembling as he gasped an unintelligible title.
“I am death itself in the flesh,” the demon said. “I could gouge the eyes out of each of your faces with a click of my tongue, evangelists and disciples alike.”
“But you won’t,” Wim replied. “You’re here for something, either to speak to someone, or to do Apollyon’s bidding as his slave.”
“Or to wreak havoc on the unwashed heathens that defy me. To seize this hole and fill it with my children, to build monuments of him.”
“Whatever reason you’re here for, I can’t allow you to stay. Leave. I cast you out of here, demon. Leave, in the name of Elyon himself, leave this place! And never return!”
They waited, looking on in satisfaction as the man flopped onto his spine, screeching and flailing like rats were eating him from the inside out. Wim was disgusted by the sight of it. Whoever it had possessed, they would be glad to be free of such a monstrosity. The man curled into a ball, a wet kitten shaking for warmth as he lifted his eyes to the onlooking deacon.
“You have no authority here,” he hissed, clawing at the asphalt. He laughed at the congregation that were so ready to kill him, and they baulked when they saw his rotting teeth. “Elyon no longer dwells on this earth! Didn’t you hear? Or are you so trusting in his name that you are blind to what is inevitable?”
Its eyes met Claiborne’s, then returned to Wim. There was a moment of silence, then comprehension.
“You were left behind…by Elyon. And here you are before me now. You weren’t supposed to be here. I claimed this country, and now you’re in it!”
“You claim nothing but destruction by the hands of Elyon,” said Claiborne. “You should’ve left when we told you to.”
“You don’t even know what you are, do you?” the devil muttered, pulling itself into a stand. “Elyon hasn’t called you yet. You’re naked sheep for me to slay.”
“Leave,” Wim said. “Leave this man, and retire to Hell.”
“No. I will end you both now, while you are weak in the hands of Death. Die. Die, witness!”
The man dove for Claiborne’s throat, but not before his muscles clenched up into stones. He sighed as the demon left him suddenly, released from the grasp of the hellion. Wim watched the villager’s eyes become normal, and sink back into his face. He screamed, as he was unable to remember what had occurred in the last two days. Claiborne caught him in his arms, carrying the weight of the penniless fellow that was too weak to be used.
“Bastard!” the woman opposite of them cried, digging a scullery blade into the back of the man.
He fell away from the evangelist’s support, and the axe-wielder buried his weapon in the destitute’s thigh. The mob followed, kicking and chopping as blood filled the street.
“He’s free!” Wim shouted, tugging away the executioners. “The demon has left him! You’re killing him, you idiots! He’s…”
They backed away from the corpse, looking down at the muddy pile that was a human seconds before. Their chests heaved from the effort they had used to mangle him, detached from their crime, and perhaps relieved that he was dead. Claiborne and Wim observed in dismay. A crew arrived in five minutes to mop away the carcass, worried that those who bore the Mark of the Beast would abandon Lugano for an endorsed city.
It was over before it had begun. The life of a human reduced to dust, swept off to the side as roadkill. Demons flooded earth elsewhere. Many of their hosts were slaughtered, much like the deadbeat bastard. A few gained enough power to do Apollyon’s bidding as his slave. The screams of the man followed Claiborne and Wim everywhere that day. When the alarm sounded in E minor at ten p.m., they were in their beds, one living a sturdy inn, the other in their villa near Lake Lugano.
Their eyes bored holes through their roofs, for even though they lay still and quiet, they were tormented with restlessness. At first glance they appeared to be alone, but there were others in their chambers; guardians not visible to humans, but surrounding them as safeguard from eager termination.
And, moreover, a light pouring from under the bathroom door in Claiborne’s hotel room. It flickered steadily, the heartbeat of Elyon himself. The color rose and stretched across the floor, until the whole room was white with light, and Claiborne staggered to his feet, eyes squinted toward the source. The door flung open with an earsplitting crack, crumpling Claiborne to his knees, his hands lifted toward the beam.
Do not be afraid.
“Are you Elyon?”
I am Daan, messenger of Elyon. I bring word from above. Tomorrow, when you wake, you will have the power to shake the earth. You will be able to perform miracles, old and new. You will bring rain from the clouds to water soil, and beams of the sunlight you have lost. All of this and more.
“Why me, angel? Tell me, why were we left, both Wim and I?”
You do not understand the plans of Elyon. But there is more for you in the future than you know now. Have you not read the book?
Then you know of the witnesses of Elyon. Two men who roam the earth to spread his name, two men gifted with powers no man other than – himself possessed in human form.
“Are we those men, Daan?”
Yes. This is the beginning of the Crucible. You will be men of Elyon among men of earth, while the world rages about you, and the sun grows sooner to setting on the life of this reality.
“How will we understand the languages of the people we meet?”
They will know what tongue you speak, and you will know theirs.
“How will we know where to go, and when?”
Everything you must know later you already know now.
“And the Chancellor? What of him? All men of earth bear his mark, those with the Seal of Elyon will not dare to face him.”
You will face him, when and before your term has ended. He knows this as well.
“How will he know? Surely Elyon has not appeared to him as you have to us?”
Not Elyon. The enemy is within him. He is the enemy himself.
“I…I see. Is there more, angel?”
Pray; for your journey ahead, and for those you will meet. Pray that the spirit of Elyon will remain ripe in your soul. And that whatever happens, you will remember him.
The beam faded to nothing but the flickering lamp that kindled the shower room. Claiborne lifted his head and searched the cabin for any sign of supernatural presence, then returned to the cradle of his bedsheets, regarding what he had learned. Wim was awake, genuflect by the end of his bed with his fingers intertwined stiffly. He whispered earnestly, a genuine cry to Elyon for answers, or a sign, any sign. A light glowed in the bulb on the ceiling, soon swelling and becoming the somber ambience of Daan.
Wim pressed his face into the bed cushions, eyes slipped shut. Few words were shared between them, close to twenty, much less than the encounter with Claiborne. And then the room was what it was before, except for the thankful, and not urgent, sobs of its occupant.
The two of them, though far apart and not at all within sight or knowledge of the other, recognized Elyon on their blemished knees. Some women cried for their dead children, husbands for the loss of their wives, cherubs for their mothers and fathers. Some men prayed to the Chancellor late at night, the smell of burning sacrifices wafting toward the clouds. The earth’s adulteration proceeded in the form of wildfires and wormwood. And the guardians floated above it all, bitter at the sight of the world, and hopeful for the journey of the ministers, who were still leaking tears at dawn.