Chapter 48: Battle of the shrine
I awoke to gunfire. Undead crowded the perimeter. Hard-pressed, the others fought the beasts off. I sat against the fence, unable to process events. A maelstrom of voices crowded out my thoughts. I struggled to clear my mind.
“God, the Holy Ghost,” Prestor Timor’s voice drifted across the shrine.
“Have mercy on us,” Jane replied.
Theo helped me to my feet and then bolted through the gate and joined the battle. Lightning rippled across the fields. Thunder shook the ground. Darkness descended over the shrine. Aroused from my stupor, I sprinted toward the battle.
“Bel, no,” Mom screamed.
Past the two small mirrors at the gate I ran, heedless of my mother’s cry. My steps faltered. A chill settled over me. I came to a stop. Margret stood before me -- inside the fence -- her face torn and burnt in death. She’d come. She’d come for me.
“No, Margret,” I pleaded. I turned away to find her before me. I turned again and there she stood. She advanced. I screamed.
My body convulsed. Pain gripped me. My legs and arms locked in place. My arrow flew from my grasp. I fell backward against the fence, striking my head. Time ceased to exist. It may have been many lifetimes or a few brief seconds.
I hit the ground, unable to move. Unbearable pain coursed through me.
My head throbbed. Blood trickled into the sand. The physical agony was nothing compared to the anguish and fear surging through me like liquid fire. I’d fallen to a Ngạ Quỷ.
My eyes blurred. Smoke wafted over me. The red brick rippled in front of my eyes. Before me, seethed a vast pool of blood. Tormented souls pleaded for release. Had I not witnessed this moment many times before?
“You promised,” a voice shrilled in my head. “You lied.”
I couldn’t reply. Blood oozed deeper into the white sand. My possessor filled me with her anger and suffering. I tried to project a thought. “Margret, I can help you.”
“Liar. They said you would abandon me. I will be beautiful. I am beautiful. I have you.”
Prestor Timor’s strong voice wafted across the sanctuary. “That you pardon us, that you bring us to true penance.”
Susan’s words from long ago came to me. Realign your inner energy flows and expel the negative from your mind.
I relaxed and used the meditation exercises Nana had taught me.
“From the snares of the Devil,” Timor intoned.
Words: just words.
I strove for thoughtlessness. The pain lessened. Mom knelt at my head to staunch the flow of blood.
“From everlasting death,” Prestor Timor continued.
I struggled to clear my mind. My possessor feared moving on and equally so of staying.
I accepted Margret’s suffering. I embraced her torment. Lost and afraid she was, like a child in a dark forest. Empathy for her plight flooded my tortured mind. Such fragility in the face of the unknown abyss: that, I could understand.
Margret’s grip relaxed. Without letting my mind know, my finger wrote in the sand.
Prestor Timor droned on. “Do not keep in mind, o Lord, our offenses, nor take vengeance on our sins.”
I felt like water dripping from a facet. My spirit slowly slipped away.
Timor yelled over the thunder. “That you deliver our souls from everlasting damnation.”
Margret, I, screamed. Rage exploded in my mind. Sinister voices screamed in my head, “lies.”
“Turn back the evil upon my foes; in your faithfulness destroy them.”
Anger and fear coursed through me. Mom whispered prayers and caressed my face with her green cloth. I felt the warmth of my mother’s love leach through me. I channeled this feeling to the tormented spirit of Margret.
Theo picked me up by my arms and pulled me through the inner gate. I dug my heel into the sand before he dragged me onto the blood red brick. I left a line from the word written with my finger. Rage and pain erupted in me when I entered the sanctum. The hallowed ground burned my body.
From afar, as if many lifetimes, Mom cried out and ran past. I writhed in agony and awaited the end. I longed for death.
Despair settled over me. Death would be so easy. Just let go. Theo ran into my line of vision. He fought valiantly. Chopping at undead flesh, he still found time to look back at me. My heart ached for what could have been.
Theo would be hers. My body for her pleasure. “No,” I shrieked. Never did I desire life as much as right now.
Anger welled up in me. “Bitch,” I screamed and fought back. Margret intended to destroy me in her weakness and fear. I knew, shadowy voices told me so; I could destroy her with a word. Second dead in every way.
Nana’s words from long ago flashed through my mind, only the wisest can help the Ngạ Quỷ to a new life. Someday, Annabel, you will be wise like that.
My fury ebbed away.
Mom stood over me. In her hand the object of Margret’s salvation. My mind exploded. Voices raged at me.
“Margaret.” I thought with all my might. “Stand strong and be free. Be not misled at the hour of your need.”
Mom turned the mirror toward me.
“Let her find in you, Lord, a fortified tower,” Prestor Timor beseeched in a tremendous voice, which cut through my mind like lightning.
“In the face of the deceiver,” Jane responded and her words were a clap of thunder.
“Your table is prepared, thy shield anointed,” Timor cried out and his words burst through my anguish.
I stroked Margret’s mind with all the empathy I could muster. Drawing a deep breath, I said, “See yourself truly, Margret Carlson. Live free from your torments. Release, I command and grant you. Go!”
In the mirror, the face of a young disfigured Margret stared at me. Slowly the image transfigured into a visage of beauty not meant for the eyes of the living. Margret was free.
A cock crowed in the distance.
Margret smiled and faded. My bloodied image appeared in the mirror.
I sat up. My body ached, my head felt heavy. Silence. No lightning lit the sky. Absent too, any trace of thunder. The winds fell still. The clouds boiled faster than ever and churned toward the ground. I sat faint with fear. Had something gone wrong?
I gazed at the moaners. They had synchronized. Pulling and pushing the fences in unison, they relentlessly worked the fence bolts free from the masonry. It was just a matter of time now. I’d led my family to their death.
I swooned, exhausted. Sanguis gazed at me through the slits of her eyelids. I fell to the ground. My vision blurred. Before me limped an old man. Theo. With George? It didn’t make sense. George appeared but a few years older than now. They herded ducks toward the creek. The apparition faded.
A voice. The voice, whispered in my head, “Do not over think it, child. Call this a gift from God. You have done well.”
“Yes, for a while longer.”
“You fulfilled and released. You have chosen well.”
“But I chose nothing.”
“Ahhh, you’ve made the hardest choices of all. Death for a life. Compassion instead of fear. Love over hatred.”
“I don’t understand.”
“In time you will. You are a Sister of the Xich Quý.”
Winford chuckled. “Perhaps you were expecting something a little more dramatic? Such a shame not to savor the wonder of it all. So be it.”
The lamp stands burst with light. Six colors melded together and reached into the sky. “This is where I take my leave of you, Annabel.”
I struggled to sit up. Theo rushed to my side and helped me regain my feet. I gazed from him to Sanguis and back to him. At last, I understood.
Winford’s fading voice said, “Look away, child. Goodbye’s can be so… messy.”
“Ducksss,” I slurred at Theo.
“What?” He grabbed my chin and his eyes darted across mine.
I fell into Theo’s arms with my back to the altar. A ball of hail slammed onto it. “Duck,” I said.
Theo was a little slow on the uptake and stared at me as if I’d lost my mind. Another chunk of hail slammed to the ground. I cupped my hands and screamed, “Take cover.”
A giant piece of ice shattered at our feet. Theo grabbed my arm and we dove under the altar.