The Devil's Gift

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II

The morning came, and with it, bright sunshine, which hinted at a good day. It shone through the window and sliced onto to the bed like a knife, waking me. I opened my eyes, blinking rapidly in the light. I gazed around the room trying to remember my dream, it came in a hazy memory though it had felt so vivid and real. I tried to pick out details but it seemed impossible, it was like the faces that were so prominent were now distorted and wended their way through my brain like smoke, never settling. The word Ocean seemed to be important somehow, but I could not think why. I opened my eyes which were pressed tightly shut to try and aid me in remembering the dream, though the attempt was futile.

I cast my eyes, which were stuck together, around the room. The walls were bare stone and brought a chill to the room on winter nights, but in my deadened state the night before, I felt nothing but the calling of sleep. The floor was covered with a large rug that did something to help keep the warmth in. I looked down at my own body and found that I was still fully clothed. I began to rise slowly from my bed, trying, and failing, to stifle a shuddering yawn. I shuffled to the wardrobe that was set by the door, pulled out a fresh set of black robes, collar, socks and shoes, and got dressed in silence. I looked back to the bed realizing Maria was not there; she was most likely downstairs, she was generally awake before me, insistent, despite my many protests, that she set everything up each morning ready for when the kids wake. The bedroom was small, consisting of a double bed and a wardrobe in the corner.

I went into the living room. The fire had burnt itself out through the night but a new one had been re lit already by Maria, to keep the room warm and comfortable. My shoes and overcoat had dried out overnight, for this, I was grateful. As I headed to the window, it became clear the weather was indeed a great deal warmer than the previous night; the sun had started melting the snow outside and the snow that remained was heaped in thick patches. Maria was tending to a saucepan on the tripod above the fire. In the saucepan was a large quantity of porridge for breakfast.

‘Good morning, dear. I didn’t hear you get up. Come here, have something to eat, you must be starving, I know you didn’t eat much yesterday.’ Maria swooped over, placed me into a seat and handed me a bowl of hot, steaming porridge. Maria always looked after me, she was one of them wonderful women who took pleasure in doing things for others, a quality which I admired greatly.

‘Thank you.’ I replied gratefully.

I hastily started to spoon the porridge down, when Benjamin came bounding into the kitchen and joined me at the table. Maria dished up another bowl of porridge and passed it to Benjamin giving him a kiss on the head.

‘Morning!’ Benjamin said brightly to me, a smile spread across his small face.

‘How’re you?’ I asked him. Benjamin was quite short for thirteen years old and very thin regardless of how much Maria had tried to feed him.

‘Excited.’ He beamed truthfully as he began to eat his breakfast cheerfully.

‘Well, it’s a good job that you are, if the church is where you truly find yourself, then that feeling won’t disperse.’ I told him with a smile.

‘Yeah, I can’t wait.’ Smiled Benjamin back. As I hurried to finish my breakfast, Charlotte entered the kitchen. Almost instinctively, Maria had set another bowl down onto the table. Charlotte went over to Maria and gave her a kiss on the cheek and thanked her for the breakfast. Charlotte took a seat next to her brother and tucked in. At sixteen, charlotte was very pretty and reminded me very much of Maria when she was younger. Charlotte flipped her brown hair, which fell past her shoulders, over her back.

‘Ah, Charlotte!’ Maria piped up from the corner of the kitchen.

‘Mm?’ she said, trying not to speak with a mouth that was full of porridge.

‘After Caterina’s christening, how do you feel about seeing Carlo, the painter? He’s looking for an apprentice, your father and I thought you’d be interested.’ Charlotte’s face lit up and she swallowed hard,

‘I’d love to!’ She exclaimed brightly.

‘Brilliant, I’ll take you over there after church.’ Maria smiled happily. The breakfast finished without further conversation, each member of the family lost in their own thought. After I finished my breakfast, I took a moment to thank Maria with a hug. She hugged me tight, it was one them hugs that spoke a thousand words, though nothing had been said. She truly was the most magnificent woman I’d ever met.

After breakfast was eaten, Benjamin and Charlotte begged to go and play in the snow. Feeling in a good mood, we agreed they could so long as they dressed up warm. We still had hours before the christening was due to start and so we took the time to leave the house together and head out toward the forest where the snow was thickest. As we trudged through the snow, Benjamin and Charlotte playing happily, I could not help but lift my eyes up to the treeline where I recalled the horrid sound. I did not linger too long; Maria’s eyes were fixed on me, I’d rather avoid that conversation.

We reached the border of the forest where the children ran off towards a huge snowdrift that had been blown up against the reminder of a two-foot wall. Charlotte grabbed handfuls of snow and began rolling it on the floor, gathering more and more snow. Benjamin had scraped up a large wall of snow and began building what we were later was told to be a castle. Maria held my hand, her fingers were icy cold. I lifted her hand to my mouth and gave each finger a kiss, then cupped her hand in my warm palm. The children played for a couple of hours whilst Maria and I were engaged in conversation. There was not a hint of unhappiness anywhere, this truly was the life I’d dreamt of having. I felt gifted.

We soon called in the children, it was not long before they had better get themselves ready for the christening; in our close-knit village, all the villagers were invited.

‘Leave your shoes outside for now, I don’t want snow all through the house.’ I said as we reached the front door. We spent the next hour hurrying to get ready, I was ready to go within minutes, as was Benjamin.

‘Maria,’ I called up the stairs, ‘are you ready, dear?’

‘Just having a little trouble with the Charlotte’s dress,’ She called back, her voice floating down the stairs, ‘you two go on ahead we won’t be long.’

‘Alright, my love, I’ll see you in a few minutes.’ I responded, turning to Benjamin. ‘We’re going to head off, they’ll be along shortly.’ I told him, Benjamin nodded. We both turned and headed to front door, I held it open for Benjamin to walk through, then followed suit, closing the door softly behind me.

The sun was shining brightly and it was warm and welcoming on my face that had quickly become cold after stepping outside. Long shadows were cast behind us and we both listened as the birds chirruped somewhere in the forest. Beside the animals, the only sound that could be heard was the crunching of feet on the cold, frozen ground and the odd whistling in my ears that came from a cold breeze that blew every few minutes. Puddles had formed mainly in the potholes but it still required a keen eye to dodge along with far more energy than I seemed to have. We passed a few stone houses that I was grateful I was not the resident of; the windows were free of wooden boards that kept the cold and the wind out, I felt sorry for the old couple that lived there. I made a mental note to see the old carpenter to see if there was anything that could be done for them.

My influence was such, that normally if I asked for a favour, those around me seemed only too happy to oblige. Such was the role of the village priest, always admired and was always offered the greatest care from the villagers. I felt humbled at the way they behaved around me, and made sure the favour, in those rare occasions I called for them, were always repaid.

Benjamin walked by my side, his pace a little quicker to keep up with mine. He was a little nervous about being at the christening, but excited nonetheless. The sun dazzled my eyes and hindered my already-poor vision. I kept my head down and my eyes averted from the light. The church began to loom into view as we rounded the corner. Its giant turret could be seen from anywhere in Greyton. As we neared closer to the familiar gate that was now topped with snow, we were encompassed by the church’s large shadow. The temperature dropped instantly.

‘Are you ready, son?’ I asked. We approached the old church that I classed as my second home.

In truth I was a little nervous as well. Not because I was hosting a christening, I’d done this many times, but because this was Benjamin’s first time and I wanted to make it memorable; it could be this moment that determines his future.

Perhaps he doesn’t say anything because he feels like I’m pressing him; maybe this isn’t for him, I thought. I turned to Benjamin as we stopped outside the church doors, knelt down before him, and placed my hands on his shoulders.

‘Son, if this is not what you want, if being a priest isn’t for you, tell me.’ I said quietly, my voice soft. Benjamin looked nervously at me.

‘I don’t know, I’m not sure if I can live up to the family’s name.’ Benjamin replied, his eyes fixed on his shoes.

‘I understand; it takes a lot of responsibility. Believe it or not, I felt the same as you did when my father brought me to my first christening, but you know what he told me? He said, “I have never been more proud of you, Roconn, I could not have asked for a better son, and I will be right behind you whichever path you wish to take.” And I pass these words to you, Benjamin, I am right behind you, whichever path you choose to take.’

Benjamin lifted his gaze, his eyes now trained on mine, inhaled and smiled before saying,

‘Thank you, father, I will do the best I can to follow in your footsteps.’

A warm surge filled my chest and I felt a rush of pride towards my son. Together, we opened the church doors and walked inside. The church was exactly as I had left it the night before. The torches hung unlit on the walls and there was an eerie chill to the church, that which I had not yet felt before. A sinking feeling began to drop into my stomach; something was not right. The day seemed to have turned from being a happy occasion to a strange, unsettling one that was beginning to make me feel a little queasy. I looked out of the window toward where I knew my house to be. My thoughts with my family, I pushed the anxious feelings aside and began the preparation for the ceremony.

Benjamin was tasked with double checking all the Bibles were still in place on the benches as I went around the church, re-lighting the torches that sprung into life the moment the oil lamp touched it.

‘Everything’s in place father.’ Said Benjamin who smiled proudly. I too, forced a smile; the strange feeling had not gone, if anything, it had become more pronounced. The sunlight that had spilled through the open windows onto the floor began to fade as a set of dark clouds drew in.

Once everything was set and ready, Benjamin sat himself on one of the benches. Soon, he would be sitting there with his mother and sister, enjoying the ceremony and following my instruction when he would asked to stand and assist with the christening. The stone font was running low on water and I made a job of refilling it as Maria and Charlotte walked through the doors, filling the church with echoing footsteps. Charlotte, who was already naturally pretty, looked strikingly beautiful in her crisp white dress. She looked so much like her mother today, though Charlotte’s eyes were a warm chocolate brown and her face was thinner. I gave a warm smile and a wave as they entered, feeling blessed I had such a wonderful and perfect family.

I raised my sight above their heads and my attention was immediately caught by the sight of an unfamiliar face that was peering in through the window of the church. I felt the blood drain from my face and my expression immediately dropped as I stared at the piercing blood-red eyes that blazed like miniature fires as droplets of rain began to fall from the greying sky. Our eyes were locked for a split second, my heart pounding somewhere in the region of my throat, my stomach sinking, but as I blinked, the blazing eyes vanished from the glass as quickly as they had appeared. I blinked again, hardily daring to believe what I had just seen, but now, all that remained was the soft, slow trickling of the rain drops that began to fall slightly heavier.

‘Are you alright, father?’ Asked Charlotte in her sweet voice. Her sudden voice startled me.

She looked around the church to see what could have caused her father to look so horrified.

I swallowed hard and attempted to smile.

‘I’m fine, dear.’ I reassured her. I bent down and planted a soft kiss on her cheek. ‘It’s best you go sit down with your brother, people will be arriving soon.’ I added.

Charlotte relaxed and went to take a seat with her brother. The two children were quickly engaged in conversation and the sound of their innocent laughter filled the church. Maria walked up and gave me gentle kiss.

‘It’s getting really cold outside now! I could’ve sworn I heard thunder, didn’t you hear it? To think, it started off as a good day and now look it.’ She laughed. I attempted to reply to her but found I was not bothered by the weather, my mind was still lurking on the eyes that were now haunting my vision. Everywhere I looked, I could see them in my peripheral vision, but as I turned to look directly, they were gone. Though I sorely wished I could pass it off as a figment of my imagination, somehow, I knew they were real and that thought was frightening. I gave a silent prayer that nothing bad was to follow.

‘I’ll just go sit down and wait for the other guests, then,’ Maria finally said when it became obvious I was too distracted to talk, ‘I can’t wait to see Cristina again, she’s ever so adorable.’ She exclaimed. With that, Maria headed off too, to sit with Charlotte and Benjamin.

I walked slowly toward the doors and opened them wider, scanning the village. My eyes fell on houses and shops, blacksmiths and bakeries. But nowhere could I locate the one thing I was frantically searching for. I found it difficult to see clearly past the edge of the lawn, everything further was fuzzy to look at, and impossible to concentrate on.

I concluded the village looked clear and forced myself to admit the combination of bad weather and poor lighting might have been the cause of what I had first taken to be a pair of eyes and might’ve indeed been something a lot less sinister. This took a lot of convincing. In the distance, I could just make out the hazy forms of the guests, bowing their head to building wind that blew the rain into their face. I remained stationed at the large doors as the wind began to pick up and the rain started to fall heavier. As Maria had said, a distant roll of thunder rumbled overhead, echoing around Greyton.

I waited patiently at the doors, my cloak flapping in the wind and the icy rain splashing onto my face. Once they had finally reached the doors, after battling the rapidly deteriorating weather, they seemed grateful for some shelter and each one muttered a word of thanks as they passed me in the doorway. Once the guests had all arrived, I slowly shut the doors, turned on my heel and walked steadily up the aisle. A loud roll of thunder filled church, making everyone jump. The uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach was increasing and I now felt positively sick. I tried my best to ignore it, carrying on as though nothing was wrong. When I reached the front, I turned to face the soaked audience and smiled, holding my arms out wide as if to embrace them.

At that moment the wind began to seep through the gaps in the building and howl around the church.

‘Thank you all for coming. I would like to say how nice it is to see so many familiar faces,’ I spoke to the friends before me.

I cast my eyes over to Mr and Mrs Rosso, who both nodded at me. I smiled to Cristina who was, at the moment, asleep in her mother’s arms. I let my arms fall loosely to my side and was momentarily distracted by the hail that now bounced against the windows of the church. Everyone smiled politely, each one waiting for my next words.

‘I will begin with a prayer.’ I said, looking at Benjamin, who smiled encouragingly.

Everyone put their hands together and bowed their heads.

‘Heavenly Father, grant that this child grows in grace and love.’ I began, my voice echoing to every corner of the church. ‘May she learn to follow Jesus through the influence of the Holy Spirit. She is a true child of yours, and we pray she serves you faithfully all her days,’

At the same time, another loud rumble of thunder was followed by an enormous lightning bolt that struck beside the church and rattled the windows. The sound echoed across the church hall. My voice was now straining, I was nearly shouting to make myself heard above the storm that was now in full-flow, ‘We pray guidance and strength for the parents and family of this child. May their example, wise counsel and loving, lead her to live a life of strength, righteousness, faith, love, joy and peace. We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ.’

Lightning flashed once more, filling the room with a bright light that hurt my eyes. A few people gasped, but everyone remained seated with their heads bowed and hands together.

‘Amen,’ I finished, my voice strong.

‘Amen,’ murmured the congregation.

At these words, without warning and without logic, an unearthly fog rolled through the village. It seeped in beneath the door and crept in through the gaps in the stonework. The door slowly opened and remained ajar. I watched with confusion and fear as the dense fog clouded the windows and began to snuff out the torches, one by one, with its cold and unyielding form. The church fell into an unusually dense darkness. Though I could barely see, I just managed to make out the silhouette of the villagers craning their necks and muttering in nervous tones, before them too, were engulfed by the fog. The room filled with panic-stricken voices as the church’s temperature plummeted. The room was now cold and my breath began to steam.

‘No need to panic!’ I shouted, though I barely convinced myself, ‘It’ll pass in a moment.’

As I began to move toward the door, the church was filled with a seemingly distant voice that spoke as if through a door, never quite reaching the occupants fully. It rooted me to the spot.

‘He’s coming.’ Spoke the disembodied voice. The words caused Cristina to wake and begin screaming. Cristina’s parents attempted to soothe her as other voices became audible.

‘Who’s coming?’

‘What’s happening?’ The voices were scared.

Everyone was conversing in hushed tones, fear evident in their voices. My stomach sank, I felt as though my heart had stopped beating, the voice seemed to tear through me. I went to take a step forward; the sudden darkness and eerie fog unsettled me deeply, I wanted to be with my family, I wanted to make sure they were ok. Silent prayers repeated over and over in my head, I just wanted everyone to be ok.

‘What’s happening?’ Came the sobbing voice of Benjamin.

‘I don’t know dear, it’ll be over in a minute, you’ll see.’ Comforted Maria, I detected the fear in her voice. No matter how hard I tried, my feet remained rooted to the spot. I was immobile, no matter how much I forced against it, something was unwilling to let go. A sudden explosion sounded from above as lightning struck the church spire. The impact caused a downpour of debris and dust to rain upon the church’s guests. Silence filled the room for a moment, but then I heard a loud groan of twisting metal followed by an ear-splitting crash. I looked up, the roof of the church had been ripped away and blown somewhere into the village. As I wondered how this was even possible, I saw a horrifying sight, a tornado was beginning to form in the grey clouds above.

Why was God allowing this to happen? Where was he? I thought. I felt a tear roll down my cheek, I was unable to help my family, my friends. I heard my name being called by Maria, she was scared, too.

‘Maria, I can’t move! Get the kids out of here, everyone go, now!’ I shouted as roofing tiles and supporting beams fell to the ground, striking villagers. The church was filled with screams and cries of pain. Those who could move tried to run towards the doors, climbing over the debris and pushing past one another.

I was paralysed still, fear and some supernatural force prevented me from moving and I was forced to watch as my friends were crushed by the church that was now caving in on itself. It was at this moment I wished the fog was thicker, I could see so much death, so much horror. The faces of my friends smeared with blood. I opened my mouth to shout further, but no sound escaped, like my body, my voice too was unable to work. The remaining survivors ducked and dashed for cover and the church was heavy with screaming as the villagers were traumatized by the death of loved ones. The owners of the local store attempted an escape through one of the windows but they were stopped when another flash of lightning struck the ground on the other side of the window; the vibration causing it to shatter in their face. Bits of glass flew in every direction, slicing the storekeepers across their face and body as they were caught with the main blast. Lightning began to strike once every second around the church and each time, the inside was lit up and I could make out more bodies and debris, and blood, there was so much blood. I still forced against whatever was holding me, but it was no use. My anger began to surge. Where was my God when I needed him?

More windows smashed violently, sending shards flying into the throng of survivors that was now dwindling with each passing minute.

I was forced to watch as more rocks fell into the church, landing on the group of surviving villagers. As each window smashed, the supporting frame crumbled and fell back into the church, preventing any escape through the windows.

‘BENJAMIN!’ I finally shouted. My voice was high and scared, a tone I was not used to hearing.

All of a sudden, as the last few survivors fell into the debris, the force that was rendering me immobile lifted, and I fell face first into the debris, smashing my nose on a rock. It twisted and snapped, a blinding flash of pain that made me dizzy and sent blood pouring down my face but I did not care. I immediately stood back up and started searching for my family.

Please have made it out, I said to myself. Everything was submerged in fog and dust, making it difficult and dangerous to move. The wind blew harder, loosening more debris which fell into the church. A few feeble cries for help were cut off and flecks of blood spattered over me, though I could not see who it belonged to.

‘MARIA! CHARLOTTE!’

I took cover, lying face down as more debris landed beside me. I was not so fortunate and a large wooden beam fell onto my foot, almost breaking my ankle with a searing pain. I screamed as the pain burst through my foot and up my leg, but refused to surrender to it. Hail stones fell into the church, ricocheting in different directions. It was as though the Lord himself had unleashed his fury upon the village, condemning everyone to death.

The sound of creaking metal emanated through the ruined church as the cross on the top blew back into the church, though the roof was nowhere to be seen. Where it landed, I couldn’t tell. More slates tumbled from the roof as the fog began to slowly ease back, allowing me to see. I wished I couldn’t. The church was destroyed; bodies of children, adults and even little Cristina wrapped in a now dirty-white blanket that was stained deep scarlet, could just be seen under the rubble. Each corpse was smothered in blood and dust. Limbs could be seen sticking out of the debris and poking out at unnatural angles. Lightning illuminated the church once more. At the front of the church, in pools of blood and covered with shards of slate, lay the bodies of Maria, Charlotte and Benjamin. Blood trickled from their mouths and ears. I looked in horror at their faces, grey with dust and an uncontrollable surge of hatred ripped up through me like a wild beast and I exploded with anger.

‘GOD!’ I bellowed with hatred to the sky.

‘YOU HAVE TAKEN MY FAMILY, MY FRIENDS, AND MY LIFE! THERE IS NOTHING MORE YOU CAN TAKE FROM ME! ALL I HAVE LEFT IS MY FAITH, I’D RATHER WORSHIP THE DEVIL THAN A GOD LIKE YOU!’

‘Help, Roconn,’ whispered a weak, but familiar voice.

I scrambled over loose rocks as best I could; my wounded ankle hindered my movement and made each step incredibly painful. I dodged beams of wood and roofing tiles until I reached my wife. I knelt down beside her. She was barely alive. Blood poured from severe cuts across her body, her face was bruised and sliced and her arm stuck out at an odd angle. I knew I was going to lose her if I did not act quickly. I needed to move her out of the church, and fast. Without any help, she would be dead within minutes. I moved as many stones as my ankle would allow me, most of which were covered in blood. It was hard but the anger, pain and loss spurred me on. At last, I was able to pick up Maria, I cradled her in my arms. ‘You’re going to make it. Just hold on. Don’t let go!’ I half-whispered, half-sobbed. She began to shake in my trembling hands.

Tears ran down my face, dripping on to Maria’s body. The hail had now turned into rain, falling steadily as the half-formed tornado withdrew to the sky once more. The Lord had forsaken me. He had taken my children, my friends and mortally wounded my wife. I could not understand why he would do this. There was but one thing I was sure of. No longer would I be a servant of the Lord, nor would I allow anyone else I cared for to die on my account, whilst I lived on. I looked at the lifeless bodies of Benjamin and Charlotte. Tears of anger and loss continued to roll down my dirty face. My heart wrenched with the pain of my emotions and I found my breaths came short but fast. I began making my way towards the door, pausing as I looked at it properly for the first time since the storm. The cross had fallen upside down, in front of the doors, barricading us inside. Once more, a heart-wrenching surge of loss and anger filled my chest.

Setting her gently down, I tore large strips of cloth from my robes and tied them around the worst of Maria’s wounds. I realized now that I should have listened to my gut instinct and left the church when I had the chance. Instead, I had decided to ignore it, and that decision would stay with me for the rest of my life.

I spent what felt like an eternity trying to push the cross away from the door. With a great deal of effort, my ankle hindering every movement, it began to lean away from the door until it fell against the wall with a loud crash. Clouds of dust lifted into the air. I was unperturbed by any further happenings, I had but one thing on my mind at this moment: get Maria to safety.

I lifted her back up again, ignoring my screaming muscles in my back that protested violently. I let out a yell of pain as I kicked open the door with my injured leg and ran as best I could outside, finding refuge on the lawn outside that was soaked. I wrenched open the gate which led to the now deserted village. Feeling sick with physical and emotional pain, I paused, lowering Maria on the grass.

‘I need to get Charlotte and Benjamin. I’ll be right back, I promise. Don’t let go.’ I sobbed, more tears splashing onto my robes. Whether she was awake or not, I could not tell.

I scrambled painfully back into the ruined church, my ankle impeding me immensely, and searched frantically for my children. I did not dare think the word “corpse” for it was impossible that they would be dead in my mind. I bent down and scooped up Benjamin, hurried outside and set him down by his mother who appeared to be unconscious. Once more, I entered the church and located Charlotte. I lifted her up too and again, made my way back outside. A few minutes later, Charlotte and Benjamin were laying down beside the gate, away from Maria’s line of sight; I thought it best not to lay them next to Maria, it would traumatize her to see their lifeless bodies. I bent over my children, gazing at their faces, cut, bruised and smothered in debris and dust, as tears poured from my eyes. I refused to believe they were gone. They couldn’t be dead, I couldn’t accept it. This couldn’t be happening! I gave Charlotte a little shake in a desperate attempt to wake her. But Charlotte would never wake. Her head lolled to one side when I finally let go. As if hoping blindly for a different reaction, I repeated the same shaking motion to Benjamin, sickness threatening to render me unconscious too. I turned to Maria.

‘Roconn, I’m going to die.’ She whispered with closed eyes, her breath rattling and faded.

‘No!’ I pleaded as I wiped away tears. Whatever it took, I would not lose my wife.

‘Don’t be a fool. Before I die, I want you to know that I love you, always.’ She managed to choke out, swallowing hard as blood began to seep up her windpipe.

‘I love you too Maria, and I am not going to let you die!’ I sobbed.

I glanced up the street, hoping for inspiration. All I saw were wrecked houses, crumbled buildings and destruction everywhere. The tornado had ripped through the village and destroyed everything. How was I going to save her? But what I saw next was not something that convinced me Maria was going to live. The sun that had just broken free began to zoom across the sky and was replaced instantly by a bright, full moon that flooded the lawn with silvery light. As the day turned to night, and the warmth of the sun became cold and familiar, a pair of deep red eyes were staring at me, and it was as though they could see in to my very soul.

I froze with horror as I stared into the red eyes that were set deeply in a shadowed face. They belonged to a tall, cloaked figure. The figure walked towards Maria and I, its long, midnight-black cloak billowing behind like a gigantic sheet made from some material otherworldly, almost as if night itself had been woven into fabric.

Minutes passed as I knelt by Maria’s side, once more, paralysed by fear, leaning heavily on my good leg. Above, the moon shone brightly onto the figure I had never before seen, any features it might have had, were obscured by a dark shadow that covered its face. I forced myself to look at Maria; she was unconscious again, her shallow breathing was the only indicator she was still alive. I looked back to see the figure was no longer distantly staring at me from the midst of the village, but kneeling in front of me though I had no memory of seeing it move at all, it was as if the figure had just appeared there.

‘She is going to die.’ The Devil spoke with a calm and understanding voice.

‘I have foreseen this moment in the fires of Hell, I knew this day would come. Your God has forsaken you. He has taken your children and will soon claim your wife.’ The Devil spoke with a tone of pity.

‘No, you’re lying; she can’t, she will not die!’ I exclaimed. Though I attempted to sound brave, I found my voice would only allow me pain and sadness.

‘Your God has destroyed everything you care for. Everything you stood for, tossed aside. You dedicated your life as an ever-faithful servant with unwavering loyalty all these years. But he has given you nothing. Where he gave you pain, I can give you immortality. Where he would only ever show you nothing but silence and expect complete faith, I would award you all the desires of the heart.’ The Devil was wasting no time in laying his offer out to me, I merely listened, unable to believe that just a few hours ago, I was playing with my children in the snow, blissfully unaware of the horror that was to come. ’I cannot save your children, for they have already been taken. But I can save your wife, I can save you. You could be with her for an eternity, ruling the underworld under my command, safe from those who would seek to take away everything you love. None could defy you and show you the pain you’ve felt this very hour. You would be a vampire, more powerful than any vampire that you chose to create. Never would you age, never would sickness claim your lives, never would you have to stand by and watch this happen again. All I require is that you serve me the rest of your days, together, we can make things right.’ The Devil was offering a tempting pact. I looked down at my dying wife, my heart heavy with pain.

‘No, I will never join you. I will not forsake Maria’s soul. You shall not have her.’ I whispered.

‘Look into her eyes,’ The Devil responded, his rasping voice evident with pity, ‘you can see she is leaving you. She will die very soon and you will never look upon her face again, nor feel the warmth of her breath or the love of her heart. Her life now lies in your hands. Time is running out, make your choice, once she is dead, nothing can bring her back.’ His voice was sympathetic, yet I could hear the yearning in it. I knew of the Devil’s trickery, how he would entice mortal with tempting pacts, which they would later come to regret. I pondered quickly. I had lost everything, losing Maria now would be losing myself completely. I had nothing to surrender. There could be no worse consequence than that.

I finally gave a small nod to the figure and looked into Maria’s eyes.

‘I’m sorry.’ I half-whispered, half-sobbed.

The Devil reached into its cloak and withdrew a glass vial that was filled with dark, black liquid. He unstopped it and leant over Maria, cradling her head in one large hand.

‘Drink and you shall have your revenge, serve me forever and you will have the justice you seek.’

Maria awoke from her unconscious state. She looked at the glass vial and then to me. I nodded slowly, I would explain later, first, she needed to live. She looked back at the Devil, fear spreading across her face. She leant towards the vial and The Devil slowly poured half the liquid down her throat, and she drank deeply. As she drank, her eyes began to pulse colours in their sockets and she seemed to enter some sort of frenzy, like there was a wild beast tearing at her insides to be free. A few seconds later she slumped back to the ground. The colour started to return to her face almost immediately. I watched, my mouth agape as her cuts began to heal themselves, sealing seamlessly back to its original, undamaged state. Her body began to snap and twist as broken bones repaired themselves. Maria, all of a sudden, became thinner as her stomach shifted back, replaced by muscles, and her face grew younger, as if she were turning back years, revealing a very attractive woman, the one I’d married so long ago. She thrashed and writhed on the ground, her mouth stretching in pain but no sound escaped.

Now it was my turn. The Devil offered the half-full vial to me. I took it with a shaking hand and drank deeply. The liquid tasted strangely appetizing. Only moments passed before I too, was overcome by an internal frenzy. I felt my heart beat so hard, it felt like it were trying to break free of my rib cage. I felt my organs burn as if they were on fire.

My body felt more alive than ever before. The skin on my face tightened and I closed my eyes. After a few more painful seconds, my stomach shifted back, it felt as though I were being repeatedly kicked in the stomach as the abdominal muscles strengthened and expanded painfully, as though each muscle were being ripped individually from my body. I felt my nose snap painfully back into place and my injured ankle filled with pressure as it healed.

I became aware that I was thrashing and writhing on the ground, though I paid it no attention. The only thing I could feel was pain, like I was being submerged bodily into a giant vat of boiling water. At last, the agonising transformation was complete and I slumped to the ground. Suddenly, what felt as though I were being subjected to the most heinous torture, the pain was gone. One moment I was in the most unbearable pain, the next, there was nothing. I opened my eyes slowly. They fell instantly on Maria. I stared disbelievingly at her. Not only was I looking at her, I saw every strand of cloth on her filthy dress, every fibre embedded in the clothes, each particle of dust that covered her face. I looked over her shoulder, towards the horizon. No matter how far I gazed, my vision still picked up everything. Nothing blurred or shimmered and I could focus on even the smallest details.

I turned my gaze back to Maria.

The wife I knew was gone, replaced by the young woman I’d married over thirty years ago. The lines had gone from her face and her stomach looked flat beneath her dress, which hung loosely on her athletic frame. Maria took a step towards me, but she moved with such speed it would have made anyone normal dizzy. But I picked up every movement.

Though this transformation was overwhelming, I could still see Maria in her new and perfectly flawless face. Shock was carved onto her face as she felt her trim body. I moved towards her at an amazing speed, feeling fully in control. One moment, I was laid on the ground, the next I was stood upright at Maria’s feet as if no time had passed between the two actions. Maria let out a short scream, which I heard as though she had shouted right into my ear. Now that I thought about it, I could hear everything. I could hear the birds in the forest, the clicking of ants’ pincers, even the slight squeaking of a spider creating its web somewhere in the forest. Judging by Maria’s expression, I could tell that I had changed just as impressively and that she could also hear everything I could. I raised my hand and ran my fingers over my face, expecting to feel the lines and familiar imperfections of a forty-nine year old man. Instead, I felt smooth skin. I ran my tongue over my teeth and felt two sharp canines. I looked around, but the Devil had disappeared, leaving us quite alone.

‘Where are the kids?’ asked Maria hopefully. When I could not answer, she pressed me again. ‘Where are the – No, they’re not, they can’t be.’ She said, unable to accept the unspoken words of my expression. Maria started to weep as she turned her head. There in front of her, lay the bodies of her deceased children. She let out a howl of rage as she flew towards the children, bending low over them sobbing into their dirty, ripped clothes.

‘No, no, please wake up!’ She screeched in horror. I joined her at the bodies of our children, the tragedy of the events too painful to speak of. It was only now becoming more real, they were gone, Benjamin, my perfect son. Charlotte, the best daughter I could’ve hoped for. We both spent minutes, hours, who knew? Weeping over their loss. Though our hearts no longer beat, they were filled with grief and sadness, with no small amount of anger. All our emotions seemed to secrete as tears. I put my arm around her shoulder and hugged her tight. There were no words to comfort a mother who has lost her children. We knelt down together and she grasped her children’s hands, holding them both close to her heart. She did not release her grip on her children, nor did she lift her gaze, she just knelt there, where she belonged, with her children.

All of a sudden Maria exploded with anger, her body shaking with emotions.

‘Why?’ She shouted to the sky above her. ‘You have taken my children! I swear you shall pay for this!’ She seemed unable to contain herself, tears streaming down her face, ‘I will make sure the truth is heard from every corner of the world. No one will ever feel the pain you have caused me. I promise you I will have my revenge!’ She buried her head into the chest of her son and remained there for some hours. We both spent the entire time holding our children’s hand, staring into their cold, grey eyes.

After what could’ve been years, I finally unclenched their hands with great reluctance. I felt guilty for doing so.

I did not speak as I stood up. I placed my hand under Maria’s arm and gently lifted her to her feet. She seemed reluctant but stood nonetheless.

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