At sunset they burned her. Eventually.
People like a show. They’d dragged her barefoot through the streets first, her flowing golden hair hacked off with a blunt knife and blood pouring from her scalp as she stumbled over sharp cobbles, the jeering Drakenheim townsfolk pelting her with rotten food. When the marshals chained her to the stake and lowered their torches to the pyre beneath, it was almost a mercy.
The bishop eased his fleshy bulk back onto his golden throne with a grunt, ham fists clasped over his bulging belly. The gleam of passing torches bathed the soaring church windows in a ghastly red glow, the faint stench of burnt meat seeping through the gloom. He sighed with relief; another godless heretic swallowed in flame, one less witch to befoul this blessed land of Sylvania with her cursed sorceries. A little more evil burned clean away.
Thank God for sending that old milkmaid to his doorstep, flushed with glassy-eyed vindictive glee. As her confession poured forth he’d felt the hot, mouth-drying thrill of prying open a human soul like a slimy oyster, exposing all the vile wickedness inside. Yes, she’d spied the so-called healer creeping into the woods at dawn, returning with armfuls of roots and weeds for her black magic. Seen it with her own two eyes, as God was her sworn witness. Yes, she’d overheard the woman’s satanic chants and mutterings within, the foul stench of her bubbling pots. Devil’s work, for sure. Yes, she knew the woman’s black cat who dozed on her cottage windowsill and hissed at every visitor. A sinner of Satan, her crimes now all burned down to ash by the damning words of her countrywoman.
The bishop chuckled. Foolish woman, dabbling in Satan’s heresies. Perhaps he’d offer up a prayer for her forsaken soul. A small one.
With a long shuddering groan, the huge oaken church doors creaked open. The lurid red glow of torchlight washed over his face, before the doors slammed shut with a resounding boom. Distant candles flickered out; the nave was instantly swallowed in darkness.
‘Who’s there?’ he demanded. ‘Is it over?’
Silence. Then a low guttural voice growled, ‘No.’
‘Well, get back out there! The heretic has to die before the sun goes down.’
Something moved in the dark. The shadows shifted; something was lurking out there, beyond the feeble reach of guttering candlelight. Six pale bobbing pinpricks of bluish light drifted closer. The heavy ominous tread of immense footsteps.
‘The sun … is already down.’
And into the candlelight came … the bishop gasped. An enormous hulking bat-like nightmare with a ragged mane of bristling crimson fur and vast leathery wings, monstrous talons scraping the flagstones. Its noseless face was twisted into a hungry smile, needle-sharp fangs grinning up at the bishop.
He shrank back behind the pulpit. ‘Demon! You c-cannot enter the house of God!’
The demon snorted and crawled closer. ‘God is not here. This … is an empty box.’ Its deep rumbling voice dripped with withering contempt.
Groping blindly for his crucifix, the bishop cast pleading eyes to Heaven. ‘God is in all His churches!’
The demon raised its muzzle and sniffed the air. ‘Not this one,’ it smirked. ‘Your God is not all loving. He did not love us … and He does not love you.’
The bishop’s scrabbling fingers brushed cold iron; with a gasp of relief he thrust out his ruby-encrusted crucifix with trembling hands. ‘I have done His bidding! My life’s work is in His name!’
The demon’s six icy-blue eyes flared in disgust. ‘Your life’s work … makes Him puke,’ it snarled, its shaggy mane heaving with fury. It crept up the nave, bulging muscles rippling beneath ash-grey skin.
‘I-I am the B-Bishop of Drakenheim! A true servant of God!’
The demon growled, a deep gurgling rumble of scorn. ‘You delude yourself. A blameless instrument of God? Does God not weep for His children? Did His son not die to forgive you of all your craven sins?’
The bishop jabbed a fat finger at the nightmare, his voice rising to an enraged shriek. ‘Do not speak of the Lord or His one true son, you foul Hellspawn!’
The demon’s voice hardened, eyes narrowed to venomous slits. ‘Tell me, little man … do you think your God would forgive the slaughter of the righteous? The torment of innocents, whom you abuse after every sunset? Would He not weep with the knowledge that children cry … so the strong can remain corrupt? Tell me, you spineless worm, which of them screamed louder? The woman … or the boys?’
The bishop’s eyes widened with dawning horror. ‘I … I speak with God’s truth!’
‘No you don’t, you pathetic meatsack.’ The demon reached out and grasped an oaken pew, foot-long barbed claws gouging deep. ‘You speak only for the damned.’
The bishop scuttled backwards. ‘She – she was a witch!’
‘LIAR!’ With a savage roar, the demon hurled the pew aside like a weightless willow wand. The heavy wooden bench pinwheeled through the air and smashed in two against a stone pillar. Dust and jagged shards rained down in blinding, choking ruin as the bishop huddled behind his throne.
The demon prowled closer over the splintered wreckage, circling its whimpering prey. ‘Listen here, you pathetic fraud. She was no muttering charlatan cheating peasants with boiled nettles and entrails, or daubing chicken blood on their doors. She was a doctor. A student of science, not blind faith and superstition. She healed the sick. She lessened their suffering with herbs and medicines, balms and poultices. Eased the dying into the hereafter when their agony grew too great. She was an innocent woman who wished to learn. To love and aid her fellow kin. A far nobler Christian than you could ever hope to be, you worthless bonebag.’ It slammed down a clenched paw, cracking the flagstones. ‘And you murdered her!’
The bishop shrank against his throne, stricken with terror. ‘She was evil!’ he groaned. ‘A parasite upon our land!’
The demon’s lip curled. ‘Lies? In your house of God? “Thou shall not bear false witness”, remember? No wonder He has abandoned you.’ It prowled closer, icy-blue eyes slicing through the fiery red gloom of the church. ‘But we love you.’
‘We couldn’t be here without you. Not if God didn’t want us to be.’
The pulpit darkened. The bishop glanced up and whimpered with fright; gaunt leather-winged shadows were scuttling down the windowpanes, cruel claws screeching across the glass, their red eyes gleaming with eager bloodlust as they hooted and cackled gleefully.
‘Never!’ he gasped, brandishing his crucifix. ‘God is with me! He will smite you down!’
The hulking demon laughed, a horrible gloating chuckle like dry stones rattling in an iron bucket. ‘Will He? Who do you think let us in?’ It lashed out; the bishop screamed as his vestment robes were torn away, tattered shreds of gold-rimmed cloth pooling onto the floor.
The demon towered above the bishop. Black wings enveloped him. ‘Fear not the wrath of God, bishop, but His contempt, His apathy. Have no fear of what He shall do, but dread – with every fibre of your being – what He may allow to be done unto you.’ It gripped him by the shoulders, vicious claws sinking deep.
‘You’ll torture me, will you?’ he gasped. ‘Do your worst, then!’
The demon’s face stretched into a sneer. ‘Torture you? No … Torture’s for amateurs. A kindness. This next part is far worse than that.’ The bishop screamed in agony as a vicelike paw clamped his forehead and wrenched his head back, exposing his throat.
‘Now the real pain begins,’ rumbled the demon. It stroked a claw over his cheek. ‘Let me show you … to yourself.’
And a blinding cloud of sizzling white poured from its palm over him, smothering him in blazing heat. He screamed, but his scream was drowned in the unstoppable flood of scorching truth. Immobilising, strangling, merciless. Everything he had ever done that had been better left undone. Every lie he had ever told – to himself, to others – stripped away. Every little sin, all the great festering hurts. Each one torn out of him, detail by detail, inch by searing inch. The demon ripped away the cover of forgetfulness, burnt away all his feeble pride, flayed everything down to the cold hard naked truth, and it hurt more than anything. It ripped apart his life, moment by moment, instant by awful instant, facing everything.
I’m not the cure – I’m the disease.
‘Kill me,’ he pleaded. ‘Please! Finish it. Make it stop!’
‘Not yet,’ growled the demon. It opened its jaws wide.
And searing light blazed forth, washing over him. Like peeling an onion with a red-hot razor blade. He learned about consequences. He learned the results of things he had done; things he had been blind to; the countless ways he had hurt the world; the everlasting damage he had wrought to victims never known, or met, or even thought of. The hardest lesson yet. No more lies, no more evasions, no room for anything except the endless pain and wretched torment and grief and anger. It lasted an eternity, wrapped in searing blue-white fire, and soon enough he realised the demon had been right.
The physical torture had been far kinder.
Finally it ended.
He cowered on the cold stone floor, rocking gently, eyes closed, moaning between blistered lips. He was a monster. He deserved every terrible cruelty inflicted upon him. God had judged him unworthy, and turned away in shame. And no one left to blame but himself alone. All his fault.
‘I’m sorry!’ he begged. ‘Please! I’ve wronged God, I see that now. But I can be better! Let me go! Please!’
The demon’s iron grip tightened. ‘Now,’ it growled with relish, ‘we take you home.’ It gestured; a flaming portal fizzled into life before the altar. Out of it swept the hot reek of carrion, the foul stench of rotting meat. The wailing moans of a million tortured souls burning in everlasting Hell.
And the bishop’s last desperate hope shrivelled away.
‘Mercy!’ he pleaded. ‘Have mercy!’
‘Not tonight, Bishop,’ purred the nightmare, its tone mockingly tender. ‘Not tonight!’
© 2021 | Tom Burton
Pocketful of Time is available from Amazon in paperback, ebook and on Kindle Unlimited