As soon as Ivan walked over the threshold of the gate leading to the church he felt the hallowed ground lift his spirits and ease his wounds. Father Donovan was still partially carrying the Raven, rambling on about how he’d witnessed the infernal beasts battle with Ivan as he trudged through the snow.
“Was there anything I could have done that would have helped?” Father Donovan asked.
“Prayer from a Holy Man causes a demon pain something akin to a slight burn while holy water burns like molten lead. My crossbow bolts are holly and hold a mixture of opium and holy water.”
“Opium? Why Opium?” Father Donovan asked as he pushed open the heavy doors of the church. A flurry of snow nipped them both from behind, urging them into the chilly stone building.
Ivan groaned. “Believe it or not but Demons, as well as Angels, are flesh and blood. The amount of Opium I pump into a target numbs them and makes them drowsy. Two bolts can drop one as the holy water makes their veins collapse. Had I sunk the second bolt into the Beast I would have been able to keep him on the ground and taken him on after handling his skeletal slave.”
“You think you could have handled the demon alone? With a dagger?” Father Donovan sounds dubious as he guided Ivan towards the back of the church, where another wooden door would probably lead to the good Priests personal quarters.
Ivan nodded. “The dagger is made of silver reinforce with cold iron, doused in the blood of holy men who willingly bled upon it while praying. This thing,” Ivan said, holding up the dagger proudly, “is essentially pure venom to anything unclean in the eyes of Yahweh.”
“By God, such a weapon sounds difficult to craft!” Father Donovan said as he pushed open the door, which led to a cozy sitting room, two stacks of musty tomes and a fireplace with roaring flames dancing behind a grate. Father Donovan eased Ivan into one of the two high-backed padded chairs, saying he would go and fetch bandages.
While Father Donovan was away, Ivan pulled a pipe from his coat and packed it with a small amount of raw opium from the Ottoman Empire, lighting it with a stick stuck into the fireplace, which he threw into the flames after puffing some of the smoke into his lungs. Easing back into the chair and closing his eyes, Ivan finally relaxed, his muscles sore from being so tense for so long. While on church grounds, the demon would be unable to do anything to him. And with the amount of holy water and opium in its system, it would most likely take a few days of rest before returning under the darkness of night. This would give Ivan some time to search for a cave that could hold the Beasts bulk… maybe he could bribe some of the younger men to go “hunting” with him, allowing them to bring back a few deer while he became familiar with the lay of the land.
Ivan jumped when he felt the soft touch of Father Donovan’s hand on his injured clavicle. The old Priest probed the wound with his fingers, earning a wince from Ivan.
“We’ll have to pour some liquor on that to prevent infection,” the man said with a tone of finality.
“Sacramental wine is the best choice. The blessed drink combats the unholy venom that the snowman might have possessed.”
“Do you think it had such venom?” Father Donovan sounded concerned.
Ivan shook his head. “No, but it’s better to be safe than sorry in these situations. An infection from Demonic venom is far worse than one from an untreated wound, and they look remarkably similar until it’s far too late.”
“Too late?” Father Donovan asked as he turned and grabbed a bottle of wine.
Ivan nodded. “An infection brought on by Demonic infestation leads to a host for a possessing spirit. Fully manifested demons like the one we saw tonight have invisible servants the flit about it, lesser demons crying out for release from their bondage to the greater evil. Their only chance is a host; I can guarantee the demon we saw tonight was once a man.”
“How can you be so certain?” Father Donovan asked as he soaked a rag with the blessed wine.
Ivan shifted in his seat. “Little things. It bothered to perform magics that would grant it allies, instead of relying on its own brute force. Most demons stalk their enemy for nights at a time, causing them to become afraid and liable to make mistakes. The fear their prey radiates is a substance that demons feast upon. Pain as well,” Ivan said, waving at his wound. “Though it’s not as filling as fear or lust.”
“A Demon that prefers Lust, usually, was a woman in life. They don’t become twisted mockeries of what they once were but gain a sensuality that allows them to tempt mortals to perform carnal actions with each other in the Demon’s presence. Sometimes the Beast will even partake of a lover, feasting on their spiritual energy as they copulate. Those Demons are difficult to find but easy to slay.”
“Not formidable in combat?” Father Donovan asked as he pressed the rag to Ivan’s wound, which sizzled at the touch from the wine-soaked rag.
“There’s the venom I was talking about. Anyway, yeah, they aren’t formidable in combat. They can create illusions and haunt your vision with dreams of loved ones being tormented, but their defenses are merely tricks of shadow and light. They’re a rare catch, and far too numerous in number due to the fact brothels are wont to take them on. They never contract the Red Pox or any other illness, and age far more slowly than other women. Plus their appetites for pleasure are insatiable. The perfect prostitute.”
“Disgusting,” Father Donovan shook his head, rubbing the wine into the wounds while Ivan took a deep puff of the opium before exhaling, the drug already dulling his senses.
“Yes… I’ve only found only one in my career and took it down with haste. Some documents it had in its personal chambers led to a cabal of witches and warlocks that worshiped a foul Demon Prince known as Astorath. Breaking it up was difficult, but a reward unto itself.”
“How so?” Father Donovan inquired, unbuckling Ivan’s chest piece.
“The artifacts we recovered that day were darker in nature than we’d thought we’d find. We destroyed the dark altar, severing the tie with the dark prince before running through the catacombs hunting down those that we could. We must have culled fifty men and women that day.”
“Where was this?” Father Donovan leaned Ivan forward as he packed wine-soaked wool into the wounds before wrapping linen gauze around his chest and clavicle.
“Paris, some twenty, twenty-five years ago. It was my first mission really, my initiation into the Ravens.” Ivan mused.
“So you worship…” Father Donovan prompted.
“Elohim, the Mother of the Ravens and Keeper of the Dead,” Ivan replied with a sardonic smile. “I didn’t always follow her, but after dealing with one potent Witch, I grew to trust in Her. She had placed Her trust in me for so long, guiding me and protecting me despite my blasphemous thoughts and rants. She forgave me as only a Mother could, and I accepted her as my Patron some three years ago.”
“All of that from an encounter with one Witch?” Father Donovan asked.
Ivan nodded. “This was a Witch that was powerful beyond measure. She tricked us in the end, almost destroying our home in the Wetterstein Mountains with a profane rite.”
“What happened to her?” Father Donovan asked.
“Ah,” Ivan said, bringing the pipe away from his mouth and offering it to the old Priest. “That is a tale for another time. What we need to discuss is what you have in town that could serve as weapons against the demon, and if anyone in the village recently went missing. A hermit, a hunter that lived on the outskirts of the village… someone who would by their very nature is a loner.”
“A loner?” Father Donovan asked as he packed the holes in Ivan’s clavicle with wine soaked wool before wrapping it in linen wraps.
Ivan nodded, staring into the fire for a time before answering. “Yeah, the demons begin by whispering into your ear, tickling the back of your mind. Slowly they sink into your psyche, driving you to do unspeakable acts. Some can resist their siren call while others find it near impossible. Once the demon has a foothold they begin the Rite of Ascension.”
“What’s that?” Father Donovan asked, motioning for Ivan to lean forward so he could fully wrap the shoulder.
“A ritual that allows them to shed their mortal coil like a serpent sheds its skin. It’s gruesome to watch, lots of blood and guts spilling out as the newly-born Beast emerges from the host. It consumes the soul in the process, granting it a measure of stability on our plane, allowing it to remain for an indefinite period of time. They usually begin hunting then, causing misery and pain where they can while performing blasphemous rites for their Patron.”
“So the murders?” Father Donovan asked, visibly dreading the answer.
Ivan nodded. “They were sacrificed to Astorath, most likely. That would explain why no blood could be found, the demon would have absorbed it into his being for greater vitality. The bodies are still in the house, correct?”
“Last I checked,” Father Donovan agreed.
“We need to go in there and bless them before the Demon reanimates them for his own needs,” Ivan said, pushing himself with a grunt out of the comfortable seat, pulling his chest piece back over his wound and buckling it into place. He checked over his daggers, as well as his short sword. It’d once belonged to a friend that hadn’t made it through one of the trials that they’d faced together, but instead of passing to the afterlife he’d willingly allowed his spirit to be bound to the sword, granting it a measure of power against the Mindless Dead and lost souls. It would glow a faint green whenever one was within a hundred feet or so, green flames dancing across the blackened steel that provided no heat, but shed light equal to a torch. Ivan had witnessed the volatile reaction it provoked from a Mindless Dead, the green fire traveling over their bodies, searing them until fat dribbled from charred remains.
“Let’s visit these bodies, Good Father,” Ivan said, looking to the Priest with a half-smile. “I’d rather not face down a family of Ghouls, if at all possible.”