A head, attached to a long rubbery neck launched from the darkness, eyes flaring red as a fang-filled maw snapped a few feet from where the priest stood. A hood not unlike a cobra’s flared up; revealing a pale white symbol Sara was unfamiliar with. The face, where it wasn’t misshapen and warped, appeared human in some ways. High cheekbones and porcelain skin covered the beast’s forehead and cheeks, though it was cracked as if it were made of some fragile stone.
“Fool!” The serpent spat, a long black tongue lashing out of its mouth as it spoke. “When I am free of these constraints I will hunt down you and all you hold dear! I will tear their very hearts from their chests!”
“I’m sure you will Mary,” Father Dee said before nudging his head over towards Sara. “That will be after my time, should it ever happen. Sara is young and healthy, and is already being keyed into the protections that bind you here.”
“Bah,” the serpent scoffed, slithering back into the darkness. “She’ll die just like the rest of them. Perhaps she’ll suffer misfortune and fall to an accident? Either way, time is on my side priest; you could have another ten generations of that traitor’s brood parade through here and I would still be replete with energy. I won’t be fading away for quite some time.”
Sara didn’t know what possessed her to speak, but she found her lips moving on their own, her voice rising from her throat. “You’re just a forgotten nightmare, someone that reached too far to achieve too much. Sad, isn’t it? Immortality and who knows what kind of powers granted by your supposed Lord, and here you are trapped like some animal ready for the slaughter.”
Sara could see Brother Brandon look over at her, his eyes wide with disbelief. Father Dee was still staring into the darkness, as if he could see the body of whatever the Hell that thing was twisting about. Brother Stephen was still in the hall, but Sara heard his sharp intake of breath when she began her taunt.
The room was bathed in an icy silence for several long seconds, before a dry coughing noise echoed off of the stone. It took Sara a moment to realize that the monster was laughing at what she said, chuckling to itself in the dark to itself.
“What is your name, Warden?” The slippery voice slid from the darkness, amusement radiating from its tone.
“Sara, though you can stick with the Warden title. That is what I am to you after all,” Sara said.
The serpentine head floated partially into view, the beady red eyes flaring to life as one focused on her from across the room. “You smell just like she did. I doubt that means much to you, being who you are and who you follow. While I revel in what I have become, I do remember the days when my flesh was pale pink, and my hair was a vibrant red. I remember my sisters within my coven, how we watched out for each other. We practiced our sorcery in relative safety within the darkened woods of the frozen North. But when we decided to push beyond our normal boundaries, one of us hesitated. We thought nothing of it and decided to go on with the rituals that would allow us to become gods unto men; what we didn’t know was that our reluctant sister had called down flocks of Ravens upon our sanctuary.”
Sara tried to remain as stoic as she could, but she found herself enthralled by the story. She leaned forward, taking a step into the room despite her better judgement. She could hear the hissing of the creature as it moved back and forth in the darkness, slithering on a bloated frame with scrabbling claws scratching the stonework beneath its heavy frame. The gleaming red eyes came back into view, the porcelain skin slick with either sweat or dew. It seemed glazed at Sara as it continued speaking, it’s black tongue slipping past it’s lipless mouth to taste the air every few seconds.
“The traitor… I can smell her blood pumping through your veins! The very protective enchantments, the prayers and hymns that were sung to bind me here were done with your ancestors blood being spilled upon the stone.” The Serpent said, head bobbing. “Has the priest whispered the sweet lies in your ears child? Of how you must serve as the Warden of this prison of damned souls? You know that they need you, don’t you? If you were to refuse, the blessings keeping me trapped in this dismal dungeon would fade, and I would once again be allowed to freely roam.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Sara asked, ignoring the hiss of air that Father Dee sucked through his teeth when the Serpent spoke. “What do you have to gain?”
The Serpent’s eyes glowed bright, shedding a faint luminescence over its spread hood.
“Everything… I offer you what your ancestor chose to turn away from, a birthright that is rightfully yours.”
“What? An offer to take up witchcraft?” Sara asked.
The Serpent tilted its head to the side, gliding sinuously through the air as it spoke. “In a way. The Ravens, the high and mighty hunters of witches and demons alike, serve an angel not unlike my own Lord. They have their own magic, their own rituals… gifts that are passed down through the generations to aid in containing my kind. My offer would be to show you the other side of the coin, allow you access to my own energies to spark your own abilities.”
“Abilities?” Sara repeated, looking back at Father Dee, who was now frowning. He was obviously not pleased with how the conversation was going. Brother Brandon was scowling, his scarred features cast in stark relief by the flickering torchlight. All she could see of Brother Stephen were his luminescent sapphire eyes, staring at her with concern from between Father Dee and Brother Brandon. She turned back to the Serpent and stared at it for a moment.
“You’ve been down here a long time,” Sara commented, something that the Serpent hadn’t been expecting judging by the way it’s eyes widened. “All for practicing your own version of magic?”
The Serpent stared, eyes unblinking, the only movement being it’s black tongue slithering out of its mouth every few moments. After several moments, the Serpent nodded slowly. “Yes child, the magic that your ancestor practiced with me was deemed unfit for the civilized world. My brethren were slain before my eyes as I ascended, unable to do anything to stop the wholesale slaughter. By the time my new body was complete the Ravens had erected a runic array around me, caging me like some wild beast.”
“Well,” Sara said, looking off to the side before looking back at the Serpent, “you are. Have you not had a chance to look at yourself? I can only see a little bit of you, and from what I see you are a creature that should be caged, that should be contained.”
“What?” The Serpent spat, clearly surprised by the way this conversation was going.
“If you eat, those fangs almost guarantee you’re a carnivore. I doubt you need to eat, seeing as you’ve been in this musty old cell for the past sixty years. I don’t know, did my grandmother come down here and feed you or something?”
The Serpent's eyes became mere slits of burning charcoal, the head sliding back into the darkness until the burning embers were all that could be seen. Sara smiled, waving back at Father Dee.
“They’ve told me about what goes on down here, and by your own admission you would be dangerous if let free. You say that I have to act as your so-called warden due to my ancestry; I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I’ve already decided that I’m going to carry on my grandmother’s work.”
The Serpent hissed, scales dragging along the stone as it slithered in the darkness. “Just like that bitch Arabella so many years ago, so proud of her reformed blood that she would spit upon such a kind offer. I imagine you’ll spend your days just like she did, playing innkeeper to wayward Ravens, looking for one to bed so that you can squeeze out another abomination to carry on your legacy.”
Sara stared into the blanket of darkness, staring at the glowing red slits as a means to keep track of where “Mary” was. She didn’t trust the creature to stay in the darkness, held back by whatever force was holding it at bay. Sara turned to Father Dee, who stepped aside to allow her enough space to walk back into the hall.
“Go on then Sara,” the Serpent called, its voice slowly becoming the wispy voice of her grandmother. “Leave me here in the darkness to rot. I have all the time in the world to wait for the next Warden to pay me a visit. Perhaps they’ll take me up on my offer?”
Without looking over her shoulder, Sara shook her head. “You’re wrong Mary. My child will know better than to trust you. You’re poison, through and through. This group that I’m apparently now a part of will fill me in on the specifics of what I need to do to make sure you never see daylight so long as I draw breath.”
Mary, still using her grandmother’s voice, laughed lightly. “Whatever you say dearie, whatever you say. Just remember, I am as eternal as the sun; one day your youth will fade, your skin will wither and your hair will thin. Your bones will creak and your joints will ache. And I will have the cure for all of that, a simple sampling of my power. Why, with enough work you could even transcend your form as I did, ensuring you will never die.”
Sara didn’t respond, instead she merely walked into the darkened hall past Stephen. She led the procession out of the hall, past the fountain and statue and up the stairs. She waited until Father Dee emerged, taking each step slowly as his knees creaked, before pressing the button and flipping the bust back into its natural position.
“So you will accept the job, I take it?” Father Dee asked with a hesitant smile.
Sara sighed. “After what I saw down there, I’d be a fool not to. I assume, from what dear Mary said, that your organization…”
“The Ravens,” Father Dee gently reminded.
“Yes,” Sara said, walking back into the dining room, her guests trailing behind her. “The Ravens. I assume that they aren’t exactly numerous?”
Brother Brandon scowled at the question while Brother Stephen just laughed. “We have a little over a thousand men and women within our order, if that’s what you’re asking.” Father Dee explained. “Over half of our order is comprised of hunters, while the rest operate out of stations much like this one.”
Sara dropped down into her chair, running a hand through her hair. “I wish I’d known of this before grandmother died.”
“She was sworn to secrecy, just as you will be,” Brother Brandon said.
“Ah,” Sara closed her eyes and rubbed the bridge of her nose. “You know, before tonight I wasn’t even sure there was a God. Still not certain, but I know that whatever it is I saw down there… I know that it means something.”
“An agnostic Raven,” Father Dee said with a smile, as if laughing at a private joke. “This should prove to be quite a road of discovery for you Sara.”
“Yeah,” Sara said, staring down at her plate, the remnants of chicken leftover from dinner now gone cold. She looked up at the two Hunters, her eyes jumping from Brandon to Stephen before smiling slightly. “Would you gentlemen care to stay the night?”
Brandon merely laughed while Stephen flushed slightly. “I think,” Father Dee said as he moved towards the front of the house. “That is my cue to leave. I’ll return in the morning to perform the rites that are necessary to induct you into the order.”