I repeat it in my head like a mantra, glancing at the watch on my wrist: Twelve thirty-six, twelve thirty-six.
Every second I spend out here is death to my soul.
Stoically I sit in the pews, waiting, until my hands begin to shake. Clouds pass in front of the moon and leave me groping blindly for my lighter. Trembling fingers reach the cigarettes in my bag and I light one; I don't smoke, but it's supposed to calm the nerves.
Never mind how much of a target it makes me.
I cough on the strong, biting taste, but take another drag anyway. The cigarettes, I know, aren't the things here that will kill me.
A wolf howls in the distance, causing me to jump nearly out of my skins; but a sweet, tinkling laugh somewhere behind me grabs my attention immediately, and I whip around, hand reaching for a small instrument at my side. Seeing a curly-haired little girl at the back, feet from the door, causes me to soften a bit, but I feel anxious nevertheless. I narrow my eyes and she cocks her head curiously.
"What are you doing here?" I ask sharply, cigarette dangling from the side of my mouth. My voice echoes in the vastness of the cathedral. "It's late. You should be at home." With every word my fingers grasp the object tighter. "Haven't you heard? It's not safe at night anymore around here." Nowhere is it safe at night, I mentally add.
She giggles. "Sorry, ma'am," she says in a high voice. "But it's a full moon tonight."
"So? It's still dangerous--"
She shakes her head. "No, you don't understand; we have a gathering every full moon. It's usually at one o'clock." She looks around. "Am I early?" Her eyes rest on me, gazing expectantly. It's unnerving, and even as she offers a slight smile I still feel discomfited.
I look again to my watch. "T-twelve forty-two," I croak, blanching at my own stuttering. It's a little girl. A harmless little child. Deep breath.
No. Not harmless at all.
Run while you still can!
"Thank you," she says politely, strolling through the aisles and settling herself across from me, partially obscured by shadow. I try to swallow back my nervousness, tapping the cylinder of ashes from the end of my cigarette. She watches me and smiles widely, mouth closed; even in the dim lighting I can see her attentive and glowing eyes.
We both wait--hopefully for two entirely different things.
A loud and inhuman bellow causes me to jump again, this time hearing a distinct snap as my head whips around to find the source. I cringe and clutch at at the aching spot while my eyes search the darkness.
The bellow returns, then another lower one, until a cacophony of notes ring through the cathedral. And finally I realize what it is: The pipe organ on the far side of the room, a figure stooped over it all dressed in black. Their back arches while arms move slowly and dramatically, fingers caressing the keys.
I open my mouth to interrupt the playing, but the girl stands and cries out, "Oh, Darion, play the dirge again!"
The imposing figure turns, revealing the pallid and gaunt face of a man. He looks first at the girl, then at me, and I can't help but stare into those piercing eyes. He tears away to look back to the girl and nods.
"Of course, Blythe," he says smoothly, turning back to the pipes, now highlighted by the moonlight; I can now make out carvings set around the large instrument, depictions of smirking demons and ferocious beasts. I shudder.
Music fills the holy temple again. The notes weigh heavy in my heart, rumbling with ominous lament. These are less the sounds of a funeral march and more a sort of calling, of warning, as if marking a prelude to malignance. Still rubbing my sore neck, I turn to watch the girl--Blythe--and see her leaning forward, clutching the back of the bench in front of her. She bites her lip and her eyes glaze over in rapture.
The resonating sounds of the organ block out the entrance of dozens of people, which I notice with horror as they glide from the doors to fill the rows. Hardly sparing a glance in my direction, they all seat themselves on the opposite side of the room, where Blythe still stands with her wide-eyed yet blank expression.
Not a word is said. My heart thuds against the suffocating silence. I clutch the thing in my hand so tightly that my skin feels raw, and I lower my other hand to reach back inside of my bag.
Through this action, the room feels tense. I hesitate, then pull out a compact, opening it to look at myself.
The tension softens, yet I feel hundreds of eyes upon me, though no one is watching.
As I look at my own reflection, I see horrified, bloodshot eyes and a colorless face. My breath comes out in ragged gasps and my fingers refuse to snap the mirror shut again. Instead, I turn both the compact and my head to the side a bit, away from the direction of the hordes of people, and my heart catches in my throat. I hurriedly close the mirror and stuff it back into my handbag, pulling out and lighting another cigarette.
Where there should have been a cluster of reflected faces, I saw only emptiness.
The organ music abruptly stops. A voice calls out, "It seems we have an outsider in our midst."
The dozens of heads now turn simultaneously in my direction. More uneasy than ever before, I look away and focus my gaze instead toward the front of the cavernous room, where a lean figure makes its way into the moonlight. It is a man, strolling with malicious elegance toward the altar, his hands locked behind his back.
He continues, "Shall we greet out guest?"
A multitude of voices reply, "De mortuis, nil nisi bonum."
Of the dead, say nothing unless good.
I take a breath and look to the man, terrified. My mouth hangs open but not a word comes out, only cold breath and a whimper.
He says patiently, "And you, my good lady, reply with laus mors."
I choke out the words, tears of fright forming at the corners of my eyes.
He clears his throat. "Darion, if you will."
So the music returns, albeit softer and less threatening. The man steps away from the altar to walk down the aisle, stopping at my row and turning to face me. His head tilts in the same way Blythe's did, expression equally curious. "Hello there," he says, friendly enough, smiling. I nod weakly, looking into his glimmering red eyes. He asks for my name and I give it. He says, "Wonderful to meet you, Cassandra. My name is Quinn. Would you like to join us tonight? You are perfectly welcome to leave if you wish. My feelings will not be hurt." He smiles wider, but as with Blythe, not a tooth is exposed, and when he speaks his lips hardly move.
My brain freezes. I forget for a moment who I am. In a voice that is not my own, I feel myself saying, "I will, thank you."
"Ah, excellent." Quinn extends a hand to me; I find myself entranced by his white and spidery fingers, staring in wonderment as I take the proffered hand.I pocket the instrument in my other hand, then take a steadying drag from my cigarette before dropping it to the ground and crushing it with my heel. I stand and allow him to lead me through the pews, heart racing and bringing dizziness with its thunderous beating.
"Have you been to a religious ceremony before, Cassandra?" he asks as we reach the altar. I nod; my mother was a free spirit who enjoyed attending various liturgies, regardless of what religion it involved. She would have appreciated a sizable church like this.
"Then you are familiar with the Communion, I take it?"
I nod again, biting down fiercely on my bottom lip as the congregation watches fixedly.
"Will you join us as we eat of the body and drink of the blood?" he asks, words coated in silk and pure laudanum.
I clench my fist and realize my hand is still encased in his, but the thought of pulling away is frightening, even when I know right now that he can feel the sweat covering my skin and the tremors wracking my entire body. My mouth feels dry all of a sudden. I swallow, trying to bring the wetness of saliva to my throat.
Again my voice takes control, saying this time, "Of course."
Blythe skips over from the pews in a ballerina-like fashion, small and flowery dress waving about behind her. She halts in front of us, curtsying to Quinn and giving me a nod of acknowledgment. Her curly blonde locks bounce as she hops a few feet past us, standing on a pedestal.
"Darion," she calls, and I give a start at how different her voice sounds--less childlike and slightly commanding. She beckons with one hand and the music stops again. I hear footsteps, presumably Darion's, and he emerges from the darkness.
Clearly these three are the ones running the show. Everyone else stares on, unmoving, aware of every movement made at the front of the congregation. I'm reminded for an instant of soldiers, straight-backed and attentive. This, with everything else, unnerves me further still.
I glance at my watch.
Darion, too, stops before us, but makes no honorary gesture. A glance to Quinn and a leer at me, and that's it. He continues on wordlessly to Blythe and says, "You called?"
"The chalice," she demands. "Ah--the gold one, if you please."
Darion nods and slumps off. I repeat in my head, The chalice. The chalice. The chalice.
Blythe, meanwhile, looks angelic as she waits in the moonlight, her fair hair and skin glowing as she tilts her head up and clasps her hands in front of her. Sickeningly pure and beautiful. Quinn is looking at her as well, but I feel his gaze flicker over to me, staring penetratingly into my skull. The hand that engulfs my own feels more prominent than ever before.
Dear God, I think fearfully. The body, the blood... It can't be!
I feel my hand being released as Quinn moves to clutch my shoulder. I turn to him and our eyes meet; he grins wickedly, for once with his whole mouth.
Teeth, fangs, monster, demon...
I gasp but cannot pull away. He chuckles and brings me closer. "Ah, Cassandra," he says, brushing a lock of hair from my face. "Laus mors, my darling."
Darion returns with a golden chalice, holding it gently as if it might break. He kneels and holds it out to Blythe, who nods; he takes his place on my other side.
"Restrain her," Quinn drawls, releasing his grasp on my shoulder. His firm grip is replaced with Darion's own rough hold, pinning my arms to my sides. I cry out but my heartbeat is so loud and incessant that I can't hear anything else.
Blythe steps forth, holding the chalice in front of her. "We drink of the blood," she says dully, placing the cup at level with my chest.
"Drink of the blood," echoes the congregation.
My hand lies with outside of my pocket, and if I could just--
"We eat of the body," says Darion. His nails are digging into my flesh. I whimper, but my fingers have finally touched the handle--
"Eat of the body."
Quinn, who stands at my side, moves forward now, diagonally to me and closer to the girl. He reaches out and runs a hand down my neck, which no longer hurts due to the adrenaline racing through my veins. He pauses at my collarbone, moving instead to clutch my shoulder. His other hand rests on the opposite side of my neck and he is waist-to-shoulder with Blythe, her tiny arms outstretched.
I know what's coming next. He leans forward and opens his mouth, long teeth bared and approaching my exposed flesh. I inch the blade out of my pocket carefully, and if Darion would just move his arm a bit further downward--
"What's this?" Quinn says with amusement, stopping to look me in the eye. "I thought you would know better. Ah, what a shame..." And as he reaches for my hand to unwrap my fingers from the knife's handle, despair washes over me.
The silver drops to the floor, right beside my foot.
I begin to cry silently.
"Oh stop, you're not dying," he admonishes, returning to his position at my neck. "This will be faster than you think--actually, move your chin up a bit. That's it, right there..." His breath is cold on my skin as he shifts more toward the front of my throat. "It will sting a bit more, but it's really more convenient this way."
I cry out in agony as two sharp points pierce my flesh. Blythe immediately brings the cup close to the wound, watching in a trance as the warm blood trickles down into the chalice. I feel dizzy, so unbelievably dizzy, and my own fear and Darion's hands are all that keep me from fainting. I shut my eyes and cry through the closed lids.
"One thirty-four," Quinn says thoughtfully, holding up my hand to look at my watch. "Should be done in a bit here."
The flow of blood is slowing, and I open my eyes to see Blythe licking her lips at the sight of the near-full chalice. The sight of my own blood intensifies my lightheadedness.
"There now, dear, that's enough."
Blythe sulks and pulls the cup away; a drop of blood trickles freely down my skin, but the girl wipes it with her finger and sticks it greedily in her mouth. Revolted, I hear a contented sigh as she skips over to the aisles to offer the blood.
I struggle against unconsciousness as the red-eyed man before me stares at the great wound on my throat, looking anxious. He grins maniacally. "And now, the body."
The smirks of our audience and the gleam in Quinn's eye make me nauseous.
The wolf howls again.
He is back at my throat but does not sink his teeth in; instead I feel his vile tongue licking at the rest of the sanguine liquid, then his lips against my neck. I can feel him smiling.
"Oh, to be alive again, if only for one night," he sighs, hands moving slowly downward.
No no no no no no...
One forty, one forty-two, one forty-four.
At one-fifty-five, I beg for death.
No no no--
Shortly before two o'clock, I receive it.