Sal woke to a night sky. Stars, traces of cloud. She couldn’t move.
At first she thought she was still asleep and having an irritating dream. But there was the Hand in her head, talking. You’re awake, it said. We’re in trouble.
She lay on something uncomfortable. A wooden board. She tried to take a deep breath. A leather strap across her chest pushed back. There were straps at her wrists, another at her waist, another at her knees. The last one at her ankles. They were all nailed to the board beneath her. As if whoever did it wasn’t expecting her to get up again. Four men she didn’t recognize ranged around her, two on either side, each of them holding identical little red books. Beyond them, forming a vague perimeter, were guards with machine guns. At her feet, a man she did know: Stretch.
Uh-oh, she thought. “Where am I?” she said aloud.
“A monastery,” Balloon said. “Or at least the ruins of one.” He was standing at her head, closer than she expected. Way too close for comfort. He had a small, dark red book in his hands, and he wetted his lips before speaking again. “This courtyard, I am given to understand, used to be a garden, full of herbs and vegetables. On the land outside the walls, the monks had a vineyard. According to the people in the town nearby, the wine was very good. But this monastery hasn’t been used in more than a century.”
“Declining enrollment,” Stretch said.
“It’s just as well, though,” Balloon said. “This place has become very convenient for us to conduct rituals of this sort without . . .”
“Overbearing oversight?” Stretch said.
“Thank you, yes,” Balloon said.
The four men shifted a little. They’re uncomfortable with this, Sal thought.
“Junior colleagues,” Balloon said. “This is their first exorcism, and we’re glad they’re seeing this one.”
Stretch produced a small bowl of holy water and walked around the circle, blessing each of the men with it. When he got back to his spot at Sal’s feet, he flicked the water across her body. It was cooling, a small comfort.
“It is a small mercy to us that you’re awake,” Balloon continued. “In our experience, an exorcism is more effective when the subject is conscious.”
“It lets us know when it’s working,” Stretch said.
“So what are the men with guns for?”
“In case things get out of hand.”
“Get me out of these straps,” Sal said.
“You’re going to be glad we restrained you,” Balloon said. “The demon inside you is very powerful, and there’s no telling what it may try to do to you. Or to get you to do to yourself.”
“You’re not going to be so glad when I get out,” Sal said.
“Now, now,” Balloon said. “We’re on the same side, remember?” He addressed the four men at Sal’s sides. “You may begin.”
The men all opened to the same page in their red books and began chanting. Their voices blended in the night air, quickly found the same note, and relaxed into a rhythm that let them all fall together at the end of every phrase, a little sigh that spoke of peace. The music reached the crumbling stone walls around the courtyard; it soaked into the grass; it rose, like thick, sweet smoke, toward the sky. Even Sal could hear that it was beautiful, pure. Like the singers themselves, so full of good intentions.
Stretch produced a thick leather crop with seven long tails on it.
“I thought you said we were on the same team,” Sal said.
“We must weaken the demon through the mortification of the flesh,” Balloon said.
“But it’s my flesh,” Sal said.
“The mortification brings you closer to Christ’s suffering, which repels the demon.”
“I’m not sure I buy that.”
“And I can’t be sure whether I’m talking to you or the demon. Mortification is one way to find out.”
Stretch lifted his arm behind his head and brought the crop down on Sal, hard. She had no idea it would hurt so much. The wounds it left first stung, and then burned. She felt cold wetness creeping down the sides of her ribcage. Stretch whipped her again. A long string of obscenities flew from her mouth. The chanting continued, still serene, but a little more uncertain. Sal made eye contact with one of the men and gave him an imploring look. The man held her gaze. He understood. He was doubting this whole thing, Sal was sure of it. But he didn’t look like he was about to speak up.
Stretch lifted his arm a third time.
I can get us out of this, the Hand said, somewhere behind her eyes.
Then do it, Sal said.
She felt a rustling in her mind, the Hand trying to expand. It could take over again if she let it. She gave it a push back and the rustling subsided. All that business with the Codex Umbra must have weakened the Hand. It was healing, gaining strength. Soon enough it would be able to assert control over her. But for now, it was Sal calling the shots. At least in her own skull.
Stretch’s arm fell. Both Sal and the Hand had to wait for the wave of pain to pass before speaking again.
You’d rather be whipped to death? the Hand said....