Ruin

The rising sun cast an eerie orange pall over the smoldering ruins of Kibbet, the smoke so great that it changed the color of the sky itself. A team of armed scouts from neighboring Manilla wandered the ruins, covering their faces, appearing as six-foot moles, the masks sporting black pupil less voids where eyes should be.

“Stay wary,” one of them chattered over the radio. “It’s been a week since we’ve lost communication, and three days since we saw the smoke. Whatever did this could still be here.”

“You mean the dragon,” one of them said.

They all told him to keep his damn mouth shut.

The team ran in formation, keeping their eyes on all corners of the town. All around them were petrified civilians, frozen in place as pure ash.

One of them broke off from the group, distracted by one of the ashen statues.

“My God,” he said quietly. “What have you wrought upon this city?”

“Ferria,” one of them called. “What have you found?”

“Grandmaster Migemous,” Ferria said quietly, sadly. “One of our own.”

Migemous was standing there, clad in his wizard’s hat and the charred remains of his suit, his hand outstretched, staff in hand.

He was entirely burned, except for the staff.

Ferria touched the staff in wonder, and cried out in terror and sadness as this one motion reduced the corpse of Migemous to dust.

“Ferria, knock it off,” one of them called.

Ferria nodded and fell in line, staff in hand. Anything not burnt was something miraculous.

“Commander,” a woman’s voice came over the radio, “we’ve found a survivor.”

Together they rushed to Temple Grounds, to find a boy covered in ashes, sitting at the temple gates.

“Son, what’s your name?” the woman said.

“I came back to look for my mother,” the boy said. “My name is Leon. Leon Iudex. Have you seen my mother?”

“We can help you best,” the woman said, “if you tell us everything you know about what happened.”

“I don’t know,” the boy said. “A week ago I fell off this mountain, but my belief kept me alive. Just like Saligamus said. He’s the mayor of the town you know. Anyway, it took me all this time to get back up here, because my belief wasn’t strong enough to float me back up here.”

“You said Saligamus was the mayor of the town?” the woman said.

“Yes ma’am,” Leon said. “He killed the dragon.”

“After it did this?” she said.

“Oh no, ma’am,” Leon said.   “Everything was fine when I left. I don’t know what caused this. But I don’t think it was the dragon. Saligamus killed him.”

The team looked at each other.
Finally: “That’s impossible,” one of them said.

“Anything is possible,” the child said. “You just have to believe.”

He looked around. “Maybe everyone was having trouble believing.”

“He’s in shock,” one of them said. “We should get him some food and fluid.”

“We’re going to take care of you, Mister Iudex,” the woman said. “Then tell us everything you know.”

“Like I said,” Leon said, frustrated, “You should ask Mayor Saligamus. I saw him walking through the town when I first came back. I actually came here to find him. I’m sure he knows what happened.”

“This Saligamus,” Ferria said, “is he still at large?”

“I sure hope so,” Leon said. “One day, I hope to be just like him. By the way, careful with that staff. That staff wields the power of God Himself.”

Ferria laughed good-naturedly.

“The dragon is dead,” Leon said, his eyes growing distant. “Maybe this whole city is dead. But Saligamus walks the earth.”

Leon took the staff, and walked towards the scout’s camp. Ferria watched him, greatly disturbed.

“What the hell happened here?” the soldier whispered to the dust.

+++

One Month Prior

+++

Everyone was very excited that Saligamus had slain the dragon.

They couldn’t stop talking about it.

Who could blame them? Hadn’t the dragon nearly destroyed all of them?

“Mother,” a child asked, still uncertain, “What is a dragon?”

“A dragon is a creature that is both living and spirit, like a ghost. Because of this twin nature, a dragon is able to change the world around it, and do horrible, horrible things. But we mustn’t be afraid of the dragon, because fear is where it gets its power. Like electricity. So if you take away the fear that feeds it, the dragon loses all of its electricity.”

“So the dragon can’t hurt me if I’m not afraid of it?”

“No. There’s nothing it can do to you.”

This was a lie parents had told their kids in the past weeks to make them feel at peace if the dragon were to incinerate them. It had happened several times, but the dragon was indeed feeding off of their fear, visiting town in patterns that were just outside the realm of predictability, always claiming fewer lives than it seemed, always claiming them in ways that pushed the limits of what any grown person would want to imagine was in the realms of possible horror. Senex, Saligamus’ son, had considered this phenomenon when thinking back to a happier time, when he had watched a horror movie with his friends, about a man who kidnapped teenagers and tortured them in his cabin. He would do horrible, horrible things, like cut tongues, slice ankle tendons, and worse–but Senex always laughed, because no one would ever do that, right?

It was rumored there was a man–Ecclesius, the mad monk–helping the dragon, a man with pale face, sunken, hollow eyes, which were rumored to be yellow like the dragon’s. Often he would let his captives go, so that they could tell the tale.

After one of Senex’s friends told him of what he had seen Ecclesius do to their grandfather before killing him, Senex didn’t laugh at those movies much anymore.

Senex didn’t laugh at much of anything anymore.

For a while, no one did.

Except there was laughter again–cautious laughter, for certain–but there was a return to an attitude of joy.

And Senex couldn’t help but beam with just a little bit of pride that his own father was to thank.

Saligamus was an economics professor–genteel, kind, certainly appreciated by those he knew, but unremarkable beyond that. Senex had always been proud of his father; even if he didn’t much care about the discipline that his father had dedicated himself to.

But now, his father had–with just a wooden staff–killed a dragon that was bigger than the entire town square.

 

It was evening, two days into the workweek. Saligamus had emerged from the mountains above, smoke rising from his tunic, his hairs singed but his face noticeably unharmed. In one hand was a staff, and in the other hand was a black dragon scale.

One of the guards, armed to the teeth in light of recent events, stared at the man like he was looking at a ghost.

“It is finished,” Saligamus said. “Gather the town. Now.”

He was a different man than the one that had been sent to kill the dragon: Taller, broader, and more imposing. In fact, the guard–a simple man named Lucas–noted that he had almost shot at Saligamus at first, because he looked more terrifying, more imposing, than even the mad monk Ecclesius.

This did remind the guard: “What of the dragon’s keeper?”

“I shall explain all when all are gathered,” Saligamus said. “But we are safe.”

The guard nodded, and dialed a number on the phone next to him that was marked as DO NOT DIAL.

He picked up the phone.

“People of Kibbet,” he said, and voice was in every home, on every television, on every item that could convey speech, there it was. “The dragon, and its keeper, are no longer a threat to your city. Saligamus Repertum has returned. Please report for an assembly.”

Lucas looked at Saligamus and sighed.

“They’ll have my head for this if it’s anything less than what you say it is.”

“I tell you the truth,” Saligamus said, “It is so much more.”

>>>

A harsh spotlight shone on Saligamus, who stood on the wall above the town, and there was some complaining from those who stood by it that the motor of the generator that powered it would be too loud to hear him.

They screamed in terror when his voice came across to everyone loudly and clearly, as though he was whispering in his ear.

The light made it clear he was doing this through his staff.

“You have questions,” he said. “That is understandable. What we have experienced these past months, these months that have felt like years, is untenable, unspeakable. We have experienced Fear in a form that was visceral, that could touch us, that could hurt us. We tried diplomacy, but we were too naïve. We tried science, but we were not unified enough. We even tried faith, but our faith was dead.”

There was some stirring in the crowds, and Saligamus held up his hand.

“My master, Migemous, in his infinite wisdom, started an order centuries ago, the order we all know as the rather eccentric group of men and women who call themselves the Fides. Even now, through the power that they spoke of, my voice is reaching all of you, even those of you who were not well enough to be here tonight. You see, this staff–”

And here he held the staff high for all to see.

“–Wields the power of God.”

Everybody gasped.

One person laughed.

Saligamus face became sad.

“One of you does not believe,” he said. “Funny that it should be your Director of Defense.”

With a scowl on his face, Saligamus gently tapped the ground with his staff, shouting “BY THE POWER OF GOD!”

As if taken hold by unseen hands, a man was lifted out of the crowd, a man they all knew, Valentin Ventralis, the man who had almost kept the dragon out of the city with his force shield made of pure energy. He was a handsome man, with a jolly nose, dark tanned skin, and bushy hair, with glasses that were thick but stylish. They slid off as he hung in the air, upside down.

“I will have to make an example of you, Doctor Ventralis,” Saligamus said. “You laugh because you do not believe. You never believed. That is why the shield failed. We will not allow such a calamity to happen again.”

“I smell a fish!” Ventralis shouted, terrified. “I knew you, Saligamus! Your wife was my best technician! This isn’t who you are! Whatever you did up there in the mountains, it’s gone to your–”

“Enough,” Saligamus said. “You’re one to talk of deceit. You’re not even a human.”

Now everyone was confused.

“Demons live among us,” Saligamus explained. “Sent by Satan himself to ensure our fear would be efficiently harnessed. Such an entity was Ecclesius; in fact, he and the dragon were one and the same.”

Everybody gasped, and then all eyes turned to Ventralis.

“By the power of God,” Saligamus said, “this man’s true nature will be revealed.”

Immediately Ventralis screamed. His face grew and contorted, taking on a beastly appearance. His body grew far past that of a man’s frame, looking almost like that of a dog.   Antlers began to grow out of his head, as hair shot out of his whole body.

“The dragon has many cohorts,” Saligamus said. “Many of them demons. One of them, a Wendigo to be exact, disguised himself as a man, and you made that man your Director of Defense.”

Everybody screamed in terror.

“Kill him!” someone said. “Drive a stake through his heart.”

“Silence,” Saligamus said. “I shall deal with him as I dealt with the dragon, but I will need all of your help. For it is you, each and every one of you, who is most powerful among us. But you must believe this to make it so. Do you believe we can cast this demon out?”

Don’t hurt me! Ventralis screamed, his voice inhuman and nasally. We were only trying to he–

“We believe!” the people jeered. “We believe we can do anything!”

“That is the spirit,” Saligamus said, “and with that spirit we shall move mountains…and cast out demons. Spirit, give me your name.”

I don’t know! The spirit screamed.

A stone nicked his head, and he screamed in pain.

“Now, now,” Saligamus said. “Do not act out in anger…Lucius.”

A light now shone upon a young man who had thrown the stone, a light with no source.

“I’m sorry,” Lucius said, gasping when his voice echoed throughout the square as though through a microphone, “I just thought–”

“You didn’t believe either,” Saligamus said. “You’re no better than this demon.”

He tapped the ground with his staff and Ventralis disappeared, howling and screaming, leaving a sound almost like anguished weeping in his wake.

“Now Lucius,” Saligamus said. “Who do you say I am?”

“You are Saligamus,” Lucius said. “You are the dragonslayer, feared amongst demons, the one chosen by God.”

“Do you think this is true?” Saligamus said to the crowd.

Unanimously, they cheered.

If this pleased Saligamus or disturbed him, he did not show it either way.

He was distracted by his wife, Iarene, who was approaching now with their son, Senex. And while he hugged Senex for all he was worth and was filled with some joy at being reunited with his son, he was greatly saddened at the thoughts he had been empowered to hear in his wife’s head.

Not that he would have needed to read her mind; it was all there, written on her face.

<<<

“Tell us about the dragon again!” the children shouted to Saligamus, following him as he walked to city hall.

“Mister Repertum,” an aide said, “you will be late to your meeting.”

“Silence,” Saligamus said. “The children have a right to hear my words. They believe more than anyone.”

“Was he scary?” one child asked.

“How did you defeat him?”

“It’s this staff,” Saligamus said. “I ask God to do things, and because I believe He can, it happens.”

“Make me a sundae!” one kid, Leon Iudex, shouted, and Saligamus laughed.

“Sundaes…are bad for you!” he chortled, and they giggled. “But tell you what, Mister Iudex, see that mountain?”

The kids nodded.

“You can move that mountain,” Saligamus said. “You can do anything. The things people say are real are not. Here, Mister Iudex, take my staff–you give it a try.”

Iudex pointed the staff at the mountain.

“What do I say?” Leon said nervously.

“You say, ‘By the Power of God.’ Then you tap the ground. Don’t hit it–you’re not entitled to this, God’s not some vending machine. Just a tap. It’s a focal point.”

“What’s a focal point?”

“It’s a big grown-up concept. You know how there’s time, but there’s also places, like on a map? Well, a focal point is when you put them together. Like if time was a piece of paper, and you thumbtacked the map over it. The tack is a focal point. Now give it a try!”

“B-by the power of God!” Leon said, and hit the ground.

Nothing happened.

Saligamus took back the staff and chuckled. “Guess you don’t believe, son.”

“I can learn to believe though, can’t I?” Leon said.

“Sure you can,” Saligamus said, but he didn’t sound so sure. “Hey, my friend, I have to go. Wouldn’t want to be late! They’re going to make me the mayor of the town.”

All the kids cheered and waved Saligamus goodbye. Except for Leon. He sat there, sadly. He looked at his hands and began to cry.

“I do believe,” he said to himself. “I know I do.”

As Saligamus made his way into the Temple of Kibbet for his coronation, he felt a hand grab his shoulder.

He turned to see Grandmaster Migemous, Migemous of Manilla, distant ancestor of Iarene and Saligamus’ teacher, leader of the Order of the Fides, a man of ambiguous years, wizened brown skin, and fiery brown eyes. He was man of both infinite gentleness and limitless terror, for there were stories of him performing even greater feats than the one Saligamus was now celebrated for. Yet was there any ever a greater friend to the people of Kibbet, even if his eccentric self-started religion defied the limits of credibility.

“My student,” Migemous said, in his quiet Manillan voice. “We have much to speak of.”

“Can it wait, Grandmaster?” Saligamus said, noting with irony that Migemous bore the title of grandmaster over what had dwindled from a religion into a tiny cult of two, those two being Migemous and Saligamus.

Migemous now put his other hand on Saligamus’ shoulder and stared at him intensely. He had done this twice before: Once, when Saligamus’ father had died, and in his grief he had come to Migemous and said, “I want to wield the power my father knew,” and then a second time, after which Migemous had said, with great sadness, “You will kill the dragon, or you will die trying. This is your final lesson, one that is beyond my teaching.”
Now he was doing it again, and this time Saligamus found it irksome.

“God help you,” Migemous whispered. “What did you see up there? Please, my student…”

“I am no longer your student,” Saligamus said. “Poor is the student who does not surpass his master. Poorer still is the master that is too fool to see it.”

He shoved Migemous aside and continued into the temple.

>>>

There is a song the children sang in those days that has been lost, though some wonder if it has been lost or erased. Humans in their ignorance often worry at the suggestibility of song, that the devil may be whispering to them between the melodies. Truth be told, if that were the case, those songs would be swiftly and utterly spirited away from existence. Some things should simply not exist. Such was the case with the Song of Saligamus, which the children would sing as they played in the streets. It has been erased, and while you might be permitted to see its words, who could even begin to recall its tune? And what horrible guardian of truth and goodness might steal away their memories in the night if they attempted to?           

            See, Saligamus, the Mighty
            Child of God and Friend of Man
            Who hunted down and slayed the dragon
            The dragon named Ecclesius 

            Saligamus can tell his story
            For he lived where others died
            He found the dragon’s cave of shadow
            And the wretched beast inside

            The dragon laughed and tried to taunt him
            For fear was where its power lie
            We pray now for those enslaved
            Within the dragon’s yellow eyes

            There was no fear for our song’s hero
            He who slayed the dragon with his staff
            With just a word Saligamus
            Opened hell and sent it back

            Now we strive to be like him
            And believe in what we cannot see
            Saligamus has shown the way
            To be all that we will to be. 

<<<

Many looked back on that time as one of great prosperity, for Saligamus used his power to unify the seven mountains of Ilgano, some which can still be found today, though now that area is mostly flooded by immense ocean. A few, though, remember the tragedy.

Shortly after Saligamus’ coronation, Leon Iudex went missing.

His mother wasted no time; she knew no law enforcement would find her son with the kind of efficiency that Saligamus could.

“My Lord,” she said, running into the temple court. “My son is missing!”

The court glared at her.

“Woman,” one of the men said, “can’t you see we are busy?”

Kibbet had, until recently, been a very cosmopolitan place, where men and women held equal positions of power; differences in gender and race were acknowledged and celebrated, as diversity, the adage was, pointed to the collective of Man being a mirror image to the singularity of God. Manillans and Kibbetians had very different skin tones and cultures, yet Kibbet had become a melting pot, embracing mixed race and culture, again with the adage in mind.

Recently, though, a noted undercurrent of hostility had begun to be expressed between genders; indeed, anyone not like the “original Kibbetians” were seen as inferior. It was very sudden and no one was quite sure why.

Leon’s mother, Alene, was not to be bothered with this resurgence in sexism.

“Lord Saligamus,” she shouted. “I believe you can find my son.”

Saligamus nodded, and held up a hand, causing the security team that had arrived to back off.

“We’ll get better locks,” one of them said.

“Not necessary,” Saligamus said. “With the power I wield, locks aren’t necessary.”

“Where is he?” Alene said, tears in her eyes.

“You must tell me,” Saligamus said. “This is your battle to fight. Believing in me is one thing, but do you believe in yourself?”

“I…I don’t care. I want to find my son.”

“You must believe, Alene.”

“I believe you can find my son. Or that if you show where he is, I can find him myself.”

“I want to tell you a story,” Saligamus said.

“I don’t have time for stories,” Alene said, growing frustrated.

Saligamus’ face darkened. “Alene, my daughter…who do you say I am?”

“Sorry?”
“It’s a question a wise man once asked, and that a wise man will ask. It is a question that God asks of us daily, and we answer daily in our actions. Who do you say I am, Alene? And what will you do to make your belief real?”

“You are the Voice of God.”

Saligamus went silent.

“That is quite an honor to bestow,” he said.

“I know,” Alene said, her eyes furrowed.

Saligamus studied her a moment, then leaned forward. “Very well, woman. Your faith will show you the fate of your son.
Her face fell.

“You don’t mean?” she said.

“See for yourself,” Saligamus said, tapping the ground with his staff. “See what it is you will to see.”

A flicker of light darted across Alene’s eyes, and for a moment she thought it was merely the reflection of Saligamus’ wedding ring. She began to realize, though, that it was in fact, an object made entirely of reflective material, an orb made of mirrors, not a true sphere, but an object with so many polygonal surfaces that to the human eyes it appeared spherical.

In these godless times, one might liken it to a disco ball.

The orb floated in Saligamus’ hand, and each time it spun a new reflection of light hit Alene’s eyes, and began to spin faster and faster, until the reflections formed frames of a moving picture.

This was how Alene witnessed her son’s fate.

After being told he did not believe, Leon had decided that his unbelief was caused by fear, and that it was his job to prove to Fear that it had no power over him. He considered what he feared most–great heights, and the mountain that he had tried to move.

Perhaps Leon could not move a mountain, but maybe he could fly to it.

He took a running start; he could have no room for uncertainty, and took the longest leap one could take off of a mile-high mountain.

And he plummeted, his eyes squinted shut, refusing to scream, for fear that it would make his fear manifest.

He continued to plummet until he hit the ground far below, dying instantly as his bones shattered at the impact. He had landed with his feet, driving his bones into his stomach, shattering his spine.

Her son was gone, vaporized by his own belief.

When the orb stopped spinning, all the room was silent. It was unclear who had seen what Alene had seen; it was entirely unclear what the orb was or how it functioned, or even why Saligamus had conceived of it.

“What did you see?” Alene said quietly.

“You tell me,” Saligamus said. “Only you can tell me what you saw.”
“My boy is dead,” she said quietly. “He tried to fly.”
“And he couldn’t?”

She glared. “Of course not. People can’t fly.”

“There are those who said the dragon did not exist,” Saligamus said. “There are those who said I could not kill him.   He existed, and I did the impossible. And I want you to understand: One day, people will fly.”

“Out with her!” a guard shouted. “Cast her out of the city!”

“Do what you will do,” Saligamus said to his court. “But only do what you believe is just.   Only serve me if I am right.”

“We believe in you to the end!” they shouted in unison. “And we reject those who do not believe!”

“Unbelief is kindling!” one of the court shouted.

“Such is the fate of the unbeliever!” another shouted.

“Burn her!” they shouted together. “Burn her at the stake! Let her taste the reality of fear, so that we do not forget what we could have lost!”

She screamed as they dragged her out of the court, and they sang the song of the children to drown out the sound.

>>>

Iarene Repertum, Saligamus’ wife, was now Kibbet’s director of defense.

She considered the ironies the week had presented her as she left the bathroom for what had to be a fourth time since she had arrived that morning.

“Doctor Repertum, are you all right?” her assistant asked when she returned to her office.

“I’m fine, Julius,” she said. “Must have been something I ate.”
“You’ve been feeling nasty all week,” he said. “Sure you don’t want to go home?”

“Oh, that’s not necessary,” she said. “I’m fine, really.”

“We can handle one day without your brilliance,” he said with a flattering smile. “At least, I hope we can. I’ll call you if we can’t. You deserve some rest.”

She sighed. “All right.

She had been avoiding her home ever since her husband had returned. She had missed him dearly, but something felt incredibly wrong ever since his return. He seemed different, or rather aspects of his personality that were not the man she married seemed magnified. He was distorted, as distorted as the sky that the dragon flew through.

Still, she had to learn to live with this new husband, didn’t she? And surely he too was overwhelmed with what he had seen, what had happened.

She came home to find Senex practicing a song.

“Hello, Sen,” she said, “what song is this?”

“One I wrote, Mom,” he said. “It’s a song of better times.”

“Better times,” she said. “I like that. Don’t know how a couple of eggheads like me and your father made such a sensitive, artsy son, but keep it up. It makes me happy.”

She noticed his forehead was sweaty, and rubbed it with her thumb.

Makeup stuck to her thumb, revealing a bruise on Senex’s forehead.

“Who hit you?” She said.

His face went pale. “No one,” he said. “I tripped on my way home.”

“Why did you cover it?” she said.

“Because it is ugly,” he said, his voice sharp.

She backed down.

“Are you glad your father is back?” she said, his reaction at the mention confirming her fears.

“Yes,” Senex said, though his eyes watered. “I am very proud of him.”

She sighed, some fear in her lungs.

“Yeah,” she said. “Me too. Hey, sorry for getting on your case. Can you sing me your song?”
Senex nodded.

As the sun began to set, he sung of better times, and his mother listened.

<<<

Iarene went to sleep early; she truly did feel sick. Nothing about the week had added up. Valentin Ventralis was not a demon in disguise; he was the family’s closest friend. Alene Iudex wasn’t some spiritual traitor, she was a concerned mom. Yet the whole city, once an ivory tower, a pinnacle of education, was convinced…

These thoughts coalesced and swirled into a dream.

She was inside of an enormous cavern, pitch black and devoid of any life–no bat, no rat, nothing, just a flow of water from an unseen spring.

She heard a thunderous laugh from below.

Her journey towards the noise’s source seemed to last for a very, very long time. She knew it must have been ten minutes, but with no light to reflect progress, and seemingly no beginning nor end to the cave, it could have been just about any time.

She felt her fear mounting as she went lower and lower. She wondered if this could be the cave that…

She gasped when she saw the silhouette of a man in the darkness, his back to her. She would have collided with him, had he not been illuminated by two yellow lights.

The lights of the dragon’s eyes.

“There is a food chain,” the man in front of her said, and she recognized her husband’s voice.

“And it is time for me to eat.”

The dragon, though horrifying beyond belief, looked confused.

“By the power of God!” the man shouted, and slammed the ground with his staff, causing all to go white.

Suddenly she was sitting in a white room; the ground made of glass and lit with white light underneath.

A man who looked like her husband sat across from her, a cup of tea on a white table in front of him.

“The drink is exquisite,” he said to her. “It tastes like Chai, but that is merely my preference. The truth is that the drink tastes different for everyone.”

He took a sip of tea.

His hands began to shake.

“Say yes to yourself,” he said. “Drink what you will drink. Then we can be happy together.”

She stared down at her own drink.

It was crimson red.

Her husband held up his hand. “Do not drink of this world,” he said.

“I wasn’t going to,” she said.

He smiled. “I know. You already knew, didn’t you?  You knew what is in that cup.”

“I don’t know what it is, but I know that if I drink it, the same thing will happen to me that happened to you.”

“The dragon is dead,” her husband said.

“But it took you with it,” she said.

“No…” he said quietly. “The Great are often misunderstood.  I walk the earth, now.”

He looked up at her, his eyes sorrowful, and he put his hand on hers.

“The essence of the soul of man is blacker than anything we could comprehend. I cannot ask you to forgive me. I knew what I was doing. And there is so much more to fear of what we know that we know than what we fear we might know.”
“What the hell are you even trying to say?” Iarene said, tears in her eyes.

“I am saying that I do not regret what I have become, but I regret what I was. You will wake soon, and see a much younger man. A man who has yet to…”

He held up a finger, leaned to the side, and began to vomit profusely.

And with that, she awoke.

>>>

She awoke to hear the music of a piano, from downstairs.

Her descent reminded her of her nightmare journey to the dragon’s lair, and each creak of the stairs as she made her way to the house’s parlor filled her with greater uncertainty and dread.

Sitting there, behind the piano, was her husband.

“I miss this instrument,” he said. “Truly a massage of the mind and of the hands. Not as much as I missed you.”

“I miss you,” she said quietly.

He stood, and shut the keyboard with a horrifying firmness.

“Why have you been avoiding me?” he said.

“You have changed,” she said.

“Not changed,” he said. “Become. I have chosen…I have chosen to love something.”
“You loved me,” she said.

“What good is my love for you if it is greater than my love for God?” he said, affecting an accent that was a bit too dramatic to be his own.

She changed the subject: “What was all that with Valentin? What happened to him when he, uh, disappeared?”

“I sent him somewhere,” Saligamus said. “Somewhere where he can’t hurt anybody.”

“He wasn’t hurting anybody,” she said. “He was our friend.”

“He was a demon, a very clever disguise,” Saligamus said. “With my actions, demons will now tremble at my name.” He paused, then added: “Because my name has become equated to that of God. The God that is greater than me.”

“You’ve been talking in word salad ever since you returned,” Iarene said. “What did you see up there?”

He shook his head.

“Still you don’t trust me,” he said. “Faithlessness is not something I readily invite into this household.”

“I don’t trust you because since you’ve returned, people have been dying faster than when we were under attack by the dragon!”

“The dragon wanted you alive,” he said. “So he could feed on your fear.”
“So you want us all dead, and I’m supposed to like that?”
“You are not a Fide, so I wouldn’t expect you to understand,” he said. “But when you see the Power of God…you want to do anything you can to promote that power. You want all of humanity to express that. So if humans are not expressing the power you have seen, are they really children of God?”

“This sounds nothing like what your teacher would say,” she replied, thinking of Migemous.

“Migemous was paralyzed by his own wisdom,” Saligamus said. “He looked at faith like an absolute, something elemental, something you fostered in people. That is only half true. The larger truth is that faith is an economy, and the people of the world have grown poor.”

“Wait,” Iarene said. “What do you mean Migemous was?”

Saligamus ignored this question, and continued: “I tell you this–there was a time when men believed in things, ideas that could change the world. These men would perform feats that others thought were impossible, and indeed these men were seen as insane, but in the end great things because they there to be done. And yet even these undying ideologies passed away, and these men passed away, because only they believed. Through me, all will believe. I will enrich all around me, but I will dare to do even more, because I am the child of these Men of Old, and I will give birth to a race of heroes, of men who will show the world that it doesn’t have to suffer, that it doesn’t have to die. A world…where everything is perfect.”

“I agree,” Iarene said, “that all of that sounds good, but I have an issue with–”

“An issue with what?” Saligamus said. “Do you understand that I dare to do what others do not?”

Iarene was silent. Annoyed. This was stupid.

“I…no. I guess I don’t.”

“I have begun to beat our son, since our return,” Saligamus said, and it sent a chill to her very core. “I beat our son because he is weak. I beat him to teach him strength. He has so much potential, but he doesn’t use it. He has song, but not vision. If I were him, I would work TIRELESSLY to shape the world around me. So I light a fire…under that boy’s ass….so that one day he will be who he is meant to be!”

“You’re….my God, you’re a monster.” She said. “I didn’t marry the man you have become.”

“Love is not ‘because of,’” he said, patronizingly. “It is ‘in spite of’. I don’t know how to help you, if you can’t find it within you to love me.”

“You beat our son, you just said so.”

“If you loved me, you wouldn’t believe me,” he said. “If someone had shown me pictures of you, for instance, sleeping with Valentin Ventralis, I wouldn’t believe them. I’d tell them to go hang themselves, for altering photos of my wife like that. And my best friend!”

“So that’s what this was about,” she said. “Your jealousy.”

He laughed, as though he was dealing with an idiot.
“No…” he said. “There are those who will see such things, and misunderstand me. No no no. The great are so often misunderstood. Whatever you did with that man was merely the influence of Satan, nothing for me to take personally or to hold against you. No. I’m talking about the greater reality. The one that even now I wish for you to see. The one where everything…is perfect.”

She realized he was rolling back his sleeve as he walked towards her.

“No one appreciates you more than me,” he said.

“Get away from me,” she said.

“I want you to understand,” he said: “I am doing this because of my great passion for you. Because I love you…in spite of your unbelief. He who spares the rod…”

He raised his fist.

She knocked over the kitchen table, and it landed on his foot before he could hurt her.

He howled in pain, and she laughed in spite of herself.

“Such a powerful man,” she said, “and still you hurt when you stub your toe.”

He looked up at her with an animalistic expression of rage, then calmed himself, saying aloud:

“I mustn’t be angry.”

“You’re insane,” she said. “I’d sooner die than allow you to distort this family in the same way that whatever you saw in that cave distorted you.”

“All dragons can be destroyed,” he said, holding up his hands, palms open. “That is what I saw. I saw a good thing, Iarene.”

“Then why are you being so evil?”

He stood there, looking at a loss.

“I hate feeling like this, you know,” he said. “Feeling so…defeated. It is not in my nature.”

“What does that even mean?” she said. “You’re a college professor.”

This gave him an idea.

“When I love someone who does not believe,” he said, “I give them a sign. I will show you a sign.”

He began to walk to the kitchen. Towards the knife rack.

She picked up the dining room chair and charged him. She’d sooner die than let him hurt Senex again.

He turned and laughed, holding out a hand and shattering the chair into a million splinters, causing her to fall on the ground.

“Want to gaze upon the face of God?” he said.

He took out the sharpest of the knifes, held it to his temple and began a horizontal slicing motion, cutting off the front of his own face as if it were a loaf of bread.

This done, he peeled off his face, as though it were a mask.

Iarene was too horrified to scream.

Staring back at her was not a bleeding mass, but a cleanly burnt layer of muscle, long dried from whatever trauma it had seen. His eyes, too, were changed–where once there had been pupils, now there were only pale, angry circles.

To Iarene’s horror, there were also two tiny horns atop his head, previously hidden by his scalp.

Staring back at her was the face of the Devil himself.

+++

Samuel Cullado
3 March 2017

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