The Flying Demon
Few of the residents of Perilous Falls knew that their town’s museum housed much more than relics and antiquities. Rising up like a mountain of spires and domes at the high end of Main Street, the museum could be seen from anywhere within the city limits. Assembled from bits of demolished European castles, monasteries, and churches, the small village of stone buildings on the hilltop was officially known as the Jacob Wilder Reliquarium and Antiquities Collection. Wilder himself dubbed it “Peniel,” for reasons no one could quite recall. But everybody in town simply knew it as “the museum.” Most had no idea that a mysterious community lived within its walls, hidden from public view.
Along a stone hallway, deep within the recesses of Peniel, twelve-year-old Will Wilder dashed from door to door. He yanked at the ringed handles, peering into the darkened rooms, manically searching.
“Abbot Athanasius? Abbot Ath--Oh, come on!”
Another empty chamber.
He slammed the heavy door in frustration, stomping down the hall to try another. His “Discernment of Spirits” training session was to have started forty minutes earlier. But when he appeared at the huge chamber on the north side of Peniel, where he had been meeting the abbot every weekend for months, it was vacant.
“Abbot Athanasius?” Will pushed open the last door at the end of the hall. The smoky lighting of the chandelier in the windowless room made it hard to see. Once his eyes adjusted, he caught sight of a figure seated on a high-backed chair in the middle of the room. Its back was turned to the door.
AH-CHOO! Will sneezed.
Tentatively he entered, taking his pith helmet in hand, wary of the situation given the--AH-CHOO!--sneezes.
“Abbot?” When Will touched the shoulder of the figure, it collapsed to the ground. He kicked the mannequin in disgust. “Where are you?” he yelled.
Will spun around, trying to locate the voice.
A shadowy form stood in the corner of the room. The faint light from the chandelier twenty feet above made it impossible to say for sure who or what was there.
“Abbot, is that you?” Will whispered, inching toward the dark corner.
He grabbed the arm of the thing lingering in the shadows. Another dummy. Will hit the midsection of the figure with his helmet.
“What is this?” Will asked.
“What do you see?” a screechy voice echoed from the opposite corner.
Will turned quickly.
He could feel heat gathering on his face. He was so annoyed by the mannequins he felt like kicking in a wall or breaking something. Still he walked toward the dark corner, his dread increasing with every step.
“What do you see?” the voice demanded.
“I can’t see anything.” AH-CHOO! “It’s too dark,” Will huffed.
Someone was in the corner. Maybe Abbot Athanasius. Maybe another dummy. He had to figure out which it was.
A buzzing sound from above forced Will’s eyes upward. From the chandelier, a withered creature in black robes descended. Deep wrinkles covered its face, a cruel look in its beady eyes. Two claws reached for him.
Will scampered back toward the nearest wall. The creature touched the ground, closing in on him.
“What did you see?” it demanded.
“I . . . I . . .” Will inched along the wall toward the door. “Get away from me!”
The creature tore at the wrinkled flesh of its neck. As it got closer to Will, the shredded flesh revealed pale white skin beneath. Once half of the wrinkled latex was peeled away, steel blue eyes and a short beard emerged. The creature’s fake claws were dramatically thrown aside. It was Abbot Athanasius Poeman standing like a matador who had just slain a bull.
“Why did you converse with what might have been a demon, Will?” Athanasius asked, removing the tattered robe from his lanky frame.
“But you’re not a demon.”
“You didn’t know that,” Athanasius said, unhooking a vest connected to the cable on the ceiling. “Your impatience will be the death of you.”
“My impat--Why were you hiding?” Will’s worry gave way to irritation. “I’ve been looking for you all afternoon.”
“It was a test. The patient man abounds in understanding, Will. The impatient one becomes the devil’s plaything.” Abbot Athanasius began to leave the room, his long black habit making him appear to levitate across the floor. “You should have been more attentive--studying the room, considering all angles before you entered.”
“I didn’t think my training was going to be a forty-minute game of hide-and-go-shriek.” Will pursued the abbot down the hall.
“The sneezes should have been a warning to you--as they were for your great-grandfather. While not conclusive, they do offer some early indication that evil is present.”
“Or that the place needs a dusting.” Will smirked.
“Keep joking. There were dark objects concealed in each of the mannequins in that chamber. Objects you failed to perceive.” Athanasius stopped walking. “They could have injured you and should not have been handled.”
“That was my training? I gave up my friends--half the day--to dodge dummies and watch that evil Batman routine?”
“If only the cable had not buzzed during my descent . . . it would have been perfect,” Athanasius said offhandedly. “Perhaps next time.”
“I’m not sure I want a next time.” Will slammed his pith helmet onto his head and marched down the hall in the opposite direction. Embarrassed, he felt as if he’d been tricked by the abbot and played for a fool. But when you’re twelve, feelings are powerful things and difficult lessons are often the easiest to resist.
“WILL!” Athanasius bellowed in a deep tone that filled the hall. The boy stopped cold. When the leader of the Brethren raised his voice, which he rarely did, everybody froze in place. “Whether you train or not, the Sinestri know who you are. They will pursue you. Unless you refine your sight and learn to distinguish deceptions from reality, darkness from light, you’ll be no good to this community or to yourself.” The abbot faced Will with a look of disappointment. “The training cannot progress until you learn to control your emotions--to master yourself.”
“I was trying.” Will’s brows knit together as he glared at Athanasius. “But after searching the tenth room, even an angel would start growing horns.”
“Silence! Do you hear yourself, boy?” The veins on the side of the superior’s balding head pulsed. “Always an answer. Always the last word.” He paused for a long moment before he continued. “I want you to go down to the museum. Polish the display cases.”
“Not again.” Will’s head and shoulders slumped.
“Again and again and again and again until you are self-composed enough to take direction.”
“My brother, Leo, has a karate meet that I told my family--”
“After you clean the cases in the Egyptian Gallery, you may go to your event.”
“I promised Leo that I would--”
This time an icy glance from Abbot Athanasius was enough to quiet Will. He walked over to the boy and in a kinder tone added, “I am doing this for your own sake, Will. The prophecy says that you may one day lead the Brethren against the enemy. To lead, you must first be a servant. Attend to your duties and be here at the usual time tomorrow.” His blue eyes bore into Will.
Before he could say anything he might later regret, Will descended a slightly bowed spiral staircase and ran toward the museum in the front, public section of Peniel.
The prophecy. The prophecy. All I ever hear is the prophecy.
Had he not borrowed a relic a few months earlier, Will might have been playing with his friends on that Friday afternoon. But when he snatched a saint’s finger bone from a local church, things sort of got out of hand. Will had befriended a riverboat captain who turned out to be a major demon. Though he didn’t realize it at the time, Will was the only person who could see the beast. The demon deceived Will, stole the relic, and the whole town was soon beset by floodwaters and terrifying monsters. That was when he first read the prophecy. According to this old book, protected by Will’s great-aunt Lucille, a firstborn son of the Wilder family would be a Seer--one possessing the ability to see demons. Sure enough, Will could spot the horrible creatures, but he hoped he would never have to see another one--and he hadn’t for many months.
“Your gift must be honed,” Lucille would say. So several times a week, Will dutifully showed up at Peniel to undergo training by members of the Brethren, a secret order that had been fighting demons for centuries. They lived in community in and around the museum, which they often called an archabbey since it was the most important monastery in the region.
On the ground floor of Peniel, Will rushed past ancient columns and a row of Gothic windows. In the courtyard garden outside, overrun with vines and pink sprays, a chubby man in a black habit with a bright green apron caught his attention. Brother Ugo Pagani, the gruff herbalist and chemist for the archabbey, pinched leaves off a bush. He placed each one in a basket looped over his forearm. From the way he handled the leaves, one would have sworn he were collecting rare butterflies. “If he only treated people that way,” Will said under his breath.
Ugo was known for his caustic humor, hair-trigger temper, and for occasionally hurling things across rooms at great speeds. Though you’d never know that from the gentle Ugo in the garden. He could have been mistaken for an oversized Girl Scout rescuing a wounded cat from a tree. That was until Ugo saw Will staring at him through the glass. He quickly assumed his natural attitude, scowling at the boy and poking a finger to his right, indicating that Will should move along. He did as directed.
No matter how many times Will wandered the halls of Peniel, he could not fathom how his great-grandfather Jacob Wilder had managed to construct the place. It was as if one ancient castle opened on to another--a mix of Gothic halls giving way to Romanesque chambers, leading to Byzantine anterooms and filigreed chapels. There were so many passages and stairways he had yet to explore, like the one he passed leading down to the vaults. The sudden mention of his name and a pair of intense voices within the darkened stairwell forced him to stop.
“. . . Will Wilder is making no progress at all,” a resonant male voice intoned in the darkness. “He’s barely trained.”
“There is the prophecy. He’s the only one that can see the things,” an Irish-inflected voice responded.
Will inched down the stairs.
“Untrained gifts do little good. He is not a leader. He’s a boy. And who of us have read the prophecy?”
A languid female voice interrupted them. “I have, actually.” It was Will’s great-aunt Lucille. No one said a word. Will moved farther down the stairs for a clear view.
“Close up the vault, will you? If you have concerns, Baldwin, you should bring them to the council,” Aunt Lucille advised. “Gossip can be so destructive.” She walked through the rounded opening of some Old World safe, a gold wooden box topped by glass in her hands. Will mistook it for a shallow birdhouse. From the white gloves, he knew Aunt Lucille must be transporting a relic or some other precious treasure up to the museum.
Baldwin, a thick-necked brother with thinning blond hair, closed the vault door with his considerable brawn. “I meant no harm, Lucille,” he said, dropping his haughtiness as the locks automatically engaged. “We all want what’s best for Will . . . and the order.”
“I’m sure you do, Baldwin. And as vicar of the community, you should keep an open mind.” Aunt Lucille headed to the stairs, spotting Will on the landing. “Look who’s here.”
Baldwin turned his hawk nose in Will’s direction, stiffening to his full height. “How are you progressing, young man?”
“Okay, I guess.” Will narrowed his eyes. “I mean for someone barely trained and all . . .”
Before anyone could say another word, Brother James, the slight, thirtysomething, red-bearded man with the Irish brogue, wrapped a thin arm around Will. “I want yuh ta know, I defended yuh. I believe the prophecy, I do.” He blinked a lot when he spoke, which always made Will smile.
“James, why don’t you join the others at the chapter meeting in the Perilous Chapel?” Baldwin suggested.
“Right away, Vicar.” James gave Will a pat on the arm and blinked out his supportive Morse code. “Good day to yuh, Will. Keep at it. I believe in yuh, I do,” he whispered before shooting up the stairs. Baldwin nodded to Aunt Lucille, then to Will and silently followed James.
“Where are you headed?” Aunt Lucille asked Will, her blue eyes traveling to the ornate box in her hands.
He quickly got the message. “Do you need me to carry that?”
“Thought you’d never ask.” At the top of the stairs, she placed the box on a nearby chair, gave Will her gloves, and led him down the hall.
At sixty-six, Lucille Wilder was used to leading the way. She had spent her life in the walls of the museum, working with her father as a young girl here and in the decades since as its director. Whether tending to artifacts or curating exhibits, calming the factions within the Brethren, or overseeing the training of her grandnephew, Lucille’s strawberry-blond curls were bouncing all over Peniel. Time seemingly had no effect on her. In fact, Aunt Lucille moved with such verve through the halls, she left Will short of breath.
“Come on, catch up, dear. Help me deliver that to my father’s office in the tower; then you can run along to Leo’s karate meet.”
“I wish I could. Abbot Athanasius ordered me to clean the display cases again. This time I’m scrubbing down the Egyptian Gallery,” Will complained.
“The training mustn’t have gone well. How bad was it?”
“I kinda snapped at him. He was hiding from me. . . .” Under the glass top of the box in his hands, Will could see a piece of silk, tanned and spotted by age. “Hey, what is this?”
Aunt Lucille pulled at the high collar of her powder-blue jacket and turned to her nephew. “You’ve got to watch your tongue with the abbot--with all your instructors. Obedience is the only way you’ll learn anything, Will. Much depends on your progress.”
“I understand,” he said. “So what’s in the box?”
“Oh, that is quite a relic. The veil of the Virgin Mary.” Aunt Lucille tapped a finger on the glass. “Careful with it, dear. That’s the original. We sent a facsimile to Chartres Cathedral in France. The Sinestri have been attempting to steal it. They even started a fire in the cathedral last week as a distraction. The Brethren there were so concerned, they transferred it to us for safekeeping. It’ll be quite secure in my father’s office. Bartimaeus and I have the only keys.”