Bishop Oran Delrose knelt before the altar of Yaru in the Saint Oloran Cathedral.  Its arched ceiling stretched a hundred feet in the air and echoed with the sound of a chorus of voices in the loft.  Depicting stories from the holy scriptures, stained-glass portraits adorned the windows.  The gold flecks in the gray-and-white marble floor sparkled as the sunlight shone upon them.  Archways as tall as the ceiling led to a confessional on one side and a baptismal on the other.  Five rows of mahogany pews formed four aisles on the outside and one down the center.

“Merciful Yaru, grant me wisdom and courage in these trying times.  Open my father’s eyes so he might see the folly of his actions.  Bring peace to the realm again.  Use me as an instrument of your will.  May I find favor in your eyes, and may your Light shine upon me.”

Oran gathered his white-and-purple clergyman robes as he stood to his feet and ran his fingers through his sandy-blond hair.  Troubled, he stroked the dark stubble growing on his chin and contemplated the disconcerting news from the Westlands.  The kingdom of Azur’nth enjoyed peace and prosperity for three centuries since the Sage War.  The Darkness was vanquished long ago.  But if the reports of late offered any credence…

…then the Dark Days are upon us once more.

The sound of swift, shuffling footsteps from behind drew Oran’s attention.  He turned to see a man dressed in the holy robes of a cleric scurrying down the aisle to meet him.  Short and squat, the sunlight reflected brightly off the top of the man’s bald head.  His pudgy, clean-shaven face jiggled as he huffed and puffed to stand before Oran and give a bow.

“Your Excellency,” he greeted.

“That’s not my title, Germaine,” Oran corrected.  “My father is the Archbishop.”

“Forgive me, my lord.  Have you received my letters?”

“Yes.  Disturbing news from Shady Grove.  I dismissed them as superstition and hearsay, but I imagine the truth is quite the contrary if you’ve come all this way.”

Shady Grove was a large farming village nestled on the edge of the Westlands and Blackheart Swamp, a land still cursed by the scar of the Darkness.  Germaine served as the cleric of Yaru and presided over the temple there.  His journey from to Saint Oloran spanned more than a hundred miles.  From the looks of him, weather-worn and covered in dust, he traveled in haste to get here.

“Creatures of Darkness terrorize the countryside, killing people in the night and stealing their children.  The curse on Blackheart Swamp is lifted, but the evil spirits trapped there are free to roam as they please.  One has taken possession of a young girl, Mara, the mayor’s daughter.  I tried to drive it out, but it is beyond my power.”

A skeptical eyebrow crawled up Oran’s forehead.

“You’ve observed this possession with your own eyes?” 

“She screams out vile curses—lies of the Dark One.  She is given to hysteria, fits of rage, and self-mutilation.  Her family despairs, and everyone fears their child will be next.”

Tales of old spoke of evil spirits taking hold of the innocent, using them to do the bidding of Havaeltr, the Dark One.  Such events were unheard of nowadays.  Oran, like all clerics, studied the rites of exorcism, but had never performed one.  Nothing guaranteed his success where Germaine had failed.

But I am the High Cleric of Yaru; it is my duty to try.

 “I will make arrangements to leave for Shady Grove in the morning,” Oran decided.  “Get some rest.  You look like you had a hard journey.”

Germaine showered Oran with gratitude before turning to leave the way he came.  Oran remained in the cathedral for a while longer, anxious at the task before him.  Doubt and insecurity flooded his heart.  Questions riddled his thoughts as to whether his faith and talents would be enough to save this girl from damnation.

Yaru, give me strength.

Oran walked through the corridors at the edge of the Cathedral, and climbed the red carpeted stairs to the housing connected via the west wing.  The heavy oak door leading to his quarters creaked open on its old brass hinges.  Leaving it ajar, he threw open the chest at the edge of his bed and pulled out his worn leather traveling bag.  Over the next hour, he gathered the items needed for the exorcism.

He inspected each one before stowing it in his bag.  First, an oblong object—an emblem of Yaru.  Long, and cylindrical at the base, it broadened into a circular symbol at the top.  Seven lines forming a sunburst intersected seven rings.  Melted down by the Light of Yaru instead of fire, the emblem was forged of a heavenly metal known as celestium.  Obtainable only from ore found in rocks flung to the earth from the cosmos, exceedingly rare, its value exceeded that of the Cathedral itself.

Next, he picked up a glass vial of oil, blessed by Yaru.  He tucked it into his bag alongside his personal copy of La Scriptura Luminaren, the holy book of the Yaruvian faith.  Lastly, he picked up a second vial, frowning in sorrow at its contents.  Contained within the glass, water with a faint blue glow illuminated the interior of his bag.  Sacred waters extracted from an oasis in Ysaht, the nation south of Azur’nth, contained miraculous healing properties.

How much blood was shed to obtain it?

Sanctus Dei, the church of the Yaruvian faith, mobilized their army under the guise of a crusade.  In reality, it served only to help them obtain the sacred waters.  As foretold in the scriptures, clerics all over the realm suddenly lost their ability to wield the Light.  To maintain its political position and favor of the people, they resorted to the genocide of people native to the land where this resource could be found.  Extracted from veins beneath the soil, the church distributed it to clerics throughout the kingdom, allowing them to heal wounds without the powers once bestowed upon them by their god.

Blasphemy purchased through mass murder, Oran thought.  For power.  For position.

Oran’s father, Archbishop Vinigo Delrose, commissioned all of this.  While vehemently opposed to the crusade, Oran could not deny the power contained within the water.  Wounds closed.  Scars vanished.  Afflictions lifted with no more than a few drops of the precious liquid.  To date, Oran maintained favor with Yaru and could still use the power of holy magic.  Still, having seen the potential of the sacred water, he deigned to take some with him.

He walked over to the mirror on his chest of drawers and took a long, hard look the man staring back at him.  Hazel eyes filled with intensity peered into his, within them, sorrow and regret.  In his thirty-seven years, Oran never believed he would live to see the return of the Dark Days.  He devoted his life to the faith because the men in his family had done the same for generations before him.  The church was to be a shepherd for the people, a beacon of morality.  Through years of corruption, it became nothing more than societal control—a political platform to keep wealth flowing.

This girl needs me, he remembered.  Perhaps I can still serve Yaru’s purpose.

Sleep came in restless fits that night.  Waking every hour or so in a feverish sweat, Oran found himself unable to shake his anxiety.  Eventually, he reserved to standing on the balcony connected to his bedroom to watch the sunrise.  Diamond dust scattered across a black velvet sky gave way to deep blue.  The horizon brightened as sunlight poured into the city. 

Small folk rose early to milk their cows and gather eggs.  Soldiers woke to begin their drills.  Merchants erected their carts and canopies in the marketplace.  A day in Saint Oloran like any other unfolded before Oran as he watched in thoughtful silence.

After wasting several hours, he turned to grab his things and meet Germaine at the stables.  The ride to Shady Grove would take a week with good weather and a steady pace.  They would travel by way of the Royal Road.  Plenty of inns and temples dotted the path between here and their destination.

It will be my first night away since being stationed here, Oran realized.  ‘Exiled’ was a more appropriate word.  His father wanted him out of sight and out of the way.  He told him to focus his efforts on preaching sermons and opening soup kitchens for the needy.  Vinigo intended it as a slight, but Oran found more fulfillment in his duties at Saint Oloran Cathedral than he would participating in war.

“Good morning, Bishop Delrose,” Germaine greeted as he approached.

“Good morning, Germaine.”

“How did you sleep?”

“In my bed,” Oran snickered.  “Let’s not tarry.  We’ve a long road ahead of us.”

And tarry they did not.  The stable hands saw their horses shoed and saddled.  Before long, the two of them trotted out the north end of the city on their way to rescue a young girl from the oppression of an evil spirit.  It sounded rather like the tales Oran heard growing up about heroes from the Sage War.  They painted clerics as valiant warriors, wielding the Light to defeat the forces of Darkness.  Reality proved them no more than two priests on their way to do their duty.

Provided I am able.

One night, a few days later, Germaine asked, “Are you nervous?”

Huddled before the fireplace in the common room of an inn, the two men sipped tea from beneath the folds of their blankets.  Chasing away the autumn chill proved a perpetually daunting task as winter approached.  Oran contemplated the question as he took another sip from his steaming mug.

“Anxious,” he admitted.

“That’s understandable,” Germaine said.  “Have you ever…you know…done this before?”

Oran shook his head.

“Me neither,” Germaine confessed.  “I performed the rite of exorcism just as it’s outlined in the scriptures.  I suppose I lack the faith.”

“Has Yaru withdrawn his Light from you?” Oran asked.

“No!” Germaine insisted.  “I can still wield the Light.  Better than ever, in fact.”

Oran’s father, in attempts to keep the ordeal a secret, burned at the stake any cleric who lost the ability to wield the Light.  Having witnessed several men face the pyres firsthand, Oran recalled hearing some of them scream out warnings about the lies of Sanctus Dei and the approach of the Dark Days.  Most of them pleaded for their lives.  Once the flames started to lick away at their flesh, all they did was scream.

“Perhaps a lack of faith is not the issue,” Oran pondered aloud.  “We won’t know until we get there.”

On a rainy evening a few days later, Oran and Germaine arrived at the farming village of Shady Grove.  The weather grew chill.  So cold, each breath released a puff of steam into the air.  Fenced-in fields, picked clean since the harvest, surrounded the cluster of houses in the center.  Their houses were simple, but of durable build.  Red bricks.  Clay tile roofs.  Solid oak doors and window shutters.  The winding roads connecting the buildings in the village led to a lone man, hooded and cloaked, holding a lantern.

The watchman.

From beneath the hood, Oran observed only facial features.  Fierce, dark eyes peered at him from below a prominent brow.  The contour of his hooked nose and pointed chin jutted forward like an axe.  On his lip, he wore curled mustaches and sported a spade-shaped beard on his chin.  Elsewise, his face shone smooth.

“You’ve returned,” he said to Germaine.  He stole curious glance at Oran.

“This is Bishop Oran Delrose, High Cleric of Yaru,” Germaine explained.

“Pleased to meet you—” Oran began.

“I don’t give a good god-damn who you are.  Can you help that poor girl or not?”

“That is why I’m here,” Oran replied, dismounting.

He ignored the man’s rudeness.  Desperate people oftentimes forgot manners when speaking to their betters.  Oran spent much of his time ministering to filthy, starving peasants so his expectation of propriety remained at a constant low. 

Pulling the reins, Oran coaxed his horse into the stables.  All too eager to be out of the cold and damp, the mare skipped merrily and welcomed a stall furnished with oats and hay.

The watchman hung his lantern on one of the long nails lining the stalls where other lanterns illuminated the stable.  After he helped Germaine get his gelding settled into a stall, he threw back his hood and approached Oran with an extended hand.

“Name’s Bryant.  The mayor’s my kin; the girl is my cousin.”

“That explains your concern,” Oran noted.

“How is she doing?” Germaine asked.

Bryant grimaced.

“Worse than ever.  She dove out her bedroom window and cut her face up real bad.  They found her on Devon’s farm.  She’d killed one of the sheep and was—”

He stopped mid-sentence, lip quivering as his composure faltered.   Taking deep breath, he tried to be discreet in wiping away the tear trailing down his cheek.  His face twisted in an angry snarl before he continued.

“She was eating it!  On all fours, tearing at it with her teeth, growling like some sort of animal!”

“Yaru’s mercy!” Germaine exclaimed.

“Her sisters found her first,” Bryant continued.  “She bit the youngest one and pulled out a fistful of hair from the other.  She’s unnaturally strong; it took six men to restrain her and tie her to the bed.  I don’t think they’ll ever be the same.”

“What do you mean ‘they’ll never be the same’?” Oran asked.

“Come see for yourself,” Bryant said.  “Most of them are at Dink’s.”

He snagged his lantern and motioned for them to follow.  Without any idea of who or what ‘Dink’s’ was, Oran followed the man up the hill on the curving stone path.  The cold patter of raindrops soaking through his robes sent an uncomfortable shiver through his limbs.  Crossing his arms across his chest, he quickened his pace, hoping Bryant would take the hint.

He led them to a tavern named ‘Dink’s Drinkery’.  They climbed five steep stairs up to the porch and through the door.  Tables and chairs spread over the expanse of a wooden floor.  A roaring fire in the hearth on the east end of the room kept the temperature nice and toasty.  All eyes moved to Oran as he shook the rain from his hair.

One might find more joy in a dungeon.  The meager number of patrons clustered in groups of two or three spread out across the tavern.  Two barmaids bustled about, busying themselves with refilling empty mugs and collecting dinner plates.  The aroma of roast meat from the kitchen made Oran’s mouth water.  Hurrying over the last stretch of the journey left him famished.

“Here they are,” Bryant pointed.  “Come.  Meet them.”

The watchman led him to a table where four men huddled together.  At their approach, they turned to face Oran with wary expressions—a look one would expect from someone having survived some terrible trauma.

“Bishop, this is Ben, Will, Darren, and Sam,” Bryant said, pointing to each man in turn.  “Men, this is Bishop Oran Delrose, High Cleric of Yaru; he’s here to help Mara.”

They offered half-hearted hellos as if saying too much might invoke tears.  Oran inspected their appearance.  All four of them had bright shocks of snow white hair.  This was not the kind of white one could expect from aging; this shone like starlight.  They were not old men either.  The eldest among them, Ben, could not have been more than fifty.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, gentlemen,” Oran began.  “As Bryant said, I am here to help Mara.  I understand you were among the men who helped restrain her when she escaped.”

None of them said a word, and instead offered only solemn nods.  The man sitting closest, Darren, offered his hand to Oran.  When he shook it, he saw that even the hair on his arm and knuckles had turned ghostly white.  A quick glance around the table showed the others suffered the same.

“Your hair...” Oran trailed off.  “The others?”

“White as snow,” Ben confirmed.

“What happened?”

The four of them exchanged grim looks between them, and settled on Ben to do the talking.  With a deep frown and heavy sigh, he recounted the events.

“We were right here at Dink’s—Darren, Sam, and I—sitting right here at this very table when we heard the screaming.  Mara had been in a bad way for a few weeks, so we figured it had something to do with that.  By the time we made it outside, Devon was trying to pull her off her sisters.

“She was howling and shouting out curses so terrible I dare not utter them.  Tiny little thing, and I watched her shove Devon so far he flew ten feet before he hit the ground.  She pounced on him, clawing and biting like some feral creature.

“Will lives closest to the farm, and rushed over to help.  Her father wasn’t far behind.  We found the two of them doing their best to hold her down.  Once we stepped in and took hold of her, clothes torn, blood staining her mouth and fingers, she starting shrieking.  It wasn’t her voice either; it sounded like a thousand tortured souls screaming in agony.

“That’s when she started…saying things.”

Ben choked up.  Retelling the story vexed him, and it showed.  Darren rested a reassuring hand on his shoulder.  The others gave nods of affirmation, encouraging him to carry on.  After gathering his composure, Ben continued his tale.

“It’s like she looked into our hearts and found our darkest secrets.  She started accusing us of our sins—things we never told no one.  Ever.  Her eyes turned black and big as dinner plates.  I looked right into those eyes, and I don’t know what it was, but it wasn’t Mara staring back at me.  It was something else.  Something evil.  We dragged her, kicking and screaming, back up to her bedroom and tied her down.

“By the time we cleared the room, all of our hair had turned white.  Needless to say, we were pretty shook up.  Some of us more than others…”

Ben started sobbing.  He tried to sip ale from his mug between sputtering.  The other three gave mournful expressions as Bryant finally broke their silence.

“Devon Garry, the man who owned the farm, hanged himself last night.”

Germaine gasped.

“Oh no!  Is Martha okay?  Is someone with her and the girls?”

“They’re devastated, but holding up as best as one could expect,” Bryant replied.  He turned to Oran.  “Devon’s sins were…darker than most.  Turns out he had been molesting a few of the boys here in the village.  Once word spread, talk of him facing a tribunal started.  I guess he decided to save the hangman the trouble.”

“Germaine, when you attempted the exorcism, did this spirit taunt you with your sins?” Oran inquired.

“Yes.”

“And did you also look into her eyes?”

“I did.”

“Yet your hair remains unchanged,” Oran observed.

“I think Yaru’s seal upon my spirit prevented it from afflicting me so.”

Oran gave a nod, supposing that explanation made as much sense as any.

“Where is Mara now?”

“Last I checked, she was still tied to her bed in her father’s house,” Bryant answered.  “Which reminds me, I was supposed to inform him when you arrived.”

“There’s no need,” Oran said.  “We’ll go there straightaway from here.”  He turned to address the men seated at the table once more.  “Gentlemen, thank you for informing me of the situation.  I know it’s painful to talk about such horrific things.  And I’m sorry for your friend…for your loss.”

“Thank you,” Ben mumbled.  The others offered only nods.

With that, Bryant led Oran out the door of Dink’s Drinkery and back out into the cold and wet.  The rain came down steadily.  As if by some premeditated foreshadowing to what awaited, the sky ignited with lightning and the hills rumbled with the thunder of an approaching storm.  Oran couldn’t tell if it was the cold weather or the anticipation making him shiver.

Both, perhaps.

The mayor lived just down the road from Dink’s, but the curving roads took them the long way around the farm between the tavern and his home.  It was a large house of the same sturdy build as the others, but of finer design.  Just staring up at the candlelit window on the second floor, Oran felt the presence of something evil hovering over the house. 

As he crossed the threshold, wiping his feet on the mat, a tall man with stark white hair greeted them.  He dressed in a brown waistcoat boasting brass buttons and matching trousers.  The threads of his white cotton shirt opened loose enough to show that even the hair on his chest had changed.

“You must be the cleric.  I can’t thank you enough for coming.”

“You must be the mayor,” Oran replied, extending his hand.  “Oran Delrose.”

The mayor’s eyes went wide and he offered a deep bow.

“Germaine said he was going to get help from Saint Oloran.  I didn’t imagine he meant you, my lord.”

“I’m only a man.  Just like you.  Just like Germaine.  And we are all children of Yaru.”

“Can you help my Mara?”

“I didn’t come all this way to leave her to the mercy of a foul spirit,” Oran said.  “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”

“Claude.”

“Claude, I promise you this: I will do everything in my power to drive this evil spirit from your daughter and far from Shady Grove.”

“I pray that Yaru give you strength and discernment,” Claude offered.

If half of what I’ve heard is true, I’m going to need it.

“Take me to her.”

Oran clutched his leather bag close as he started the climb up the stairs.  While only a single flight, the steps stretched on for what seemed like eternity.  By the time he reached the landing at the top, his palms perspired and his leg muscles felt like mud.  Turning the corner, Claude led him down a hallway where two girls peered out from a doorway to the right.

Young and pretty, both of them stared at Oran in wide-eyed silence.  The side of the older sister’s head showed a bloody scab where a chunk of her wispy blond hair had been torn free.  The younger, wore a bandage on her neck to cover the bite mark.

The door looming at the end of the hall brought a feeling of great foreboding as Oran approached.  As he passed another bedroom on the left, he found a plump, pretty woman in her fifties.  She knelt, hands clasped, eyes tightly closed, lips moving a steady rhythm.  At the sound of his approach, she jumped to her feet and rushed to greet him.

“Thank Yaru you’re here!  I prayed night and day for your journey to be both swift and safe.”

“The Lord of Light has answered your prayers,” Oran replied.

“Will he rescue my daughter from this spirit?” she demanded.  “Can you drive it out?”

“All will be well in time,” Oran promised. 

The woman nodded, but the doubt on her face could not have been more apparent.  Oran shook the thought from his mind as he proceeded for the door at the end of the hall.  The last thing he needed was fear, doubt, and unbelief plaguing his heart while trying to drive out something that preyed upon weakness.

He stopped at the door, hesitating as he reached for the handle.  He clenched his fist when he caught it trembling.  In frustration, he closed his eyes and whispered one last prayer under his breath.

“Yaru, give me strength.”

Unsure of what exactly to expect when he walked into the room, nothing could have surprised him more than what he saw.  A teenage girl sprawled out on a bed.  On her back, with her wrists bound tightly with rope, her head lulled, hair spilling forward and hiding her face.  She wore only a nightgown, once white, now stained with blood.  The room stank of piss and shit.  From the looks of things, poor Mara had been left to wallow in her own filth.  The ropes around her wrists broke the skin, leaving it exposed and bleeding.  Without context, one might think this family was holding the poor girl prisoner.

As Oran took a step forward, Mara’s head jerked up.  Dried, brown blood crusted to her lips and around her mouth.  Regarding him as a stranger, she shifted uncomfortably as he neared the bed.

“Mara?” he asked.

“Who are you?”

“My name is Oran,” he replied.  “I’m a cleric.  I’m here to help you.”

“Just kill me,” she pleaded.  “He can only have me while I’m alive.”

“Who told you this?”

The innocence and fear dissolved from Mara’s face like sugar in the rain.  Lightning flashed as her lips curled into a sadistic smile.  Thunder crashed as her eyes turned black and grew large as saucers, a tiny glowing flame replacing the pupil.

“I smelled your stench a mile out, Light-bringer.  You toil in vain.  She belongs to me.”

Though his heart pounded in his chest, Oran retrieved his holy book from his bag and opened to the bookmarked page.  Oran read the rites of exorcism aloud.

“In the name of Yaru, Lord of Light, and by his power, I, his servant command you to leave this vessel.  Flee to the Abyss from whence you came and return no longer, foul spirit.”

Mara’s face returned to normal, but she offered only mocking laughter.

“Foolish mortal!  You cannot chase me away with words.  I took her maidenhead beneath the willow on the edge of the marsh.  We are bound, spirt and flesh, to one another.  She belongs to me!”

Knowing full well that while it spoke with Mara’s voice, the words came from the spirit, Oran ignored them and continued the rites.

“In the name of goodness and Light, I bind you.  Relinquish your hold on this vessel!  I command you, by the authority bestowed upon me, to release this child from your clutches.”

“Authority!” Mara scoffed.  More mocking laughter ensued.  “You have no authority over me!  You contend with one more powerful than you can imagine.”

Oran would not be deterred.  Nearing the last line of the rites, he pressed on.

“Leave this vessel and this realm, return to the depths of Darkness where you belong.  In the name of Yaru and by the power of his Light!”

“Fuck Yaru.  Fuck the Light.  And fuck you.  When the Dark One establishes his throne in this world, I will gather the souls of all you love and rape them in fire for eternity.”

Mara’s voice had changed.  As described earlier, it sounded like countless voices wailing in agonizing unison.  It made the hair on the back of Oran’s neck stand on end.  Dauntless in his endeavor, he closed his eyes and forced himself into a state of deep concentration.  This allowed his mind to touch the power within his own spirit.  When he opened his eyes, a faint halo of Light surrounded him as he repeated the rites of exorcism, this time in the Holy Language.

Convulsing with rage, Mara spewed out curses.  As she thrashed and tugged at her bonds, the wounds on her wrists opened and trickled fresh blood.  The flames on the end of the candles casting light in the room grew into torrents, threatening to scorch the ceiling above.  Oran persisted, even when the books from the shelf hurled themselves to the floor.  Though it took every ounce of will power in his being, he refused to stop even when the furniture started floating and revolving around the room.

It was only when Mara let out a primal bellow, long and loud, accompanied by a powerful, unseen force that Oran stopped.  The blow slammed him into the door and knocked the wind from his body.  His holy book fell to the floor with a clamor.  Eyes fixed in terror on the creature before him, Oran rose to face its malicious gaze.

Hideous and deformed, teeth bared like fangs, black eyes staring into the pit of his soul, Mara transformed.  Allegedly dark spirits could project false realities into the imaginations of the weak-minded.  But this was more than an illusion.  Her skeletal structure elongated as her muscles swelled until every blue vein bulged.  Threads on the ropes snapped as they grew taught from the tugging.

Oran knelt, staring up into the dark voids where Mara’s eyes had once been, and listened as the being inside her spoke.

“Be gone with you, hypocrite!  Your soul is not clean.  The sins of your past fester inside you like a puss-filled sore.  You were ready to abandon your faith for just a taste of Valyndra’s cunt.  Did you know she still screams your name in the Abyss?”

“How do you know that name?” Oran demanded.

“She is damned for eternity to writhe in fire and pain.”

“Lies!  Get her name out of your mouth!”

Another roar and push of unseen energy pinned Oran against the wall. 

It said her name, he thought.  It had been decades since last he’d heard it spoken aloud.  And now to hear it from a possessed girl left him shaken.  Valyndra had been his one great love.  Eighteen years ago, while still serving the church as a missionary, they met in Ysaht.  He could still remember the sun shining through her long brown hair as she stood in the marketplace of the Jahdu oasis buying fruit from a vendor.  No woman more beautiful crossed his path before or since.

They fell in love and began an affair, forbidden by both her culture and his.  She was promised to the chieftain of a neighboring tribe, and Oran’s father arranged a marriage to some nobleman’s daughter.  They decided they could not be apart, and eloped to marry in secret.  In their union they conceived, and Valyndra gave birth to a little girl.  Oran gave the order for Sanctus Dei to escort his wife and child to Azur’nth so they could be a family.  He planned to give his resignation and leave the life of a cleric behind.

But the caravan never reached its destination.  Somewhere on the northern outskirts of Ysaht, bandits from a neighboring tribe sacked it and slaughtered everyone.  Oran didn’t believe it when he heard the report.  He took his fastest horse south across the frontier and into the desert.  Only when he saw the smoldering remains of the wagons and charred bodies did he accept the truth.

With nothing else to live for, he stayed in the church and finished his training.  He buried himself in his studies, growing in skill and power until he attained the rank of High Cleric.  Even to this day, he still thought of Valyndra and their blond-haired little girl.

She would be Mara’s age or a little older.

Mara hiked up her nightgown to expose her nakedness underneath.  She spread her legs, offering a full view.  She wore an expression like a woman attempting to seduce.

“It’s been eighteen years since you were inside a woman,” she said.  She used Mara’s voice, as if trying to sound sweet and innocent.  “Why don’t you slip your cock inside of me and remember what it feels like?”

“Silence, filth!” Oran bellowed.

He reached into his spirit once more.  Once he tapped into the power allowing him to perform magic, he devised a spell used in warfare.  Aglow with the Light of Yaru, he stretched his hand forward, and let a steady stream flood over Mara’s leg.  She shrieked and coiled up.  A fresh angry red burn on her leg told Oran everything he needed to know.

This is no spirit tormenting this girl.  It is a demon.

They were different: spirits and demons.  Spirits were nothing more than the mind, will, and emotions of one of the countless souls deceased over the span of time.  Demons were a race of beings crafted in the Abyss by the Dark One himself.  They could only take fleshly form in the world of Espiria if provided a gateway.  Wearing their victims like a suit of skin, they terrorized the world.  Bound by blood, they were slaves to Havaeltr’s bidding.

But they cannot abide the Light.

Emboldened by this new theory, and curious to test its merit, Oran reached into the folds of his leather bag and retrieved the holy emblem.  Accessing his spirit for power to channel the Light, the metal glowed bright like a torch.  Mara recoiled as he pressed it to her forehead, shrieking in pain and fury.  He held it there for a moment, and pulled it away.  The symbol burned into the girl’s head like a cattle brand.

“I’m going to fucking kill you!”

The voice of tortured thousands shrieked once more, much to Oran’s satisfaction.

“What is your name, demon?” he asked.  At this, Mara’s eyes went wide with surprise.  “That’s right.  I know what you are, and how to vanquish you.”

Reciting a spell from memory, Oran tapped the energy in his spirit and recited the words aloud.  Over the course of a minute or so, a golden ring appeared, revolving around the bed.  A Circle of Truth.

“You know nothing!” the demon roared.  “If you drive me out, I’ll kill the girl and take her soul with me.”  Oran knew it spoke the truth now.  Even demons could not utter untruths within the circle.

“Drive you out?” Oran taunted.  “No.  I am going to vanquish you with the power of the Light and eradicate your profane existence forever.  What more, I’m going to do it in such a way that the girl lives.  Now answer my question.  What is your name?”

“We are many, and have many names.  In the tongues of men, we are Wrath, and Lust, and Gluttony.”

“I will give you one opportunity to leave this girl and return to the Abyss,” Oran offered.

“I cannot leave now,” the demon mocked.  “Our union is nearly complete.  You cannot destroy me without destroying her.  Yet you are determined.  It’s too bad you weren’t as determined to see Valyndra to safety.  The men of Taliphna took her back to her tribe, raped her, and burned her alive as a sacrifice to Szaal, Lord of the Flame.  She pleaded for her life right up until the moment the flames consumed her.

“And you will join her in eternal fire, Oran Delrose.  The Kingdom of Darkness is nigh, and you will know nothing but suffering!”

Oran shuddered to hear of his wife’s fate.  He had always imagined the worst, but hearing it out loud stirred up the grief all over again.  Against his better judgment, he posed a question for the demon—one he’d always wanted to know.

“And what of my daughter?”

“Your daughter lives.”

The words hit him like an avalanche.  All his confidence for the task at hand faded away.  Instead, desperation for answers filled his mind, consuming his every thought.

“Where is she?”

“In the seat of the Last Righteous King,” the demon replied.

“Stop speaking in riddles!  Where is my daughter?”

“Let me keep this vessel and I will take you to her,” the demon offered.

“I will make no deal with you; you will be vanquished.”

“Do your worst, Light-bringer.  I will speak no more.”

At this, Mara’s jaw snapped shut.  The faint pops of teeth breaking under the strain of her clench sounded as she shivered with rage.  Fury unlike anything Oran had ever known burned inside of him like a fire.  The urge to take her by the throat and throttle her raged inside him.  But he remembered that it was not Mara, but the demon inside her tormenting him.

Another spell rolled off his tongue as he reached into his spirit for more power.  This one summoned shackles made of Light to wrap themselves around Mara’s arms and legs.  Following his mental commands, he willed them to coil around her, scorching her skin as it separated her jaws.  A deafening scream of countless voices reverberated through the house.  The bed floated off the ground, books and furniture caught up in a vortex of dark power as the demon gave its final resistance.

Valyndra, this is for you.

“Merciful Yaru, Lord of Light, imbue this water with your power,” Oran prayed.  His god answered his prayer, and the faint blue glow from the water turned the color of illuminated gold.

Uncorking the vial, Oran shoved it into Mara’s mouth, forcing her to swallow.

Her body grew limp, and the bed, books, and floating furniture fell to the ground with a crash.  The burns on her body healed up in a matter of seconds.  Her physical form shrank back to its normal size as she gagged wretched.  Turning her head to the side, she spat out the vial vomiting up black sludge.  It smelled like a mix of sulfur and death as it splashed to the floor with a wet smack.

Acrid smoke rose up as it dissolved and melted the floor.  A hole materialized revealing the room below.  Oran peered down and saw the foul liquid melted several holes in the family’s table.  All that remained of the demon sank into the floor and disappeared from sight.

I did it.

“Mother?”

Conscious again, Mara regarded Oran with fear and suspicion as she tugged at her bonds.  She tried, to no avail, to free herself.

“Fear not, child,” Oran said.  “It’s over now.  He can torment you no longer.”

An hour later, Mara’s family huddled around her bed, showering her with hugs and kisses.  They did the same for Oran in gratitude.  He accepted them graciously, telling them he was glad to help her before it was too late.  Giving the family time to celebrate, he slipped into the hallway, down the stairs, and into the living room where he found Germaine grinning.

“You’ve done it!  Praise Yaru!  You’ve done it.”

He wrapped Oran in an embrace he could only half-heartedly return.  His thoughts revolved in a whirlwind.  Shadows from his past now illuminated with glimmers of light and hope.  He lost Valyndra years ago, but their child had somehow survived.  And she was out there…somewhere.

“The seat of the Last Righteous King…”

Germaine gave him a puzzled look as he asked, “Who?”

Oran offered the cleric a smile and a clap on the shoulder.

“No matter, Germaine.  Mara is safe.  I’m going back to Dink’s to reserve a room for the evening.  I have affairs to attend in Saint Oloran.  I want to get back before the snows begin.”

And with that, Oran Delrose walked out of the house into the wind and rain once more.  When he glanced back and looked at the house, a gut feeling told him this issue of possession would not be an isolated incident.  More cases would rise up all over the kingdom.  The Dark Days stood on the horizon, staring the world down with their ominous gaze.  It would fall upon Oran’s shoulders to train and deploy the clerics still able to wield the Light to fight against these forces.  But his thoughts did not stay there fodcr long.

My daughter is alive, and I’m going to find her.