The Cult of the Worm
by Scott Hale
(Book Three in the series)
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any relevance to any person, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
This book is protected under the copyright law of the United States of America. Any reproduction or other unauthorized use of the material or artwork herein is prohibited without the express written permission of the author.
All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2016 Scott Hale
R’lyeh wasn’t the church-going type, but even she knew priests weren’t supposed to have tentacles flailing out from the back of their heads. Whereas others would have been disturbed by the vermillion growths, R’lyeh was just jealous. Freaky as they were, they did kind of put her octopus mask to shame.
Shrouded in shadows, Vrana’s axe in hand, she moved across the church’s rafters, to follow the priest as he went about the room, lighting candles. He prayed while he did so in a language she couldn’t makes sense of. The words were thick, the syllables muddy; and yet the sentences themselves had a sharpness to them that pierced R’lyeh’s ears. Every time the priest spoke, she imagined a shovel plunging into the ground, unearthing unholy utterances. Considering the man belonged to King Edgar’s new religion, the Disciples of the Deep, she wasn’t too surprised. In the end, unearthing God was their ultimate goal.
Noises outside the front of the church. First, scuffling feet, and then a knocking on the door. With a sick, sucking sound, the vermillion tentacles slithered into the priest’s skull. The only trace of the appendages having been there were the sweaty patches on the holy man’s scalp. But this was Bedlam. Sweat and secrets went hand-in-hand. All things considered here, he was invisible, which was exactly how and he is faith had been so successful so far.
R’lyeh repositioned herself on the rafters to better see the entryway. For being a place meant to hold the light of God, the church was host to a whole lot of darkness. It was a small and stuffy building with no windows, let alone cracks. It had been built with driftwood and rocks from the river it now sat beside. According to James, up until about two months ago, it used to be a worshipping site for the Holy Order of Penance. When and how the Disciples of the Deep had taken over ownership of the church, no one could say for sure. It was as though they had been here the whole time, waiting for the right moment to make themselves known. Not just here, though, in Bedlam. Everywhere.
Again, another knock on the door.
“The way is open,” the priest said.
R’lyeh smirked. She wanted a job like that, where she got to sound fancy and no one batted an eye about it. Most of the time when she killed someone, she just cussed out their corpse until the adrenaline died down. But that wasn’t very cool. She needed some one-liners. Something snappy.
The front door creaked open, and an older woman shuffled in. She was short and stubby with stiff shoulders and big knuckles. She wore a tattered veil from which behind she sniffled and wept. Like some other humans R’lyeh had seen lately, this woman’s Corruption looked different. The Corruption was still crimson, still on their right arms, but now in the right light, at the right time, the stretch of flesh almost seemed to… move.
“Ms. Louisa,” the priest said, his voice smooth, emotionless. “Are you ready?”
Ms. Louisa shut the door behind her. Going to the priest at the pace of a slug, she said, “That’s just it, Father. I’m not sure that I am.”
“Have you been spreading the Word to our fellow Bedlamites?”
“Yes, yes. I have, yes.” She took out a few crude rolls of parchment from her pocket. “I think we will have a few additions to our congregation tomorrow. But Father—”
“Excellent.” Close enough to take Ms. Louisa’s hand, he did. His wild eyes inches away from her own, he said, “You have shown yourself a most dutiful servant of our Lord during these trying times.”
“Yes, Father, I am trying.” Ms. Louisa scrunched up her face behind the veil. “The Holy Order were deceivers. You have shown me the true God. I am grateful, Father, but my… my son.”
“Your son was a good man, was he not?”
Ms. Louisa nodded so hard, R’lyeh thought for a moment her spine was going to snap.
“The good suffer enough in life as it is. They should not suffer in death. Ms. Louisa—” he pulled her into an embrace that looked about as comfortable as hugging a rock, “—let me send your son to heaven.”
Now we’re talking. R’lyeh shifted the octopus mask to get some fresh air flowing through it. The Skeleton had insisted she wear it whenever she went on a mission. As a thirteen-year-old girl, she was an easy target that no one would take seriously. As a thirteen-year-old Night Terror, she would appear twice her age and even more frightening. Or something like that. The Skeleton always played up her background. It made her blush.
Ms. Louisa bowed her head. “Father, it just doesn’t seem… natural.”
“After everything the Lord has shared, still you doubt?” The priest clicked his tongue against his teeth. “Do not forget. This is all very new. Surely those who had never heard of the Holy Order before thought they were mad, too.”
Ms. Louisa nodded, the veil swishing across her face.
“It is human to doubt. I can tell you and the others worry that you’ve made a mistake. For years, you’ve been comfortable with the Holy Order of Penance and their teachings. How could you know that they were leading you astray? You couldn’t have, Ms. Louisa. You couldn’t have. Not until now. Have I not shown you miracles?”
“You have.” She cleared her throat and laughed. “Oh, yes, Father, you have.”
The priest slipped a hand into his robe. “Would you like to see another miracle?”
Did she? It didn’t seem like it. Ms. Louisa had gone silent, and she started to shake.
“Is Jeremiah out there on the porch?”
She nodded weakly. A few candles went out.
“Bring him in.” The priest took his hand out of the robe. He was holding something, but it was too dark to tell what exactly. “We’ll see him off to heaven together.”
Ms. Louisa scrunched up her face and started to cry. She turned on her heels and headed toward the front door.
“It is a kindness we offer him,” the priest said.
She wrapped her hands around the doorknob. Over her shoulder, she said, “I won’t be punished for this?”
The priest shook his head. “You will be exalted.”
Ms. Louisa drew three sharp breaths and then opened the door. Stark sunlight and the general commotion of Bedlam poured over the threshold. In this stuffy closet of a church, R’lyeh had been so focused on the mission at hand she had forgotten she was smack-dab in the middle of a Corrupted town. For a split second, the sounds brought her back. Back to Alluvia, to Geharra, to the pit, and her—
Ms. Louisa pushed her wheelchair-bound son into the church. She had to hold the back of his shirt to keep him from falling forward, because he was dead. R’lyeh’s nose twitched as the smell of rot drifted into the rafters. There was dirt all over the wooden wheelchair, as if his mother had started to bury him, and then changed her mind midway through.
“Close the door behind you,” the priest said.
Ms. Louisa did as she was told.
And she did that, too.
“Bring him to me.”
Ms. Louisa shuddered. She took the wheelchair, pushed it forward. In his Sunday’s best, Jeremiah slumped over the armrest. His dead weight seemed to be giving his mother a hard time, as if he were dragging his heels from beyond the grave.
The priest went to Jeremiah and took his head in his hand. “The Holy Order buried our people with blessings and prayers. Empty words and empty gestures. Promises they never had to keep.”
Ms. Louisa let go of the wheelchair. She put her hands together and started praying to the ground.
“God has given his most trusted Disciples a piece of Itself.” The priest opened his hand, finally revealing what he had taken out of his robes. “A seed of heaven.”
R’lyeh took off her mask and leaned forward. Son of a bitch. In the priest’s greasy palm, a red, bristly, walnut-sized mass sat. Small tendrils, not unlike the tentacles stowed away in the priest’s skull, whipped around it. Seed seemed a stretch of the word, and heaven even more so. The thing looked like something a cat with cancer might cough up.
The priest opened Jeremiah’s jaw as if it were a jewelry box. Holding the seed over the corpse’s lips, he said, “Where is God, Ms. Louisa?”
She stopped praying and sputtered out, “In heaven.”
“And where is heaven?”
“In the….” Old Holy Order habits had her looking up, but instead she cast her eyes downward and said, “In the Deep.”
The priest nodded, pleased. “To bring out God, we must bring out heaven. When we die, we should not die with heaven on our breath but in our breasts. In each one of us, Ms. Louisa—” he smiled, “—we hold the seed to heaven. And when our bodies bloom, God will come to save us all.”
Ms. Louisa shivered. “Praise be to the Deep.”
“Praise be to its boney shores,” the priest responded.
“Praise be to the Red Heaven.”
“And our slumbering Lord.”
The priest slipped the seed past Jeremiah’s teeth. It sat on the dead boy’s tongue. With a will of its own, used the tendrils to force itself down his acrid throat.
Ms. Louisa went around the wheelchair. She touched his face, felt his bones. She smelled him. It was as if she were an animal, and she wasn’t so sure that the child that sat before her was her child anymore.
“What h-happens next, Father?”
“Take him home and bury him beside his sister.” The priest touched the small of her back. “Does it not comfort you to know you will have a piece of heaven in your backyard?”
Ms. Louisa turned around. Tears whipped out of her eyes, across the priest’s robes. “It’s just…. I’ve heard terrible things about those who… who—”
Jeremiah shot out of the wheelchair. Eyes wide, mouth agape, he sank his clawed fingers into Ms. Louisa’s shirt and dragged her to the ground.
Jeremiah, now no more than a mere puppet to the thing inside him, dug his nails into her skin until she bled. His mouth stretched open until the sides of it split into a permanent smile. His throat ballooned. Small, black spikes tore through his neck, as if something were working its way up his choked esophagus.
Ms. Louisa tried to push her son off of her the same way one would an overzealous lover; that is, carefully, considerately, with weak shoves and even weaker kicks. Holding back his face, she begged to the priest for help.
“Do you really want it?” The priest sounded aggravated. R’lyeh could tell this hadn’t gone the way he planned it would. “Or do you want to see heaven with your son?”
Ms. Louisa’s eyes shined with salvation. She nodded and then let go of her son. Jeremiah’s spasmodic corpse grinded its way up her body and pressed its gaping mouth to her own. He swallowed her apologies and prayers and proceeded to fill her with heaven.
Thin, vibrant, vermillion veins burst out of Jeremiah’s mouth, like a thick trunk of earthworms. Forming a writhing bridge between him and her, they pumped themselves into her mouth and down her throat, into her belly and jerking appendages.
When she died, if she died, Jeremiah collapsed upon his mother’s corpse and went back to being dead himself. Tiny holes opened up along the boy’s body. From them, more vermillion veins poured. Slowly, they wrapped around mother and son until after a few minutes, they were completely cocooned. They looked like oversize seeds themselves. R’lyeh was fairly certain where this new batch was going to be planted next.
“God damn it,” the priest said, at last. Looking down at the red cocoon, he jammed his thumbs into his temples. “This is more art than science. I’m sick of it.”
He marched to the back of the church, grabbed a long, metal rod with a hook at its end, and then went to ball of veins. He dug it into the cocoon and started dragging it down the middle aisle to the backdoor, which led out to a gated path and, eventually, the cemetery.
“Grave’s not big enough for the both of them. Too god damn hot to dig anymore today.” He stopped, mopped his brow with his sleeve. Right under R’lyeh, he mumbled, “Father Francis is going to laugh at me. Can’t wait to hear—”
The rafter creaked beneath R’lyeh’s weight. Her body went stiff as the priest looked up, confused. He squinted, grabbed a candle, and held it outward. She squeezed the handle of Vrana’s axe.
“What’s that?” The priest unhooked the rod from the cocoon and pointed it to the ceiling. “What’s there?”
R’lyeh’s vision dimmed. A torrent of nervousness flushed into her brain. Like an animal trapped in a cage, common sense disintegrated to the need for survival.
She dropped from the rafters, swinging the axe downward with her plummet. It caught on the metal rod and knocked it aside. The axe blade tore through the priest’s hand, down his leg, and then split his foot, forking it, like a snake’s tongue. A geyser of blood exploded from the gory ravine that ran down his body, and the sputtering stump he held drunkenly.
“Time to meet your Maker,” R’lyeh said, grinning behind her mask. Snappy, she thought, but kind of stupid. Then she swung the axe into his neck.
She hadn’t been strong enough to cut through his flesh, but the force of the impact sent him spinning into the pews. He broke his fall on the floorboards. When he did so, the axe, still buried his neck, loosened free and, with a thump, fell over onto the blood-soaked ground.
R’lyeh took a deep breath and grabbed the axe. What just happened? She knew what happened. She had so much hate in her heart for Penance, that she didn’t mind sharing some with Disciples of the Deep, too. If she hadn’t stuck first, then he might have killed her, or stuck one of those seeds inside her. Besides, she had gotten all the information the Marrow Cabal needed. This would’ve been the Skeleton’s next orders, anyways.
“Yeah,” R’lyeh said, convinced. She exhaled and pushed aside thoughts of Geharra’s pit. “It’s fine.”
R’lyeh went to the side of the church and started throwing the candles there onto the cocoon and the priest’s corpse. The vermillion veins and his scratchy robes caught fire immediately. She moved through the church, gathering up anything she could to use for kindling. There were of the Disciple’s scriptures—The Disciples of the Deep by Amon Ashcroft—and she hurled them into the blaze.
When the smoke became too much too breathe in, R’lyeh ran to the front of the church. She undid the lock and flung back the doors. Thick clouds of smoke exploded past her and washed over the crowd of Bedlamites that had gathered outside.
Did she still have her mask on? She did. Raising her axe to the group of concerned citizens, R’lyeh rumbled, “Let it burn, or you will,” and hurried down the steps as fast as she could to the riverside, where Will waited on horseback, looking as confused as she expected him to be.
“What the hell, Real’yuh?” he shouted, making room in the saddle for her.
R’lyeh, you idiot. Damn kid never got her name right. The crowd shouted behind her. She looked back. A few were coming after her. Night Terrors weren’t all that terrible in the full light of day.
R’lyeh pounded down the shore. A few feet from the horse, she jumped onto it and screamed, “Go,” into Will’s ear.
The Skeleton’s son snapped the reigns, and the horse took off. Chunks of mud from the ground flew up around them as its heavy hooves pounded the earth. R’lyeh straightened herself out in the saddle and held onto Will’s waist, so that she wouldn’t fall.
“What happened?” he asked, Bedlam blurring around them as they hoofed it toward the bridge on the outskirts of town.
“I killed the priest. He saw me.”
R’lyeh twisted around, her axe out, ready to chop down anyone alongside them. But there was no one. Her pursuers had returned to the church to douse the flames that now engulfed it.
Will faced her and said, “Real’yuh, Dad’s going to be pissed.”
But R’lyeh wasn’t listening to him. As she turned to look at him, her heart seized in her chest. Ahead, on the bridge that spanned the river they road along, she spotted a blonde woman standing there, watching them. She wore a large, leather hat, and a long, leather coat covered in belts and buckles and makeshift pockets. In the woman’s left hand, she held bandages, and in her right, a shepherd’s crook.
She pointed to the shepherd and cried, “Will.”
He spun around, sputtered out a string of nonsense. He cracked the reins and kicked the sides of the horse into a full gallop. They passed under the bridge, under the watchful eye of the shepherd. And when they came out on the other side, they both turned around and found that the shepherd was gone.
“D-don’t tell him,” Will pleaded. “It wasn’t what you think.”
R’lyeh looked over shoulder, Bedlam proper shrinking with every passing second. Great plumes of smoke winded into the sky, the scent of heaven burning in the autumn air. She searched what she could of the streets for signs of the shepherd, but it had vanished. Vanished, just like the Skeleton had warned it would.
“Hey.” Will grabbed her arm, bringing her attention back to him. “Don’t tell him. He won’t let me work for the Marrow Cabal anymore if he finds out.”
R’lyeh took off her mask and secured it in her lap. “Are you kidding me?”
Trees and bushes whipped past them as the horse plunged into the forest surrounding Bedlam.
“That’s the dumbest fucking idea.” R’lyeh shook her head. “He told me.” She clenched her teeth. “Do you want to go back to the Membrane?”
Will opened his mouth to argue against her, but instead, he turned around and took control of the horse.
Don’t tell the Skeleton? It made her sick with anger that he would ask. I’m not losing anyone else. I don’t care if you hate me for it.
She closed her eyes and held on tighter to Will. Tight enough to keep him from the shepherd should she show up again. If she lost Will, then she’d lose the Skeleton. And if she lost him, she’d lose Vrana for good.