True Believer

DEADLANDS

TRUE BELIEVER

By Rogue Knight

It was late on Sunday afternoon. The sun would set over the little town of Hawkin's Rest in about an hour or so. The sermon had just ended. It was unusual for a service to be held this late in the day, but a small fire had delayed the ceremony.

Father John Harper was not your average pastor, tall and youthful in his features. People often thought he was too young to be a convincing priest, but no one had yet spoken up. He doubted that anyone ever would.

He was alone in the small, wooden church, flipping through the pages of the Bible at random. He was not really reading it, but rather his mind was wandering…

…Back to another time, long ago. A time when he had not lived in Hawkin's Rest. A time when he had not been a preacher. A time when he had not been called 'John Harper'. He had not used an alias then. He had not had the need.

So lost in thoughts were he that he did not notice anyone entering the church, until that person spoke up.

"Hello, 'Father'."

He looked up from the pages, raising his eyebrows. A newcomer stood in the doorway of the church, wearing a long, black coat. She, for it was definitely a woman, wore her golden-blond hair to her shoulders, but a dark brown hat hid most of it, as well as her face. He did not recognize her as any of the town's inhabitants.

He squinted, trying to get a better look at the woman's face, but in the dimly lit church entrance it was very difficult to see her clearly. If only she would raise her head, he mused, then the candles could light up her face. He did notice a golden chain around her neck, and somehow he knew that beneath her shirt was a cross. It reminded him of something… of someone…

"If you have come to attend the service, then you have just missed it, Miss," he tried, to see if his nervous nature had made him worry needlessly this time too. It was likely that it was just another coincidence, but he took no chances and remained alert.

The woman removed her hat, while she made the sign of the cross with her right hand. Then she raised her head to look straight at him.

"I know I missed it. I came to have a talk with you. Alone. Just you and I, Theodore."

He had not heard his real name in some years and frowned at its mention. Now he could see her face clearly. She was young and quite beautiful, but that did not cross Theodore's mind, since he had recognized her the minute she looked up.

"Ah…Marion," he said slowly, putting up a fake smile, "I wasn't expecting you."

"So this is where you have hid out the last two years," Marion said, looking around in the small church, her words laced with disdain, "An ironic place to do so, for a…man like you."

"Have you actually hunted me for two years?" Theodore asked with obvious surprise in his voice.

Marion leant against a bench, running her finger across the rack of bibles stored there for the churchgoers. She looked at the books rather than keeping her eyes on him, as if his mere presence infuriated her. This could be his chance… He also noticed a pistol holster, complete with a gun in it, at her hip. He swore not to give her the time to use it.

"No," Marion said indifferently, bringing his attention back to her words, "It was a stroke of luck. Or an act of God, if you will."

Theodore snorted at the words. Marion smiled humorlessly at his reaction and went on.

"No, I happened to be passing by this town on my way to a village near Purple Rock. There have been some strange occurrences there, and I thought I'd look further into it…but that's really none of your business."

"No, not really. Do go on."

"Well, long story short, I sensed something here, and it drew me to this church, where I just happened to find you. Strange, but true."

"Quite… So, how have you been?"

"Since you murdered Charlie and Father Mercurio, you mean?"

Marion's words were cold as ice, and her face was grim as death. Theodore now sensed that this was not the young and slightly naïve girl he had faced two years ago.

"I have been training," she continued slowly, "Learned to channel my faith in God into the physical world. Now I do not just know how to repel you and your evil powers, I also know how to use the might of God to destroy you."

Theodore had no doubts she meant what she said. The real question was; was she capable of doing what she thought she could?

"I ought to kill you where you stand, but I'll give you a choice anyway."

She fixed him with a dark stare. Her green-gray eyes were full of hate and loathing.

"Either you surrender to me and returns to Blackwood City where you'll stand trial for the murders, or we can fight it out here and now, and save both of us the time and trouble."

"Hmm, interesting choice," Theodore said, "Go with you back to Blackwood where I'll surely be hanged for all the crimes I committed there, or finish the fight that we began two years ago. Tough decision."

"Think all you like," Marion spat, "I'm not leaving until you make the choice."

Theodore shrugged, then he threw his hand forward. A ray of white flames sprung from his fingers, racing for the woman. This trick would have incinerated a lesser person, but Marion was not your average woman. The fire curved around her without touching her body, and instead hit the rows of benches behind her.

Despite having averted the attack Marion was still caught off guard and fumbled at her shirt. Theodore snarled a godless curse and pointed his other hand at her. From the tips of his fingers small black balls flew, growing and twisting in mid-air. A fraction of a second later, as they impacted on the side of the young woman, they had grown into large, black and hairy spiders, and bright red scorpions.

Marion screamed despite herself, flailing her left arm madly as the oversized insects crawled all over her body, biting and stinging at her clothing. A single scorpion managed to get at her face and dug its deadly tail deep into her cheek. She clenched her teeth, shaking her head, but the scorpion's stinger was too deep in her flesh, and it did not come loose.

Theodore saw her drop to her knees, as the unearthly insects swarmed over her. He smiled in satisfaction, certain that his enemy was done for. This had been easier than he had dared to hope for. Marion Lake was a dangerous foe, with the power of her God behind her, but even one blessed with true faith was powerless before his dark spells. Now, how would he get rid of the body…?

Suddenly the deadly critters he had summoned scattered like leaves in a tornado and they scurried into hiding in the dark corners of the building. Marion got back on her feet, holding her golden cross in front of her like a weapon. Theodore's smile faded, as the woman brushed the last couple of insects off her coat. The once bloodthirsty bugs were now powerless and fell to the floor, where they raced away from her.

Now Theodore was worried. He had hoped to end the battle in one swift strike, before she could summon her strength, but now the element of surprise was lost. Now they had to match faith against faith. Her to God, his to the dark spirits that had granted him his powers in the first place.

Theodore cursed his luck. He could not have chosen a place much worse than this for the confrontation. Granted the church was not on consecrated ground, he had ensured himself that much, but the many blessed symbols present generated a kind of holiness that made his black magic easier to resist for his opponent. Had it not been for this fact he was sure he would have won the confrontation within seconds, but here she had an edge over him. It was a well-matched duel, but one he expected to win no matter what.

As he summoned the strength for the next assault on her, Marion began whispering psalms while keeping the cross pointed at him. Suddenly Theodore found himself unable to complete the spell. In fact he felt unable to perform any attempt to harm her.

He swore under his breath. This was the same power that she had used those two years ago. Back then he had been forced to flee, rather than wait for the sheriff and his men to come to her aid, but here she was on her own. She held him at bay with her cross and her accused faith, but it was only a temporary feat.

He focused on breaking her control. It was all in his head. He had broken through the protective barriers of stronger Blessed before. It was only a matter of moments, they both knew that. So what was she waiting for?

She would not use her gun, because that would surely alert the rest of the town. That meant she had to get close to him, to actually hit him with her fists or a hand weapon.

So why was she not closing in on him? Probably because she had faced his powers before. She knew what tricks he had in his sleeves, so she sensibly kept out of his reach.

It was a complete standoff. As long as she remained concentrated he could not harm her directly, and since she blocked the exit he could only wait for her to make a move. But Theodore was patient. A scorpion had stung her, and left its deadly poison in her body. She would die within minutes, so the wait only served his cause. With the venom in her veins her composure could not last forever. It was only a question of time before…

…her control weakened! He could break through, he knew this in an instance. With a wide smile he summoned the power for another burst of flames. The air heated around his fingers as the fireball was prepared for launch.

What was that strange buzzing sound?

Uh-oh!

Theodore spun around, praying that he was wrong. He was not. Now he realized the truth. She had not lost control of her power; she had simply switched to another approach.

The large window behind the raised platform where he had stood many time, faking to have read anything about Christianity, shattered into a thousand fragments as a cloud of locusts flew through it at top speed summoned by Marion's wordless call. The hundreds of gray-brown grasshoppers swarmed over him, surrounding him in a thick, pulsing mass of insects.

Luckily for Theodore he had been a moment away from completing his spell. A blast of flames burned the majority of the locusts to ashes, scattering the rest. But they had served their purpose.

As he spun to face Marion once again, the woman brutally tackled him, sending both of them crashing onto the floor. A long steel knife was in her hand, ready to gut him, but Theodore was not out of tricks yet.

Just before the blade could be thrust into his chest the sorcerer poked his finger roughly onto her forehead. Suddenly Marion went limp, sprawling on the floor. Only her eyes were alive, darting back and forth in surprise…and fear.

Slowly Theodore got up to a sitting position, retrieving the dagger from the woman's unresisting hand. He had all the time in the world, since her body had been shut down by his magic, and it would remain that way for as long as he concentrated on the spell. She could do nothing but look as he rolled her over on her back.

"This seems to be it, doesn't it?" Theodore taunted, "You're going to die. By your own blade, by the way. Ironic, huh?"

He bent down over her, holding the knife to her neck.

"Where is your God now?" he spat.

Then he sniffed the air, and suddenly became aware of the fire. So caught up in their duel had they been that neither of them had noticed the flames that had spread around the dry church like a wildfire. By now most of the building was on fire. He forgot all about the kill, as he was overwhelmed with mortal fear. He did not even notice that he pulled the knife away from his opponent's throat. His concentration drained away.

Suddenly Marion's hands were pressed against his stomach. He gasped in shock, as the woman's eyes narrowed and her lips became a hateful snarl.

" 'And He shall smite the wicked'," Marion quoted grimly under her breath. The sorcerer tried to pull back, but before he could get away Marion pushed with all of her might…and some that was not her own.

Theodore flew up into the air at the inhumanly powerful push, almost hitting the high ceiling. For a split second he almost hung in thin air, then he fell like a rock. He saw the inferno beneath him and screamed in fear, calling out for the dark forces he worshiped to save him. But his demonic deities did not hear his cry…or maybe they ignored it. The result was the same.

With a loud crash Theodore landed on the burning rows of benches, splintering both them and his own bones. As the flames began to consume his clothing and his flesh he tried to scream in agony, but his lungs had been pierced by fractured pieces of his spine and only a low bubbling sound escaped his lips.

Marion did not waste any time watching her foe expire in the billowing flames. The church was ablaze and the beams that supported the roof cracked ominously as fire licked up their sides. She looked to the door, but the fire had created an impassable wall between her and it.

The window.

Putting her life into the hands of the God that she worshiped she ran towards the broken window behind the platform where the fake priest had given his false sermons. She closed her eyes and leapt towards the window.

Either the adrenaline in her body or God gave her the strength to clear the jagged glass fragments. She landed heavily in the grass outside the church and rolled as far away from the burning building as the momentum allowed her.

Trembling from the poison in her veins she grabbed her cross in her left hand and put her right one on the wound on her cheek. Her entire body shook from the pain in her flesh.

" 'Oh Lord, bless Your faithful servant…' ", she began, reciting the first prayer that came to mind. She desperately fought to keep her faith. God has not abandoned me, she forced herself to think, despite her urge to ask herself why He had not protected her from the poisonous sting in the first place.

It felt as if her insides were on fire. She doubled-over, but it did nothing to ease the agony she felt. She felt life flee her, actually sensing how her heart pounded faster and faster. The blood seemed to boil in her veins, threatening to tear its way out through her skin.

Why have You forsaken me?! she cried in her delirious mind. Was she not one of His agents in the fight against the growing evil in the world? Cared He nothing for her undying love of Him?

Darkness overwhelmed her, her senses going numb. She did not even hear the deafening crash as the church's roof collapsed.

Then it was over. She opened her eyes, and blinked a few times, as if not believing that it was truly over. Slowly she got on her feet. She ran a finger across her cheek, only to find that the tiny wound had disappeared.

Surprisingly she had survived the battle. In fact all she had lost was her hat and knife, trivial items compared to the defeat of the evil sorcerer. Her loved ones had been avenged, and she lived to tell the tale. She had only one explanation for this unexpected victory.

She lowered her gaze and folded her hands.

"Lord, thank You for your aid," she whispered, and then added, "And forgive Your loyal servant for her foolish doubts."

The townspeople had by now noticed the fire and were so caught up in trying to extinguish it that no one noticed Marion walking up to the saloon where she had left her horse.

She got into the saddle, took a final look at the doomed church, and then rode off.

Her job here was done, but her mission was far from over.