Midnight at the Abbey of Shadows

Image courtesy of Kevin Bosc at Unsplash

 

Abbé Tanguy stood with his arms crossed, staring me down like he was a sergeant in charge of a peasant levy and I was a raw recruit. It was enough to disarm even the most diligent and faithful of monks. And while I do have some sterling qualities, I must confess that diligence and faith are not among my principal virtues.

“Brother Désiré de Montesquiou,” he said. “I am of two minds about you.”

I bowed to conceal my unease.

“On the one hand,” said the abbé, “you are our only monk of noble birth. And you descend from the greatest family in all of Gascony, to boot.”

I bowed again.  

“But on the other, I must consider the circumstances of your coming here. Your conduct as a gentleman at court is said to have been quite wild. One might even say wanton.”

I perked up. It’s always pleasant to recite one’s accomplishments.

“Sieur, I’m afraid there is some truth in what you say. There was the matter of a young lady-in-waiting at the king’s court at Orleans. Then there was the wife of the Spanish ambassador. A royal groom. And his two sisters. Several duels were fought.”

The abbé frowned, so I decided to cut short the list of my offenses. No doubt those few I mentioned were enough. “Well, sieur, my family judged me a candidate for contrition. On mature consideration” — I didn’t mention the threats of imprisonment — “I thought it best to heed their advice.”

“For the good of your soul.” Dryly.

“Yes, sieur,” I said. “When I heard of the… challenges that face us at the Abbaye des Ombres, I volunteered for service here.”

“I’m surprised you have been able to keep your passions in check as a brother,” said the abbé. “But you have fulfilled your obligations quite well. So far as I know.”

I made no reply. As a Cistercian, naturally it was my duty to abstain from earthly pleasures. But of course one is not always able to perform one’s duty.

“Very well,” said Abbé Tanguy. “I suppose there is no alternative. I will give you the assignment.”

“Of course, sieur! But—” I cut myself off.

He gave me a frosty smile. “But what is it? I shall make the announcement at Compline. We have the dubious honor of hosting one Brother Li, a monk from the Church of the East.”

“Truly, sieur? A monk from the realm of Prester John?”

Tanguy frowned. “Perhaps. From the east, the furthest east, in any event.”

“But sieur, why should such an eminent visitor be sent to our abbey? And at this time of year!”

“As to that,” said the abbé, “he is said to be an exorcist of surpassing skill. The cardinal has sent him to us, and so it is quite impossible that we should demur. I hereby appoint you guest-master. You shall also have the honor of assisting Brother Li in his efforts to exorcise the os infernum. As such, you shall be exempted from field-work.”

“Ah!” I bowed again to conceal my pleasure. “My lord, you need say no more.”

“But I shall,” he said, frowning. “This abbey exists solely for the sake of the vigil over the hell-mouth, and it is not for some foreigner to succeed with an exorcism where generations of Cistercians have failed. Yet if this interloper loses his life in making the attempt, I have no doubt but that we shall be blamed.”

“Sieur,” I said. “Do you wish me to help this monk, or to hinder him?”

The abbé steepled his fingers. “Both,” he said at last. “I wish him to fail, but I do not wish him to be killed.”

I bowed again. “I will do my best.”

I spent the next week preparing for the arrival of our distinguished visitor. Our guest-chamber had been unoccupied for years, and much work was necessary to prepare the room. At last the appointed day arrived. The 30th of October, it was, in the year of our Lord, 1295. From Terce onward I took up a post in a window of our abbey’s tower, the better to survey the approach. From my high vantage, I saw a tiny orange dot moving slowly up the road from the horizon. The dot resolved gradually into a lone pedestrian wearing a saffron-colored robe.

I met the stranger in front of our open gates. I was surprised to see he was only a year or two older than me. His bare head was shaven entirely, leaving not even a tonsure, and he bore a heavy pack on his back which hardly seemed to impede his progress at all. The stranger’s orange robe was draped in such a manner as to leave one muscular shoulder naked. He seemed unaffected by the chilly October wind.

“Welcome to the Abbaye des Ombres,” I said. “I presume you are Brother Li?”

He bowed gracefully from the waist, with no bent knee. “Yes,” he said in fluent but charmingly accented French, “I am grateful for your welcome.”

I gave him a courtly bow in return. “I am called Brother Désiré. It is my duty to serve you in all ways while you are with us at the abbey.”

He looked at me as people sometimes do when they hear my name and see I am a Cistercian. Perhaps the corners of his lips turned up just a little. “In all ways?”

“In all ways consonant with honor and the Rule of St. Benedict,” I said. I had to remind myself it was my duty to foil his exorcism.

“But of course,” he replied, and I led him into the abbey.

***

“This is our guest-chamber,” I said. “Is it satisfactory?”

Brother Li looked around at the furnishings. “Luxurious,” he said, fingering the velvet coverlet on the bed. “Do all the monks live this way?”

“Regrettably not,” I said. “We are sworn to poverty and to the suppression of earthly desires. But Saint Benedict commanded us to be welcoming to guests, and so your quarters are the best in the abbey.”

Brother Li put his pack down at the foot of the bed. “I wonder that more persons do not avail themselves of your Cistercian hospitality.”

“To be honest, brother, this is the first time this room has been used since I came to the abbey. Most visitors do not wish to stay the night. Especially at this time of year.”

“Ah yes,” said Brother Li. “The os infernum. I have heard many wild tales since I arrived at Orleans. Is it truly dangerous?”

He had no fear in his voice, only eagerness. As a Gascon I had to admire his attitude even though it was my duty to interfere with his performance.

“A regimen of prayers and vigils usually keeps it quiet. But always it becomes active on the eve of All Saints’ Day.”

Brother Li nodded, so I continued. “I shall show you the os after you have had a chance to dine.”

“Thank you,” said Brother Li. “What next?”

“I must attend prayers,” I said. “Later, we’ll have a meal in honor of your visit. I shall then be at leisure to assist you for the rest of the evening.”

Returning from the None service to the refectorium for our meal, I paused briefly at the holy-water font in the chapel. I didn’t like the feeling I had, that I was doing something wrong by obeying the abbé’s orders. But what choice was there? My life here could be made extremely unpleasant if Tanguy wasn’t satisfied with my obedience.

The meal was a success, though Brother Li refused the pork loin. He said he’d sworn an oath not to eat meat, which provoked a reluctant approving nod from the abbé, who regularly took a Lenten diet as an act of contrition.

After dinner, the abbé took the two of us aside in a corner of the refectorium.

“Brother Li,” said Abbé Tanguy, “I understand that you have come to close the portal our abbey has the honor to guard.”

“Yes,” said the eastern monk. “I shall examine the os infernum tonight, and if all goes well, I shall seal it tomorrow.”

“Best of luck,” said the abbé. Brother Li narrowed his eyes, but the abbé continued. “Brother Désiré will assist you. If you require anything else of us, you have but to ask.”

Brother Li bowed in his eastern fashion. “Thank you. I am sure Brother Désiré will satisfy all of my needs.”

It was Abbé Tanguy’s turn to narrow his eyes, but he said nothing more.

***

I led Brother Li into the heart of the abbey, along the vaulted colonnade of the cloister path, past the chapel house and into a small enclosed courtyard. A narrow wooden door was set into a curving section of wall in one corner of the grassy square.

“Here,” I said, opening the door. Several lanterns hung from hooks just inside, along with a flint fire-starter.

“Ah,” said Brother Li. “This is the way down to the os infernum?”

“Yes. There’s a stairway. I’ll go first. Be careful. It’s quite steep.”

After only a minute I managed to light the lantern. As always, the descent seemed to take forever, though I knew it was but a hundred steps. But at last we emerged onto the lower level landing. From there a short corridor dimly lit by wall-mounted lamps led us to a heavy barred door, guarded by a monk.

“Here we are.” I turned to the door-guard. “Pray brother; let us enter.” He nodded silently, then laboriously unbarred the door and opened it for us. A moment after we passed through the doorway the door swung shut, and we could hear the door-guard fitting the bar back into place.

We entered a square chamber twenty yards across. Two brothers were on duty here, equipped with long tridents.

Brother Li nodded. “Just so.”

He was looking past my brethren toward the hole in the floor at the center of the room. At first glance it looked something like a stone well, but it was four yards across. A faint smell of brimstone suffused the room, overlaid by a noxious metallic tang.

I gestured to the brothers watching the shaft entrance. They were standing near the door, as far as possible from the opening. “These are the invigilators on duty. They are not permitted to speak during their shifts except in an emergency.”

“The purpose of their weapons?”

“In case something comes up out of the shaft,” I said. “With those poles they can push the fiend back in. It’s a long way down.”

“May I see?”

“Of course,” I said. “But take care. The fumes can make you dizzy.”

Brother Li approached the edge of the well. I followed reluctantly, but I couldn’t let it be said that a Gascon was shy.

The shaft was so deep one could see no bottom. It was filled with a luminous mist which was almost invisible near the top. Lower down the fog became denser. After a while I got the idea there was something moving down there. Was that a face? A distant face, lovely and sorrowful, obscured by mist…. I blinked and it was gone. A fancy, perhaps, brought on by the toxic vapors. I felt dizzy and took a step back from the brink.

Brother Li’s hand was on my shoulder, supporting me. “Are you well?”

“Yes. I’m fine.” It was embarrassing to be aided by the one whose work I planned to sabotage.

“Good,” said Brother Li. “I am going to conduct a preliminary investigation. May I request your assistance?”

“Of course, Brother. What do you wish me to do?”

“Watch,” he said. “I must meditate to raise my qi, so I ask you to pay heed to any changes you see.”

“Your chee?”

“I’ll explain later,” he said.

He knelt at the edge of the well and began to chant in his native tongue. I stood braced beside him, looking once more into the shaft. This was my chance. I took a vial of holy water from my sleeve and tossed it covertly into the well. I stepped back a short way from the opening, waiting for the inevitable response.

Glancing at Brother Li, I was shocked to see a glowing aura surrounding his body. It was like the golden aureole one sees in depictions of certain saints.

But then it came. An elongated lobe of luminescent fog curled out over the rim of the shaft and surrounded the chanting monk. Even though I was outside the fog the scent was so foul that I gagged. I saw a reaction from Brother Li’s aura; it was burning away the fog it touched, but as I watched his aura faded, his chanting ceased, and he slowly toppled over.

My God, I thought, he’s going to fall into the shaft! I was paralyzed briefly, horrified at the consequences of my small betrayal. Then I dived for him, holding my breath against the foul vapors. I wrapped my arms around Brother Li’s shoulders and pulled him back before he could fall in. At first it was like trying to move a corpse but then vigor returned to his frame and we both lurched backwards out of the fog. But the mist pursued us, an arm of fog curling further out of the stone well.

“Get back,” said Brother Li. He made a throwing motion. A ghostly yellow sphere wafted forward from his hand and when it entered the fog it burst in a pulse of light. The misty tendril jerked back like a blind man who had reached out to find an unexpected candle-flame. It paused for a moment, then fell back into the shaft.

“Enough for now,” said Brother Li. His manner was insouciant, but I heard the stress in his voice. Perhaps evoking such marvels was more of an effort than it seemed.

“That’s never happened before,” I lied. Remorse was burning in my gut. “Should the brethren mount a double watch?”

“I think… not,” said Brother Li. He nodded at the two invigilators, whose silence in the face of these marvels was a credit to monastic discipline. “I expect it will be quiet for the rest of the night.” He turned to me. “Come, Brother Désiré, I have some questions to ask you about the hell-mouth.”

He strode bravely enough out of the room and I followed. But as soon as Brother Li entered the stairwell he sagged, and I had to grasp his shoulders to support him, just as he had helped me before.

“Relax,” I said. “Rest a moment.”

He slid heavily to the floor of the landing and I sat down beside him.

“I am ashamed,” he said, gasping a little. “Thank you.”

“It’s nothing,” I said. “Will you be all right?”

“Yes. I’m sorry to trouble you. The… phenomenon was more powerful than I expected.”

I must admit I felt a bit of pleasure at this remark. The great exorcist from far-off Cathay had at least not found our order’s nemesis to be a trivial obstacle. Brother Li struggled back to his feet.

“Come,” he said. “You must have some questions of your own.”

We climbed the stairs slowly and at last returned to the guest-chamber. He sat down heavily on the bed, and I drew up a stool to face him. I wanted to confess everything then, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. So I temporized with the obvious question, which to be honest I was eager to ask.

“Brother Li, please tell me about qi. How did you do that?”

He smiled. “Qi is vital energy. It usually circulates through the body invisibly. But there are means to strengthen one’s qi and to project it outside the body, where it has virtue against… spiritual opponents. As you have seen.”

“The Church of the East has wisdom we have lost here in the west.”

“Yes,” he said, and sighed heavily. “The Church of the East.”

I didn’t press him. Instead I said, “You wished to ask me about the os infernum.”

“Ah yes,” he said, sounding relieved. “How long has it been in existence?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “The Cistercian order is less than 200 years old, and we have only been guarding this abbey for a century. Before then… an enclosed order had the guardianship of the hell-mouth since the days of Charlemagne. But they fell into heresy and a crusade was launched to expunge them. After that the place lay abandoned for a time. It was only when complaints about hauntings and the like were heard that an attempt was made to exorcise it. It was then that our order was installed.”

“So its origins are unknown? Was there no ancient god associated with this place?”

I shrugged. “You exceed the bounds of my scholarship. Perhaps we should ask the librarian.”

***

The abbey library was little more than a corner of the chapter-house with a few shelves and a writing desk. We had no scriptorium at the Abbaye des Ombres, being so devoted to our vigil. The elderly librarian was happy to talk to us, however.

“Well,” said Brother Morvan, “we don’t know much about the Gaulish gods, because the ancient writers used Roman names for everything. But because of the seasonal timing of the activity of the hell-mouth, we can guess that the god of this place was associated with the pagan holiday Samhain. That would make him the lord of the underworld. In Rome they called him Dis Pater. Or Pluto.”

“Him?” Brother Li asked politely. “Not a woman?”

“No.”

“I’m sure I sensed a female presence,” said Brother Li.

“Perhaps his bride. Or his captive.”

“Pardon me?”

“Proserpina was the daughter of Ceres, goddess of the harvest. Pluto carried her off, enraging Ceres so that she stopped the growth of all living things. Eventually Proserpina was freed to return to the Earth part of the year, and Ceres relented during this time. So her durance lasts through Winter, when plants do not grow, and she is free the rest of the year, from the springtime planting of crops until the harvest comes in Autumn.”

“Ah,” said Brother Li. “This is the end of the harvest. Samhain no doubt marks the day when Proserpina must return to the underworld. No wonder she is upset.”

The librarian chuckled. “Remember, this is a Roman myth. The Gaulish version is likely different. Anyway, it’s just a pagan fable. There never was a Proserpina, or else she was a devil sent by Satan to deceive the ancients.”

“No doubt,” said Brother Li.

***

Returning to the guest-chamber, Brother Li’s strength faltered, and he was obliged to lean on me for support. Fortunately for him it was now Compline and the brothers were collecting in the oratorium so there was no one to see his weakness. I should have welcomed this situation. But I felt for Brother Li’s plight.

“Brother,” I said, helping him to a seat on the bed. “You are still weak from your exertions. I fear for the ritual tomorrow if today’s preliminary was so draining.”

“Yes,” he said, grimacing. “And yet I must make the attempt. My position in the cardinal’s court is precarious. If I fail, I will have no friends in this foreign land.”

The cardinal’s court. This gave me the germ of an idea.

I asked, “Is there no way to share the burden?”

He paused, then sighed. “Alas, the use of qi requires long years of training.”

I bowed my head. “I suppose if such things were easy, everyone would do them.”

“Yes. And yet—”

He put his hands on my shoulders and looked into my eyes, and I thought: I could kiss him now. So I did. I think he was shocked at first; but only at first.

“Ah,” he said after a time. “Just so. Perhaps you could help me regain my strength. But you should know… the way is forbidden.”

“Forbidden? By whom? This does little to dissuade me.”

“Brother,” he said, “I suspect you are unhappy with your calling as a monk.”

I made up my mind. “Truly. I would prefer to be elsewhere.” I explained the circumstances of my banishment.

“I see,” he said. “You are one who embraces the world of sensation. To be pent in a place dedicated to chastity must be unpleasant.”

“That is one way to put it.”

“So,” he said. “My order also is dedicated to the suppression of desire and attachment. They see kundalini as a means to heighten spiritual power only.”

“Kundalini?”

“A word out of Bhārat. Out of Inde, you would say. But… well….”

“You spoke of a forbidden way.”

“That way is forbidden because it is carnal. We call it the left-hand path, and in our order, sinister has much the same meaning as it does in French. Does that dissuade you?”

“Listen, Brother Li,” I said, “I am left-handed, and I have always resented the connotation of that word. You won’t put me off so easily.”

“Brother Désiré—”

“You remarked on my name before,” I said. “I try to live up to its promise.”

***

“Kundalini rises,” said Brother Li, “past seven stations on the tower of your spine. The power sleeps in the lowest: Muladhara is… there.”

***

Light surrounded the two of us, though it was midnight with the curtains drawn and no lamp or candle was burning.

“This is—”

“Kundalini,” he said, his voice whispering in my ear. “My strength has been restored. Now this is what we can do with the power….”

***

“Brother Li, I have a confession to make.”

“Hush. I know. It was in your eyes, your voice, the tension of your stance. There’s no need to speak of it.”

“But I must confess it all to you. A Gascon’s honor—”

“There’s no need. I come from the cardinal’s court. He is a politician. I was warned I might face… interference.”

“Oh. But I must tell you I deeply regret my actions. Please forgive me.”

“I forgave you long ago. When you pulled me back from the brink.”

“And yet—”

“Do you think I would share this ritual with you if I had no respect for you? No affection?”

“No. Thank you, Brother Li.”

“Thank you. To be honest, even the left-hand path is supposed to be cold and detached, devoid of sentiment. But I must allow that I felt a certain warmth. I feel it still.”

“As do I. Brother Li, may I ask you another question?”

“Of course.”

“Brother, are you truly a Christian?”

“Well, no. I cannot lie to you. Not now.”

“There is no Church of the East, is there?”

“Not much of one, anyway, not in Cathay. The late Kublai Khan did not favor your creed.”

“So, you serve—”

“My order walks the eightfold path of the Buddha. I have no doubt his name is unknown to you, but he is said to be the great enlightened one, the supreme spiritual power of the universe, though he was once a mortal man, like your Christ. I have exorcised spirits in the Buddha’s name even here in the west.”

“And that works?”

“Yes. May I tell you another secret?”

“Certainly.”

“I have no special faith in the Buddha as a divinity.”

“But you perform exorcisms anyway?”

“Well, it works. But you Cistercians, your prayers and vigils have prevented this os infernum from spreading its influence, have they not?”

“Yes. I’ve heard stories of the days before our order came here. This was a place of dread for the whole county. Now it disturbs no one but the monks set to watch over it.”

“So your way works, too.”

“Ah! I think I see.”

“Good; because I do not. But to the extent I have any faith at all, I believe in qi, and in kundalini, and in the left-hand path we followed this night.”

***

The two of us were left alone for most of the next day. This suited me, as I was happy to remain by Brother Li’s side. We used the time to rehearse the rites of exorcism. Among other things. At last it was midnight. Once more we descended the stairs. It was a mark of the abbé’s disdain for the proceedings that he was not present. Just the two invigilators were on duty as usual.

This time Brother Li brought some of the paraphernalia of his trade. He placed four plaques inscribed with the intricate characters of his written tongue at the cardinal points around the well. His ritual was supposed to tie off the dark currents of spiritual energy flowing through the earth that enabled the hell-mouth to open in this place, but first he had to confront and rebuke the power that governed the os infernum. The lord of the underworld — or the lady, as the case might be.

Brother Li pointed, and a pulse of light darted from his fingertip to flare around the first plaque. It began to shine with its own radiance and floated up into the air. He moved around the well, levitating each of the plaques. The invigilators watched, transfixed with awe; I must confess I was just as rapt.

This was mere preparation, however. The true test was yet to come.

Brother Li traced a character with his finger, drawing a symbol of light on a canvas of air. He spoke a single syllable and the glowing sigil floated out over the well. There it flared bright red, and its radiance overwhelmed the spectral pallor of the fog below, turning it an eerie crimson. Brother Li bowed his head, held his arms out and began to chant.

I looked down. Once more the fog was surging upwards. Brother Li tossed a parchment scroll into the air, where it unfurled itself, revealing elegant characters in red and black ink. I felt a sudden gust of wind, which shredded the fog like a wisp of smoke caught in a tempest, but more mist kept boiling up from down below. And then I saw her. A young woman, naked, her hand reaching upward in a desperate attempt to reach the lip of the well. But her progress faltered short of the rim.

Brother Li uttered a single syllable, and the red light from the symbol above focused, shining a beam at her instead of illuminating the well at large. I was trapped in a quandary. A Gascon refusing help to a woman in need? Unthinkable! But it was even less possible for me to consider abandoning a friend (and rather more than a friend) for the sake of a mere girl. And so I froze there, not knowing what to do—

There was a cracking sound, and the woman’s expression changed from dismay to terror. A bony appendage like a long skeletal cat’s tail lashed out from the deep mists far below and wrapped itself around her left ankle. It was dragging her down, and as she reached out her hand my hesitation left me. I stabbed my own hand downward and caught hers; and it was a hand of flesh and blood.

“Brother Li!” I cried. “The woman is trying to escape! We must help her!”

The glowing red character hanging overhead flared and a jet of red fire lashed out from it, pulsing downward into the mist. In response, the bony appendage around the woman’s leg must have tightened harshly, because she cried out and I felt her being pulled even more strongly downward. Soon I too would be dragged into the hell-mouth if I didn’t let go. Then I heard Brother Li, and his voice seemed to be distant and weak. “Désiré, I am wrestling with the death-god; my power is committed now. You must save the woman.”

For a moment, I was paralyzed. Then I remembered first what Brother Li had to say about things that worked; and second, I remembered who I was.

“Ho, devil!” I shouted. “I am Désiré de Montesquiou, a chevalier of Artagnan. A Montesquiou and a Gascon, do you hear me? And I will not let go of this woman. Deo duce et ferro comite!” The motto of my family: God is my guide, and the sword my companion. Ah, I thought, if only I had a sword in hand now!

To my vast surprise, a golden sword appeared in the air above the pit. It was much like the longsword I’d carried before I became a monk, the sword that I kept hidden beneath the cot in my cell. But the blade was glowing brightly, like a holy sword out of some romance.

The woman looked in my eyes; she smiled, and I felt my heart leap. She raised her free hand and the sword fell into her grasp. A blinding strike, and she severed the bony appendage wrapped around her ankle. There was a piercing shriek from down below, like a harpy cast into a furnace, and the skeletal member slithered down into the fog.

I hoisted the woman up and out of the pit. The pillar of fog began to fall back into the shaft.

“Now, Brother Li!” I cried, “Seal the os!”

His red sigil flashed and dropped like a stooping eagle into the well, and a moment later there was a vast, earthshaking explosion, but it was a spiritual detonation and not a physical one. We fell over, fortunately avoiding the yawning mouth of the shaft. Then there was a sound like a bell, or perhaps a gong would be a better word for it.  At last the sound faded, the light of Brother Li’s sigil died, the glow surrounding the sword disappeared, and all three of us slowly rose to our feet. I stole a glance into the well and saw it was no longer full of fog, no longer bottomless. It was just ten feet deep, and it ended in a stone plug that looked as impenetrable as any fortress wall.

The woman bowed to me, which I must say was a rather appealing sight given her nudity; and then she offered me the sword. I took it and as I thrust it into the sash of my robe, I realized it really was my sword from under my cot.

The two monk-invigilators turned away from us, seemingly horrified. Perhaps they had never seen a naked woman before. Certainly, there had never been a woman of any kind in the abbey in living memory. I, however, was not one to forget my courtesy at a time like this. I gave her a courtly bow of my own, and then I stripped off my surplice to offer to her as a makeshift garment. She looked at the white cloth, smiled, and put it on. It just barely covered her nudity. She gave a curtsey made even more charming by her dishabille.

“Yr wyf Rhiannon,” she said. “Beth yw dy enw?”

I spread my arms to show my incomprehension. “Lingua Latina loqueris? Proserpina es?”

“Proserpina? Call me Epona,she said in Latin.I am in your debt.

I bowed. “Désiré,” I said. “Désiré de Montesquiou, chevalier, at your service.”

“Je suis enchantée de faire votre connaissance,” she said in French.

The door was thrown open behind us. Abbé Tanguy entered, followed by the door-guard.

“What is this? Who is this? Brother Désiré, what has happened here?”

“I regret to inform you,” I said, then paused. “No, sieur, I am pleased to inform you that Brother Li has successfully exorcised the os infernum. It’s nothing more than an old stone well now.”

“He did what? And you aided him? Do you have any idea of the penance you will perform?”

I bowed. “Abbé Tanguy, I think the cardinal — the Montesquiou cardinal — is unlikely to support a penance imposed on one who helps to execute his will. Moreover, I regret— no, again I am pleased to inform you that my time amongst the Cistercians has come to an end.”

He turned pale with rage, a sight that would have made me shudder a mere day or two before.

“You have no right to leave the order!”

“If you have any complaints, sieur, I suggest you send them to the cardinal. He is after all my godfather. Or else perhaps my cousin the Peer of France would be happy to receive your correspondence. At present his address is the same as that of the King.”

The three of us left him there peering into the stone well, his hands clenched into fists. We returned to the guest-chamber.

“Désiré,” said Brother Li. “Those names you dropped. Do you really have such connections?”

I shrugged. “Yes and no. My grand-uncle Pierre is the Cardinal of Albi and he did sponsor my baptism, though perhaps he now regrets it. And Raymond, my cousin once removed, is indeed a Peer of France and no doubt is attending court at present. But I’m afraid they are both unlikely to acknowledge me. I’m something of a black sheep.”

“Do you really think this cutting of ties wise?”

“No,” I told him. “I’m sure it was not wise at all. But I was very weary of my monkhood. So, what do you say? Can you use an apprentice exorcist?”

“Well,” said Brother Li, “I do have a position available. In fact, more than one—” we smiled at each other in a way that someone else might have interpreted as a leer, but then he frowned. “—but what about her?”

“Wǒ xiăng wǒ yào xìe nǐ de jìu mìng zhī ēn.” The woman held out her hand, and Brother Li took it with a look of befuddlement. But then he smiled and bowed.

“Néng bāng niáng niang shì wǒ de róngxìng. I am honored to have been able to come to your assistance.”

The woman smiled and addressed us both in French. “It seems I must beg for your continued indulgence, gentlemen. I am no longer very familiar with this country, but I gather that this is not exactly a place of welcome for either of you.”

“Indeed,” I said. “I think we shall be taking our leave quite soon.”

“In that case,” said the woman, “I wonder if you would be so kind as to allow me to accompany you? At least for a time. I believe I have a certain amount of catching up to do.”

“I have no objection,” I said, and I looked at Brother Li.

“Why not? Where shall we go next?”

I shrugged. “Do you know Rennes-le-Château? It’s not far, and I’ve heard the Templars there are having trouble with evil spirits.”

“Excellent,” said Brother Li. “Let’s be off.”

[Laurence Raphael Brothers is a writer and a technologist. He has published over thirty-five short stories in such magazines as Nature, PodCastle, and the New Haven Review. He is most proud of his romantic noir urban fantasy novellas, The Demons of Wall Street and The Demons of the Square Mile (Mirror World Publishing, 2020 and 2021). Follow Laurence on twitter: @lbrothers or visit here for more stories that can be read or listened to online. Pronouns: he/him.]