Her insane laughter seemed to come from everywhere; her hair now seemed to be twice as long, floating like the arms of some horrible red octopus on a background that was no longer the humble quarters of the Warrior Priest, but some swirling, cosmic nightmare of chaos. Her eyes had seemed to blacken around the edges, her was mouth unnaturally wide open, her ears pointed and her teeth viciously spiked. She threw out a hand, and rat was seized by the throat by some unseen force. He began to gag as he slowly raised from the floor, all the while Mab’s face seemed thrilled.
“This little vermin,” she cackled, “I should have known he would be quicker than the others. He’s like those computers he loves so much. Tell me, rodent, what good are those computers now?”
Rat couldn’t answer. He was choking.
“Stop this!” I shouted again. Apparently, it was all my mind could think of at the moment. I started to curse myself inwardly for my inaction, but what could I do? Guns had no effect, and she’d managed to shut down Dr. Bill and his mysterious powers before he could even start. Rat had tried something that she seemed to fear, but that ancient book was now a pile of cinders. What could some kid from South Philly do against all this? And where the hell was Ishmael in all of this?
I got my answer in a hail of gunfire coming down the stairs. Somewhere in the middle of all that was Ishmael, who seemed to be shooting several guns at once. Mab laughed them off as usual, but she seemed to be spending a little bit more of her energy deflecting hundreds of bullets as opposed to the twenty Xandra got off. It was an amazing, but ultimately futile display: he was everywhere at once, leaping off shelves of my mother’s home-canned pickled beets, rolling across the floor, turning a backflip without disturbing any of Rat’s massive computer setup, all while still firing, reloading, and firing again. I caught a glimpse of his face once or twice, and it was such a white picture of silent hatred that it was almost beautiful, like something carved from marble. I’d seen him rage, I’d seen him murder, but this time… this face… something about this was personal. I remembered how he’d brought Titania in without any announcement, how it had been his choice, on his own… now he was facing up to his mistakes. That made me wonder, in those few hectic seconds, whether or not that purest hatred was reserved for her… or for him.
“My, my… you ARE angry, aren’t you?” Mab muttered, yet her voice still carried like a microphone, “It is understandable, knowing what I know about you, knowing like I know all the others. I fooled you, and it was so easy. And why is that, Athelstan? Why was I able to make such a fool of you, a bigger fool than anyone has ever done?”
One of Ishmael’s pistols finally ran dry and, without any more ammo, he threw the weapon at her with a snarl. It bounced off some sort of force field Mab had created as she continued to chuckle.
“Your weakness is showing, dear. Really, is this the best you mortals have to offer? I don’t even know why I played this game with you, Athelstan. I thought you were different. But, as it turns out, you’re no better than the rest of these insects.”
Something about this didn’t make sense, I thought to myself. I’d never seen Ishmael so powerless, so wild and ineffective. He was now completely out of ammunition, hurling his empty firearms at her with wild abandon. With his gifts, I thought, he could cut through the defenses of nearly anything… what was going on?
“Oh, I had forgotten about you,” Mab said in an off-handed manner, reading my thoughts, “Such a weak little human, and more stupid than I thought. You wonder why he cannot see my weaknesses? It’s the same reason he could not see that he was being fooled; I am not of your world, mortals, I am not of your existence. To you, I am like a goddess: perfect, flawless, without weakness or imperfection, and—”
“I don’t know if I’d go that far.”
Both Ishmael and I stopped what we were doing to turn in the direction of that quiet, yet unwavering little voice. Father Kenneth Peter Joseph Mulcahey, Junior had struggled to his feet: there was blood coming from a badly cut lip, and it ran down his chin and onto his neck, staining his priest’s simple collar. He did his best to straighten his vestments as Mab met his comments with a laugh.
“Oh? You can still stand? I would have thought after everything… everything we’ve shared, you’d be feeling a little weak in the knees.”
That made my eyes pop a bit, but Father Mulcahey was cool as always. He began a prayer, softly to himself in a language I could not understand. This seemed to annoy Queen Mab, rather than please her as the other attempts had done.
“Don’t think any of your ridiculous incantations can affect me! I do not fear your God, little man!”
She continued her boasting, talking about how powerful she was, and how weak we all were, as Father Ken slowly walked back into his own room, which was now a swirling maelstrom, coming face to face with the woman demon. As soon as he got close enough, Mab made to swipe at his face with her talon-like fingers. Father Mulcahey, without ever once stopping his prayer or dipping in his calm expression, caught her hand with his, staring directly into her blackened eyes.
“I never said the incantations were for you, my dear.”
He held out his other hand, his right hand, then, and a blinding light seemed to come from his palm. Mab shrieked in real pain and she tried to drive herself backward and away from the light, but the Warrior priest held her firm. Little by little, like a mud puddle on a sunny day, she began to dry up and fall away from the light, until she was gone. The room went back to being its humble dormitory, the basement became immediately and eerily quiet, and the rest of our compatriots started to come to their senses.
And in the midst of it all stood Father Mulcahey, his shoulders slumped, his breath coming in ragged gasps.
I couldn’t bring myself to say it. I rushed to his side as he seemed ready to collapse.
“You did it, Father! You really…”
My voice trailed off as he turned to look at me. His face was hollow and ashen, like a corpse, and it was immediately clear that something was very wrong.
“I did nothing, lad. My Lord says that… when a piece of your body offends the Almighty… you are to cut it off and cast it away.”
He blinked slowly, as a sooty tear ran down his gray cheek.
“But what are we to do when that piece is our heart?”
We all gathered around him, then, except for Ishmael.
“What can we do, Father? Is there anything…?” again, my words failed me when I needed them the most.
“No, lad. Be not afraid. I’ve made my piece with the Lord… but I sold my soul for the power to seal away the evil I uncovered. I have said my Penance, and now I must take punishment for my grievous sins.”
He looked around to all of us, and gave a weak smile.
And then, well… there was not other way to say it.
He gave up his spirit.
And then he was gone.
A few hours later, after everything had been cleaned up as best it could, I found Ishmael in his room upstairs. He had left almost immediately after Mab was defeated, and hadn’t spoken to anyone since. The entire time cleaning up, the group could feel my anger and my frustration growing.
“I should give him a piece of my mind.”
“It won’t do any good,” Xandra cautioned, sweeping up some broken glass, “You know it won’t.”
“But maybe it will do ME some good, Xandra. Maybe it’s time I start doing things for myself, and not just because someone like him tells me to.”
I found the door locked, but I had remembered these rooms from my childhood. It wasn’t a very strong door, and it gave way with a kick. Ishmael must have known it was me, because I wasn’t staring down the barrel of a gun when I entered. Instead, he was laying prone on the simple cot he always slept on, propped up slightly, staring with unfocused eyes at the wall.
“You wanna tell me why you’re hiding up here?” I seethed. I didn’t get an answer, so I decided to get loud.
“Is this how you react when you come across something that’s too much for you?! Huh?! Do you always run away if you can’t solve the problem with your guns or you fancy voodoo powers? You’re not a ‘shoot first, ask questions later,’ kinda guy… you’re a ‘shoot first, and run away’ kinda guy, aren’t you?”
I still couldn’t get a response. I could tell he was trying to ignore me. I threw a punch into a nearby wall that opened up a hole in the drywall.
“What the hell are you doing up here? There’s a whole group of people that need you down there right now. They need their leader, damn it, and you need to go down there and lead them! God damn you… you will listen to me!”
In a feat of strength that surprised me, I hauled the tall, wiry faerie up off the floor by the lapels of his duster, making him stand and face me. I spat my words into his face. I didn’t care.
“To think I admired you. To think you were my hero. Now I realize that everything you do is just to keep people away, just to keep yourself safe in this little character archetype you’ve set up for yourself, and no one can compromise it. If they do, if they even try… you run away. You make me sick. Some leader you turned out to be.”
I threw him back down on the cot, and only as I turned to leave did he finally speak.
“I never said I was a leader.”
“Well, you’re the one making all the plans and bossing people around, jackass,” I didn’t turn around, I let him talk to my back, “What does that usually make you?”
“A leader is more than someone who plans attacks. A leader is someone who can keep the group together when all seems lost.”
“And you’re not even going to try?!” I rounded on him, my voice going unnaturally high. Ishmael came right back at me with a raspy shout of his own.
“They know I can’t! It’s only you who think I can!”
We stood there, eyeing each other for a moment, before he continued.
“We all know how good of a judge of character I am,” he muttered, “I allowed myself to be fooled by that monster… just like everyone else. Thankfully Kenneth was able to expose her, she was probably the reason our raids were being corrupted.”
“Who cares if you make mistakes,” I shot back, “That doesn’t mean you give up entirely.”
“But I can’t, Mr. Noble.”
His voice was pleading now. It felt exceedingly odd. He was looking at me now with blue eyes that pleaded for understanding and, despite how furious I was at his conduct, I felt myself start to melt.
“I can’t be what you are, or what Xandra is. I can’t be a Lover… and I can’t be a Leader. I killed those parts of myself long ago, and I don’t even risk planting the seedlings for fear of the bitter fruit they might yield. I have made myself a murderer, and I must continue murdering until the job is done. If I give up now, if I try to live like the others… I’ll never accomplish my goals.”
“Well, you won’t accomplish anything with a broken team downstairs. We just lost our spiritual center, you’ve got to step in–”
“All I’ve got to do is stay the hell away until the situation is resolved,” he replied quickly, “Remember the prophecy: Xandra is the Lover, she will take care of broken hearts. You are the Son, and you will be our leader. I made the mistake of thinking I was the leader only once, when I found… that woman. I thought I had found our User, but in reality… I was only looking for someone to hide the truth from me.”
“I… am the User. I use people. Places. Animals. Spirits. Souls. I use them all to accomplish what I need done, and you have to believe me when I say I do not care, I cannot care that one of our own is gone. He served well, and he erased my hubris at a terrible price… but the fight goes on, and I will continue to use all I can until the AE is destroyed. I can’t heal. I can’t help. I can only use.”
What he said made some sense… but I still thought he was full of it. I tried only one more time to get him to come downstairs, but this time he did pull a gun on me, silently, sadly. I went back down to the basement and asked the group to circle up.
“Is everyone okay?”
God, that sounded stupid. I tried again.
“Is everyone… going to be okay?”
There were half-hearted nods all around. I heaved a sigh and gave it my best.
“We’re going to get through this. I think we all know that Father Ken wouldn’t want us to give up now. Xandra?”
“Yes?” it was obvious she had been crying, but her reddened eyes seemed dry… for now.
“Will you be open for any counseling our group might need?”
The industrial princess seemed to almost glow, then, satisfied to have such a burden placed upon her.
“Good. I’ll get in touch with Aonghus to repair any structural damage. I’ll also… break the news to my mother when she gets home. Brigitte?”
“Yes?” the heavily bandaged form was leaning just as heavily on a broom.
“Do what you can, but make sure you get well. We need you now more than ever.”
She cracked a crooked smile and nodded.
“Make sure everyone’s in good shape medically. And don’t call me sir, it’s weird.”
“Aye…” I could tell he wanted to say “sir” but he just awkwardly saluted and gave me another “aye.” I thought for a moment about just how many armies he may have been a part of, but Rat interrupted my train of thought.
“Hey, skipper… what about me?”
It was the saddest I’ve ever seen him. He usually only gets sad when the Flyers lose.
“Rat… clean up.”
I could see his shoulders slump in disappointment… then it came to me.
“Also! See if you can find out what that prayer was Father Ken used. It might come in handy.”
“Oh, and Rat?”
“What was that book you were trying to read from… before it burnt up?”
“Ah…” he gave me his crooked-toothed grin, “It was an old Mummer’s Play. Gotta be ready for the parade, y’know.”
“Somehow, I’m not surprised,” I replied, smiling. As I looked around, I noticed a lot of people were smiling.
“I’m not sure why we are,” Xandra responded when I asked during cleanup, “Maybe we just like having something to do after all… that. Purpose, meaning out of meaninglessness. But I am feeling a lot of good energy in the room right now, if you believe in that sort of bullshit… maybe it’s Father Ken’s last little bit of magic.
A few days later, Rat got me the incantation. It was in Gaelic:
deonaigh dom an suaimhneas
chun glacadh le rudaí
nach féidir liom a athrú,
misneach chun rudaí a athrú nuair is féidir,
chun an difríocht a aithint.
“It’s called the Serenity Prayer,” Rat explained, “I found it on a plaque in Father Ken’s room. My Gramma used to go on and on about it.”
We’d turned the room into a memorial and meditation chapel, the same as it had been before and always.
“Turns out it’s used by Alcoholics Anonymous in Ireland… maybe there was more to the Good Father than we knew, eh?”
“Yeah,” I mumbled, looking down at the simple, carved wood plaque, “I think it’s safe to say that there was a lot there we didn’t know about.”