Authors: Frank Peretti
The dark spirits fluttered and flapped after her, chattering and spitting. It was a wonderful, cruel game.
But warriors were watching. Deep within the texture of the forest,
here and there within the trees, the logs, the thick brush, there were deep golden eyes watching it all, and strong arms upon ready swords.
THE GOOD SHEPHERD
Community Church had a prayer chain, a simple system for spreading prayer requests throughout the church via the telephone. Every participant had a list of all the other participants and their phone numbers. When you needed prayer for something, you called the next person on the list after yourself, who then called the next person on the list, who then called the next person, and so on. The whole church could be praying for a request in just a matter of hours any day of the week.
Tom’s request for prayer set the lines buzzing with the news about Ruth and Josiah, and with each phone call, more saints started praying. At the top of the list was Donna Hemphile, a supervisor at the Bergen Door Company; next on the list was the Waring family, then the Jessups, followed by Lester Sutter and his wife Dolly, then the Farmers, then the Ryans, then the widow Alice Buckmeier, then the elders on the church board—Jack Parmenter and his son Doug, Bob Heely, and Vic Savan. On down the list it went until all the numbers were called.
That started a flurry of prayer, of course, but also a flurry of phone calls back to Tom to find out more. To his great sorrow, he had nothing more he could tell them; and to his frustration, a lot of the information being passed through the chain was wrong.
He tried to call the Child Protection Department, but they were closed.
He tried to find Irene Bledsoe’s home phone number; it was unlisted.
He tried the office of the State Ombudsman. The lady there told him to call the CPD or try the Department of Social and Health Services.
He called the DSHS and they told him to contact the CPD in the morning. They had no number for Irene Bledsoe, but weren’t free to give out numbers anyway.
Pastor Mark Howard and his wife Cathy were out of town, but would be back sometime tomorrow.
Ben Cole made good on his promise and called, but by now there
was nothing that could be done until morning.
After one last call to a state representative who didn’t answer, Tom dropped the receiver into its cradle and hid his face in his hands. He had to stop, to breathe, to calm himself. It couldn’t be as horrible as it seemed. Somehow, sometime, somewhere he had to find Ruth and Josiah. It just couldn’t be this difficult.
The silence, the emptiness of his little house was so odd, almost taunting. Right now he should have been tucking Ruth and Josiah in for the night. But he was alone, and so tired.
“Lord God,” he prayed, “Lord God, please protect my children. Bring them back to me. Please end this nightmare!”
The Bacon’s Corner Elementary School reeked of demons. As Nathan and Armoth flew high above, they could feel them, sense them, often see them, buzzing and swirling in and out of that brand-new brick and concrete structure the community was so proud of. The playground was full of kids, about two hundred, running, playing, and squealing before the first bell signaled the start of classes. Then they would gather in all those classrooms where the spirits would be busy, more than ever before.
The two warriors passed over the school, continued on for another mile, then banked sharply and sideslipped toward the earth, dropping like stones, twisting slowly about until they were facing the way they had come. Then, easing back their speed, they skimmed across the fields of hay and young corn, across some gravel access roads, right through some sprinklers, and finally came to an old chicken house on a farm next to the school.
Their wings snapped like parachutes, and they went through the old clapboard walls of the chicken house feet first. Inside, a cackling chorus of eight hundred leghorns carried on, pecking at feed, rolling out eggs, oblivious to their presence.
They hurried toward one end of the long house, moving through floating white feathers, fine brown dust, and chickens, chickens everywhere.
Tal stood at a window, looking toward the school.
Armoth quipped, “One might ask why you chose this place.”
“For the view,” said Tal. Then he looked toward the school again. “They have quite a project going over there, well established.”
“The saints are buzzing with the news about Tom’s children. They are praying,” said Nathan.
“And the Lord is responding, so we’re well covered so far. But the real attack is still coming this morning. Place a guard around Tom. It’s going to be hard enough for him; I don’t want any extra harassments against him while he’s down.”
“Where is Sally now?”
“She made it to Claytonville, and she has a motel room. Chimon and Scion are watching, but Terga’s spirits are tormenting her, hoping to regain Destroyer’s favor.”
Tal bristled at that. “What spirits?”
Armoth had a mental list. “Fear, Death, Insanity. They and some others tormented her last night, and they’ve followed her today as well, trying to break her spirit.”
“What about Despair?”
“Terga sent him to inform the Strongman.”
Tal was amused. “How bold of him.” He looked toward the school again. “I want Signa and Mota to clear a path into that school, do some screening, some diversions. We’ll need to get in and out of there without the whole demonic network finding out about it. As for Cree and Si, they’ll need to do the same thing at Omega, which means they’ll need twice the warriors just to get Sally in and out of there with her life.”
Armoth drew a deep, long breath.
“A touchy business, captain.”
“And getting touchier with each move we make. What about the room at the Schrader Motor Inn in Fairwood?”
Nathan reported, “We have warriors there now, keeping it open. And the old hiding-place for the ring is still intact.”
Tal took a moment to think. “So those fronts are covered. Now all we can do is play the game, one careful move at a time.” He smiled with amusement. “So I suppose the Strongman should be hearing from Despair any moment now.”
“And who is stationed there?”
Nathan and Armoth nodded. That was no surprise.
GUILO HAD OFTEN
noted how the darkest, most horrible evil seemed to choose the most beautiful places to build a nest, and so it was again. The mountains around him were towering, jagged, snowcapped, picturesque. The early morning air was clear, the visibility unlimited, the wind steady and gentle, the sky deep blue. Tall armies of evergreens stood at attention on every hillside, and crystal-clear streams trickled, splashed, and cascaded down from the pure white glaciers. Below him, the little town of Summit nestled peacefully in the green, wild-flowered valley, surrounded by a restful, noticeable quiet.
He whistled at the thought: all those little people down there, surrounded by all this beauty, could not see the horror all around them, the impending storm about to swallow them up, the cancerous darkness that first blinds, then consumes.
He and some dozen warriors were staying out of sight, sticking close to the pines, not showing any light of glory. He didn’t want to be spotted by the evil powers that only spirits could see—a cloud of demons that swarmed and swirled like a smoke-black whirlwind on the mountainside only a mile away from the town. Below the guarding whirlwind, almost invisible in the trees, was a quaint, alpine village, a picturesque campus of ornate buildings, fastidious walkways, fascinating trails, stunning gardens. The whole place shouted invitation, exuding a welcoming, embracing sense of peace, beauty, and brotherhood.
It was the home of the Strongman, his outpost, the hub of an ever-widening evil. The sooty spirits were bold and riotous, reveling in a constantly growing tally of victories over human souls.
Guilo stood still, watching their moves, sizing them up, getting an idea of their numbers. Yes, it was nice to see them so cocky; demons in that state of mind were always easier to catch unawares. But they wouldn’t be so cocky for long—he and his warriors had seen the recent arrival of one little whimpering demon, one little envoy from one little insignificant farming town, and the news that spirit was bringing was sure to change things throughout that supposedly charming village. An assault would have been difficult enough beforehand. Now it was going to be nothing short of a real nightmare.
A cry! A wail, a shaking rippled through the whirlwind. The ranks of demons began to compress, shrinking tighter, packing closer, growing even darker, thicker.
“Oh . . .” said Guilo. “Looks like the Strongman’s gotten the news.”
Despair’s shapeless little blob of a body stretched, warped, and bulged this way and that, like a big black bubble fresh from the wand, as he sailed across the chalet and then dropped to the floor, whimpering loudly, his black body limp and flat like a sobbing, shuddering bear rug. All around him, the demon princes and generals were in a chugging, slobbering, sulfurous dither, hollering and shouting out curses and yellow vapor as thick as cigar smoke. The chalet was filling with a heavy, putrid fog that almost obscured their shadowy forms.
They didn’t like his news either.
At the end of the living room, the Strongman was glaring at the pitiful little demon, his huge yellow cat eyes almost popping from his head, his nostrils flared, the sulfur chugging out of them in swirling clouds. The immense, hulking spirit was trying to decide if he felt better now, or needed to hurl Despair across the chalet again.
The princes and generals—almost a hundred of them—were beginning to turn on each other, waving their arms, throwing their black wings in each other’s faces, shouting and hissing; some were demanding explanations, some were beginning to pass blame, some wanted to
know what to do next, and some just stood there cursing.
The Strongman filled his end of the room with his wings and held out his arms. “Silence!”
He got it.
He took one huge step toward the center of the room, and all the demons backed one step away, bowing, folding their wings. He took a few more steps, and the room echoed with the sound of them.
Then he addressed the little rug on the floor. “Have you anything else to report to me?”
“No, my Ba-al.”
“No further casualties?”
“No, my Ba-al.”
“No further blunders?”
“No, my Ba-al.”
The demon lord considered that for just a moment.
Then the order exploded from his gaping mouth as from a cannon: “Then get out of here!”
The force of the Strongman’s breath was more than enough to get Despair started. He was out of the chalet and into the sky before he even opened his wings.
The Strongman paced back to his end of the room and sank onto his throne—the fireplace hearth—with a deep scowl. The demonic ranks on either side of him trimmed their lines, standing straight and tall against the walls. The room came back to order, filled with darkness, shadows, yellow fog, and a deathlike stench.