Blood Prophecyby Stefan Petrucha
Man and monster are in his blood. . .
His name is Jeremiah Fall. A soldier of fortune, he has been fighting his own war for 150 yearsever since the beast in him was born.
Desperate to restore his lost humanity, Fall crosses the sands of Egypt, discovers a lost city off the coast of France, and finally arrives at the birthplace of all mankind./b>… See more details below
Man and monster are in his blood. . .
His name is Jeremiah Fall. A soldier of fortune, he has been fighting his own war for 150 yearsever since the beast in him was born.
Desperate to restore his lost humanity, Fall crosses the sands of Egypt, discovers a lost city off the coast of France, and finally arrives at the birthplace of all mankind. Shunning daylight and feeding only when he must, he battles the monster who transformed him forever. He can share his deepest secret with no one . . . not even the beautiful woman he starts to love, the only human who grasps the mysteries of an ebony stone as old as creation itself.
Across the world, across time, Fall seeks the stone's secret. But has he found a cure for himself or unleashed a final curse on all mankind?
9 our of 10! [A] distinctive read that stands out from many other fantasy novels I have read."Flamingnet.com
- Grand Central Publishing
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 4.10(w) x 6.70(h) x 1.20(d)
Read an Excerpt
By Petrucha, Stefan
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2010 Petrucha, Stefan
All right reserved.
There was light.
Barely, in the dark.
Just enough to illuminate the dust floating in the prison cell air, just enough to make each speck shine against the stagnant black, just enough so that when Jeremiah Fall weakly waved his hand by its shackled wrist, innumerable motes of pale fire swirled between his fingers, as if they were all Creation.
Where was it coming from? The filthy straw covering the dirt floor held no surprises, nor did the dry rat corpses he’d kicked into a pile. The sandstone walls remained the same, and the ceiling was still twenty feet up, the same round stone sealing the exit. But the light had to be coming from somewhere.
He trained his eyes on the twirling motes. Each pinpoint shone with the same dull yellow. They pulsed, too, throbbing into and out of existence, unsteady as torchlight.
Torchlight. Of course. There must be some slight gap between the stone and the ceiling, someone holding a torch in the room above. Who was up there? His guards? No. That motley trio was loud and drunk, always banging into walls as they cursed in French. The better soldiers were saved for more important tasks than watching a prisoner who couldn’t possibly escape.
Who then? Someone who might actually listen to him? If it was, what would he say? Pardon me, monsieur, but if I don’t find a way to stop it, the world will end six days after New Year’s? Despite all he’d seen, Fall barely believed it himself. And he certainly didn’t know what to do about it.
He didn’t know. Not knowing had always bothered him, deep in his bones. Here, with nothing to feed his mind or senses, where every thought fell back on itself, not knowing nearly made him wish for madness.
His grandfather used to say that Jeremiah’s insatiable thirst for knowledge would be his salvation. But here the constant grasping of his intellect was an agony that at times rivaled the black fire that roiled his belly. Aside from his churning mind, he’d been trapped here with a darker thing, a hunger that whispered to him so often and so well; Jeremiah Fall had long ago dubbed it the beast.
Beast and brain, with Jeremiah trapped between the two. And the lizard-thing didn’t care about knowledge or salvation, only about itself. Even now, it told him that whoever was up there, despite whatever help they might offer, should be killed and fed upon. After all, it cooed, even if you could explain, what would it matter to the coming darkness?
It was not an entirely stupid beast and often quite convincing. Fortunately, the chains made its pleas moot. It was crucial Jeremiah stay in control. His visitors might at least tell him the date. Then, at last, he’d know how much time was left.
Ever since he had been captured, the possibility he could prevent the end of all things was the only reason he had to hold on to sanity, to existence. That was why he hadn’t died with Amala, why his mind hadn’t been reduced to nothing, why the beast had yet to conquer him completely. He told himself that, but he knew he was lying. He didn’t know why he had survived.
It had been sometime in early October 1799 when the French soldiers found Jeremiah by the stone, deep in the territory of their enemy, the Ottoman Empire. He wished he’d put up a fight. But then, his soul crushed, he let himself be chained.
When they saw how sunlight burned him, they stuffed Jeremiah in the largest sack they could find and kept him there the entire journey. Somehow they’d made it past borderlands where eighty thousand Turkish troops had massed, preparing to reclaim what the French had taken from them. He couldn’t see in the sack, but he could hear. Long before their words did, the relief in the soldiers’ voices told him when they were back in Egypt. He figured the journey at roughly two weeks, but, unfed and drifting in and out of consciousness, he couldn’t be sure. That would put him at the end of October.
Relief was brief for his captors. They soon learned that their beloved general, Napoleon, had returned to Paris, his Middle Eastern occupation cracking at the seams. Meanwhile, the native insurrectionists, their numbers bloated by Arab jihadists from across the Middle East, grew more daring every day.
As they brought Jeremiah into Cairo, a haphazard encounter with a narrow doorway tore the sack. The hole let him glimpse the moonlight bathing the orbed minarets, square fortresses, and princely palaces. Before the sack was patched, he had his wits about him enough to plead for the date, to ask how much time the world had left. He was refused.
His inner beast wanted to fight them, but he didn’t. It was only after they dragged him down stone staircase after staircase and he saw the pit they planned to put him in that he finally struggled. But the chains were thick, and he had not fed in so long, that it was too late.
Whenever his guards lifted the stone cover to lower a bucket of food, he begged for the date again, but they remained mute. The only courtesy offered was the occasional bottle of wine, which he didn’t drink.
At first, he pretended to eat what food they gave him, thinking he might count the days based on the number of times the bucket appeared, but he lost count. After that, he gave up, letting them marvel at how he stayed alive, hoping his survival, at least, might elicit a conversation.
It didn’t, but once enough untouched buckets were recovered, a black-bearded guard held a torch down into the cell, illuminating the pile of desiccated rat carcasses. The three guards puzzled over it, debating the meaning as if they were part of the group of intellectuals Napoleon had taken with him on his invasion of this country. When the pile was bigger each time they checked, they reasoned, correctly, that Fall was somehow sucking the vermin dry, using their blood to stay alive. Then they talked, not to him, but among themselves.
“Chat noir avec des yeux rouges,” they called him. Black cat with red eyes. Mouser.
After that, the bucket no longer appeared, leaving Jeremiah so alone he longed for the moments he could hear them stumble and curse in the room above.
Since then, how long had it been? Weeks? Months before this bit of light struck the dust? Could it be December already?
A clanking chain pulled against a groaning wooden wheel. The great circle lifted. Sand rained from its circumference. The invisible crack of torchlight swelled into a cone. He heard the rustling of clothes and the cautious river-murmur of whispered speech.
Freed of its mooring, the cover swayed slightly, affording a view of his visitors’ legs. Instead of frayed, dirty cloths and worn sandals, the newcomers wore polished leather boots and clean blue pants. There were four soldiers, stiff, silent, and not alone.
A fifth set of legs held a belly so rounded that it strained against its fine frock coat, the typical dress of a French intellectual. It was an odd sight against the aged sandstone, but Jeremiah was well aware that Bonaparte had enlisted 150 scientists and artisans for his latest adventure. In Paris, they’d fallen over one another for the chance to be near their beloved general, not even knowing their destination until days before the massive fleet’s arrival. If this was one of those intellectuals, a savant, that was a hopeful sign. At least he’d be sure to know the date.
A sixth and final figure, even more out of place, wore the dark robes of the Church. A priest? Fall almost laughed to think the proud, atheistic French needed a priest to deal with him. Good, then. If the savant proved difficult to convince, the priest might be more open to believing in the end of the world.
A rope ladder unfurled. The small log tied to its end for weight thudded into the straw. One by one, the soldiers climbed down. Their faces were masks, but their bodies provided some information. The dry heat rising from their uniforms told Jeremiah it must be daylight. He could smell it on them. That, and a bit of fear. Fear of him.
Two of the soldiers aimed their smoothbore muskets at his chest. The remaining pair set up a brazier, laying several iron tongs of different shapes and sizes at its side. Smoke soon curled from a small fire, adding a dimmer glow to the torchlight and a burnt odor to the rank dungeon air.
So they meant to torture him.
As the irons heated, the scholar climbed down, taking pains to make his descent look easy. He was young, midtwenties, roughly the same age as Napoleon, but of more average height. Extreme discomfort emanated from his body. The copious sweat on his brow further indicated his poor physical condition. He surveyed the soldiers and the brazier and then sighed with theatrical exasperation. When his gaze reached Fall, his full lips turned downward in a frown. Despite his airs, the doleful eyes peering from behind his thick spectacles shone with intelligence.
Still above, the priest croaked, “Geoffroy, will you steady the ladder?” The aged voice was so high-pitched it recalled one of the crones from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. A witch in priest’s clothing.
Reluctantly, the young man turned from Fall and held the thick ropes. The priest inched down, shaking. Cotton hair and white, wrinkled skin jutted from the top of shadow-black robes. Even on the ground it appeared as if the tall man’s legs would buckle. Geoffroy, seeing no option, steadied him.
“Merci. My muscles are stiff from the journey and do not recover as quickly as they once did.”
“May I suggest a tincture prepared from the ground bones of a mummy, Father Sicard? It’s quite a palliative. I can have one of our surgeons prepare a vial.”
“No, please,” Sicard said, fixing his mottled brown eyes on Jeremiah. Despite his frailty, he was the only one who didn’t smell of fear. “I’ll keep my faith in prayer and trust all bones to the Lord.”
Jeremiah lowered his head in a bow. “Messieurs, I beg you, tell me, what is the date?”
Geoffroy turned toward Fall with an expression that made Jeremiah hope he would actually answer. Instead, he gestured as if presenting a rare animal. “Remarkable, no? So long in total darkness, no food, no water, no worse for wear. He even retains his manners.”
“No one speaks more sweetly than Satan,” Sicard said. “See how his eyes glow with hellfire.”
Geoffroy shook his head. “I think not. They glow from the torchlight.”
Sicard tsked. “How sad that in these otherwise enlightened times, the presence of the Devil is so often ignored. Try to remember I’m here because of my experience with the otherworldly.”
Geoffroy clucked his tongue. “You’re here because France holds Rome and your knowledge of Bible history is useful. That supposedly diabolical glow occurs only because the fellow’s pupils are dilated to an abnormal extreme, the way a cat’s eyes reflect in the night.” He faced Fall. “Step forward.”
Having no reason to refuse, Jeremiah obliged. As he entered the cone of brighter light cast from the ceiling’s opening, the red sheen faded from his eyes, making them a more earthly blue. He walked as close to the two men as his chains permitted, then straightened in his torn desert robes, to better present himself.
“More human, now?” the savant asked. Sicard did not respond.
Geoffroy moved in a semicircle around Jeremiah. “The face is gaunt, but handsome, perhaps even friendly. Auburn hair is straggly. His body is lithe but not without muscle. Shocking health, given the lack of food.”
“The Devil changes form at will.”
Jeremiah spoke again. “If you won’t tell me the day, at least tell me whose acquaintance I have the pleasure of making?”
The scholar raised an eyebrow. “Very well. I am Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, representing the Institut de l’Égypte. My studies involve… unusual animals, so it was felt my skills might apply here. Father Sicard is, well, as is obvious, a member of the Church.”
“Honored,” Fall said. “I am…”
Saint-Hilaire waved his hand. “Jeremiah Fall, American. You fought against our troops as a mercenary alongside Murad Bey during the Battle of the Pyramids. You were captured and put in our work camps. In Rosetta, you discovered a stone of historic significance and were rewarded. Rather than show gratitude, you escaped and ambushed the caravan that was taking the stone here to Cairo. Had not our valiant soldiers tracked you into enemy territory, you would possess it still.”
“The caravan was attacked,” Jeremiah said. “I tried to protect it.”
The savant ignored him. “Your earlier history is more difficult to ascertain with certainty. Likely you are the same Jeremiah Fall who battled alongside the colonists during the American Revolution. It is less likely, despite the father’s beliefs, that you are the same Jeremiah Fall who fought against the colonists a hundred years earlier during King Phillip’s War.”
“Perhaps I just take good care of myself?”
Saint-Hilaire looked as if he were about to smile.
“He doesn’t deny it,” Sicard interjected. “He extends his existence by feeding on the blood of infants and virgins.” He pointed a bony finger at the carcasses. “Rats, when he has no choice.”
“Only animals,” Fall said. “I only feed on animals. The same as the rest of us.”
Saint-Hilaire peered over his glasses, first at Fall, then at Sicard. “There is a scientific explanation for his unique capacities, even perhaps for his long life.”
“What?” Jeremiah and Sicard asked simultaneously. They exchanged an awkward glance.
Saint-Hilaire removed his spectacles and cleaned them with a handkerchief as he spoke. “Where the waters of the Nile meet the sea, I discovered an astounding fish, one with lungs that can breathe air. Now why would such a thing exist? Likewise, why are there creatures like the ostrich, which have the vestiges of wings when clearly they cannot fly? Instead of folktales, I resort to reason. I propose these are all indications of a unifying structure present in all species, an ur-form. Such a form would be capable of sometimes producing combined aspects, such as the lungs of an air-breather in a fish, the eyes of a predatory cat in a man, and so on. Why not also increased longevity?”
“Blasphemy,” Sicard said. “You focus your mind on the Creation, but are blind to the Creator.”
Saint-Hilaire sniffed. “The Church still says that the earth is the center of the universe despite the evidence. Why? So that God may reward the faithful for disbelieving the minds and eyes He supposedly gave them?”
“Please listen. The stone is extremely dangerous,” Jeremiah said. “More than you can imagine.”
Saint-Hilaire put his glasses back on and focused on Fall. “As I hope I’ve just shown, monsieur, the French can imagine a great deal. Our immediate interest is indeed the stone. Were you hoping to sell it to the British?”
“You have to keep it guarded…”
“The Mamluks? That would explain why you brought it into Ottoman territory.”
Jeremiah sighed. “We had to take it to a holy place to try to destroy what was inside it. So we brought it to Al-Qurnah, where the Tigris and Euphrates meet. Eden. Where mankind was born.”
Sicard sneered. “The garden was destroyed in the deluge that only Noah and his family survived. You went to that place to serve Lucifer. Admit it.”
“No. Not serve. And not Lucifer, exactly.” Fall lowered his head. He wished he could somehow simply show them what he knew about the world’s fate, let them see what he’d seen. But all he had were the words he knew sounded absurd: “We were there to try to stop the end of the world.”
The scholar threw his head back. “Mon Dieu!”
Using the savant’s arm to steady himself, Sicard came forward. “His lies are intended to agitate you. See how it’s working?”
Saint-Hilaire pulled away so quickly, the old man nearly fell. “I am surrounded by jihadists, insurrectionists, and plague! Our soldiers, my own countrymen, think my sample cases contain stolen treasure from the tombs and try to steal them! Must I deal with this superstitious stupidity as well?”
“Superstition? I think not.” The old priest waddled over to the brazier and lifted one of the hot irons. Its tip, in the shape of a cross, was so heavy that he couldn’t keep his wrist straight. “Tell me how your theory of… an ur-form was it? Tell me how it explains his reaction to sunlight or the need to keep him in not one, but four chains?”
Saint-Hilaire’s eyes fluttered. “I don’t have all the answers right now. Certain diseases make the skin sensitive to light. I’ve seen hysteria induce feats of strength.”
Sicard turned toward Fall, holding the glowing red iron. Saint-Hilaire looked sideways at it and said, “What do you hope to prove with that?”
As the priest came forward, Jeremiah backed into the shadows. His unearthly state enabled him to vanish into the darkness, but he would still be chained. Best to keep that trick secret for now. It was hard, though, with the beast inside him growling. It didn’t like pain.
“Watch,” Sicard said.
The old man, suddenly possessed of both energy and strength, stabbed forward, pressing the cross into Fall’s shoulder. The metal hissed as it seared through his skin and into the muscle. Jeremiah screamed and went to his knees.
To distract himself from the pain, Jeremiah struggled to stay focued on what was around him. He saw Saint-Hilaire wince and noticed that the soldiers were watching this show of weakness with contempt. The rough-and-tumble, battle-weary men barely tolerated the intellectuals. Now, trapped in Egypt, it seemed, they hated them.
Saint-Hilaire straightened. “You think that proves he fears your cross?”
Glancing at the soldiers, the scholar grabbed a second heated poker, flat-pointed. With forced detachment, he pressed it into Fall’s leg.
Jeremiah screamed again, rolled to his side, and moaned.
“You see? Same reaction.”
The priest shook his head. “You misunderstand. I wasn’t trying to prove the power of the cross.” He bent over, careful not to get too close, and pointed his gnarled finger at the pulpy shoulder wound. “I was attempting to show you… this.”
The boiling flesh of the wound subsided, and the frayed skin began to knit back together. Saint-Hilaire’s eyes went wide.
“Do you explain that by virtue of science or does the unholy magic of one of Satan’s minions now seem more reasonable?”
“As I said… the fact that I’ve no natural explanation… at this moment does not mean one does not exist.”
Fall struggled back to his knees. “Just tell me the day, and I’ll tell you whatever you want to know.”
“Give him nothing,” Sicard said, “but another taste of the fire.”
Saint-Hilaire narrowed his eyes. “Why is the date so important?”
“I want to know how much time is left.”
“Before the end of the world?” Saint-Hilaire said. “Is it some sort of metaphor? Are the British planning a land invasion? The Ottoman?”
“No. Something worse.”
The fire from the brazier glinted in the intellectual’s eyes. It was clear he felt he was on to something. He took a step closer to Jeremiah.
Take him, the beast said.
“Careful, Geoffroy,” the priest croaked.
Put your teeth to his throat. He’s pale, but plump.
Saint-Hilaire held his ground. A desire to show manliness in front of the soldiers trumped his fear. “Tell me, what’s worse than an invasion from the British?”
Fall answered slowly. “Seventy French soldiers were sent into Ottoman territory to find us.”
“Twenty,” Saint-Hillaire said.
“There were seventy. Men who had wives, children…”
“The constant darkness has brought on dementia, Monsieur Fall. I’ve seen the reports. Twenty men.”
“That’s all that’s left now,” Fall said. “The other fifty weren’t just murdered; they were eradicated, wiped from creation, from history, even from memory. The thing in the stone did that. And what it did to them, it will do to everything.”
“Geoffroy,” Sicard said softly. “Step back.”
But Saint-Hilaire stared a while longer, as if trying to evaluate Fall’s honesty from the look in his eyes. Finally, a slight smile played on his lips. Would he believe? No.
“What non—” he began.
Before he could complete the word, Fall grabbed the Frenchman and brought his neck to his open mouth. Sicard and the soldiers saw the fangs and gasped. Though Saint-Hilaire could not, he felt their tips poised against his flesh.
Free the talking fool from his delusions. You need the strength.
Fall’s voice, lower now, echoed in the small room. “Tell me the date… please.”
He heard Sicard’s quick breath, heard the soldiers shift, uncertain, heard Saint-Hilaire swallow, heard the life-giving liquid pumping through the savant’s veins. The sound was so sweet, Jeremiah was so weak, and the beast knew it.
You know he’s not going to tell you. Why not…
“It… it’s Décade II, Quintidi de Brumaire de l’Année VIII de la Révolution,” Saint-Hilaire blurted.
Fall closed his eyes and moved his lips, mumbling.
“He casts a spell! Shoot him!” Sicard cried.
Before the infantrymen could decide whether to obey, Fall hurled Saint-Hilaire at them. They were barely able to move their bayonets out of the way in time to keep from stabbing the scholar as he tumbled to their feet.
“It’s no spell!” Jeremiah said. “I’m only trying to figure out…” He became aware of the results of his calculation just as he began the sentence. Since their bloody revolution, the French started their own calendar, with its own months and years. “November 5, 1799. It’s November 5.”
He fell back on his haunches and exhaled, leaving his captors utterly confused.
Without help, Saint-Hilaire rose. By the time he had adjusted his long coat, he managed to appear more insulted than terrified. He blinked, looked down, wiped his forehead with his handkerchief, and then met Fall’s gaze. “You have your date. Will you tell us what we wish to know?”
“Everything,” Fall said, “from the beginning. But trust me, it isn’t the sort of thing anyone would ever wish to know. I’d have sooner died than live to tell it… if I hadn’t died already.”
April 14, 1644
Dedham, a township of the Massachusetts Bay Colony
Even with the sun tempered by the tall pines lining the field, Jeremiah Fall sweltered in the simple clothes of the godly. His broad-brimmed hat was stifling. His shirt clung to the sweat on his back. His legs baked inside the black pants. If only the plow weren’t stuck again. Straining against it, he feared passing out, until a final, forceful push sent his hand skidding along the handle, where a wooden shard stabbed the meat below his thumb.
“Ah!” he said, clenching his teeth. He should’ve checked to see what blocked the plow. His impatience could’ve cost them the blade. Hurt, angry with himself, his father’s favorite aphorism came to mind: Arrogance is folly.
His shame would be double if Nathan had seen. Fortunately, his father was too busy struggling with a second, ox-pulled, plow to notice.
The ox, though, turned its wide eyes toward Jeremiah in seeming judgment. Mary Vincent, his mother, had named it Patience. If merriment were not forbidden, he’d swear she’d done it as a joke.
Arrogance is folly. An important lesson. Pulling the sliver free from his hand recalled another; splinters hurt more coming out than going in.
As a thread of blood inched along his thumb, Jeremiah sighed and inspected the plow head. A rough sphere nested in the dirt. Another rock to be dug out by hand.
Meanwhile, Nathan and the ox began their fifth line for the day. They’d hoped for fifteen, but after the first hour, Grandfather Atticus was too tired to help. This next line would be the first to cross the mound that marred the terrain’s flatness. What would his father do, Jeremiah wondered, when he reached this thing that looked like the dome of a buried giant’s head? Suspicion of anything unknown might make him till around it. The Faithful, named Puritans by those who scorned them, were forever uncertain which parts of the New World offered Eden, which hell. But the Falls were also stubborn.
Atticus, Dedham’s unofficial ambassador to the natives, said the mound was a mystery even to Kanti, the female leader, or sachem, of the small Algonquin village a few miles north. Hard to tell, though, how much his addled grandfather heard and how much he’d imagined hearing. One thing was certain: The Algonquin were convinced it was too early to break new soil. There’d likely be another snow.
Nathan, loath to heed native advice, refused to wait. Like the townsfolk, he felt the only purpose of contact was to draw the Algonquin closer to the Lord, not to be drawn into their savage ways. But wouldn’t some advice be welcome? In Essex, the Falls had been carpenters, and in all their years here they had gained little expertise with the land. Could it still snow? To Jeremiah, the air smelled of spring. Even the forest didn’t offer its usual foreboding sounds and shadows, only the playful breeze.
No, not only.
At the tree line, some low, wavering shadows coalesced into human form. Jeremiah tensed, wary of an Indian attack, until he recognized the figure. It was Chogan, the young Algonquin who enjoyed watching their labors. Speaking of arrogance, the boy’s grin made it clear he’d been seen only because he’d allowed it. The Algonquin didn’t consider pride a sin.
Still, the question behind the smile seemed reasonable to Jeremiah: “Why don’t you take our advice? Snow is coming. Why work so hard for nothing?”
How often had Jeremiah explained that labor brought them closer to God? How all men were sinners since Adam was made from the dust, only the chosen fated to find heaven? A man made from dirt was the only part Chogan understood, and that only because it matched some heathen belief. If Jeremiah did return to school, maybe he’d find a better way to explain. Not today. The boy was already gone.
“Jeremiah, come quench your thirst!” Atticus called. The familial connection between the three men was written on them as clearly as the begats in the Bible. The only difference was the blue eyes Jeremiah shared with his mother. “It’s a harmless hunger. Chogan would tell you the same.”
Nathan halted Patience. “We do not follow the example of the godless.”
Atticus cackled. “How can they be godless if God created them?”
Nathan gritted his teeth. Atticus’s loose speech had caused them trouble for years. The voyage to the New World had turned to months. As they starved, a storm had hit. Jeremiah’s infant brother was swept overboard. Ever since, the old man had given voice to the most questionable thoughts. More recently, the fever, which weakened him and brought Jeremiah back from school, left his tongue even less willing to censor them.
Nathan tried to be patient. “I beg you remember the second article of the covenant I put my name to so we might join this township: ‘We shall by all means labor to keep off from us all such as are contrary minded…’ ”
Atticus’s eyes lit up as if he were possessed by an impish squirrel. “Then all Dedham should be empty! I’ve yet to meet a man whose mind wasn’t contrary to itself.”
As Nathan’s brow furrowed, the sweat that had accumulated in his thick eyebrows ran down the side of his face. “Don’t play with the words as if this were a game, father!”
“Why not? The Lord plays with words!” He held aloft his prized Geneva Bible. “Thou shalt not eat of the tree of knowledge, for on that day, thou shalt die! Yet Adam lived 930 years! Matthew tells us the Lord said, ‘He that is not with me is against me,’ yet Luke tells us He said, ‘he that is not against us is with us!’ What is this if not play?”
For years, Dedham had tolerated Atticus. His exchanges with the Algonquin kept the community abreast of their plans. But since his fever, the old man went too far.
“Each time you speak, talk of our expulsion grows. Never mind how you destroy the chance of Jeremiah’s return to the Harvard School. What becomes of us when homeless?”
“What do they say in town?” Jeremiah asked.
Nathan shook his head. “They recall we are the family who arrived on that cursed ship long ago, that we were shunned at Watertown even though they sorely needed carpenters.” His hand shook as he wiped the sweat from his brow. “Make certain the work is its own reward. Do not think too much on school.” He added, “But, take that drink. We’ve yet some time before darkness.”
Obeying, Jeremiah walked to his grandfather and took the ladle.
“Dying doesn’t frighten me, only the thought I might keep you from school,” the old man said.
“Don’t worry, grandfather. The extra yield from these acres will surely let father hire John Fisher to make up for…” His voice trailed off.
The old man nudged him. “For my becoming half a man. Half mad. I know. But I’m helpless against it. Though it’s over a decade past, the tempest that struck our ship remains inside me like the whirlwind that appeared to Job.”
“Go back to the house for a nap. You’re tired.”
Atticus crinkled the skin around his brown eyes. “I’m too awake.”
Jeremiah patted his grandfather’s shoulder, surprised how bony it was.
“Jeremiah, Jeremiah,” Atticus went on. “The prophet Jeremiah went down to the potter’s house and saw the potter break the vessel he was working on. So the potter abandoned it and made another. Then the Lord said to Jeremiah, ‘Cannot I do with you as this potter does? As the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are you in mine.’ ”
The sun sank lower, the air shifting from cool to cold, as if something thick and powerful had rolled into the field alongside them. A chill moved up along his back. Atticus’s dismal tone haunted him, certainly, but was this sudden dread just despair or were his senses trying to warn him of something real?
There was something different. He turned, planning to tell his father, only to see that Nathan had led his ox to the edge of the rounded earth. He was at the moment of deciding, go around or through?
The word Kanti used to describe not the mound but its essence was chepi. Atticus likened it to the stories of the fairy folk he’d heard in Essex, demoted angels thrown from heaven. Not evil enough for hell, they roamed the earth kidnapping babes from their cradles. Kanti assured him it had more to do with a long-ago plague that nearly wiped out the Abenaki tribe. An Abenaki might know more, but their new settlements were far north, among the French.
Was it Abenaki ghosts Jeremiah felt watching from the woods?
Nathan ordered Patience forward. The ox dutifully put its cloven feet upon the rising earth, pulling the plow behind. As the metal blade edged forward, concern flickered across Nathan’s face. Did he feel the dread, too? No, it was mere annoyance, the expectation of hitting another rock. As the plow slid deep into the mound, quickly and easily, Nathan Fall smiled.
Jeremiah hadn’t seen his father smile since before the loss of baby Jim at sea. His mother claimed he had smiled the day Jeremiah left home for Boston to exchange his skills as a carpenter for academic lessons. While he believed her, he’d not seen it with his own eyes. As the dirt yielded further, the satisfaction on his father’s face was clear.
Perhaps he was thinking that now the field might be sown in time and Jeremiah could return to school. What he said was, “It’s all right, Jeremiah. It’s soft, like clay.”
But arrogance is folly.
The plow suddenly rolled sideways. Patience lowed in distress and seemed to be sinking. Jeremiah thought the plow’s weight must be dragging the ox down, but strangely, the creature’s thin bovine legs, though scrambling, moved downward in the opposite direction.
Had they hit a deep hollow, a sinkhole?
With their sole ox in danger, Nathan didn’t hesitate. He leaped atop the mound, drew the small scythe from his side and freed the animal from the harnass with two quick swipes. But Patience continued to sink, as if something beneath the dirt were drawing the creature down. Nathan grabbed the ox by the horns, stared into its panicked eyes, and shouted, “Harr!”
Patience obediently stiffened and attempted to stand.
It seemed the danger was over until the ox’s large form jutted back toward the hole as if yanked. From what Jeremiah could see, the animal’s back leg was caught on a thick root. Patience kicked free of it and stumbled down the mound, nearly knocking Nathan over in the process.
The thing that had held the ox, however, continued to rise. Jeremiah thought he was seeing some brown and muddy tree part until it bent at the elbow and splayed the bony fingers of its hand. Shapes like shoulder and chest followed, both covered by skin the texture of cured leather. A second arm wrenched itself into the air, a thick rope dangling from the wrist. There followed a horribly oblong head.
Jeremiah fought to convince himself it was a sickly bear they’d woken, but it looked more as if Satan himself had dug his way up from hell.
Patience limped across the field, blood flowing down its back leg, leaving the thing to turn toward Nathan. The shifting of its body revealed a visage that at first brought to mind a tangled mass of dried grass and peat. Then it opened its mouth. Even from this distance, Jeremiah saw the yellow-white teeth glisten against the dark earth of its form, like the fangs of a wolf bursting into moonlight while night rendered its body invisible.
Jeremiah ran toward his father, but the Devil was faster. Free of the mound, it snapped the remaining rope that bound its legs and pushed aside the fallen plow. The earthen-brown layer covering it, which Jeremiah had taken for its skin, fell off in wet clumps with each muscle it moved. What lay beneath, its true skin, was the same, but lighter in hue. With speed and grace as wolflike as its fangs, it leaped. In midair, it craned its neck forward, as if those bared teeth could pull it forward faster. As it flew, what looked like a long head fell away. The oblong thing slapped to the ground, stems of aged feathers rising. A headdress?
As Jeremiah prayed for more speed, the figure grabbed Nathan’s neck and drew him to its teeth, sharp and distinct, and bit into his neck. Jeremiah shivered, a queasy nausea erupting in his stomach.
Nathan tried to hit the creature, to injure it or push it away, but the efforts of his strong arms looked like the thrashing of grass against boulder. His father’s neck was split open like the spring lamb they’d killed last year, and the creature drank the spurting fluids. As it sucked in Nathan’s blood, the skin around its neck thickened, its shoulders reddened, and its chest swelled.
Jeremiah knew it was too late. His father’s body no longer fought, but twitched. Refusing to trust his intuition, he jumped onto the length of the sideways plow and hurled himself into the thing. He hit with his full weight, but the thing didn’t fall, and instead moved only an inch along the mound’s soft earth. Jeremiah’s gaze met two lidless eyes. They looked more like stolen eggs embedded in a rat nest, their whites marred by the tiny branches of dead veins, the pupils sparking with an old, angry hunger.
Trying to grab hold, Jeremiah’s hands scrambled against its rough form. Some of the ash-brown hide was vaguely supple, like half-dried beef, the rest hard as stone. When he pulled at it, his fingers slipped as they had on the plow, earning not splinters but drier clumps of dirt, revealing the pallid skin of a corpse beneath.
What was it? What was this world that it could have made such a thing?
The creature’s back, no longer protected by dirt, was now struck by sunlight. The thing went rigid. Smoke snaked from its body. There was a loud hissing like water on hot coals. The light burned it.
Though Jeremiah’s instinct wanted him only to join Patience and flee, the mind Atticus had praised mere moments ago forced him into attacking again. This time, he didn’t try to move it or hurt it. Instead he focused on pulling away as much of the earth covering as he could, bringing to light more and more of its gray skin. As he did, he thought he saw the remains of a breechcloth and leggings on its unearthly body.
Recognizing Jeremiah as the cause of its increasing pain, the creature paused from feeding long enough to swat him away. Years ago, Jeremiah had been knocked down in a fistfight when an older youth called his grandfather insane, but this was different, more like swinging by rope into the face of a tree. Jeremiah’s neck felt twisted. As he tried to stand, his legs did not wish to cooperate. He forced himself to his feet, but he was swaying, uncertain how long he’d stay conscious.
He thought he’d lost this fight and likely his life, until the grotesque odor of burning flesh assailed his nostrils. His mind had found the right thing—perhaps the only thing—to do.
Its skin reddened and curled in large round wounds, as if eaten like bark in a fire. Air rushed from its mouth as if it were trying to scream. At first, it didn’t stop assaulting Nathan, but its agony soon surpassed its urge to feed. It picked its head up, chin and cheek glistening with blood. It hesitated as if weighing whether to drag Nathan off with it, then dropped him and raced for the shade.
Jeremiah staggered to his fallen father and cradled his bleeding form.
Eyes no longer focused, Nathan muttered, “Patience. Save Patience or Mary Vincent will be upset.”
“The ox is safe,” Jeremiah whispered, though he had no idea if that was true.
It had all happened so fast. Atticus neared them only now, croaking as his lungs gasped for breath, “Nathan… Nathan…”
Jeremiah didn’t look at his grandfather. His gaze was torn, head snapping back and forth, between his dying father and the thing racing for the woods, thicker and thicker tendrils of smoke curling from its form. As it disappeared among the trees, it found its voice, screaming long and loud, not just in anguish but in unmistakable fury.
As the screeching drenched him with fear, the words came to Jeremiah again: Arrogance is folly.
He wondered, did the aphorism apply to the Devil’s world as well as God’s?
Excerpted from Blood Prophecy by Petrucha, Stefan Copyright © 2010 by Petrucha, Stefan. Excerpted by permission.
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