Hyperion is face to face with the Swine, his target. Hyperion himself is a man with a mystery as dark as the Swine’s, and with power to match, but his target’s young wife, Ligia, makes things difficult for him. Plus that the Swine is not alone. In this episode Hyperion has infiltrated the Swine’s headquarters disguised as a priest there to replace to the Old Loon, but his cover threatens to fall and the odds to turn against him any second as the action picks up.
My jaw tightens in frustration. I’m forced to sit at the Swine’s table, his men standing guard around us. Ligia’s eyes are bright with panic while his hand sinks in her golden locks. It seems he’s playing with them, yet by the twitch of her cheek I know he’s causing her pain.
I drop my gaze and repress an urge to grab the knife from his plate and drive it in his throat. In a split second I’d have him writhing on the floor, but his minions would be all over me, and they’d eventually save him. Instead I clutch the wooden cross hanging by my neck to keep my hands busy. The immediate proximity of a holy object is uncomfortable, but my wraith is on low supply to avoid being sensed by the others, so it’s bearable.
“You’re too handsome for a priest,” the Swine grunts, and I sense him looking me up and down from under his sweaty frown. “You catholic holy men are obligated to remain celibate, isn’t it?”
I nod, and feel his scowl drop to my lap.
“Such a waste.”
“The sacrifice was my own choice,” I say through clenched teeth.
“An irony. You’re supposed to keep us safe from temptation, and yet you make one yourself. At least for our women.” The dark pressure of his wraith puts snapping strain on my bones. It forces my own wraith to pump itself through them, steeling them, coming to life. I let my shoulders slump, like a human would. Head bent, I fight to keep down the surge of power in my veins.
“Much gratitude for your compliment.”
“Don’t be too quick with that,” he says. “I don’t like your lot, but I can barely wait to see the old soul-pastor return to his office. At least he’s harmless.”
I crouch even more, looking the intimidated human. “I understand.”
“Where do you come from, boy?”
That word again . . . “The Cozia monastery.”
“How long have you been a man of God?”
“For as long as I can remember.”
“Where did you grow up?”
“I was offered to the monastery when I was a toddler.” At least this part’s true. I leave out the attempts at exorcism though.
“And will you return there after the old priest reclaims his office?”
“I’ll probably replace another servant of God in another village.”
“Is that what the monastery uses you for? Replacements?”
The Swine doesn’t feel very convinced to me. My eyes are still down, but my pores are open to register every wraith and emotion around. I pick up Ligia’s heart pounding. Fear released drops of sweat down her back. She believes my cover, and fears I might betray her attempt to seduce me. Having seen me with the Old Loon last night only makes all of this more credible.
The Village Bully stands behind me like a bodyguard. I’m thankful to the Old Loon for the second time in my existence for having poured his witchery into the man, otherwise this would be a damn good moment for him to expose my plot and get a dozen wraiths on me.
The Swine stands and walks to the cabinet. I can see his feet in the silk slippers, and I hear the sound of liquid pouring in glass. Only a moment later his hand pushes the drink under my nose. He wears rings with colored stones tight on chubby fingers. The drink is something local, the smell of alcohol pungent.
“I hear you don’t fast,” he says. The chair creaks as he retakes his place, his eyes drilling into my half-bent forehead. I should’ve thought about it – with the Bully’s intervention last night, more of his men took notice of me with the Old Loon at the bar.
“The old Father invited me. It would’ve been disrespectful to refuse him.”
“And it would be disrespectful now to refuse me. Raise your eyes,” he demands.
Slowly, with a tight grip on my wraith that wriggles inside like a viper on adrenaline, I lift my gaze.
The Swine’s face is an unpleasant sight. It’s round and sweaty and lecherous.
“I hope you take the other virtues required from a priest more seriously,” he says, his hand winding around Ligia’s nape and pulling her close. His move lacks the smallest amount of gentleness. I sense the concept is foreign to him, as is any delicate feeling. My muscles tighten, I struggle to keep control.
One of the men behind him draws my attention. The one on his left. A weasely face, his front teeth like a rodent’s, and chipped. He has the specific grin of someone who knows himself the hero for something. I understand he’s the main spy in the team, so he picked up Ligia’s and my slight exchange last night. And he told the Swine.
I gulp down the glass of alcohol, which burns straight to my guts.
“Infringing the requirement of chastity is a nearly unforgivable sin,” I say after I set the glass on the table. “It can get one excommunicated. I’ve been in the Church for many years, and I’m still a priest.”
The Swine looks me up and down again. “I’ll accept that for now. Just make sure the parish is well taken care of until the old Father returns.” He measures me from head to boots again. “I can’t believe I’m actually looking forward to it.”
Two of his men approach from behind. My back stiffens, but they stop in place, synchronized in the same angle.
“I’ll see you on Sunday at mass, Father Jacob,” the Swine says, and I stand to leave. The men, both of them wraiths, escort me the few steps to the door. I can feel the creatures slither inside their human bodies. When the door slams behind me I take a deep breath of freezing winter air, but the Village Bully’s touch on my shoulder unbalances the frail control.
His, “All right, mate?” and Ligia’s pained yelp coming from the house set my wraith springing forward like a spanned snake. My whole body steels. I can barely repress a howl, which sends me sprinting towards the first tree line of the forest, wanting to come as far as possible before I must let it out.
By the time I reach the woods my muscles feel like metal, and my skin scrapes the priestly garment, which is barely more than a rag anyway. It shreds in the race from the friction with my hardening and raking body. Bald trees flash by, and knotted branches whip my face. They’ll leave no mark, and I run free and naked, the blood pumping hot in my veins.
The clearing comes into sight, opening wider from between two lines of thick old oaks, and I know I’m close to the citadel. This should be far enough for anyone to mistake my cry for a wolf’s. By the water I let out a long, liberating howl, putting all my power and urge into it. With the last tones my wraith releases pathos and I slump on the shore, cheek now humanly soft on the frozen riverbank, eyes on the sharp animal nails retreating back into a man’s fingers. It feels so cold I’m afraid the skin on my face might stick.
I lift my head slowly and look up. A couple of quick dark eyes meet mine from the other side of the river, confused but not stunned. I know these eyes.
“You here?” I hiss.
To be continued.
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