“Not now,” Francis gasped shortly as he urged the two onward, “We don’t have the time!”
The one holding Gabriel’s left leg nodded and turned around; the one on the right visibly gulped – his Adam’s apple protruding like a large white stone from his thin sweaty neck – and shot a glance at Gabriel. Brother Francis inwardly cursed him, but had to give in to his sinking feeling of dread and look down as well – if only for a second.
That second was all it took. His godson, Gabriel, whom the three bishops were carrying, was barely conscious in their arms. His black eyes were less than half open, and unmoving – but that was hardly Francis’ concern. The boy was still breathing – albeit in small snippets of air – but it was his wound that bothered Francis; it was nearly gone. The boy’s torso was still drenched in blood, but the large holes were nowhere to be seen.
Francis’ heart hammered in his chest. As he looked back up, the bishop had already turned around again, and they resumed their race against time; Francis running forward in the back of the procession with Gabriel draped in between, and the two bishops running forward with his legs. The smell of their sweat mingled with the hard metallic scent of young blood as they ran. They could see the high, impenetrable temple now – the full, yellow moon behind it cast eerie shadows on the land, bleaching it of color…and hope. Brother Matthew was already at the double doors, holding one open, waving and shouting. It was only a few more yards, but the bishop’s voice seemed to be incredibly distant… They rushed onward, sloshing through the quicksand of time, the only noise the desperate chorus of their shoes on the pavement; their breaths, though labored, were quiet, as if the excess sound would hasten their doom.
The procession reached the bottom of the temple’s stone steps – Gabriel suddenly stirred. The boy’s back arched in a bridge, and the wave passed down his legs as he collapsed, nearly wrenching his limbs from Francis’ grip. His muscles tensed, contracting and drawing the bishops closer, and his entire body shook with shuddering. Brother Francis blanched, bile filling the pit of dread in his stomach; their time had run out.
“Run brothers! Quickly, we must hurry! It’s beginning!”
There was no time for doubt. Their hands readjusted, the bishops sprinted up the stone steps. They flew past Matthew as he held a door of the temple open. They sped down the aisle, past the pews, past the altar, past Thomas who followed them, into the stairwell, into the cold, stone basement. Into the dungeon.
Finally they had reached it. A large, circular theatre made of cold, grey stone. A hellish looking symbol inscribed into the center of the floor, and a balcony on a higher level overlooking it. A cold, fetid scent of some creature long dead tinged the air. Heavy metal chains snaked from the dim corners of the room to the center, where they ended in large shackles, bathed in the bleach white moonlight from a high, single window.
Seven minutes – that means –
“Samuel, Phillip – Up on the balcony! Matthew, Thomas – Stay with me!”
The boy was thrown to the floor, where he slid in a trail of blood and skidded to a stop in a fetal position, his shivering so violent that the dead metal chains next to him began to spring to life. Clattering chains, chattering teeth, clacking of shoes, shouting of men –
Gabriel coughed and hacked harshly, followed by a stream of vomit that wracked him to his core. Brother Francis issued more orders – The two bishops on the balcony were directly above the grounded ones. The discomforting, wet ripping sound of Gabriel regurgitating filled the theatre again, and the rancid odor pelted them – followed by the hard slapping noise of the toxins hitting the floor – and a low, anguished moan. Francis turned to face his godson, and he and his comrades raised their hands to heaven.
They were ready.
He was ready.
Gabriel’s shaking lightened, and he began to attempt to push himself off of the floor, his arms wobbling horribly. He lifted his head just enough to meet Brother Francis’ eyes. His eyes were nearly closed and lined with nightmares – he was pale through his dark skin – his mouth was burned by the acid that was still dribbling out of him –
Oh Lord Iah, I’m not ready for this!
”Now, Brothers! NOW!”
Words of the power filled the dead air – the four stationed bishops raised their arms above their heads and cracked invisible whips towards Gabriel – Ropes of light shot from their hands and flew towards the boy – he was slammed to the ground as they found their mark. The bishops immediately pulled on their ropes, as if trying to rein in a bull. The ropes bound him painlessly and powerfully, and Gabriel was pulled upward onto his knees – One rope on his left wrist, one rope on his right wrist, trailing up to the bishops on the balcony. The bishops on the floor to either far side had bound him on each ankle, but let their ropes hang limp and drag across the cold stone like fiery snakes. Brother Francis was in the center, merely feet away from Gabriel, and he would remain there – he must.
Gabriel’s head hung down, swaying lethargically; he looked like a ghastly puppet with his limp arms held in place. His body convulsed once more – a ripple emanating from his stomach, arching up his back and swinging his head down – his mouth hung open, emitting a throaty groan. There was no more vomit, just a slow trickle of spittle.
If that’s it, then now –
Brother Francis’ whipped his face up – Gabriel was writhing and pulling against the ropes, his eyes clenched shut and his teeth gritted – The bishops responded by strengthening their restraints. Brother Francis’ heart was in his throat, and even from there it beat frantically and desperately, as if trying to escape its fate…like his godson.
“It’s beginning, Brothers! Do not let up!”
Gabriel’s eyes shot open, large bloodshot saucers sunken against his face. They found Brother Francis, standing directly in front of him, and Gabriel truly saw him – for what was probably the first time of the evening. Relief swept across his countenance, followed immediately by pain, worry, and fear. His arms yanked against his restraints, seemingly on their own accord, as he looked at Brother Francis.
“B-Brother,” Gabriel hacked, his voice deep and hoarse – Francis was unprepared for the punch that his heart took from hearing the voice in such a critical state – and was even more unready for the unease caused by the pit of dread forming in his stomach from knowing that he would never hear that voice again after the night. His mind, not his heart, controlled his actions as he took two very small steps towards Gabriel.
Gabriel’s left arm sprung to life, twitching erratically, and the boy slowly turned his head to gawk at it in shock – Brother Francis mentally slapped himself. This was it, this was his time. He had to be strong. For Gabriel.
“Gabriel,” Francis said forcefully, “I want you to look at me, and only me. Look at me, Gabriel.”
The boy did so, though his eyes were barely open in a squint, and his whole body was lurching forward and backward with his ragged breathing.
“I’m going to test you, Gabriel,” Francis breathed, his mind racing back through time to his recycled words, to sunny afternoons in the temple with his godson – “Just stay calm and answer to the best of your ability. Understand? I want you to nod, Gabriel.”
Francis prayed that the boy would not doubt, would not question – He had been such an inquisitory, curious child; but now he had adventured too far. Gabriel did not question, but dipped his trembling head in a nod. Brother Francis gave a sigh of relief, and when he did, he knew the calm before the storm was over.
“Ah – Ah, AHHH! AAAAUUUUUGGGGHHH! AAAAAAUUUUUUUUUUUGGGGGHHH-,”
The boy’s shaking was so severe that his figure blurred, and the bishops emitted cries from their attachments as the vibrations rattled them. The sound of Gabriel’s anguished yells reverberated around the theatre – Gabriel jumped from his knees with surprising agility, planting his feet solidly on the ground, and before Francis could question it, the reason immediately became obvious –
His height was increasing. His ankles were sprouting from his dress shoes, and his shuddering head kept being pushed higher – higher – at eerie, irregular spurts of inches – His arms and legs were being forced outward from his torso – The torture chamber was filled with the echoing screams, creating a chorus of pain. The ropes grew taut, looking as if they were pulling the boy apart – his screams penetrated Francis’ mind, swarming around his thoughts as he rushed to pull the boy’s favorite passages –
“Gabriel! Look at me! Give me the Ballad of Sacrifice! Now!”
The boy clenched his teeth, his cries still ringing in theatre – “…S-Shake off the sh-sh-ack!-ackles of this wu-wuuu-orld…Let me t-trrransform you –,”
A snickering snapping sound began to fill the air – then loud cracks that made Francis’ spine tingle – Pop and snap, crack – The bishops were shouting as they pulled on their ropes. Gabriel’s fists were clenching and opening, like some demonic flower in bloom; his fingers cracking and twisting in seemingly impossible ways. A series of earth shaking fissures shot around the chamber; Gabriel’ chest was expanding. His face twisted in pain as he continued to be stretched, and against all resolve he yelled – his torso was jutting out further and further in loud cracks that Francis recognized could only be made by Gabriel’s bones. His former bones. Each crack bounded around Francis’ skill, threatening to knock him further and further out of consciousness, seeing stars through pure empathy –
“Stay with me, Gabriel! The Ballad of Sacrifice!”
“…L-let me t-transfoooorrm you…”
The voice cracked, sinking deeper than Francis would have ever thought possible, now nothing more than a painful, guttural, husk of the former voice. Francis was horrified, entranced, as he watched the scene play out, as if detached from his intimate position in it…
The clothes were at their limit – they could not contain the grossly swelling and pushing body. Rips and tears ran down the length of the black dress pants, and the buttons popped from the red vest and black dress shirt, racing down the length of the shirt and flying at Francis like arrows – He dodged the missiles and they clattered to the floor behind him. The shirt split and fell to the ground, the leather shoes snapped in thick rips, the belt buckle was launched off and clattered to the floor – The symbol of Iah, which he wore on a necklace, however, sat unmoving.
“…L-Let me transfoorrm yoouu…fff-frrom a sac-uuuh! – sacrifice into a ch-champppiooon… Fr-Frrrom refuuuuse to g-gooowwld! – As – As IS THE LORD’S WILL!”
Internal punches were pushing the boy outward, like swelling boils – The skin, dark skin, was stretched so thin it was paling, and it was impossible to tell the blood from the sweat that was covering it, seeping through the widening cracks – The arms and torso lurched and trashed, but the bishops were pulling their hardest, holding them in place as they continued to grossly expand. A stretching sound, like the sound of lighting a match, was growing more a more vibrant, joined by the screeches of agony – and a loud, moist snapping sounded throughout the room – the skin was tearing. Down the bare chest the rift appeared, as if that skin was the same as the former shirt. Darkness filled the void - Moist with blood and sweat, something even darker was protruding, revealed more and more by the second, as the skin continued to part.
The power and pain of the roar shook the theatre – the bishops’ shrieks were melted into it. The arms were thrashing more powerfully now, and the men struggled to keep them constrained – Francis had nearly been knocked off his feet by the mere force of the roar, refusing to balk in the face of his godson’s pain –
“The Ballad of Escape!”
A howl of anguish was his answer, and Francis’ heart faltered, destroying his powerful, commanding façade and slamming him into reality – Francis’ eyes widened. His heart smote his mind, and he ran forward – to comfort, to hold, to protect, as a godfather should –
“FRANCIS! STAY BACK!” Philip yelled –
Francis jolted back to actuality – Towering over him, Gabriel did not see him – one of the massive arms swung as down as the boy struggled to escape the pain – the rope managed to slow it before it connected with Brother Francis –
Francis’ feet left the floor – winded as if he had collided with a brick wall, Francis flew backward, stumbled and fell to the cold floor, his glasses askew. The bishops all exclaimed – in shock, in outrage – Francis ignored them, scolding himself for his weakness, quickly fixing his glasses and sitting up –
There was his godson, Gabriel – or was it, anymore? Almost twice his normal height, over three times as wide, arms and legs with more volume than his entire body had once possessed, an abomination for a voice – and it was not over. Francis knew that it was only getting worse – and there was nothing he could do to stop it. Did he truly wish this? Did he want a lifestyle encased with fear, and one laced with hate for his godson? Couldn’t he simply end this horrible suffering, this demonic ritual, right now, with the dagger in his robe? Couldn’t he spare himself, the bishops, the town, and his godson, of such a nightmare?
“…t-to Luh, Lord Iah I c-caaaAAAAAUUUUL!”
No! I will see this out to the end! THE VERY END!
Francis stood once more, and a reverberation like chalk being scraped against stone sent caused him to shudder – and in the moonlight he could see its cause. The fingernails, far too small on fingers swelling to the size of sausages, were being nudged upward – outward. Sharp, bloody grey tips were pushing out on them, causing them to fall to the floor as the daggers slowly thrusts their way into the crevices –
“Continue, Gabriel! Continue!”
“N-No te-EMPF-tation surrrrrprrrises my –Luh – uh! Ulk – ,”
Brother Francis opened his mouth to yell for a continuation, but stopped as he saw why his godson wasn’t – The mouth was open, and it was gurgling up blood. Thick red globs dotted with white specks, like pearls in a trough – they could only be teeth. Between spouts they were visible – the teeth being rejected from their enlarged sockets, and new, larger, sharper, fangs pushing down.
The heat in his face reached an ultimate high as Francis absorbed the scene again. The yells of the bishops in the background was doing nothing to pacify him, and the thick metallic smell of blood and the sickly scent of who-knows-what was thick in his nostrils – “GABRIEL, LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT ME!”
The head turned to the bishop again; it was strained, cracked, and stretched – the head was small on that behemoth body, and the skin was stretched tight as it still tried to cover its former owner – And then, the eyes vanished; Already sunken, they simply withdrew from their sockets, into the darkness of the head. Something pushed out in the face – from under the nose and above the mouth, something long, wide, and straight began to protrude. It stretched the face, pulling the mouth into the void that the eyes had entered – and it continued to grow forward at the same unsteady, irregular rate that the body was swelling –
All at once, there was a chilling, wet, ripping – The skin completely gave, large fragments falling to the bloody stone floor, other pieces exploding into flesh-colored dust. The hair was expelled, new stalks already sprouting from its head. A cocoon, a husk of the former life formed on the floor, covered with lifeblood, at the feet of the beast –
It was fur. Wet, caked with blood, like a newborn. Mated dark brown fur covered the monster, now looming over Francis from a height of at least ten feet – from its massive muscular arms, swinging at the air for release, to its thick tree-trunk-like legs – wide, shovel-like feet and equally large paws tipped with dark claws – and where its face should’ve been, a long snout, complete with thin whiskers and a wet black nose. Its long fangs the size of kitchen cleavers were bared as it struggled, and its hair, now midnight black, laid flat, wet with blood, to its head. It’s ears were long and pointed, and the giant was accented with strips of light brown fur on its arms and chest; birthmarks. And, unbelievably, the skin had shed to reveal a long, full tail that swung behind it, streaked with light brown.
A monster had been born.
Now it was over. Gabriel, his godson, was now a werewolf, never again to take up human skin.
Francis couldn’t breathe. He was dumbstruck, staring, but refusing to believe. The bishops were louder than ever, the ones on the bottom were now desperately grasping the dead metal chains to help keep themselves grounded against the beast’s thrashing, but Francis did not hear them. He heard the loud popping of the behemoth’s final bubbling growths, and then, a long, anguished, howl. The mammoth stopped struggling, and fell to its knees in the pool of fluid, the rancor scent of it putrefying the dead air. It panted, its low ragged breathing echoing throughout the theatre, its arms still suspended by the gasping bishops.
“…Brother…I’m…I’m looking at you.”
Francis started – the voice was deep, like a growl, but Gabriel’s voice was buried deep within it – He stared at the beast. Its eyes were yellow; a dark, sinister yellow, like the moon, and its pupils were blood red slits. Francis wanted to yell, he wanted to cry, he wanted to run; run and never return to the nightmare….
“…To the bald face of the moon, to Lord Iah I call. No temptation surprises the eye of my Lord; doors he provides, to lead me through.” The monster blinked and gave a low, rumbling sigh. “That’s the Ballad of Escape, right? …”
Francis’ woes – his doubts, his fears, melted away. “Yes, Gabriel. That’s it.”
A deep growl emanated from the beast’s chest, and it tugged on its ropes, teeth clenched. Francis looked up quickly, his heart refusing to slow yet.
“Gabriel, what is it?”
The werewolf’s snout was wrinkled in pain, and it thrashed as if to grab a rope – “-T-These…b-buuuurrrrnnn!”
Francis’ eyes widened in realization. The transformation was complete, which meant that they had moved into to their new vessel happily. Brother Francis raised his hand, grounded his feet, and clenched his teeth –
“BROTHERS! HOLD FAST!”
Gabriel’s fighting grew worse, and the bishops, winded, struggled to restrain him; Francis’ time was limited. He pointed upward, towards the ceiling and the starry heavens above, and called on the power of the Master – then pointed at Gabriel.