Aphelion Issue 221, Volume 21
September 2017
 
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The Devil's Breath

by Ian C. Douglas





A few days after Father Stefan's arrival in his new diocese, the wind spirits started to misbehave.

First there were the dead sheep, found beneath lofty precipices. Blown to their doom by wicked ghosts, or so the villagers said. Then, the Altman family came running down from their mountain home, wailing and shrieking. After several glasses of strong brandy, Papa Altman horrified the gathered crowd with his story. A whirlwind had attacked the Altman's residence, with the roof ripped clean away.

The death of a stranger proved the final straw. Some hapless soul crossing the pass between Kobolberg and Luftberg had strayed and tumbled fifty metres. He was still living when the goatherds found him, groaning and sobbing about some malicious demon. The poor man died as the goatherds were struggling to bring him to the apothecary.

The next day Father Stefan received a deputation from the burgomasters. He ushered them to the chintzy drawing room of the presbytery. The three snowy-haired men entered with such dour faces that the good father instinctively fetched for the sherry. If there was one thing the Vatican had taught him, it was the benign influence of liquor on crusty old men.

Herr Becker wasted no time in getting down to business.

"Father Stefan, I can't remember a time when we had such trouble with the wind spirits."

The priest clucked sympathetically. "I'll pray for the soul of the deceased."

As a man educated first in Vienna and then Rome, Stefan gave scant credence to the notion of wind spirits, but this was his first mission and it was advisable to gain the peasants' favour. The better the reports to the archbishop, the sooner Stefan would be on his way to a more civilised parish.

Becker shifted uncomfortably in his chair.

"Ach, prayers are useless with spirits, Father. We need an exorcism."

Stefan nearly dropped his lime cordial, (as a man of the cloth he only drank on Sundays).

"Exorcism! But Herr Becker--"

The old man silenced his protestations with a raised palm.

"Only an exorcism will shoo away these demons."

Stefan felt his cheeks blushing. He pushed back his mop of blond hair.

"My dear Herr Becker, the rites of the church are a serious business and not to be used on a fool's whim."

The atmosphere turned as sour as vinegar.

"Father, not only is your livelihood dependent on donations from our guilds, but so is your future. We wouldn't want to complain to the Bishop, would we?"

Father Stefan looked into Herr Becker's wrinkled eyes, lacklustre with age.

Nevertheless, the glint of steel was unmistakeable. Father Stefan gulped.

"If it will reassure my flock, then of course."

"Good," Becker replied. "Gustav the guide will call tomorrow at dawn. He will get you safely to the top of Kobolberg."

"To the top? I am a man of God, not some mountain goat. I could never

climb--"

But the old men were already leaving.


* * *

Father Stefan passed a fitful night, punctuated with dreams of demons and falling. By the time the cockerels began their cacophony he was up and ready. The doorbell rang and he opened the door to a shadowy figure. Resisting a startled urge to genuflect, he ushered in the stranger.

A wiry man stepped into the candlelight. Stefan didn't recognise him. This implied he was no churchgoer. Not good. His chin was square and his features weather-beaten. The hair was raven black. Stefan cast an eye over the man's taut body. He was puny in comparison.

"You must be Gustav?"

The man grunted and then added.

"That holy frock won't last a hundred feet. Put on something more suitable for the slopes."

Feeling every inch the imbecile, Stefan hurriedly changed out of his cassock and dragged out his old lederhosen. They were a tight fit around his belly, soft from all those pastries at the seminary. Nonetheless, this passed the guide's surly approval, and soon the two men were striding past the wedding-cake houses of Hochdorf and into the foothills.

The mountain shadows melted before the early sun. Acres of green turf appeared, burnished with dandelion gold. A hint of pine laced the crystal-clean air. The colours of the wild flowers lifted Stefan's mood and he ventured a little conversation.

"So, Gustav, have you seen these wind spirits?"

Gustav spat out the stalk of grass he was chewing on.

"From a distance. More often I hear them."

"Hear them?"

"At night, on the high passes. They whisper, hidden but close to hand."

"Isn't that rather alarming?"

Gustav glanced at him with pale, distant eyes, as if he had spent a lifetime gazing into the blue yonder, but then he had.

"No, I find them reassuring."

"Then, they've never been, well, aggressive?"

Gustav shook his head.

"Not till you showed up."

Stefan decided to ignore that remark.

"But you have actually seen them, even if from afar."

Gustav glanced up at the towering three-peaked summit of Kobolberg.

"Ja, but I can't describe them. How can you describe the air? They twist and shimmer and blow. They come from nowhere and vanish in an eye blink."

"Fascinating."

Gustav frowned at the tone of scepticism in Stefan's voice.

"If angels can waltz on a pinhead, surely spirits can wander the high and lonely places of this world?"

Stefan threw the Guide a look of surprise.

"A theologian? Here among mountaintops?" he asked.

Gustav shrugged his broad shoulders and both men lapsed into silence.

The slope grew sharper. Turf petered out onto ochre rock. Their steps led up the flank of the mountain.

Gustav studied the height of the sun.

"Breakfast," he announced and gestured to a boulder to sit.

He produced bread and goat's cheese from his rucksack, along with apples, figs and two flasks. Father Stefan muttered a quick Grace and gratefully snatched up his share. Hiking was hungry work!

"So," he said a few mouthfuls later. "Why have these spirits broken their truce with the village folk?"

Gustav gave him a hard stare.

"Ask them yourself, Father. How would I know, a simple man of the mountains?"

"Which is why I suppose, you spend so little time down below. In church, for example?"

Gustav's gaunt cheekbones creased into a smile.

"All that incense makes me choke."

Father Stefan pursed his lips. Here was a lost soul in need of redemption, but he would need to be patient and gain the man's trust.

After breakfast the route became steeper. For Father Stefan, accustomed to the flat boulevards of the city, it proved exhausting. Every few minutes he needed to pause and catch his breath, but at least the view was exhilarating. The cliffs tumbled into the valley, a quilt of green and yellow patchwork, bordered by the smoky blue ridges of the Alps. Kestrels soared and the barking of dogs rose up from the distant village.

"God's handiwork is magnificent, no?" Father Stefan said to his guide.

Gustav pushed out his bottom lip, but said nothing.

They marched on. Father Stefan had expected the mountainside to be a chilly place, to his surprise, the temperatures rose. His calves began to ache and twice he stumbled. Tiredness enveloped him and his earlier good humour gave way to suspicion. He stared at the sprightly Gustav, leaping ahead of him like the proverbial mountain goat. What did he know about this man exactly? Nothing except he was a godless soul. Perhaps the man was evil? Could the whole air spirit story be a ruse to lure Stefan to this lonely crag, only to wring the life from him?

But why murder a priest? He carried nothing of value.

Stefan took a sharp breath of air as darker images flitted into his imagination. Supposing these air spirits really were demons and Gustav was planning some abhorrent black mass with Father Stefan as the sacrifice?

Stefan stopped and drew himself up to his full height.

"That's enough, Gustav. I'm going back."

The guide turned and opened his mouth to say something, but instead he gaped and pointed back down the track.

"Spirits!"

Stefan followed Gustav's gaze. A mountain pine clung precariously to the rock face. The boughs were rocking gently, despite the heavy torpor of the air. For a few seconds something twinkled deep within their needles. Stefan narrowed his eyes for a better look but the light was gone.

"Ach, a bird hopping from branch to branch. This really is a fool's errand."

Father Stefan pirouetted on his heels and started back down the track.

"Come back, Father."

"Never!"

"But Father, the Burgomasters won't pay me without results."

Ah now we have it, Stefan thought. He's playing along with their tomfoolery for an easy bursary.

Stefan gave a loud harrumph and quickened his pace. On and on he stormed, retracing his steps down the meandering footway. Angry thoughts fluttered inside his head like squawking starlings. Indeed, he was so preoccupied with recriminations that his eyes looked without seeing. Everything was rock. Rock, rock and more rock, sheer walls rising all around him, but his legs had control of his brain and they led him into the heart of the mountain.

Stefan stopped abruptly. He was in shadow. Looking around he found himself at the bottom of a deep ravine. A ravine he did not recall from the journey up.

"How in the Sweet Lord's name did I get here?" he muttered, shivering in the sudden chill.

He glanced back, only to see the way vanish between two great curtains of limestone. Had he really passed through there without noticing? Sheepishly, he admitted that he was lost, but the sensible thing was to continue forward. Sooner or later the mountain would spit him out onto the foothills of Hochdorf.

"Dear Blessed Anthony of Padua, patron saint of lost travellers, please guide my wanderings safely back to the village."

Stefan crossed himself and resumed his passage, only this time with much greater care, but as he ventured deeper, the walls seemed to writhe. For a sickening moment he fancied he was in the belly of some fantastical stone whale.

"Calm down!" he scolded himself.

The sliver of sky overhead was turning indigo. Stefan's belly howled with hunger. A depression swamped him, as dark as the surrounding gully. Stefan cursed the guide, the Burgomasters, the ignorant and superstitious folk of Hochdorf, and finally, he cursed his own folly.

It was in this fit of despair that he noticed a sound coming from behind him.

A murmuring!

"And why not?" he asked himself. "This damn mountain is nothing more than an oversized church organ."

No doubt winds blew through these wretched ravines, creating an entire symphony of whistles, and those superstitious villagers attributed these natural phenomena to their precious wind spirits. The same wind spirits nobody had ever seen.

Stefan gave out a laugh that was supposed to resound with contempt, but the laugh rang false, and its echo bounced back from the cliffs to mock him. He quickened the pace.

The murmuring became louder. It moaned through the cracks and crevices, like an abandoned soul crying out for salvation. Stefan broke into a trot. The moaning grew more intense. The air stirred, as though the mountain were taking deep breaths. The eddies blew in his face, scattering his wits.

There was something behind him!

"No, no, don't be a fool," he said aloud, running faster.

But his instincts got the better of him and he glanced over his shoulder.

There it was. A whirlwind, a twister, a land spout. A funnel of air, seven or eight foot in height, spinning like a top and gaining ground at alarming speed. The Devil's Breath!

At that moment, Stefan stumbled and fell hard onto the shale. Before he could leap to his feet the monster was upon him, swallowing him into its raging heart. Wind blasted his body and sucked the air from his lungs. The ground fell away as he started to swirl. His eyes stung, struggling to focus. The world had become a violent blur, flipping him from side to side like a kite in a hurricane. Flying, falling, soaring, tumbling, then finally a thud and oblivion.


* * *

Stefan was lying face down on the rock. Slowly he rolled over on his back and sat up. He touched his cheek, wet with what was undoubtedly blood. His limbs were aching too, from countless bruises. The lederhosen were ripped, but he was alive and nothing seemed broken. He muttered a quick prayer of gratitude.

Stefan was sitting on a steep slope, which plunged down into a blackness studded with yellow, flickering stars. He raised his head. No, those were the stars above him, icy-blue and remote. His blood ran with ice. Those were not stars below but the faraway oil lanterns of Hochdorf. He was perched on a ledge, over a sheer drop of a good half-mile. One false move and he would plummet through the void, only to break his neck in the valley below.

Cold fear gushed through him.

"Calm, keep calm!"

Stefan wriggled backward an inch or two.

"No!"

A carpet of loose shale slipped, carrying him nearer to the brink. He was on treacherous ground, a death trap of grit and pebbles. There was nothing he could do. A desire to weep overwhelmed him. Instead he prayed for deliverance.

Wait, what was that noise, that discordant whistling? Could it be Gustav or one of the goatherds? Had the Good Lord answered his pleas? Stefan steeled himself and carefully shifted to one side.

Please God, not that!

It was a wind spirit, a few metres above him on the path, shimmering and twisting. He looked to his left. There were two more, a few feet beyond. Three of them, three gasps of the Devil's breath, come to finish their work, to taunt him in his final moments.

"Save me Lord!" Stefan screamed in despair. "Oh God--"

The act of crying out dislodged the shale. A current of rubble washed him closer to the edge and further from the path above. He damned the cruelty of his fate. The safety of the path was so tantalisingly near, but it might as well be a million miles away.

The fear became tangible, as if countless blades were pressing against his skin. One thought above all others burned in his mind. He did not want to die.

Again, with great care, he manoeuvred to his left and stared directly at the nearest wind spirit.

"Help me. I'll do whatever you say, only save me."

The spirits, flickering in the still of the night, gave no response. Were they oblivious to his danger?

Stefan glanced down at the abyss. How long could he endure this torture? Perhaps it would be better to give in, cut short the ordeal, dive into the cruel nothingness? But no, once more the feverish urge pumped through his heart. To survive! The stars overhead, the curves and blades of limestone, the distant candlelight, the very essence of the universe throbbed with renewed vigour. To be alive, to be real, to exist, he wanted all this to continue, whatever the price.

"I'm sorry. I'm sorry I came to exorcise you. Let me live and I will serve you above all others. Even," his voice faltered briefly, "yes, even God."

Sudden words pierced the stillness of the air. A man's voice. Gustav!

"Stay where you are, Father."

Stefan delicately edged around till he could see the guide behind him. It was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen, another human in this loneliest of places. Hallelujah!

"Be careful, the spirits!" Stefan cried.

"They won't hurt me."

Gustav positioned himself and leaned out as far from the path as he was able.

"You'll fall," Stefan wailed.

"Trust me."

"It's too slippery. I might take you with me."

"Then we will fall together," Gustav replied grimly.

His hand was within grasp. Stefan gingerly lifted his own. The effort propelled him further away. Stones chinked as they tumbled into the gulf.

"Now!" Gustav cried.

Stefan grabbed the Guide's hand with all his strength. At the same time Gustav grunted and heaved. Stefan could see the man's sinews as taut as steel beneath his clothing. Gustav's face contorted but despite everything he pulled Stefan to his feet.

"Come, I have you," he wheezed.

Stefan took a step, a second, a third.

His legs lost their footing. He fell. The world of mountain and stars wheeled wildly. Arms grabbed him in a bear hug.

Stefan was on terra firma. Safe. He embraced his saviour.

"Gustav, I can never repay you."

Gustav rolled his eyes as though it was all in a day's work, and awkwardly released Stefan from his grip.

"You found me, Gustav, you found me! Praise Saint Anthony of Padua."

Gustav spat loudly.

"It was the wind spirits. They led me here."

Stefan's head darted from left to right. The elementals were gone.

"What--what did they want from me?" Stefan asked.

Gustav said nothing, picked up his lantern and started back down the trail.

Stefan gazed around at the deserted spires of rock, scratching his head. Was this a truce? Had he appeased the spirits? For a moment he tried to make sense of it all.

"Ach," he whispered to himself. "Spirits are beyond sense."

And in any case, he fancied there were many long years ahead of him here in this isolated village. Perhaps one day he would understand.

"Come on Father, before we freeze to death," Gustav called out from a turning. "If we're quick we can make the tavern before closing."

Brandy, grilled pork and a roaring hearth. Stefan compared these images to the empty silence of his presbytery. He grinned. The tavern sounded an excellent proposition. At that moment, somewhere high on the mountain the winds moaned. Stefan decided not to look back and hurried after his guide.


THE END


2017 Ian C. Douglas

Bio: Mr. Douglas is a freelance writer living in Nottingham, UK. His credits include a series of SF novels for midgrade, as well as SF and fantasy shorts. His most recent published short story is in a SF anthology entitled "A Clockwork Iris," from Obverse Press.

E-mail: Ian C. Douglas

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