1607, northern Italy. The High Inquisitor has arrived to hunt blasphemers in an attempt to end the witchcraft that's been plaguing the town of Brazzano. Crops have been dying, the water is poisoned and wolves are attacking the livestock. The people are terrified and look to God for mercy.
But the man they have arrested isn't at all what the Inquisitor imagines, and he finds his own faith tested to its very limits in pursuit of answers.
A short story set in the Shadows of Life universe.
Remarkable. Eerie, surprising and thought-provoking.
‘Blasphemers, you will stand! You will surrender your weapons and submit to the judgement of the Holy Inquisitor.’
Captain Marchetto released the dog lock on his pistol and pointed it into the dark. Three of his men stood in the splintered doorway of the barn, muskets raised, but beyond them he could see almost nothing. Despite the dwindling twilight, the rest of the town was softly lit by the harvest moon, but this barn seemed unnaturally dark, a darkness that could only have been sent by the Devil himself.
A young man’s voice was urgently whispering a word over and over, a name, Marchetto thought. Sebastian, perhaps.
‘Torches,’ he commanded. The two members of his guard standing behind him moved forward, their torches ablaze, but they faltered at the doorway. ‘God is with you,’ Marchetto told them. A wind blew from nowhere, causing the flames to flutter.
‘Bastian!’ the voice came again, louder now and more desperate.
‘Forward, and do not fear,’ Marchetto commanded. His two torch-bearers stepped through the breach. The darkness retreated, but slowly, oozing reluctantly away from the light.
Marchetto’s eyes widened. ‘What sorcery is this?’ The torchlight fell across the two men on the ground in the dead centre of the barn. One, presumably the source of the noise, was crouched, calling to the other who was knelt in the centre of a complicated web of lines and symbols that had been marked in the dust. The sight of them gave Marchetto an instant chill all the way through him. He had been blessed to avoid demonic influence for most of his career, but he still knew it when he felt it.
‘You will stand!’ he called, hoping his men didn’t hear the shake in his voice.
The first man slowly pushed himself to his feet. The man in the centre of the symbols didn’t stir. His eyes were closed, no doubt in some sort of heretical trance, communing with demons or spirits.
‘We won’t resist, we’re not armed,’ his accomplice said, turning towards them. He was younger than Marchetto had guessed, barely creeping into his twenties, his black curly hair framing a slightly chubby face that hadn’t yet completed its journey to manhood.
‘I said stand, both of you!’
‘My name is Gasparo, sir,’ the young man was saying, edging himself sideways as he raised his hands in a show of surrender, positioning himself between the muskets and the man still kneeling on the floor. ‘We have travelled here from Mossa, we have done nothing wrong.’
‘Save it for the Inquisitor,’ Marchetto said. His pistol was pointed at Gasparo’s chest, but his eyes were on the man who still remained on the floor with his eyes shut. He had a disquieting certainty that he was the more dangerous one. ‘You will both stand, now.’
‘Please, sir—’ Gasparo started, taking a step forward and stopping dead as the musketmen raised their weapons higher in response. The boy was nervous, but there was something else about him, as though his mind was concentrating on something other than his immediate situation. Marchetto did not know yet know how, but he was certain this boy was deceiving them. ‘Sir, give him a moment, I pray you. We’ll come with you, I swear.’
Marchetto suddenly felt cold. The shadows seemed to stir in the far corners of the old barn.
‘Get him on his feet,’ he ordered his men. ‘Tie them both. Don’t trust their words, there is witchcraft afoot.’
‘No, don’t touch him!’ Gasparo said, his forced calmness gone. He stepped in front of Marchetto’s man to block his approach. For a moment Marchetto was certain the guardsman was going to shoot him dead, but instead he swung his arm forward and drove the butt of the musket hard into the side of the boy’s head. Gasparo barely cried out as he sprawled sideways, grabbing hold of one of the wooden beams to keep himself from falling to the ground. ‘Don’t get too close,’ he continued to protest, ‘you’ll kill him.’
‘Get him up,’ Marchetto repeated, stepping forward with his men, keeping his weapon trained on the boy. The man on the floor took a sharp, deep breath. At the same moment, Marchetto heard a low, lingering whisper from something moving behind him. He spun around, seeing only the bare barn walls and shadows dancing in the light of the torches. The whisper seemed to rush past him and he spun around again.
‘What is this?’ he demanded, his voice wavering. The boy was watching him with wide eyes.
‘Oh no,’ Gasparo said. He shot a look at the other man, who was beginning to stir. ‘Bastian, he can hear!’
There were more whispers now, swarming around the inside of the barn. Marchetto pointed his pistol wildly, trying to find the source. His men, uncertain of what to do, tried to follow their captain’s gaze and keep their weapons on the heretics.
‘Take them both outside,’ Marchetto ordered. The shadows seemed to be advancing on him, the whispered voices mocking his fear. ‘This place is unholy, I’ll not remain here.’
’There’s nothing to fear,’ Gasparo said quickly, ‘just give him a moment, I beg of you.’
The man on the floor opened his exhausted eyes and murmured, ‘Gasparo.’
The whispers in Marchetto’s ears formed into words, in a voice he could recognise. In his head, the boy Gasparo’s voice suddenly spoke clearly; ‘… join me beyond the veil of death.’