The Nephilim Effect
When you’re an agnostic, it’s easy to get cynical about doing the Lord’s work. Whether you’re the Peace Corps liaison for the Presbyterian mission to Ghana or the guy who cleans the toilet at St. John’s, you see mistakes and ill will every day, and it’s hard not to wonder why the Big Guy doesn’t keep a closer eye on things. But when you’re a freelance retrieval expert, clandestinely employed to track down the Possessed and drag them snarling and spitting to the local pastor for a big frosty mug of “back to the fiery pits from whence you came”—well, let’s just say the stakes are even higher than usual.
It was a bright, cold day in early December and the last of the fallen leaves were swirling in the wind, gold and orange and scarlet. The skies were blue and stark, the trees were bare, and a strange, deep hush was in the air. I sipped my coffee pensively as I cruised South Boston’s as-yet-snowless avenues, trying to decide if that feeling in the wind was calm or ominous. On the whole, I was leaning toward the latter.
“Dorchester Street, Dorchester Street,” I was muttering. One of these days I’ll get a GPS like everyone else. “Aha!” Sharp left turn.
My name’s Thomas Belmont. I’m a twenty-nine year old modern-day American whose only marketable skill is a radical gift for the martial arts. Unfortunately, back in my misspent youth, I pursued my training through some unorthodox—some might say “highly illegal”—means, with the result that I’m banned from making a living in the usual ways: punching strangers in spandex shorts on live TV, or running cardio-kickboxing classes for yuppies chasing the latest trend. Lucky for me, Fr. Joe Damascus was my parish priest when I was a kid, and he’s got an eye for talent. When he recruited me to help him out with a difficult demon case, I discovered a whole vast underbelly to Beantown, Massachusetts.
Grim things were moving in from the north: black clouds, storm clouds, slow and somber. Might be the year’s first snow, but it felt like rain to me. In fact, it felt like an oncoming tempest. As I pulled up to Our Lady of Guadalupe, the drops began to fall like lead. I opened up my dossier on Norman Grey and got comfortable—but half a second later, a chair came flying out through one of the stained-glass windows.
Out the door before it hit the ground. Up the stairs between two hammers of the heart. Over the steel railing, onto the marble ledge, across to the shattered window in the driving, blinding rain. The first lightning strike blazed in the darkening sky with a blast of thunder like the earth had broken in half. I dove in through the jagged orifice and rolled lightly to my feet on the carpet. The church was dark, but I could see him in the glow of the one red monstrance candle forever burning on the altar. He turned, very slowly, and smiled.
That little trick no longer impressed me. They always know your name. What did impress me was the sheer force emanating from the man—or rather, from the appearance of the man, the mask of gristle and bone. I could feel Grey in there, a fluttering zephyr of a qi; but the energy gibbering out at me like a wall of wind was something else entirely. I’d never seen one this strong before.
“Hey there, Norman.” Rule number one: never, ever talk to a demon. That is the exorcist’s job. If you think talking will do any good—and it does, sometimes—address yourself solely to the person inside. “I’m gonna take you to see someone. He can help you.”
“Help me?” His face twisted into a snarl. “Help, help, help? Meeeee. . . Ha! I know you, Belmont. Doubt, doubt like swine-stink on you, like a pig on a cliff. You can’t help anyone.”
He must have tampered with the sound system before embarking on his rampage: “In the Hall of the Mountain King” was murmuring over the speakers, beginning to rise. Only a couple of pews were overturned; he’d been hiding in here, grinning in the shadows, waiting for the storm. A tall thin ordinary man, grown slightly bald, with a decent pin-stripe tie. I could feel the music building in my chest.
“Norm—buddy. I need you to come with me now. I’d like you to do it willingly.”
“Axe time, sword time, ere the world fall. Nails, red nails.” He bared his teeth. “I will make you scream forever.”
“That sounds an awful lot like a no.”
He threw his head back and howled, and the music crescendoed, and the thunder outside exploded, and I went sprinting down the aisle and sailing through the air and caught him with a flying jump kick square in the chest. It flung him back onto the steps of the altar, but as I came running up to finish him off, he bounded to his feet and caught my arm and shirt and launched me into the air like a rag doll. I snatched at the huge wooden crucifix on cables over the altar, swung around it, and came hurtling back for a double-leg drop kick that knocked him sprawling in the aisle. I let the momentum carry me past him and headed for the entrance at a dead run. Obviously I needed something bigger than my fists for this battle.
Grey jerked himself upright and came screeching after me; I turned just in time, fell backwards as he caught up to me, planted my heels in his chest, and flipped him over my head, and he smashed through the exit doors leading to the vestibule. I kipped to my feet and dive-tackled a life-sized statue of St. George the dragon-slayer standing to the left of the holy water font at the entrance: the legs crumbled and the torso became the world’s biggest blackjack, which I fireman-carried through the ruined doors and bashed to pieces over Grey’s slavering visage of murder and hate. Flailing his way through the impact and debris, he slammed my chest with his palms like a schoolyard bully, hurling me backwards all the way across the room, and I crashed through the door leading up to the bell tower. For half a second I lolled on the stairs wondering who I was and why this pencil-necked maniac was stomping the living crap out of me; then instinct took over and I went scrambling up the steps as Grey lunged after me, still yowling like a hideous monstrosity, which of course he was.
All of this took less than twenty seconds. The crushing weight of pain, exhaustion, and fear hadn’t yet caught up to me, and years of rigorous training trumped a few hard hits to the head. Up and up and up I went, with Hell at my heels, till we issued forth in a vast unlit chamber of bells and dust. My strategy had evolved very, very quickly from attack to retreat, so I ran straight for the window that offered the only egress. Grey was right behind me and he stiff-armed the nearest bell as he passed, and it set the whole panoply pealing forth in knells and jangles like a madman’s funeral dirge. I burst through the window and plummeted through falling shards of glass and rain to the sharply slanting roof. My enemy landed a second after I did, and the stone shingles cracked beneath his feet.
“Okay.” I backed away, gasping for breath, holding out my hands. The churchyard waited wetly, a hundred feet below. “Clearly, we got off on the wrong foot here.”
He—it—paced slowly closer, leering. “You’re right to doubt, little pig. Their faith is foolish.”
“Yeah, maybe.” Don’t talk to it, Belmont.
“Why, why, why? What are you fighting for? Do you think He cares? Fool! You mean nothing to Him.”
“Expect you’re right. Well, I should get going. Nice talking with you.”
“Say it, creature of slime. Say that you are nothing to Him.”
I stood glaring at that old accursed thing as the dying echoes of the bells rang on and the sky around us raged in torrents of black water and white fire. For all I knew, it was right. For all I knew, He didn’t care at all—if He was even there. But I was damned if I was going to say all that to gratify this joyless wretch of a being, especially considering the high probability that my next words would be my last. I wasn’t really the “Lord, into Thy hands I commend my spirit” type, but I at least wanted my expiring utterance to be something cool. “I’m Batman,” perhaps.
“Say it, Belmont.” It was only a couple of steps away, and I was running out of roof. “Say it!”
“Aw, go to Hell.” I dropped, spun, and executed arguably the single best leg-sweep of a long and distinguished career. This thing was stronger than Schwarzenegger and could take a Tyson pounding, but it had no training or finesse. The second it lost its footing, gravity and the steep-angled rooftop did the rest: it went tumbling down the incline, clutching vainly at the rain-slick tiles and caterwauling with rage, and disappeared over the edge. I listened for the distant thump, but it never came.
Still wheezing for air, I forced my spent limbs back into a shambling run. A corrugated aluminum gutter-pipe led from the corner of the bell tower all the way down to the lawn, and that looked like my quickest exit. I kicked it by way of testing its load-bearing capacity; it shuddered, but held. Good enough. Vaulting out over the edge, I grabbed a hold and went sliding down. Landed in a bush. Again: good enough.
I came around the corner of the church and saw my car sitting at the curb with the driver’s door still half-open in the rain, and it was a vision of Paradise. I leapt in and peeled out of there like a million velociraptors were on my tail. Time to regroup and wrap myself around some whiskey.
When I was a kid, there was an elderly Chinese fellow who used to practice t’ai-chi in the park near our house. I still have a picture of him somewhere, taken by my big sister Jeannie during her brief obsession with photography; it shows a small, frail-looking guy with white hair and black pajamas, serenely frozen in mid-motion as if he’d just realized the autumn breeze was about to blow him away. I was always too shy to talk to him, but I remember watching him and being utterly fascinated by how strong he was. To my eyes, he was clearly carrying a tremendous power around with him, a force of nature tenuously bound in the form of a tiny old man. I was almost ten before I got it through my head that other people couldn’t see what I saw. Not only in him—he was just my first glimpse, my catalyst—but eventually, to varying degrees, in everybody.
It may have crossed your mind to wonder why a Catholic priest would employ a professed agnostic to track down unclean spirits. Well, that’s why: I can see qi. It’s not an easy thing to describe, this “five-and-a-halfth” sense; the best I can say is that my vision has a tactile dimension to it, and the look of a person also has a weight that I can feel pushing back at me. The more solid the aura, the more powerful the qi. And most important of all, if I see a man with two separate qi—then, well, he’s probably Possessed. Makes me very useful to the Church, as you can imagine.
“Padre, pick up. It’s Belmont. Pick up!” Silence. “Old man, you better be holed up with Mohammed and the Dalai Lama, bringin’ peace to the universe right now. I found Grey at the church like you said. He just about poured me over his Corn Flakes. I’m heading to—well actually, I dunno, I’m just driving. Gotta get my head straight. Call me when you get this.”
I found myself cruising through West End. Didn’t have any destination in mind—at least I thought I didn’t—but it wasn’t long before I realized where I was headed. I gave a sigh, gave a shrug, and muttered, “Aw, why not.” Five minutes later, I was parked outside of Dill’s Bar.
If you’ve got even the tip of a toe in Boston’s mystical underworld, you’re probably familiar with Dill’s. See, there’s this thing they call the Nephilim Effect, which—well, hold on, I’m getting ahead of the story. Point is, all the weirdos congregate there. Even freelance retrieval experts with qi-vision.
After my encounter with Norman Grey, Esquire, I was battered and tattered, bloody and tired. As I limped through the door, tracking rainwater, I took a second to scan the place. Early on a Wednesday afternoon, there wasn’t much traffic; I made three humans at a corner table and a lady at the bar with a coruscating qi I couldn’t place. Elf, maybe? The patrons glanced at me and went back to their drinks.
“Belmont! Been awhile.”
“Heya, Jones.” The bouncer at Dill’s was a tall guy in a cowboy hat that I hated having to admit looked awesome on him. His name was Violence Jones, and he lived right up to it. “I heard you busted Goblin McGarnagle’s knees with his own forehead last month.”
“Heh! Good times. How ’bout you? Look like you come in third in a two-man hatchet fight.”
“Theological dispute. Hullo, Dill.”
“Mr. Belmont,” said the owner and bartender of this fine establishment. First time I clapped eyes on the guy was like walking into a brick wall: the qi of a nephil—half-angel, half-man. (Yeah, I didn’t know this before, but apparently “Nephilim” is plural.) “It’s a pleasure to see you again. I grieve to see you wounded and wet. May I offer you a seat by the fire?”
I blew out some breath. Suddenly the adrenaline was wearing off, and everything hurt. “That’d be great, thanks. Can I get a triple bourbon?”
“On the house, my friend.”
Walked over to the hearth and slumped in a comfy chair. The flickering warmth spread gently through my skeleton, and the rain outside began to sound less like a raging tsunami and more like a tranquil sea. Dill approached and set a tall, full glass on the table by my elbow. The firelight gleamed through the amber liquid, and the ice cubes gently clinked.
“So tell me,” he said, taking the edge of a seat. “What or whom have you been fighting on this cool December day?”
“Oh, just the usual.” I took a long deep draught, and it made my toenails sparkle. “Guy name of Norman Grey got himself Possessed, and Fr. Joe wants him brought in quiet-like.”
“Has he harmed anyone?”
“Not yet, but he’s been trashing all the churches in his neighborhood. I found him at Our Lady of Guadalupe, which—actually, come to think of it, he has harmed someone. Nobody’s kicked my ass that hard since Jones dared me to trade punches with a cave troll.” I took another drink. Man, this was good stuff.
“Did the creature you confronted mention any name? Did it identify itself at all?”
Shook my head. “They won’t do that, Dill. They hide behind the host until the exorcist absolutely forces them to speak their true name.”
“Why d’ya ask?”
He exhaled through his nose. “The shadows are lengthening. The power of the Dark grows stronger. Bolder.”
“Well that happens now and then, doesn’t it? Look at the Nazis and the Commies last century. They rose and they fell, just like always.”
Silence. Then: “Thomas, I am older than you know. As you say, the Dark and Light have come and gone through many centuries. But this time. . .” The stone hearth’s ancient shadow-dance played grimly on his face. “I sense a dawnless dusk approaching, and I fear it.”
It’s a little surreal to hear an indestructible being admit to fear. I was beginning to grope for an answer, but I was spared when the door burst open behind me and the slackening storm flared suddenly into inferno. Everyone jumped to their feet, but the power died and the lights went out, and all we could see was a skinny silhouette and the glitter of grinning teeth.
Damn fool, I’d forgotten the Nephilim Effect. Because Dill was the product of a nexus between the Earth and the Spirit World, his mere existence emanated an eerie magnetism that drew all mystic creatures to his door. It wasn’t any accident, you see, that every paranormal on the eastern seaboard gravitated to this bar. Even demons, evidently, felt the pull.
I heard a hammer-click behind me: Violence Jones, his Glock semi-automatic held at center axis relock, edging toward the uninvited guest. I jumped into his line of fire, spreading out my arms. “Don’t shoot, man! He’s Possessed.”
His teeth ground audibly. “How is that an argument against me shooting him?”
“We can exorcise the guy. No one has to get hurt.”
Dill spoke, somber as the tomb: “Stand down, Mr. Jones.”
The pistol lowered instantly. “Your call, boss. But if this thing starts rippin’ up our customers—”
“Dill.” Grey’s voice, chalkboard nails. “Long has it been.”
“Kazregoth. I told you, that day in Sumeria: stay in Hell. A harsher accounting awaits you up here.”
“Not this time, half-thing. The hour has come for the fallen to ascend. The hour has come at last.”
Three voices said, “Nema.”
Instantly, Jones swung around and took aim at the humans in the corner, growling, “Friggin’ man-witches.” (Nema’s the catch-phrase for practitioners of black magic. It’s “amen” backwards, you see. Reeeal clever.)
The three had risen to their feet and raised their hands—not in surrender, but in malediction. They began to make a low, eldritch hum.
Without taking his eyes off Grey, Dill said, “Gentlemen, speak one word of your poorly pronounced Latin in my tavern, and Mr. Jones will see to it that you pass through the floorboards and head for Hell before your bodies finish bouncing on the rug.”
The humming stopped.
Then I caught a whiff of smoke, turned toward the bar, and caught my breath. The lady with the wonky aura was literally steaming, and wisps of flame blossomed from her arms and shoulders. Her auburn hair floated around her face, and her eyes were going bright red. A fire elemental, I presumed.
“Madam, I must once again insist that you not manifest your true form indoors.”
“Don’t like demons,” she hissed.
“Nor I. But this is a personal matter.”
“Dill, can you get that thing out of Norman?” I asked, feeling a preliminary rush of relief. Talk about your deus ex machina! Going home early today.
. . .Or not. His face was bleak. “I fear that Mr. Grey will suffer horribly for many centuries. It is a foul injustice, and I deeply regret it. But there is no other way.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“A dark spirit cannot be destroyed, only contained. I shall bind Kazregoth and its host within a Ring of Ash, and they will enter a nigh-eternal limbo. The threat of this demon will be neutralized.”
“Yeah, there’s no way I can let you do that. I gave my word to help free this man.”
“At the cost of peril to mankind?”
“Mankind ain’t my job.”
Qi-sight comes with some hefty responsibilities, but it sure comes in handy now and then. I could see the surge of energy running down Jones’ arm to his trigger finger, and I was already moving when he said, “Sorry, Belmont,” and drew a bead on my kneecap. Grey was standing right behind me with that lunatic grin on his face, and I took him offguard: spun, jaw-clocked him with an elbow as I passed, and slipped around to his back, locking in a rear naked choke.
“Go ahead, Jones. You know what happens when you murder a demon-host? Demon jumps right into the murderer.”
Jones glanced at Dill, who gave a tight-lipped nod of confirmation. Muttering, “No call for the M word,” he lowered his weapon.
Thunder like cannonfire outside. Inside, a silence taut as a thrumming wire. Grey—Kazregoth—stood unresisting in my grip, but I could feel him shuddering with mirth. “It doesn’t have to go down like this,” I said.
“Mr. Belmont, what do you envision happening here?”
“I’m gonna take this poor innocent schmuck to Fr. Damascus and we’re gonna get him his life back. He hasn’t done anything to deserve death, let alone damnation.”
“But you have, Thomas,” whispered Kazregoth. “Lost all faith, abandoned hope, and turned from charity to violence. Look at you—you’re already on the road, already fighting on the side of Hell.” Everybody shivered when he spat the word. “So strong you are, not like this stringy meat-sock. True power could be yours.”
“Shut your yap, you bag of wind. You can go back below or you can take your chances with Dill and his Ring of Ash, whatever the hell that is.”
“Belmont,” Jones said irascibly, “I can still gutshoot your hostage and leave him just barely alive. You’re not walkin’ outta here.”
You make choices every day of your life. Every once in awhile, they define you. “All right, this ends now. Kazregoth, you want a victim? You let Norman go and take me.”
As I spoke, yet another player came sprinting in through the rain. “Thomas, no!” he cried—but it was already
sure how long I’ve been here. So many flies why so many. Where did I put my skin. Not sure how long I’ve been here. Millipede in my ear, in my brain. First the brain, then the soul. Crawling into my. Not sure how long I’ve been here. First the brain then the
I was in a broad flat plain. Grey were the heavens and grey the earth. A few bare stunted trees stood withering. Ash and dust. A millipede in my ear canal, chewing. Something should be done.
Wait, I remember. The bar, the fight. Kazregoth. Where
You don’t believe, Thomas. You don’t believe.
Maybe not, you bastard. But you do.
What would the padre say. In nomine Patri, et Filii, et Spiritu Sancti.
Stop it Thomas. Stop it stop it stop it
In nomine Patri et Filii et Spiritu Sancti
In nomine Patri et
Killed him we killed him we killed him! A forest of crooked crosses rises from the dusty ground. We fed on his flesh as flies! The skies grow black with buzzing clouds. My god, my god, why have you forsaken me?
Filii et Spiritu
The flies in their multitudes, in their trillions, came swirling together in great sky-blotting cyclones and gathered in the shape of a man, gigantic and hideous beyond all nightmares. The vast feet rose and came stomping towards me, and the land trembled at their coming.
Enough of this. We’re not on Earth, I don’t need to worry about physics here. Slowly at first, my heels came up, then my soles, and then my toes. I ascended, gathering speed, as the fly-titan stretched out its hand; I swooped backwards and I slipped its grasp. And suddenly I was laughing. Look at me, Mama, I can fly!
It strode forward, swinging its giant fists, and I dove and darted and spun. Gone now were my doubts of old. This is what I do. This is who I am. I flew circles around the colossus until its clumsiness began to bore me, and then I closed for the kill. All my skill, all my will—everything that makes me Thomas Belmont, son of Hugh, was focused in my fist as I plunged to the ground and pushed off with such force that the grey plain cratered beneath me—as I soared upward to the titan’s buzzing chin. And with the mightiest flying uppercut ever to grace the astral planes, the fly-form of Kazregoth exploded like a supernova.
“Thomas, it’s me—Fr. Joe. Can you hear me?”
“Well, you broke the number one rule. But it seems to have worked this time. Norman Grey is free.”
“Bourbon? I daresay you’ve earned it, my friend.”
The good stuff: warm in the mouth, warm in the neck, warm in the gut.
“Can you sit up?”
Back in Dill’s. Ol’ Norm was huddled by the fireplace with a steaming cup, hopefully fortified with mulled wine or something a little stronger than tea. Violence Jones was chilling on a barstool, cleaning his nine millimeter. The black magicians and the elemental were nowhere to be seen, and neither was Dill himself. The lights were still out, but the crackling fire illuminated the quiet space. The storm had passed, but a murmuring rainfall pattered on the roof.
“Heya, padre,” I mumbled.
“Welcome back.” He was a tall broad-shouldered fellow with hair the color of steel. Throw a campaign hat on his head, and passing Marines would mistake him for a drill instructor and start doing spontaneous pushups in the vestibule. He wore the clerical black like a Templar’s plate mail; I’d known him for decades and never once seen him in civvies. “How are you feeling?”
“Like I got sucker-punched in the everlasting soul. How did you find me here?”
“I got your message. Whenever you say you’re just driving around, you always end up at Dill’s.”
“No, I—” Frowning, I glanced at Jones. “Do I—”
Without even looking up from his work, he nodded.
“Okay fine, I guess I do. Can I, uh—” Fr. Joe was already handing me more bourbon. “Wow. I guess I’m pretty predictable.”
“Not today. Everything worked out, thank God, but let’s stick to the rules from now on, hey?”
“What happened to the demon?”
The voice of Dill: “It is imprisoned, Mr. Belmont, for the remainder of this particular cosmos. Apparently if a mortal host is able to jettison a Possessing spirit on his own, the spirit can be caught within a Ring of Ash in the moment before it returns to the underworld. In a great many millennia, I had never learned this truth. I thank you, sir.”
Slowly, unsteadily, I got to my feet. “Well, we’re all on the same side. No hard feelings?”
“Surely not from me. I appreciate your magnanimity, and I hope you always feel welcome in my bar.”
Jones raised his head and cracked a smile. “Shoulda been here last month, Belmont. Santa Claus dropped by.”
“Yeah, right! . . .Holy crap, you’re not joking, are you?”
“I don’t joke about Santa Claus, brother.”
“Well, it’s almost Christmas time,” said Fr. Joe. “Do we have any egg nog?”
“Oh yes,” Dill said. “The recipe dates back to ancient Rome. The Emperor Constantine. . .”
J.B. Toner studied Literature at Thomas More College and holds a black belt in Ohana Kilohana Kenpo-Jujitsu. He currently works as a groundskeeper in New Hampshire, and he and his lovely wife just had their first daughter, Sonya Magdalena Rose. Toner blogs at jbtoner.blogspot.com and tweets at AntiheroCouplet@twitter.com.”