There was only eleven months between me and my brother. As kids, we’d always found it a bit disgusting that our parents wanted to do it so soon after I’d been born.
My brother and I were incredibly close, partly because we were so different. I was quieter; more studious, thinking before I spoke. My brother was more outgoing; he never shut up and couldn’t sit still. He preferred doing things to reading books, whereas I was most at home in a library. We were both opticians, however; that’s the one thing we had in common.
We lived in the same street as each other, which was pretty much equidistant between our two shops. My brother always ran to work, come rain or shine, whereas I couldn’t think of anything worse. My car was my best friend.
It was a pretty normal summer’s day when the random shower came rocketing down. The weather forecast hadn’t predicted it, and I’d got soaked in the two minutes it took me to get to the car. As I started the ignition, I realised that Josh would be getting soaked as well, jogging to and from work. So I decided to drive the long way home to see if I could spot him running and offer him a lift.
I found him pretty quickly: it’s not like there were any other runners out on the road that particular evening. I mounted the kerb and yelled out his name. He was so engrossed in whatever music was blaring through his headphones that he didn’t hear me the first time—nor the second time. It was only when I honked my horn that he paused and looked round. He peered through the gloom of the early evening and pulled the headphones away from his ears, then broke out into a broad smile as he realised who it was. He was soaked, his t-shirt and shorts clinging to him, and his short blonde hair (I had longer brown hair—we don’t even look alike, for heaven’s sake) offering his face no protection against the elements.
“Get in!” I called, and motioned him towards the car with my hand. “I’ll give you a lift.”
“Come and jog with me!” Josh retorted. “You’ll love it.”
I couldn’t help but be amused by his optimism. He always tried to convince me that running was a good thing, but I refused to believe him. Which was why he was as skinny as a rake, and I was getting a spare tyre around the middle.
“Josh, you’re soaking wet,” I said. “Get in.”
“It’s just rain, Carl,” he replied. “Seriously, it can’t hurt you.”
“Thanks for that elementary science lesson.”
By now, Josh had walked over to my car and knelt down by the driver’s side window. “It’s a kind offer,” he went on with a smile, “but the rain’s making me run quicker.”
“And giving you pneumonia.”
“Carl, it’s not the middle of December. It’s June. It’s a warm evening…”
A roll of thunder rumbled through the sky. It made both of us flinch with surprise. I glanced up; lightening flashed against the dark clouds and earthed itself somewhere further along the horizon. More thunder rumbled. It sounded closer this time.
“Seriously, Josh,” I said, “get in the car. This is bad.”
I was met with silence, and glanced at my brother. He was still staring at the sky, and a flash of red appeared in his eyes before vanishing just as quickly.
His head snapped round, and I saw the flash of red again. His face contorted into a strange combination of anger and surprise, but immediately disappeared.
“The rain’s cleared,” he said abruptly.
“The rain.” Josh glanced up at the sky again. “It’s stopped.”
He was right; the downpour had ceased, as had the thunder and lightning, and I could already see a couple of gaps in the clouds where blue sky was peeking through.
“I think I will take that lift,” Josh said. “Thanks.”
I nodded. As he walked round the front of the car, I watched my brother closely, but the harsh redness didn’t reappear in his eyes. He’d returned to his normal, albeit sodden, self. I bit my bottom lip, but didn’t say anything.
The following day was a normal day. I’d forgotten about the strange storm and my brother’s equally-strange reaction. We were both working out of the same shop and, after lunch, I’d knocked back a couple of paracetamols to take the edge off a headache that had been bubbling away all morning. Just then, a knock on my office door interrupted me. I wasn’t expecting a client for another fifteen minutes, but I welcomed the interruption. I may have always been the academic brother, but that didn’t mean I enjoyed the bureaucratic side of being an optician. I liked working with people, not with bits of paper that stopped me from doing the job.
“Come in!” I called, and Sara McIntyre, my assistant, came in.
“You’re going to like this,” she said. “It has the benefit of being unusual.”
I groaned. “If you’ve got another travelling salesman, then I’m really not interested.”
“Not this time,” Sara replied. “It’s a guy called Dr Cypher. He’s looking to invest.”
I scowled. “Invest or buy?” I asked. My hackles were immediately raised. “I’m not selling up, Sara, I’ve already made that quite clear to—”
Sara held up her hands to forestall my now-familiar arguments. “He’s looking to help expand the business,” she said. “No mention of a take-over or sell-out.”
I hesitated. I disliked most salesmen, but instinctively felt that I should at least give him a chance—if only to then say no with a degree of confidence.
“Alright,” I said reluctantly. “Show him in.”
A few seconds later, Dr Cypher walked into my office, all smiles and charm. He was a tall, stocky guy—at least 6′ 4″, I would guess—and older than me by a good decade or so. However, he looked far fitter and stronger than I was, with a runner’s physique like Josh’s. His dark hair, contrasted against his pale skin, was slicked back against his head, and the briefcase he held in his left hand was incredibly shiny, looking almost brand-new.
“Good morning,” I said as I cautiously smiled at him. “Please, do sit down.”
“Thank you,” Cypher replied in a deep, resonant baritone.
We exchanged a handshake and sat opposite each other.
“Thank you for seeing me without an appointment,” he went on. “Did you assistant tell you what I wanted to talk to you about?”
I nodded. “Investing in our business,” I said, and left my statement hanging there.
“You and your brother Josh co-own the business, I’m right in saying.” It wasn’t a question; Cypher had said it as a statement of fact. I wasn’t impressed, however; that information was freely available from Companies House. Josh and I owned 45% of the business each, with our parents owning the remaining 10%. I just nodded.
Cypher smiled; it was a self-satisfied, vaguely reptilian smile. Something told me he had more up his sleeve.
“Your businesses are popular,” he said. “You both know that you could open more shops if you have the right investment. I can provide that.”
“How?” I asked bluntly. Yes, I was the quieter, more thoughtful brother, but that didn’t mean I was a pushover. If Cypher was put out by my direct line of questioning, he didn’t show it. Instead, he actually seemed to be enjoying it.
“By accepting my cash,” he said. “A quarter of a million pounds over two years, in exchange for a twenty-five percent stake in the business.”
I snorted in amusement. “You’re valuing my business at a million pounds?” I said. “You must be optimistic about the future of optometry.”
“I’m confident about your future, Carl,” Cypher retorted.
He laid his briefcase on his lap and opened the lid, then pulled out a professional-looking glossy document that he laid on my desk. I made no move to pick it up; instead, I continued staring levelly at him, waiting to see what he would do next.
Cypher carefully closed his briefcase and stood, extending a hand across the desk towards me. That surprised me; I thought he’d spend more time trying to convince me. He was clearly confident of what was in the rather fancy brochure now laying on my desk. I took his hand and shook it firmly.
“Good to talk to you,” he said. “I know we’ll speak again.”
I raised an eyebrow. “How can you be so sure?”
“Because the brochure really is very good.”
“Carl, we’ve got to take it! A quarter of a million; imagine how we could expand the business with that sort of capital.”
I sighed; this was exactly the sort of reaction I’d expected from Josh. My brother and I were sat in the front room of my house that same evening, discussing—or, rather more accurately, debating—the offer. It turned out that Cypher, having left me, went straight round to my brother’s shop and made him the same deal.
“Didn’t he give you the creeps?” I asked.
“How do you mean?” Josh replied. “He seemed alright to me.”
“I don’t know,” I conceded. “He just…freaked me out a little bit. I can’t explain it. I don’t trust him or his posh little brochure. It fudges the important issues, like where he actually got his money from in the first place.”
Josh shrugged. “I rather liked him.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. I studied my brother for a moment. There was something odd about him today. He seemed off-colour…distracted somehow.
“Are you alright?” I hesitated, then forced myself to ask the question. “Are you on something?”
“No, of course not!” Josh retorted. “You know I gave that up that years go. Anyway, I only did it for a couple of months before I realised how stupid I was being.”
“Then why are you so agitated?” I demanded. “It can’t be because you didn’t finish off your run last night.”
“Don’t mention—” Josh cut himself off before he said anything else, but the damage—if you can call it that—was already done. I’d heard the stress in his voice and was immediately intrigued.
“Don’t mention what?” I insisted. “Last night? Is that what you were going to say?”
“I didn’t mean anything by it,” he replied sharply.
“I knew something happened!” I exclaimed. “What happened with your eyes?”
“It’s nothing!” Josh snapped. He stood from the armchair and paced the length of the living room to the bay window. He stood, tall and taut, in front of the net curtains with his arms folded across his chest and stared out of the window.
“It’s obviously something,” I said, “or it wouldn’t cause this reaction. Want to talk about it?”
Josh’s jawline tensed; he clearly didn’t. He turned his head to say something over his shoulder, but a sudden jolt of pain seemed to course through his body as he cried out and bent double. I ran to his side and gasped; his entire face was bathed in the same harsh red light that I saw pass over his eyes the previous day.
“What the hell?” I muttered.
“Hell is right here with you.”
The words had come out of my brother’s mouth—I’d seen his lips move, even from the awkward, bent-double position he was currently in—but it wasn’t my brother’s voice. It was a harsh, crackly one at least an octave deeper than Josh’s normal tone, and it sounded—this is the only word I can think of for it—cruel. My brother stood up straight.
“You are weak,” he said in the same strange, cruel, and cracked voice. “You are weak and forgiving. You will not survive in the new regime.”
“Who are you?” I demanded.
“I am your brother,” he replied. “Who else would I be?”
“You’re not my brother,” I said. I was amazed that this person could even consider pretending that was the case. “What are you?”
“Ah, so you have not yet understood what I am? A shame. I thought you were both intelligent.”
I didn’t respond this time; he was clearly trying to bait me. He seemed disappointed by my refusal to play his game, but shrugged his shoulders and turned away, heading out of the lounge.
“Where are you going?”
“It is no concern of yours,” Josh said without looking back. “Goodbye…brother.”
“And he just left?”
I nodded, not knowing what else to say. Matilda Undrich looked thoughtful, and I waited impatiently for her verdict. I hadn’t hesitated in picking up the phone to her as soon as Josh had left. Matilda was eccentric, but that didn’t bother me. She was a paranormal investigator. She was also a conspiracy theorist, but I’d learnt to ignore that quirky part of her personality. Every now and then, she sent me an email with details of the next major conspiracy as she saw it, but I always just nodded politely, smiled, and ignored the email.
Funnily enough, she never seemed to mind; she took it as a challenge.
“Did you see the rainstorm yesterday?” she asked abruptly.
I blinked dumbly. “Sorry, Matilda, I was away with the fairies for a moment there.”
Matilda smiled. “Not a problem,” he said. “Were they the same fairies that live at the bottom of the garden?”
“What, the ones that you’ve never managed to get a picture of?”
“I’m working on it.”
“I’m sure. You were asking about the rainstorm? Yeah, I saw it; I was driving in it.”
“Did you notice how quickly it cleared up?” Matilda asked. “And how quickly it started as well.”
“Yeah, it was weird,” I replied. I shrugged. “These things happen.”
“Including thunder of that sudden intensity?”
I hesitated, and I saw the sudden victory in my friend’s eyes. I raised a warning finger.
“Oh no,” I said, “no, no, no. I won’t have you twist that into one of your conspiracy theories. It was a storm, Matilda, nothing more. Yes, it came on quick, but no-one can manipulate the weather. It was just one of those things.”
“You think I’m a wacko,” Matilda said suddenly. “A nut-job who sees conspiracy theories and fairies everywhere, and I’m just fantasising about a wider connection between arbitrary events.”
“Well, I wouldn’t exactly call you a wacko,” I replied, and smiled. Matilda, thankfully, smiled back.
“Just because I see conspiracies wherever I go,” Matilda went on, “doesn’t mean that at least some of them aren’t true. Did you notice anything else unusual happen at the same time?”
I shook my head. “No,” I replied, “nothing. It was just raining really hard. I don’t—”
I realised that I wasn’t being truthful. I told Matilda about the redness in Josh’s eyes, and she seemed genuinely excited by the news.
“That confirms it!” she exclaims.
“Confirms what?” I asked reluctantly.
“That there was a supernatural entity controlling the weather yesterday!”
I burst out laughing. I couldn’t help it. It all sounded so absurd, and yet Matilda said it with such seriousness, that I couldn’t help but find it funny. In my head, all I could think about was the character from the X-Men comics who could control the weather.
“Matilda,” I said, “there was no entity controlling the weather. You really are plumbing the depths now, aren’t you?”
“There’s a documented explanation for it, you know.”
“Scripture. It says that, in the end times, the prison surrounding the Devil will weaken, and one of the first things he will be able to control is the weather—and, through the weather, humans.”
“You’re quoting the Bible at me?” I shook my head. “I shouldn’t have come. This was a mistake.”
“Carl, just listen for a moment, would you? There are some hidden gems in the Bible, if you know how to cross-reference them with other sources. It’s nothing to do with religion, but everything to do with ancient history.”
I raised an eyebrow. “How ancient?”
“Ancient.” Matilda sighed. “Older than the first human. There were demons on this world; they were its first inhabitants, not humans. The two most powerful of them, one being of light and another being of darkness, rallied followers around them. They eventually became the stuff of legend, feeding into a lot of our religious texts and other mythologies.”
“Matilda,” I snapped, “I just want to know what’s happening to my brother.”
“Listen,” Matilda retorted. She was remarkably calm in the face of my annoyance. “Their two armies warred for aeons. The being of light finally won, but at a terrible cost. He couldn’t destroy the being of darkness entirely, because he was weakened himself, so locked him away in a different realm of existence. The being of light then took his own followers away to a different realm, to recover from the effects of the war.”
I frowned. “Hence the existence of so many heaven/hell myths.”
“Precisely. But the prison couldn’t last forever. The barriers are breaking down, causing evil to seep through into the world.”
“What, and created a thunderstorm in the middle of Summer?” I asked incredulously. “That’s a bit far-fetched.”
“Not just any thunderstorm,” Matilda replied. “A thunderstorm that covered the entire planet.”
“But…that’s impossible,” I stuttered. “Storms can’t cover that wide an area.”
“This one did.”
“No, it really isn’t. It happened. Check any meteorological data for the last twenty-four hours. It’ll confirm the fact. The world was covered with an incredible storm.”
“Matilda, the world is huge!” I exclaimed. “If something like that truly did happen, then that would be the lead story in the media for a week. But there was nothing.”
“Because everything’s thinking the same things as you,” Matilda noted. “They’re thinking that it wasn’t possible, that there was something wrong with their instruments and satellites. But there wasn’t; everything was working—and recording—perfectly. I’ve spent today correlating anecdotal reports from around the world. It did happen everywhere.”
I couldn’t help my next question; it burst out before I could filter it. “Were there any other reports of strange occurrences? Like the weird red-eye thing that happened with my brother?”
Matilda nodded. “Yes,” she said. “But not many. Two others that I know of. One in a small community in the Appalachian Mountains, and the other from a province in China.”
“So this ancient evil creates a worldwide storm,” I said slowly, “my brother and two other people get affected by…something, and now my brother is acting possessed.” I looked Matilda in the eye. “I presume you’re seeing a link between all of these?”
“Naturally,” Matilda said with a gleam in her eye. “I’m surprised you’re not.”
I didn’t rise to the bait. “Go on then,” I said wearily. “Tell me what you think the link is.”
“The ancient evil is clearly looking for a way in.”
“A way into what?”
“And he wants human agents to help him. I don’t know what his criteria is, but your brother clearly fitted the bill.”
I scowled. “My brother’s stronger than that,” I insisted. “He wouldn’t let himself be taken over.”
“I’m not saying Josh isn’t fighting back, but he won’t be able to last out forever, not in the face of that sort of power. Has anyone unusual visited you today?”
“No,” I replied. “It’s been a normal day. You know, aside from my brother being possessed.”
“Are you sure?”
“Well…” I shifted awkwardly. “I mean, Josh and I were approached by a man who wanted to invest in our business.”
“Did he visit you separately or together?”
“Separately. It was an unannounced visit.”
“Who did he visit first?”
Matilda’ face had darkened as I answered her questions, and now she looked deeply disturbed.
“What?” I asked. “Matilda, what is it?”
“The ancient evil’s already using agents in our world,” she said. “It’s more serious than I realised.”
I felt a bit absurd, trailing in Matilda’s wake as we walked down her street at a quick pace. We continued walking for five minutes until we reached a T-junction, with a Catholic church on one corner. To my surprise, she turned into the gardens surrounding it.
“You’re not Catholic,” I said to Matilda’s retreating back. “You’re not even religious.”
“We’re not here for the religion,” she called back. “We’re here for the armoury.”
I was even more lost than before. We strode into the church like we owned the place; or, more accurately, like Matilda owned the place. She nodded to the verger who had looked up as we entered. He’d been about to block our entry to the side room Matilda was aiming for, but when he saw who it was—with me trailing along behind—he nodded back and stepped aside.
We stepped into the small room. I expected it to be a cleaning cupboard, but I was wrong; instead, there was just a set of steps leading down into darkness. I followed, hesitatingly, as Matilda strode down them and, just ahead of me, fumbled for the light switch.
I couldn’t help the gasp as she found it; the room was a small, pokey affair with metal shelving round all four of the walls. On each of the units were bottles of holy water, various holy books and classical weapons such as sabres, scythes and swords, all embossed with religious imagery.
“What the hell is this place?” I muttered.
“One of the few arsenals left for situations like this,” Matilda said as she looked over the shelves with a seemingly-practiced eye. “Some of us knew this day was coming, so we’ve been preparing.”
I was impressed and more than a little scared. What did Matilda and her compatriots think was going to happen that needed all this weaponry?
“What else don’t I know?” I asked. I was trying—and failing—to keep my voice light and breezy, but there was a perceptible wobble in it. “How many more of these armouries are there?”
Matilda shrugged. “Enough,” she said simply. “The Protestant church over in—”
We both froze; there were abrupt screams of panic coming down the door at the top of the stairs. I heard the sound of running feet; people were clearly trying to get out of the church.
“What the hell’s going on up there?”
“That’s your brother,” Matilda said impassively. “He’s found us.”
We emerged into an empty church; empty, that is, except for the two of us and Josh. He was stood at the altar with a pistol in each hand; he was tense, with eyes narrowed and a twist to his mouth. I walked down the aisle towards my brother; I half-expected Matilda to try and stop me, but she didn’t. I heard her footsteps behind me, and felt relieved that she was still with me.
“Josh,” I said as I reached the altar, “what the hell are you doing? Put down the guns.”
“Why should I?” he demanded.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m ridding the world of people who are trying to suppress my natural abilities.”
My brain was reeling; whilst we were both atheists, we hadn’t ever felt particularly anti-religion.
“What did Cypher say to you today?” I asked.
“He didn’t have to say anything!” Josh exclaimed. “He helped me open my eyes.”
“Josh, you seem to be in some pain,” Matilda said. “Is it because of where you are?”
Before Josh could answer, Matilda ran up to the altar beside Josh. She grabbed one of the crucifixes on the altar table and she swung it in front of her face. Josh convulsed in horror; both pistols fell from his hands, and I quickly grabbed them.
“Get that away from me,” Josh growled. He had back up against the altar and averted his gaze.
Matilda didn’t waver. “Who am I talking to?”
“I’m Josh,” he groaned. His knees threatened to buckle for a moment, but he got them under control again. “I swear, I’m still Josh.”
“You’re not the Josh I know,” I snapped. “My brother isn’t allergic to crucifixes, and he doesn’t go around carrying guns.”
“Dr Cypher…” Josh wheezed, abruptly short of breath. “Dr Cypher’s shown me…the truth. I understand…everything now.”
“What’s Cypher been saying to you?”
Josh looked at me, and I felt sick as I saw the deadness in his eyes. “Why don’t you ask him yourself?” he asked. “He can help open your eyes as well. You were close-minded when you met him, but maybe you’re ready to talk now?”
“I won’t talk to anyone who’s done this to my family!”
“Then you’ll die!”
Josh roared with sudden emotion and pushed himself away from the altar. He staggered away from the crucifix and towards me. Shocked, I stepped back—giving him the chance to barge past me and down the aisle. As he got further away from the crucifix, he seemed to regain more and more of his strength and he began to run faster.
“You have to shoot him!” Matilda said. “Shoot him now!”
“I won’t shoot my own brother!” I retorted angrily. I threw the pistols to the floor and watched my brother leave the church. “I won’t do it.”
“Then he’ll shoot you.”
I needed to see where Josh had gone. I ran the length of the church, ignoring the still-open door to the armoury, and stepped outside. I looked around, but couldn’t see anyone. The grounds were lovely and calm, as befitting a churchyard with headstones, trees and birds everywhere.
All of a sudden, someone was in my eye line, in between two trees. The figure hadn’t been there a moment before, but he was there now, and it was someone I recognised: Dr Cypher.
He was dressed in the same suit that I’d seen him in earlier that day, and he had the same smirk on his face as well. He didn’t move for a few moments, then inclined his head to one side.
“What have you done with my brother?” I demanded.
“I’ve opened his mind,” he said. “I’ve given him the freedom to think for himself. I intend to offer that chance to everyone in the coming days.”
“And what if we don’t want it?” I demanded.
Cypher’s smug grin disappeared from his face. “Then you will pay the price,” he said. “You’ll be trapped by the others, determined to keep you under eternal servitude. When the time comes, and the war is over, we’ll liberate you.”
Abruptly, Cypher vanished; I blinked and looked around the other trees scattered around the graveyard, but he was nowhere to be seen. He’d gone.
I spun round; Matilda was stood in the entrance to the church.
“I lost them,” I said wearily.
Matilda shook her head. “They’ll be back.”
I was amazed—and more than a little surprised—at Matilda’s organisational skills. I’d always considered her to be a good, if quirky, friend, and to see her now acting so decisively was a new side to her character.
I couldn’t have slept, even if I had wanted to; the adrenaline was pumping, and it was the same for Matilda. It was 2:30 in the morning and both of us were wide awake.
The conspiracy theory world was bigger than I realised, and so many of them were loyal to both their own ideals and to each other. Matilda had rallied the troops; before long, hundreds of people were gathered in the church. There had to be at least five hundred people crammed into every available space.
“They always knew something like this was coming,” Matilda said.
I shook my head. “Incredible. But what are you all going to do now you’re here?”
We were stood by the pulpit, and Matilda raised her hands into the air. The hubbub of conversation died down, and she stepped forward.
“Thank you for coming,” she said. “You all know why you’re here. Cypher and Josh will come back here again very soon. This is an important site for them. We don’t know why, but they’ve marked it as theirs. Josh is a new agent of the ancient evil, so we might be able to bring him back from the brink. Cypher is too far gone. He’s clearly been an agent for a long time, and will do anything to further his master’s ideology. If it comes to it, we’ll need to kill him.”
I was surprised by the certainty in Matilda’s voice, but didn’t dispute it. I was pinning the blame for Josh’s transformation entirely on Cypher, although I didn’t understand how.
“The ancient evil’s eventual goal is to reclaim the planet for himself,” she explained as she stepped down from the pulpit. “He’s using human agents to do it; the storm yesterday was designed to bring out the most able, and he’s got another three recruits.”
“Three out of a population of six billion,” I said derisively. “At this rate, it’ll take him millennia to take everyone over.”
“He doesn’t need to take everyone over,” Matilda said. “He just needs people with connections; people who are loved and cared for. Those people can corrupt and turn people more easily, and those who are turned can turn more. It’s a cumulative effect.”
“So Cypher and Josh are going to do what?” I looked around the building we were in. “You saw how much pain Josh was in.”
“They’ll put up with pain.” Matilda bit her bottom lip, and I immediately recognised the sign.
“What?” I prompted. “What are you thinking?”
“Churches are places of worship,” she said, “to the being of light. Humans are more powerful than we realise; when we worship together, we create a common bond.”
“So, that collective worship helps us extend our psychic ability.”
“Oh come on!” I exclaimed. “Are you actually telling me that—”
“I’m not arguing with you about it!” Matilda said sharply, immediately shutting me up. “It’s not a conspiracy theory, Carl, it’s fact! Listen to me, will you? A church can often have a resonance; it can absorb some of that energy and reflect it back.”
“What can Cypher do with that energy?” I asked.
“He can use it to harm people who believe, perhaps even kill them.”
My eyes widened. “But there’s millions of people who have faith. Surely he can’t kill them all.”
“There’s three people like Josh, don’t forget,” Matilda noted. “If each of them, with the help of an agent like Cypher, does what he’s planning tonight, it’ll easily kill the believers. The world will be decimated.”
“And it’ll be left clear for the ancient evil again,” I whispered.
Matilda nodded. I swallowed; I just wanted my brother back. I was an optician from the Home Counties, and I was happy with my lot in life. I didn’t want much, and I had always been content. Now my world was being ripped apart.
The hubbub of the congregation, I realised, had died away. I had been so engrossed in my own thoughts that I hadn’t noticed it to start with; now, everyone’s attention was focused on the door. Josh was stood there.
“Why don’t you come in?” I called down the length of the church. “It must be cold out there.”
“Thanks for the invite,” Josh said. He was smiling widely; he looked far more relaxed this time as he walked down the aisle. He seemed unperturbed by all the people who had gathered in the church.
I glanced over my shoulder; the crucifix was back in position.
“Don’t bother,” Josh said. “I’m over that now.”
“I know what you’re here to do,” I said. “I can’t let you do it.”
“Why?” Josh reached the front of the church and stood a few feet away from me, looking genuinely curious. “Why would the deaths of religious people bother you?”
“The deaths of human beings bother me!” I snapped, my temper rising. “You’re intending to kill the majority of the world’s population.”
“Not just me,” he corrected. “There are two others, as well as the agents.”
“Oh yes,” I said, “Dr Cypher. Where is he, by the way? Why won’t he come in here himself?”
Josh shrugged, but I saw the flicker of a different emotion cross his face. I could still read my brother like a book, and knew that he was bothered about that. Irrespective of how Cypher had brainwashed him, a part of Josh was still the brother that I knew, and I wondered if I could use that to my advantage.
“He’s a busy man,” Josh said harshly, the mask coming back into place again. “In any case, I’m more than capable of doing this by myself.”
“I won’t let you,” I retorted quietly.
Josh grinned. “You’re too late, my brother. I’ve already started.”
My stomach churned as I looked round; Josh was right. I suddenly noticed that the stained-glass windows had fractures in them that hadn’t been there just a few moments before, and that the crucifix on the altar was warping slightly, bending over at the base.
“What are you doing?” I demanded. “Josh, stop this!”
“I’m curing the world of an infestation!” he snarled. “Earth needs cleansing, and it’s down to me to do it. Don’t stand in my way!
“We’ve got to stop him!” Matilda said urgently. “Carl, what do you want me to do? I’ll give the order if I have to—”
“No!” I exclaimed. “No, don’t do that! I can do this. He’s my brother, I can help him!”
“I don’t need any help!” Josh said. “I’m fine. Cypher’s helped me see the truth. I want to do this!”
“No, Josh, you really don’t.” I stepped down from the altar and placed my hands on his shoulders. “You’re still in there somewhere—the real you, I mean, the one who would find this abhorrent. Where are you?”
“That Josh is gone.”
“I don’t believe you.”
I barely flinched as the stained-glass windows all blew out together. There were cries of alarm from the assembled army, but I didn’t look round; I was fixed entirely on Josh. His grin hadn’t left his face, and the red light flashed before his eyes again.
“I’m free, Carl,” he said. “I’m finally free. I know what this world needs, and it’s not us. We need to give it back to the ancient ones. The war needs to continue anew.”
I saw his reaction a second before it happened, and I stepped back as he threw a punch towards me. Avoiding it made Josh unbalance, and I pushed him to the floor. He snarled in anger and stood up again, then tried to throw another punch, which I only narrowly missed this time. I grabbed his arm and twisted it away behind his back.
“Get off!” he snapped. “Come on, see the truth. Let Cypher help you.”
“I’d never betray my principles.”
“You’ve already betrayed the human race!” my brother yelled. “My powers are increasing every hour. I can do this. To stop me, you’ll have to kill me, and you haven’t got the guts to do that!”
I released Josh from my grip, and he span round to face me again, the grin back in place.
“I knew it,” he said. “You’re weak. I’ve always known it.”
The wind outside had whipped up; I could hear it coming in through the shattered windows. The fabric of the stone building was starting to creak and contort, and I knew we didn’t have long left. If I was going to do something, then it was going to have to be now. But would I have the strength to do it? I’d deliberately not brought the guns with me again, and I didn’t like the thought of what I had to do.
The main doors to the church blew open and banged against the walls, then were ripped off by the sheer force of—well, I didn’t know if it was the wind or Josh’s mind, but it scared the hell out of me. The wind whipped around all of the people in the pews, as well as Matilda, Josh, and I, but Josh seemed to be the only one unaffected by it. He was stood there, just a foot away from me and in the eye of the storm, looking totally calm and completely smug.
“Carl!” Matilda called. “You need to do something!”
“I know.” My eyes moved to the altar. Matilda immediately understood. She grabbed the warped crucifix and threw it the few feet between us.
“Carl!” Josh called. “There’s no point. It won’t harm me a second time.”
I stared at the twisted cross in my hand for a moment and felt a moment of utter despair. “Yes,” I replied quietly, knowing that Josh would still hear me above the noise. “It will.”
I stepped forward before my brother could react. The heavy, thick base collided with the side of Josh’s head, sending him crashing to the floor. He collided with a pew on the way down, and I could have sworn I heard something crack—but I wasn’t sure whether that was just my imagination.
Josh stopped moving. His eyes were open and vacant, and a pool of blood began to form on the floor around his head. I was dimly aware that the wind had died down to almost nothing again, and the silence was suddenly deafening. Even Matilda’s compatriots in the pews were quiet; they were staring down at my brother. What could they say? They’d just seen me kill the person most dear to me in the world.
I felt a hand on my shoulder, and appreciated Matilda’s effort to comfort me, but it didn’t help. Nothing would at that moment; I’d just killed my brother and, irrespective of the circumstances, I felt…empty and horrified and cruel all in the same instant.
I sank to my knees and began to sob.
Outside the church, Cypher had felt Josh’s death; they’d been linked, after all, but he’d have still felt it anyway, as the surrounding, swirling energies had died down.
We failed, he realised. We failed again.
This wasn’t the first time the powers of darkness had tried something like this, but it was the furthest they’d ever got; never before had they been able to turn three people to their will. It proved how much the world had changed. Although it hadn’t gone far enough—no-one, aside from their agents, had died—the forces of darkness knew that a corner had been turned.
We’ve got a foothold in the world now, he thought. No-one can ever take that away from us.
He walked away from the church, lost in thought. He was pleased to note that the pathetic group of humans in the church thought that he, Cypher, was just another agent. That was useful; they would clearly underestimate his powers when the time came, and he could use that to his advantage.
If only they knew the truth, but he didn’t propose to tell them the truth. If they couldn’t work it out for themselves, then that was their own stupidity.
Lewis Cypher left the graveyard and returned to his scheming. He had work to do.
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© 2018 Matthew Munson
Thanet-based author Matthew has three novels published by Inspired Quill, is an inveterate blogger, and writing is his passion.