Critical Mass

White hot prayers dripped into the sky from the hole in the roof of the church. Not that they were much use now. The Hawthorne Green Chapel had the worst angel infestation this side of the river. They were the Scandinavian kind: the ones with the two torsos and mandibles like polished titanium. If a congregation attempt to pray when an angel is in a church, it intercepts the theistic signal and can pose as a god. If the Arch-District Manager was to be believed the parasites here had done everything from convince a baker to cook her most expensive jewellery into a pie and eat it, to manipulating a bookkeeper to paint the Madonna using his brother’s intestines.

I crossed through the narthex. The air inside the chapel was rancid with a sour cream and chive incense. Angel tastes. A beady pair of eyes glistened from under a nearby oak pew. I heard my knees click as I knelt down to bring myself to scalp-level with the person under it and pulled back the hem of my Smartcloak as he grabbed for it in a throe of reflexive anxiety.

“You have no idea how glad I am to see a priest”.

“I’m not a priest, I’m an exterminator”.

I took a few more steps down the nave, letting my footsteps echo around the space. I wondered if the missing ceiling would alter the acoustics and make my presence less obvious to the pests. As I approached the far end of the building my crucifix started measuring holiness off the charts: 1,000 ecclesiajoules, 1,007, 1,014. There was the sound of backwards whispering from my left side and in my peripheral I caught a glimpse of star-shaped teeth. The south transept provided the command of the more common and yet more respected constructive magics, but the north lent power over the more unwieldy and distrusted destructive magics. The angels, who were not known for their subtlety, had chosen to nest in the latter.

One gambled a surprise attack, flinging itself at me in a fog of fur and spines. I drew my pastoral staff into its path and it impaled itself on the tip. At the press of a button the staff retracted, dislodging itself from the angel body that was dissolving into the ether one organ at a time. All at once its brood came at me in a shriek of light and hymn. They tried to overwhelm and encircle. I quickly swatted a couple into nearby columns, leaving imprints that looked like several octopuses tangled together. A few of them attempted to harness their stolen spellcraft and ended up combusting themselves in the process. A few more landed shots near me, but not on me. The power was unfamiliar to them and required a kind of aiming that was not physical in nature.

Where the magic had touched there were pockets of empty reality, patches of a blackness darker than anything in the Materia. I retracted the staff, held it horizontally in front of me and then impaled two more on each end. The viscera clinging to the handle flashed rapidly between gold and white. One of them came at me slowly with a single hand behind its back, before revealing a lit candle and inhaling from it as though smelling some intoxicating flower. The beast deformed to twice its original size, insect-like legs bristling, horns curling back. It roared a sentence I did not understand at the time and do not fully understand now, before swiping at me with something that was not quite a claw and not quite a beak. The flesh on my chest was cut clean away and the yellowed scrolls inside me began unravelling onto the floor.

I steadied myself with the staff which now jittered in simulated empathy. The cleak came down again and snatched it from me, which only caused the weapon to shoot off like a rocket and embed itself in the monster’s neck. Its wound leaked fire and bad ideas. There was an opening here and I was severely sceptical I’d be afforded another. I climbed the length of the creature’s extended pincer which was transforming itself into some jelly-like substance and yanked the staff from between a section of rib bones that were falling apart like a collapsing bookshelf. The thing shook me off and I began to wish that the Monastery had taught us to fall as well as they’d taught us to dodge.

I hit the ground. Got back up. New plan. I took the staff and used it to vault up above the aberration. As gravity pulled me back down I plunged the business end of the pole arm-deep into what I sincerely hoped was a head. Reality scrolled upwards, the church came out of rhythm with itself. For a second everywhere was nowhere and then was somewhere again, with the enormous angel now slumped over a confession box. The spilled confessional fluid sunk into the surrounding stone.

The man who had been cowering under the pew jostled loose a few prayer cushions and scrabbled out from his hiding place, although “hiding” is relative. The angels surely tasted him the whole time, but he was middle-aged, balding, old suit, not the kind of trophy anyone would want to mount on the wall of their un-cave. He took off through the front doors, one of them swinging on its hinge in the wake of the darklight storm that was rolling in. A few of the marble slabs in the chancel slid to one side and from them monks emerged. They were essentially automatons, devoid of their own agency, but with enough raw intelligence to put everything back in the right place.

I made my way winding and unceremoniously to the font, clasped two pale “bleeding” hands to each side and thought of anti-septic. I was granted some. The clearing up you do at the end is the bit you remember most. The fights are all endorphin-fuelled blurs, everything silent again in an instant. The box-ticking is where it all comes together though. I took a collection plate and had it gather the essence of the angels: Small white cubes that were simultaneously a rubber and sponge texture. I fed them to my rosary, each bead consuming one of the shapes and then, in its own way, smiling.

Now I just needed to log it all. I removed my Bible from one pocket and my Cipher from another. Guiding information for Hawthorne Green was to be found in Proverbs 6. Without the Cipher this was some useless garble about a man’s son, but with the Cipher a meticulous procedures manual. The organ here was apparently a Henry Willis & Sons that one day in ’74 was found to no longer turn on. This meant, surprisingly, the pipes were real and not just the eye-catching front for an electronic organ as had become increasingly custom. The organ’s ailment was annoying in its simplicity; it could have been up and running years ago. I approached the instrument, punched in the boot chords, and then played a few notes to indicate a sector to it. The organ blared back one, long cacophonous scream.

It had three manuals, each consisting of the standard 61 keys, and then a pedalboard of an additional 30 notes, making for 213 notes total. Each key or pedal could of course be in a raised or pressed position at any one time, meaning they had two possible states, so the number of possible key configurations the organ could exist in at any one time was 2²¹³ or if you preferred 1.3164036⁶⁴. This thing was more of a beast than any of the angels. The unique chorus that was ripping itself free of all that pipework was in fact a densely layered packet of information. These encounters would have been consistently impressive if it weren’t for the mundaneness of the messages usually conveyed. This however, was not a mundane message. Not only had the fumigation here been logged and my next job chosen (an escaped cherub in Westhall), my rosary was full.

I walked from the building beaming, feeling the heat of the beads between my fingertips. A few hundred more of these and we’d have the big man upstairs back together again.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.