As usual, Sister Maria Grazia sensed the evil long before she could see it. As the black sedan car rolled through the Tuscan hills, she could feel the pressure weighing down on her head. She closed her eyes, pinched the bridge of her nose, and counted three slow breaths. Ordinarily she would have prayed, but she needed to save her prayers for when she got there.
She looked out of the car window and saw the once-green trees turning brown, barren vines stretching into the distance, and there like a dirty smudge on the horizon was the hilltop convent of the Povere Sorelle in Toscana. A medieval fortified abbey that had somehow escaped the ravages of time, its dark brown towers reached up like fingers, as if the ground was attempting to grasp the sky.
Maria Grazia made the sign of the cross and kissed the small rosary that hung about her neck. The sight of the Convent intensified the pressure on her head, so she looked away and resumed counting her breaths. If the driver noticed any of this he didn't seem to catch on, or else felt the nun was best left to her own devices.
The car followed a road that snaked through the countryside towards the convent, and became a brown dirt track as it fell under the shadow of the hill where the convent had been built. The road wound around the gradual slopes of the hill, and then turned on itself in steep corners as the ground rose up abruptly. The driver changed down a gear, and then another, as he tried to push the car forward to its destination. Eventually, just as he thought the engine was about to give up, the car reached the crest of the hill and the convent that crowned it.
The driver jumped out of the car and opened the door for the nun. She stepped out and turned to take in the breathtaking view of the countryside. The landscape went as far as the eye could see, and then some, as straining to look for the horizon caused her eyes to blur.
Sister Maria Grazia took her case from the back of the car, paid the driver, and watched him turn the car around in front of the convent doors before prowling away down the hillside. Once he was out of sight, and certain to be safe, she turned to a bell-pull to the left of the cracked wooden doors and pulled on the chain. A feeble bell rang somewhere on the other side of the door, so tiny and insignificant a sound that she was compelled to pull it again.
She could hear the pit-pat of urgent footsteps approaching beyond the door, and it was then that she noticed the absence of all other sounds. She turned away from the door and listened - not a bird, nor an insect, made a sound. The countryside was quiet. Waiting, and watching, to see what she would do next. Behind it all, she could sense the evil presence that had given her the headaches in the car.
The footsteps stopped, keys jangled, and a heavy-sounding bolt was moved on the far side of the door. A small mouse-like nun dragged open the impossibly heavy door, and stood behind it, half-covered as if she feared the outside world. Her tiny eyes blinked once, twice, in the daylight.
Maria Grazia offered her hand to shake, but the other woman didn't accept. She simply hid behind the door, and looked back into the gloomy recesses of the convent.
'I am Sister Maria Grazia,' she said, 'I understand you are in need of assistance?'
'Sister Caterina,' the small woman said, 'are you an exorcist?'
'After a fashion.'
'Do come in. We tried to deal with the problem ourselves, but it has...worsened, and Mother Superior said we'd need a professional.'
Maria Grazia walked through the doorway, and Sister Caterina closed the door, sealing them in the perpetual twilight of the convent.
'How is the child?' Maria Grazia asked.
'This isn't about the child,' the other nun said, bolting the door with considerable difficulty, 'she is beyond our help.'
'The girl died, after Mother Superior conducted the exorcism. All we can do now is pray for her little soul.'
'So the exorcism failed?'
'No, it was a success.'
'Then where is the demon now?'
'Right this way, sister.'
Sister Caterina led Maria Grazia down a long corridor that seemed to darken which each footstep.
'Where are the other sisters?'
'Everyone is confined to their cells for safety. Mother Superior said she didn't want the creature to find another host.'
'And where is your Mother Superior now?'
Caterina stopped and held on to Maria Grazia's arm, and spoke through scared tears.
'She took to her bed after fighting with the creature. The exorcism took a lot of her strength, and in the subsequent fight she was badly injured. We pray for her every day, but she doesn't seem to be getting better. She said that she would not recover until the demon has gone.'
'Take me to it,' Maria Grazia commanded, 'and let me rid this place of the evil filth.'
'Thank you sister,' Caterina bowed her head and led her quickly through a cloister and then into a room with frescoed walls and a beautiful vaulted ceiling. They took another corridor and a side door into the heart of the convent - a large, bare room with a light well that allowed a shaft of light to penetrate to gloom.
'This is it, sister,' Caterina said, and ducked out of the room.
Maria Grazia looked at the centre of the room, where floor-to-ceiling bars held a creature that was both familiar and unfamiliar to her. The horns on its head, the bat-like wings pressed flat against its back, the claws and fangs - all straight out of a medieval bestiary, the likes of which graced many of the libraries of these ancient communes.
She backed out of the room and closed the door behind her. Sister Caterina stood in the corridor, wringing her hands.
'Sister,' Maria Grazia began, 'that's a gargoyle.'
Sister Caterina nodded.
'Its a block of stone.'
Again, Caterina nodded. Maria Grazia frowned and folded her arms.
'Would you like to give me some kind of explanation?'
Caterina sighed and began pacing in front of Maria Grazia - as she did so, the story unravelled.
'The girl was brought to us six months ago. By her parents' accounts she had been a sickly child from birth, but as she grew, the girl began to act strangely.'
'She began playing with an invisible friend, a voice that she said was in her head. The voice began to speak through her, in languages she could never have learned at such a young age. When it became apparent that she wasn't making it up, her parents brought her here. Mother Superior suspected demonic possession, and promised to exorcise the creature from her.'
'Your Mother Superior performed the exorcism herself?'
'Is she a trained exorcist?'
'No, but the parents were so desperate, and the demon had such a hold over the girl, that she felt compelled to perform the rite the very same day.'
Maria Grazia closed her eyes, and pinched the bridge of her nose.
'We all prayed for the girl,' Caterina continued, 'but she couldn't be saved. Mother Superior managed to cast the demon out into a stone gargoyle, with the intention of breaking it into pieces with a hammer. To break its corporeal body so that it would be forced to leave and return to the underworld.'
'What went wrong?'
'The creature was too strong. It attacked Mother Superior, and we almost lost her as well as the girl.'
Maria Grazia shook her head, 'The rite should never have been attempted. I know she thought she was doing right for the girl, but your Mother Superior should have left it to a professional.'
'Can you help us? Even now, Mother Superior lays sick in bed, and the creature thrives.'
'Do you know its name? Has it identified itself at all?'
'The creature calls itself Lucien.'
Maria Grazia nodded, and unfolded her arms. 'Is there anything else I should know?'
'You won't be able to break it with a hammer. Its stone is too strong.'
'We shall see.' Maria Grazia turned back to the door and opened it. The room was dark, save for a shaft of light coming in through the light well that illuminated the gargoyle's body. Maria Grazia walked up to the cage and held onto the bars.
'Lucien?' She asked.
There was no response. She walked around the circular cage to stand in front of the gargoyle's face. Green with moss and spattered with lichen, the creature looked pox-ridden.
'Lucien I know you're in there. I command you to speak.'
Still nothing. Maria Grazia set down her case, opened it, and picked out a glass phial. Pulling out the cork, she threw water onto the gargoyle.
'In the name of Christ our saviour I command that you speak to me.'
A hissing sound came from the gargoyle's mouth, like sand falling through an hourglass. The creature moved with the sound of stone grating on stone, raising its head to see Maria Grazia in the gloom beyond the shaft of light.
'Who are you to command me?' the creature asked.
'You don't need to know my name.'
'You seem to know mine, Sister.'
'I do, although I cannot say I've heard of you. I can't recall your name from any of the texts I've studied.'
'Perhaps you have been reading all the wrong texts,' the gargoyle said, stretching like a cat and yawning silently, 'but then your kind often do.'
'The Fisherman's followers. Tell me this, Sister, what do your texts say about killing hosts during an exorcism?'
'It was regrettable, what happened to the girl.'
'The words you should be looking for are "Thou Shalt Not Kill", I believe.'
'You believe? Your kind don't have any beliefs.'
The gargoyle growled - a gritty sound that grated against her nerves.
'We believe, Sister, much the same as you do. We believe in free will above all things. Freedom in all things. To be our own masters.'
Maria Grazia laughed, 'Your own masters? You serve a master - the one who fell from Grace.'
'I no longer serve him.'
'It is true. That is why I am here - banished from the underworld, inhabiting the body of a feeble child, trying each and every way to leave her and make a glorious return to pandemonium. Now trapped in this stone, behind these bars. I have no master but myself. Can you say the same?'
'I follow the rules of my Order, and those rules set out by the Lord our God.'
'You mean the rules as interpreted by the Church. For that is what they are - interpretations.'
'I am not here to debate theology with you, Lucien. I am here to destroy this body you inhabit and expel your presence to the abyss where it belongs. That is my mission, and that is what I shall do.'
The gargoyle prowled around the inside of the cage, and settled on its haunches in the middle, directly under the shaft of light.
'Very well,' it said, 'go ahead.'
Maria Grazia reached into her case once more and selected a slim book, from which she read aloud.
'May the Holy Cross be my light. May the dragon never be my guide. Begone Satan. Never tempt me with your vanities.'
The gargoyle laughed, a guttural, gravelly sound. 'Satan isn't here, Sister. And I have yet to tempt you. But I shall.'
Out in the corridor, Sister Caterina heard the demonic laughter and put her hands over her ears. She paced before the door, fighting back tears. The gloom of the building deepened as the afternoon became evening. She heard a roaring sound, and clang of stone upon metal, but was too afraid to open the door. The last time she had done so - during the young girl's exorcism - she had caused the death of the original host, and the injury to the Mother Superior.
She waited, and eventually the door opened. Sister Maria Grazia appeared in the doorway, a light sweat on her brow. Sister Caterina looked at her with tired, yet hopeful eyes.
'It is finished.' Maria Grazia stated, and closed the door behind her.
'Will you see Mother Superior now?'
'No, Sister, let her rest. Lucien will not be bothering you any further.'
'Thank you Sister, you've saved us all. Can you tell me how you did it?'
'It's probably best you don't know.'
If she was affronted by the rebuttal, Sister Caterina didn't show it. She simply walked Maria Grazia back to the front entrance.
'Can I call a car for you, Sister?'
'No thank you, I'd like to walk a while.'
Sister Caterina nodded, and began to close the door, 'One last thing...'
Sister Maria Grazia was nowhere to be seen. She had simply disappeared. Sister Caterina gasped, made the sign of the Cross, and closed the door. Once the bolt was back in place she scurried off to the room that had held the creature.
Caterina pushed the door open and peeked inside. The cage was still intact, but it was full of rubble, as if the gargoyle had exploded into pieces. She walked around the cage, watching the stone dust rising and falling within the shaft of light. Something crunched underfoot and she looked down: there was Sister Maria Grazia's rosary.
She picked it up, seeing that it was broken as if it had been ripped from her neck suddenly. Caterina paced the room again, keeping her distance from the cage, occasionally throwing a suspicious glance to the fading shaft of light. Something didn't feel right, so she made her way back to the front door.
In the dying light of day, Sister Caterina left the convent and looked down the sloping road, finding nothing. She then walked up to the steep ledge opposite the entrance and peered over the sharp drop that lay beyond.
Sister Maria Grazia's body lay on the ground below, twisted and broken where she had landed. Sister Caterina cried out in grief. She held up the rosary and dropped it over the edge. Then she returned to the convent, bolted the heavy door behind her, and went to the Mother Superior's room to tell her what had happened.
Sensing that something had changed in the convent, the sisters began to leave their cells. They were free from the grip of the demon, but as Sister Caterina informed them, that freedom had come at the cost of another nun's life.