***Special thanks to Kim Jones | Publicity Coordinator, Charisma House | Charisma Media for sending me a review copy.***
When Jonathan Steel wakes up on a beach in a raging thunderstorm, naked, beaten, and bleeding, he has no idea who he is or how he got there. But just as he starts to make progress in his slow journey to recovery, tragedy strikes again, taking everything in his new life that he has come to love and rely on.
Filled with rage and a thirst for revenge, he searches the countryside for the entity responsible—an entity called only the Thirteenth Demon. His quest brings him to Lakeside, Louisiana, and a small country church where evil is in control and strange writing on the walls, blood-soaked floors, and red-eyed spiders have appeared in the sanctuary.
As he faces the final confrontation with an evil presence that has pursued him all of his life, he must choose between helping the people he loves or destroying the thirteenth demon.
Along the western horizon the sun settled, bloodred—the very eye of Satan glaring down upon
the man who stood in front of the horror that had once been his church. Alone on the second floor balcony, his voice echoed into the coming night.
“God, what have I done to deserve this?”
He backed up to the wrought iron railing, then gasped as he realized he was leaning against the bent, misshapen portion of the railing where it had all begun. He pushed away, bit his thumbnail, and looked around at the huge white columns and across the empty balcony. In front of him were the two intimidating wooden doors that led into the foyer of his church. Four windows were on each side, coated with caked dust. No one had been inside the church in weeks. But that did not mean it was empty.
He had to get to his office.
A squeaking filled the silence. The man watched in horror as the doorknob began to turn. He backed away until he felt his heels at the top of the stone stairs. Sweat poured down from his forehead, and he felt his dress shirt sticking to his ribs. The squeaking stopped. Silence descended.
“Is someone there?” he whispered. There was no answer. He sighed and pushed his glasses back up on his nose. His heart slowed, and he wiped his coat sleeve across his forehead. The coat swallowed him. He had lost twenty pounds in the last month. “I’m not walking away this time,” he said to the lifeless door. “You won’t scare me away!”
The door burst open with a rush of wind, and a red mist engulfed him. He could taste the red liquid in the air; it was coppery, salty. Blood! Through the tiny red droplets on his glasses, he watched a river of it surge through the open doorway. His foot slid as he tried to stumble away, and he fell backward, bouncing off the stone banister, rolling down onto the steps. He slowed his fall halfway down the stairs and looked up at the open doors. Blood cascaded over the top step and poured down the steps, tendrils of crimson coming after him.
He slid back, tumbled once again until he came to a halt on his back on the sidewalk in front of the church. The blood came down the stairs, pooling at the base just inches from his feet. He scooted back away from the pool, watching it grow into a large circle of shimmering red.
“Do you think this is going to scare us away?”
He watched as the girl and her child appeared around the corner of the stairway. The girl’s yellow hair rested on her shoulders, and she wore the same cotton dress with sunflowers as on the day she had wormed her way into his life. She couldn’t have been over sixteen, but that didn’t seem to matter to the toddler who held her left hand. The boy was dark-headed and somewhere between a year and two years of age. His nose was running, and he wore only a disposable diaper. The young woman picked up the child.
“No! This is not my doing. Don’t you know what is going on around here?” The man pointed a bloody hand up the stairs.
“You know what I want. Time is running out,” she said. The toddler smiled.
“It’s in my office, and I can’t get inside because of ”—he gestured at the pool of blood—“this!”
“I’m not leaving, Thomas. We’re in the nursery.” She disappeared from sight, back toward the door under the stairs that led into the basement of the old church.
A fly buzzed by his head and landed on his glasses. He swatted at it. Another fly circled his head. He shook his bloody hair as more flies appeared and moved toward the pool of blood. One landed on the shiny, crimson surface and instantly burst into flame. More flies dove into the pool until a circle of flame hovered above the blood. It gently floated higher, growing larger with each dying fly until it was the size of a beach ball. More flies filled the evening air, circling in dizzying arcs, until they surrounded the ball of flame. A hole opened in the front of the fly ball, and the flames showed forth from within. The man blinked as the opening turned toward him. It was a huge flaming eye! More flies arrived and flew about the flaming
eye to form a spiral that pulsated and spun around it.
“We know about the girl,” the raspy voice proclaimed as the eye lifted higher in the air.
At that, the man lost all reason, all civility, and scuttled backward like a crab into the road in front of the church. The hot asphalt blistered his palms. The buzzing grew louder as the voice spoke the words over and over. His heart pounded. He heard a high, keening whimper and realized it was his own voice.
Suddenly, against the insane noises, there came another roar, approaching fast, and then the sound of squealing brakes, the whoosh of hot wind, the smell of burning rubber, and the grill of a recreational vehicle as it stopped just inches from his face. The man glanced back at the flaming eye with its pulsating spiral. It had disappeared, leaving only a pool of blood behind. The doors of the church were shut. The sudden silence was punctuated by the creaking and popping of the RV to his left. A long shadow fell over him as a figure stepped into the man’s sight.
He was six feet tall with wiry muscles and dressed in a V-neck T-shirt, blue jeans, and work boots. His hair was reddish blond and short, his face tight and expressionless. His eyes were hidden behind mirrored sunglasses.
“How long has it been bleeding?” His voice was barely above a whisper.
“It just started.” The man wiped blood from his face. “Are you Steel?”
“Get up.” The figure disappeared into the RV.
He grabbed the grill of the RV with bloody hands and pulled himself shakily to his feet. He walked around the vehicle and entered through the open door. Inside, a table with two laptops and one large monitor sat where he would have expected the kitchen table to be. The man he presumed to be Jonathan Steel reappeared with a black backpack in one hand and a plastic container of disinfectant wipes in the other. He handed him the wipes.
“Clean up. You stink.”
“Hey, I asked you a question.” He pulled wipes from the container and wiped the blood from his hands. “Are you Steel?”
Steel opened a cabinet and took out a huge flashlight. “Are the lights working inside the church?”
The man wiped blood from his glasses. “I don’t know. Listen, you haven’t answered my question.”
The mirrored sunglasses turned in his direction. “Yes. I am Jonathan Steel.”
“I’m . . . I’m Thomas Parker. And this is my church.” He tossed the bloodstained wipes into the sink.
“I know,” Steel answered.
“What are you going to do?”
“We are going inside.” Steel pushed past him toward the open door.
“But don’t we need to sit down and talk about this?” Parker followed the man out of the RV. “Maybe over a cup of coffee? Maybe after I’ve had a shower?”
Steel ignored him and paused at the pool of blood. A fly landed lazily on the surface of the pool and then burst into flames. “Now there’s something you don’t see every day.”
Parker grabbed the man’s arm to turn him. He swallowed. “No one has been inside for six weeks.”
Steel took off his sunglasses, and Parker was shocked by his bright, turquoise eyes. Steel glared at him. “Whose blood is this?”
Parker looked at the blood and then back into Steel’s penetrating gaze. “I don’t know. It just appeared.”
Steel nodded and slid the sunglasses into a pocket of his T-shirt. “Then we need to find the source. Let’s go.”
Parker watched in horror as Steel squished through the puddle of blood and started up the stairs. He hurried after him, trying his best to avoid the rivulets of blood on the stairs. They arrived at the upper level, and Steel paused in front of the closed doors. Blood still trickled from the threshold. His head turned as he studied the walls, the windows, and finally the wrought iron railing that ran around the huge balcony. Parker followed the direction of the man’s gaze and felt a chill when it stopped on the far railing. He knew that if Steel went to the edge and looked down he would see the impression where the body had landed in the soft, grassy soil. The grass still had not grown back. Steel reached for the doorknob and paused.
“Wait a minute!” Parker said. “Do I have to go with you?”
“This is your church.” Steel frowned. “You cannot be afraid.”
“I asked you to come help with the church. To clean up all of . . . this.” Parker motioned to the blood on the portico. Steel just stared at him with those intense eyes. Parker wiped his forehead and sighed. “Look, you didn’t see that blood gush out of that door like a living thing. You didn’t see the eye of flame with the swirling spiral that came out of that puddle of blood . . . ”
“Spiral?” Steel interrupted him. He grabbed Parker by the lapels of his suit coat and pulled him up onto his tiptoes. “Are you sure the eye was surrounded by a spiral?”
“Yes, down there.” Parker slid down into his suit. “It came out of the puddle, and the flies flew around like a spiral.”
For a second Steel’s skin relaxed; his gaze seemed to settle on a distant memory. His hands relaxed, and Parker slid back down onto his feet. Then just as quickly as the change had come, the stony face returned. Steel’s gaze returned to Parker. “We are both going in. Now.” Steel turned and pulled the doors open. They flew outward toward them, and Parker hid behind Steel’s bulk to avoid the mist of blood. As they stepped inside, the temperature plummeted, filling the air with a chilling, icy vapor. Steel stepped into the church’s foyer, his breath misting in front of him. Parker hurried after him. He glanced around at the chunks of ice that covered the offering table and icicles that hung from the old chandelier. Everything was frozen and smelled like freezer-burned meat. The outer doors slammed behind them, engulfing them in darkness.
“What is going on?” Parker huddled up against Steel’s back. Steel’s voice seemed calm and unchanged. “Someone is trying to scare you, Reverend Parker.” Light gushed from Steel’s flashlight, and Parker screamed.
Huge, red spiders hung around them, suspended from the ceiling, their scrabbling arms coated with frost, their multifaceted eyes black with menace. As the light burst through the darkness, the nearest spiders retreated along their spindly webs into the dark shadows of the foyer corners.
“Where did they come from?” Parker shouted.
Steel walked toward the inner two doors that would lead into the sanctuary. “Ignore them. They don’t like the light.” Steel pushed open the doors, and the cold, bitter air was replaced with a hot, fetid wind redolent with the fragrance of vegetation. Parker stumbled over something and looked down at a huge vine stretching across the center aisle. Huge roots and vines covered the pews, the aisle, the walls, and the stainedglass windows. They stretched upward to the edge of the roof.
The inner doors slammed behind them, and Parker bolted forward against Steel’s unmoving back.
“For a man of God, you sure are skittish,” Steel growled at him over his shoulder.
“Are you kidding?” Parker stammered. “Who wouldn’t be?”
“I’ve seen worse,” Steel said.
“You’ve seen worse? How could it be worse?”
“Never ask that question.”
Parker fought off his trembling. He should be the strong one. Not Steel. He tried to stand up straight and smooth out his coat. “Now that we’re here, I need to find something.” A huge curtain of vines was draped across a door leading out of the right side of the sanctuary. “My office is over there.” He pointed.
“We’ll get there.” Steel passed the flashlight beam over the ceiling. Strange writings covered the old acoustic tiles. He fumbled in his backpack and retrieved a digital camera. The darkness was interrupted by flash after flash as Steel took dozens of pictures of the ceiling. Parker saw ghostly figures in the afterglow of each flash. Finally, he closed his eyes until Steel was finished.
“Pictographs of some kind. I don’t recognize the language,” Steel said as he slid the camera back into his backpack and pulled out a small video camera. “We’ll need a linguist.”
Steel motioned toward the front of the sanctuary. An altar table sat in front of the pulpit. It was covered with blood that dripped and ran in tiny threads to the floor. A huge, dead flower arrangement sat in the middle of the puddle of blood. Behind the pulpit and choir loft, something glowed with an orange light. “What is that?”
Parker pushed his glasses up on his nose. “Something is in the baptistery.”
Steel hopped over the low choir rail and weaved his way through the three rows of chairs in the choir loft. He stood on a chair and glanced into the baptistery. Parker hurried after him and climbed up on a chair next to Steel. Inside the baptistery, where there once existed the warm, welcoming waters of baptism, a pool of radiant energy filled the deep chamber. Its surface moved with eddies of orange and red energy. Steel switched on the video camera and began recording.
“Baptism by fire?”
“Of course not. What is it?” Parker felt himself drawn into the mesmerizing ebb and flow of energy currents.
“An energy field. Something in this church is manipulating other dimensions of space and time,” Steel said.
Parker glanced at him. “Dimensions?”
Steel turned off the video camera and looked at Parker. His face was bathed in the reddish glow of the baptistery. “We’ll need a physicist.”
“We need a linguist and a physicist. What about a florist for that dead flower arrangement?” Parker threw his hands in the air.
“Reverend, you have no idea what you’re up against.” Steel played the flashlight beam over the choir rail. “Who else is in here?”
“No one,” Parker said.
“I thought I saw someone move in the choir loft.”
Parker shook his head. “If you could just help me get through those vines over there, I need to get something from my office . . . ”
“You’re lying to me.” Steel flicked the beam into his face. Parker put up his hands to block the light. “I’m not lying. There is no one in here but us. No one has been in this sanctuary in weeks.”
Steel pointed the light toward the vines over the door. “So, what is so important in your office?”
“Records, paperwork, uh . . . ” Parker mumbled, stepping back involuntarily. Something squished beneath his feet, and immediately the air filled with the sound of soft chittering, the sound of a thousand tiny legs tapping and moving. Steel focused the beam of light on the floor. Spiders were all around them, scuttling along the vines converging on Parker. He backed into the altar table, and blood splashed down his legs. He bounced away and ran toward the door leading to his office. A curtain of red spiders converged on the vines and blocked his way. “Mr. Steel, do something!” he screamed.
“The light isn’t stopping them,” Steel said. Suddenly a gust of wind swirled to life behind Parker, swallowing him in a tornado of debris and dust. Parker felt himself lifted helplessly into the air. Wind buffeted him, spinning him upside down until he hung in the center of the vortex ten feet above the floor. Steel backed away from the funnel of air as bits of glowing energy spun from the baptistery, coalescing into a tumbling mass of gleaming metal slivers.
Parker watched the tiny metal flecks hurtle across the loft to pause just outside the vortex. Slivers of metal tumbled and spun and assembled themselves into tiny, metal spiders. The metal arachnids swirled into the vortex. Sparking and flashing in the glow of the baptistery, they ripped at his clothing, shredding his suit coat, ripping his pants, even tugging off his shoes. Parker’s open mouth finally found sound, and his scream tore through the roar of the wind. Suddenly Steel was beneath him, pulling him down. Together they fell out of the vortex of wind. Parker pushed himself off of Steel and, without pausing, ran down the aisle, flung through the inner doors, and pushed through the outer doors onto the portico. He tumbled down the stairs and came to rest in the parking lot, his eyes filled with sweat, blood, and dead leaves. Bruised and scratched, in only his underwear, he stood up and ran down the hill to the parsonage where he lived, his mind filled with unspeakable horrors.