Introducing the winner of our Halloween Story Contest: Nick Adigu-Burke is a short story author and budding novelist from Manchester, England. At present he is editing his first manuscript Satan's Fall,
which he hopes to get published in the new year. When Nick isn't glued to his laptop or nailing dead frogs to his door, to ward off Writers' Block, he's kept busy by his two cheeky children. Congratulations, Nick!
The Fall of Cardinal von Greifswald
It was approaching dusk when Cardinal von Greifswald shuffled into the shadowy nave, his tired eyes, dull and age defined, fighting to acclimatise to the gloom.
A quarter-century had passed since his eyes last beheld the Church of St Maria's, the atrocities of war ending his love affair with her. And like a lover jilted he swore never to return, but here he was, drawn to her, drawn to her sins and secrets, with a flutter of undiminished love.
It was sometime in the late '40s when Madallena D'alessandro, Argentiera's last resident, abandoned the decaying town. The Second World War had left the townsfolk base of hope and happiness, commodities they quickly sought elsewhere. Memories of death have a habit of haunting the living, memories of death, and war lurking on every street corner, almost every building scarred by memories too heinous to share.
When the Cardinal learnt St Maria's would be torn down, he immediately left his rural château in Alsace, to visit Argentiera one last time, to say farewell to his spiritual home.
Trembled by emotion, the Cardinal gathered-up his scarlet cassock and rested on a rickety pew. The church was an idyll even in the midsts of war, but now it cowered amongst the ruins of Argentiera, a sin as shameful as anything borne from the depths of hell. He once remarked the nineteenth-century frescoes rivalled anything he'd seen in Rome, but now they were faded and flaked beyond restoration. From those frescoes he took in the gaping hole above the altar that once held a stained glass window, depicting the Devil's Last Temptation of Christ, now an attraction at Bologna's Museo Archeologico.
He was comforted, however, that it hadn't been destroyed with the rest of the town's artefacts... Fighting amongst German and Italian troops had robbed the town of more than just lives, it had robbed its soul.
The Cardinal believed the war had awoken something barbaric and primeval in the spirit of man. There was nothing else to explain the cascading horror. Throughout the war he'd preached that man and man only was to blame for Satan's release from the depths of Hell, the sins of pride and greed doing that. He warned them, but they did not listen. He warned of deception and falsehoods, he warned of selling lies for the price of souls, he warned that Satan would establish hell on earth, and that's just what happened.
With a pained expression the Cardinal remembered the orphans he'd housed during the war, their youthful faces running through his mind like a movie-reel, making him sob into his trembling hands. Their remembrance had awoken the darkest memories within him. Every fourth Saturday, a dozen orphans, sometimes more, were dragged screaming from their beds at dawn and slaughtered in the name of Nazi fascism, slaughtered until none remained. Only in war could such barbarity arise, he thought.
By now the Cardinal's emotions had him all a quiver, building into a frenzy. He braced himself for what would come next; his entire body stiffened, his teeth clashed, his fists clenched, his face contorted like a gargoyle, he screamed out, wailing as though he'd been hit with a hideous hex. His heartache echoed around the desolate surroundings almost inhuman in pitch and power.
He prayed for the pain to cease. He tried to stand, but stumbled forward, a pillar breaking his fall. 'Why me?' He continuously screamed, beating the pillar with his fists, too anguished to notice his gashed and bleeding knuckles.
He would've continued beating that pillar, if not for the clang sounding from beyond the dusky pulpit.
'Who there?' He snarled, angrily. 'Who's there?' He snarled again. Then marched forth through the gloom, his scarlet cassock flowing in the wake of his anger.
Noisily a white cat yowled from the fractured altar, knocking the Cardinal down. 'Vermin,' he rasped. Then dabbed the perspiration form his brow with a black handkerchief.
In his recovery he noticed the old, bronze eagle residing over the lectern, dulled by dust. Its apparent neglect angered him, its great wings and proud head treated with contempt, he believed. The lectern held fond memories for the Cardinal, he remembered addressing the troops from behind its brilliance, his audience captivated by his silken vocabulary.
The dust, he banished with water from a leather canteen, and soon the eagle shone again, glinting like gold, the Cardinal's grey-face reflecting back at him. However, his face wasn't the only thing reflecting... A pair of luminous eyes peered into the bronze from over his shoulder. His face tingled and his breath abated, he slowly turned, clutching his ruby crucifix, but nothing was there. 'Just my age,' he sighed and straightened his attire.
The darkness was quickly drawing in, distilling an unease within him. From his satchel he procured a match and thick candle which he quickly lit, the fizzing phosphorous momentarily dispelling the hush. Carefully he tiptoed his way through the fallen masonry and entered the vestry, brushing away a spider that tickled his face.
Fallen against the shadowy, far wall he noticed the rail from which the gas-masks once hung, replaced by an intricate network of cobwebs, that billowed in the breeze like the rags of a phantom. In the corner, was the arched entrance to the crypt, guarded by the marble statue of the church's patron, St Maria. As was customary the Cardinal made the sign of the cross as he passed.
For a moment he idled in the gloom at the top of the crypt stairs, slightly unnerved by the spectral wind howling from below. However, his stoicism soon returned and so began his descent, the chill heightened and his breath visible with every step. However, before he could reach the bottom the candle blew-out, sending the Cardinal tumbling down those steps, screaming all the way.
In pitch-black silence he rived, clutching his stinging midriff. Then with trembling fingers retrieved a new match and a new candle.
In the new light he lifted his cassock and gasped at the vicious bite marks wounding his belly. This forced him to thrust his crucifix at the darkness. 'Be gone demon,' he called out, desperate to dispel the evil alive in the crypt.
When the echo fell-away, an intolerable stench hit him, the stench of a hundred rotting corpses burning his nose and watering his eyes. He felt sick, he felt like he'd fallen into the belly of a living, breathing, man-eating Behemoth.
He retched. Then tried to stand but an unspeakable terror had been released from the darkness, an invisible presence, cold and howling like the wind. It'd extinguished his candle and pinned him to the ground. His whole body felt crushed. He tried to call out, like a child for its mother, desperation etched in his shrill cry. But, Nobody was there, nobody was there to hear his torment.
Like a wild beast he fought, his body stiffened, his jaw tightened and the veins bulged in his neck and head, but still he was incapacitated. And when he heard the patter of feet scurrying from the darkness, he began to sob.
'Who's there?' He sniffled. Then screamed in terror as something viciously sunk its teeth into his cheek, he could feel the flesh clamping together, he reached for the pain and his fingers bled, bitten too - dark claret trickled down his arm and dripped onto the dust.
'I shouldn't have returned. It was a mistake,' he whimpered. He was correct. It was a mistake to have returned to Argentiera. The locals had just cause to have fled the terror haunting the abandoned buildings.
His head felt heavy, and gave him little chance to think as a blood-lit flash evaporated the darkness, painting red the cloister, and highlighting numerous unmarked graves. '
Please, no,' The Cardinal begged as the door violently locked, prompting the faces of a hundred ragged children to lunge from the darkness, their blood-red eyes, large and unblinking, belittling him to a cowering wreck.
'No this cannot be,' he murmured. 'What in God's name are you?'
'We are the orphans you took in. We are the orphans you tortured... WE are the orphans you executed in the name of Hitler,' they replied as one.
A week later the unrecognisable remains of Cardinal von Greifswald were discovered festering in the crypt. A religious order of Franciscan Monks found the body dissected like a mannequin. In the dust they'd found his arms ripped clean off; his body severed at the navel; and a head barbarically detached from the spine. Without delay they buried the Cardinal where he'd fallen, and now the only signs he was ever there... An unmarked grave.