Late on a full-mooned Sunday night, the two figures in
work clothes appeared on Highway 27, just outside the small
college town of Ashton. They were tall, at least seven feet,
strongly built, perfectly proportioned. One was dark-haired
and sharp-featured, the other blond and powerful. From a
half mile away they looked toward the town, regarding the
cacophonic sounds of gaiety from the storefronts, streets, and
alleys within it. They started walking.
It was the time of the Ashton Summer Festival, the town's
yearly exercise in frivolity and chaos, its way of saying thank
you, come again, good luck, and nice to have you to the eight
hundred or so college students at Whitmore College who
would be getting their long awaited summer break from
classes. Most would pack up and go home, but all would definitely
stay at least long enough to take in the festivities, the
street disco, the carnival rides, the nickel movies, and whatever
else could be had, over or under the table, for kicks. It
was a wild time, a chance to get drunk, pregnant, beat up,
ripped off, and sick, all in the same night.
In the middle of town a community-conscious landowner
had opened up a vacant lot and permitted a traveling troupe
of enterprising migrants to set up their carnival with rides,
booths, and portapotties. The rides were best viewed in the
dark, an escapade in gaily lit rust, powered by unmuffled tractor
engines that competed with the wavering carnival music
which squawked loudly from somewhere in the middle of it
all. But on this warm summer night the roaming, cotton-candied
masses were out to enjoy, enjoy, enjoy. A ferris wheel
slowly turned, hesitated for boarding, turned some more for
unboarding, then took a few full rotations to give its passengers
their money's worth; a merry-go-round spun in a brightly
lit, gaudy circle, the peeling and dismembered horses still
prancing to the melody of the canned calliope; carnival-goers
threw baseballs at baskets, dimes at ashtrays, darts at balloons,
and money to the wind along the hastily assembled,
ramshackle midway where the hawkers ranted the same
try-yer-luck chatter for each passerby.
The two visitors stood tall and silent in the middle of it all,
wondering how a town of twelve thousand people-including
college students-could produce such a vast, teeming
crowd. The usually quiet population had turned out in
droves, augmented by diversion-seekers from elsewhere, until
the streets, taverns, stores, alleys, and parking spots were
jammed, anything was allowed, and the illegal was ignored.
The police did have their hands full, but each rowdy, vandal,
drunk, or hooker in cuffs only meant a dozen more still loose
and roaming about the town. The festival, reaching a
crescendo now on its last night, was like a terrible storm that
couldn't be stopped; one could only wait for it to blow over,
and there would be plenty to clean up afterward.
The two visitors made their way slowly through the people-packed
carnival, listening to the talk, watching the activity.
They were inquisitive about this town, so they took their time
observing here and there, on the right, on the left, before and
behind. The milling throngs were moving around them like
swirling garments in a washing machine, meandering from
this side of the street to the other in an unpredictable, never-ending
cycle. The two tall men kept eyeing the crowd. They
were looking for someone.
"There," said the dark-haired man.
They both saw her. She was young, very pretty, but also
very unsettled, looking this way and that, a camera in her
hands and a stiff-lipped expression on her face.
The two men hurried through the crowd and stood beside
her. She didn't notice them.
"You know," the dark-haired one said to her, "you might
try looking over there."
With that simple comment, he guided her by a hand on her
shoulder toward one particular booth on the midway. She
stepped through the grass and candy wrappers, moving toward
the booth where some teenagers were egging each other on in
popping balloons with darts. None of that interested her, but
then . some shadows moving stealthily behind the booth did.
She held her camera ready, took a few more silent, careful steps,
and then quickly raised the camera to her eye.
The flash of the bulb lit up the trees behind the booth as
the two men hurried away to their next appointment.
They moved smoothly, unfalteringly, passing through the
main part of town at a brisk pace. Their final destination was
a mile past the center of town, right on Poplar Street, and up
to the top of Morgan Hill about a half mile. Practically no
time at all had passed before they stood before the little white
church on its postage-stamp lot, with its well-groomed lawn
and dainty Sunday-School-and-Service billboard. Across the
top of the little billboard was the name "Ashton Community
Church," and in black letters hastily painted over whatever
name used to be there it said, "Henry L. Busche, Pastor."
They looked back. From this lofty hill one could look over
the whole town and see it spread from city limit to city limit.
To the west sparkled the caramel-colored carnival; to the east
stood the dignified and matronly Whitmore College campus;
along Highway 27, Main Street through town, were the store-front
offices, the smalltown-sized Sears, a few gas stations at
war, a True Value Hardware, the local newspaper, several
small family businesses. From here the town looked so typically
American-small, innocent, and harmless, like the background
for every Norman Rockwell painting.
But the two visitors did not perceive with eyes only. Even
from this vantage point the true substratum of Ashton
weighed very heavily upon their spirits and minds. They
could feel it: restless, strong, growing, very designed and
purposeful . a very special kind of evil.
It was not unlike either of them to ask questions, to study,
to probe. More often than not it came with their job. So they
naturally hesitated in their business, pausing to wonder, Why
But only for an instant. It could have been some acute
sensitivity, an instinct, a very faint but for them discernible
impression, but it was enough to make them both instantly
vanish around the corner of the church, melding themselves
against the beveled siding, almost invisible there in the dark.
They didn't speak, they didn't move, but they watched with a
piercing gaze as something approached.
The night scene of the quiet street was a collage of stark
blue moonlight and bottomless shadows. But one shadow
did not stir with the wind as did the tree shadows, and
neither did it stand still as did the building shadows. It
crawled, quivered, moved along the street toward the church,
while any light it crossed seemed to sink into its blackness, as
if it were a breach torn in space. But this shadow had a shape,
an animated, creaturelike shape, and as it neared the church
sounds could be heard: the scratching of claws along the
ground, the faint rustling of breeze-blown, membranous
wings wafting just above the creature's shoulders.
It had arms and it had legs, but it seemed to move without
them, crossing the street and mounting the front steps of the
church. Its leering, bulbous eyes reflected the stark blue light
of the full moon with their own jaundiced glow. The gnarled
head protruded from hunched shoulders, and wisps of rancid
red breath seethed in labored hisses through rows of jagged
It either laughed or it coughed-the wheezes puffing out
from deep within its throat could have been either. From its
crawling posture it reared up on its legs and looked about the
quiet neighborhood, the black, leathery jowls pulling back
into a hideous death-mask grin. It moved toward the front
door. The black hand passed through the door like a spear
through liquid; the body hobbled forward and penetrated the
door, but only halfway.
Suddenly, as if colliding with a speeding wall, the creature
was knocked backward and into a raging tumble down the
steps, the glowing red breath tracing a corkscrew trail through
With an eerie cry of rage and indignation, it gathered itself
up off the sidewalk and stared at the strange door that would
not let it pass through. Then the membranes on its back
began to billow, enfolding great bodies of air, and it flew with
a roar headlong at the door, through the door, into the
foyer-and into a cloud of white hot light.
The creature screamed and covered its eyes, then felt itself
being grabbed by a huge, powerful vise of a hand. In an
instant it was hurling through space like a rag doll, outside
again, forcefully ousted.
The wings hummed in a blur as it banked sharply in a
flying turn and headed for the door again, red vapors chugging
in dashes and streaks from its nostrils, its talons bared
and poised for attack, a ghostly siren of a scream rising in its
throat. Like an arrow through a target, like a bullet through a
board, it streaked through the door-
And instantly felt its insides tearing loose.
There was an explosion of suffocating vapor, one final
scream, and the flailing of withering arms and legs. Then
there was nothing at all except the ebbing stench of sulfur
and the two strangers, suddenly inside the church.
The big blond man replaced a shining sword as the white
light that surrounded him faded away.
"A spirit of harassment?" he asked.
"Or doubt . or fear. Who knows?"
"And that was one of the smaller ones?"
"I've not seen one smaller."
"No indeed. And just how many would you say there are?"
"More, much more than we, and everywhere. Never idle."
"So I've seen," the big man sighed.
"But what are they doing here? We've never seen such
concentration before, not here."
"Oh, the reason won't be hidden for long." He looked
through the foyer doors and toward the sanctuary. "Let's see
this man of God."
They turned from the door and walked through the small
foyer. The bulletin board on the wall carried requests for
groceries for a needy family, some baby-sitting, and prayer for
a sick missionary. A large bill announced a congregational
business meeting for next Friday. On the other wall, the
record of weekly offerings indicated the offerings were down
from last week; so was the attendance, from sixty-one to forty-two.
Down the short and narrow aisle they went, past the orderly
ranks of dark-stained plank and slat pews, toward the front of
the sanctuary where one small spotlight illumined a rustic two-by-four
cross hanging above the baptistry. In the center of the
worn-carpeted platform stood the little sacred desk, the pulpit,
with a Bible laid open upon it. These were humble furnishings,
functional but not at all elaborate, revealing either humility on
the part of the people or neglect.
Then the first sound was added to the picture: a soft,
muffled sobbing from the end of the right pew. There, kneeling
in earnest prayer, his head resting on the hard wooden
bench, and his hands clenched with fervency, was a young
man, very young, the blond man thought at first: young and
vulnerable. It all showed in his countenance, now the very
picture of pain, grief, and love. His lips moved without sound
as names, petitions, and praises poured forth with passion
The two couldn't help but just stand there for a moment,
watching, studying, pondering.
"The little warrior," said the dark-haired one.
The big blond man formed the words himself in silence,
looking down at the contrite man in prayer.
"Yes," he observed, "this is the one. Even now he's interceding,
standing before the Lord for the sake of the people,
for the town ."
"Almost every night he's here."
At that remark, the big man smiled. "He's not so insignificant."
"But he's the only one. He's alone."
"No." The big man shook his head. "There are others.
There are always others. They just have to be found. For now,
his single, vigilant prayer is the beginning."
"He's going to be hurt, you know that."
"And so will the newspaperman. And so will we."
"But will we win?"
The big man's eyes seemed to burn with a rekindled fire.
"We will fight."
"We will fight," his friend agreed.
They stood over the kneeling warrior, on either side; and at
that moment, little by little, like the bloom of a flower, white
light began to fill the room. It illumined the cross on the back
wall, slowly brought out the colors and grain in every plank
of every pew, and rose in intensity until the once plain and
humble sanctuary came alive with an unearthly beauty. The
walls glimmered, the worn rugs glowed, the little pulpit stood
tall and stark as a sentinel backlit by the sun.
And now the two men were brilliantly white, their former
clothing transfigured by garments that seemed to burn with
intensity. Their faces were bronzed and glowing, their eyes
shone like fire, and each man wore a glistening golden belt
from which hung a flashing sword. They placed their hands
upon the shoulders of the young man and then, like a gracefully
spreading canopy, silken, shimmering, nearly transparent
membranes began to unfurl from their backs and
shoulders and rise to meet and overlap above their heads,
gently undulating in a spiritual wind.
Together they ministered peace to their young charge, and
his many tears began to subside.
The Ashton Clarion was a small-town, grass-roots newspaper;
it was little and quaint, maybe just a touch unorganized at
times, unassuming. It was, in other words, the printed expression
of the town of Ashton. Its offices occupied a small store-front
space on Main Street in the middle of town, just a one-story
affair with a large display window and a heavy, toe-scuffed
door with a mail slot. The paper came out twice a
week, on Tuesdays and Fridays, and didn't make a lot of
money. By the appearance of the office and layout facilities,
you could tell it was a low-budget operation.
In the front half of the building was the office and newsroom
area. It consisted of three desks, two typewriters, two
wastebaskets, two telephones, one coffeemaker without a
cord, and what looked like all the scattered notes, papers,
stationery and office bric-a-brac in the world. An old worn
counter from a torn-down railroad station formed a divider
between the functioning office and the reception area, and of
course there was a small bell above the door that jingled
every time someone came in.
Toward the back of this maze of small-scale activity was
one luxury that looked just a little too big-town for this place:
a glassed-in office for the editor. It was, in fact, a new addition.
The new editor/owner was a former big city reporter and
having a glassed-in editor's office had been one of his life's