“I dare you fuckers to go into a real Church and say those things,” she said.
We laughed, and Mike licked up the spilled Guinness, trying to demonstrate his prowess with his tongue.
She did not blanch, but crossed her arms over her tiny chest, and narrowed her eyes. “I bet none of vile bastards would have the balls to profane any o’ the sacraments. I dare you boys, I dare you: walk into a Catholic Church and say things like what you just said.” She grabbed Mike’s glass and flung the contents right into his face.
We stared at her, silent a moment, then burst into further laughter at her audacity. We harassed her with questions about her stance on religion and the pope, then added various jokes about what she had done with the nuns. But she remained serious and reiterated her bet.
“And what’ll you do if we accept this bet, go to a Church, come back, and all?”
“Well, to prove you bastards have done it, I’ll be comin’ with you, if you have the balls and wits to take the dare.”
“And what’s your bet?”
“T’oh, the bet’s that you’ll do it. And if you do, I’ll kiss each one of you as long as you like. And I’ll give tourist boy here perhaps a bit more.”
Upon her so saying, the lads had howled again and slapped my back.
“But if you go there with me, and fool around, piss yourselves, and idle in the dare, then I’ll count you low fuckers all, and you’ll apologize. Aye, apologize like men…or I’ll tell my boss and never let you back in here again.”
Our group deliberated briefly just to make things look official, but before she even finished speaking, we all decided amongst ourselves that we’d do as she asked. We even agreed to let her pick the Church for us. She chose an ancient site, Dunlewy, the remote old place east of the Lough bearing the same name. Her choice surprised us. We half expected her to pick a major establishment and send us in to make hopeless fools of ourselves. Though we didn’t think so at the time, she probably chose the site out of pure sympathy for our state. The drive from Letterkenny west on R251 was long, and took a good hour or more since Aislinn drove miles under the speed limit in her van. Perhaps she had wanted to attract even less attention from the fuzz considering her drunken cargo. Either way, the drive did us good, and by the time we crossed through Glenveagh our group was fairly sober, enough to hold semi-sentient conversation with her. By the time we reached the site, we were almost more excited to explore the stark countryside than make good on the bet.
She parked the car in the saffron-hued wild grasses, and joked if we all needed assistance getting out. While the rest of the lads careened toward the Church, I stayed back a ways and walked with Aislinn. She tried to scowl at me, but a playful smile appeared on her face when I pretended to retch. She knelt beside me and quickly dragged her fingers through my hair, mussing it up like a mate. I caught her hand and she bit her lip.
We walked up the rise to the Church past a curious, framed gravestone, the only one in the entire lawn. The moon broke through the dense, ghostly clouds, revealing a stern edifice that appeared pitiless in the cold light. I turned to Aislinn, surprised she had brought us there, but she smiled and explained some of the building’s history. I suddenly remembered reading in my Frommer’s Ireland about a haunted church in The Poisoned Glen, and now that I saw the actual structure the book described, I shivered. I couldn’t imagine how such a harsh, needlelike thing could afford any comfort or friendliness, past or present. Its exterior of white marble, now wickedly stained from years of exposure, seemed almost black like basalt. The entrance, or narthex, to the place lay directly beneath the bell tower, the sheer height of which increased the dread I now felt. Four triangular spires decorated the tower’s roof like the fangs of a great wolf, tipped with brass ornaments that gleamed in the dim light. Once inside, I could see the spacious nave, a skeletal thing in its roofless state that made me feel exposed. Nothing remained of the old furnishings but an empty floor that reverberated with the calls of my friends. They beckoned Aislinn and I to join them, posing like gargoyles beneath the soaring windows.
“So are we doing the bet or not?”
I glanced at Aislinn. My friends, sensing my hesitance, voiced their frustrations but did not protest my withdrawal from the bet, rather tried to convince me to continue regardless of the outcome.
“It’s St. Paddy’s Day for Christ’s sake, William! And you needn’t be scared, poor boy! There’re no longer any priests to make a Nancy-boy out of you, chum!”
Suddenly there came a faint hiss from the back of the church that echoed across the floor of the nave. We all froze for a moment, unsure if the sound had come from one of us or was just the wind. My friends crept towards me, staggering like mock zombies. “It’s the fart of a priest coming for you, William!” they teased.
The hiss came again, this time louder, sharper, like an agitated exhalation. I could almost hear a voice behind it as its echo expired into the night.
Then I did hear a voice, a strange, withered voice that resounded in the Nave.
Salutant, vos qui ceciderunt.
Again we froze. We listened for the origin of the words.
Venite. Venite, haereticorum.
We scanned the dark windows of the belfry. Nothing. The sound did not seem to be coming from above, but across from us somewhere. We checked the sanctuary’s windows. Still nothing. Then we saw a scarlet shape flash for a brief second in the doorway to the chancel.
We drew together, shaking, then advanced toward the shape. My tongue cleaved to the roof of my mouth. There, perched on a strange glassy chair, sat a hooded figure draped in black. At its feet lay a red beast, curled up, glowing like embers. Its distinctive scales left us in little doubt as to its species: a dragon. It was small, hauntingly diminutive, an ancient beast shrunken into a malignant horror with wings translucent and fiery like a bat’s if set ablaze. At the sight of us, it raised its head and gave a terrible cry. Its rancor pierced the air and stung our ears.
As if in response to the beast, the hooded figure raised its right hand into the air, palm up, cupped as though it contained some substance invisible to us. It spoke the same words as before, then tilted its hand, pouring out the contents within. Then it said, Iudicium— pointing to the spot where what it had poured had landed. Then it pointed to the creature at its feet, saying, —requirit mortem. The dragon-thing rose upon hearing this stood and crawled towards us. Each step of its clawed feet left a molten mark on the on the floor behind it.
We ran for the van. I seized Aislinn’s arm and dragged her with me, not caring if I hurt her and not daring to look behind. Mike made it to the car first, and Aislinn tossed the keys to him. Before I’d even shut my door, Aislinn had put the van in reverse and was speeding down the gravel road, almost tipping it over in her haste. When we hit the pavement of R251, she pushed even harder, driving until she hit the limiter on the van’s accelerator. I still don’t know how fast we drove. In fact, none of us did…all four of us had our eyes on the mirrors and the road behind.
The police pulled us over as we reached the outskirts of Letterkenny. They cuffed us all, thinking we were high on meth; we were just overjoyed from the sight of their flashing lights. All of us gladly accepted a night in jail, in fact Aislinn begged to be taken there with us even though she passed the field sobriety tests. They sent her home amid wild protestations by us lads. All of us were sick when they took her away, but were relieved an hour into our booking when we saw her enter the detention center. They booked her for striking one of the peelers.
After twenty-four hours, they released us back into society. But we couldn’t go back. Instead, we all joined up at the bus station, rode into Dublin, and are renting a three room apartment. We haven’t left the building except to buy some food. We eat as much as possible from the vending machines. We aren’t concerned about clothes or toiletries; we just wash what’s on our backs in the sink. It’s too risky to go outside for anything else. Lately, we’re thinking of taking a ferry to Cardiff, and then the train to London. We may travel even further and go into mainland Europe—anything to stay away from that horror.
Yet somehow, when I finally fall asleep at night by the front door, a crowbar and kitchen knife by my side, I am convinced we haven’t outrun the thing we saw sitting in the Dunlewy Church…or the red beast it sent after us.