A Christmas story.
Erin approached the church. The Frauenkirche (or Munich Cathedral of Our Lady, as precisely no-one except Wikipedia called it) seemed larger at night. It was long past sunset, and even the pubs on the plaza had been shut for hours. In summer, the warmer air would make the wind feel refreshing. But now, the day before Christmas Eve, the wind bit her face harshly.
But at least the wind was there at all, circling the church. For Erin, this was a sign of a job well done. It meant the devil was still outside.
Erin was a member of the Order of, well, Order. She and the other young members would refer to themselves as “Double-O agents”, to the dismay of the elders. The O.O. prevented negative energies from overflowing in ancient places. Or, more practically described, they made sure demons wouldn’t break important stuff. The O.O. spent most of their time restoring façades. Demons most hated protective statues on building corners, and stone faces at the tops of entrance archways. They would erode them at every opportunity. And once a sculpture was weak enough, all bets were off.
Occasionally the O.O. would miss a spot, let a demon inside, and then have to spend weeks or months repairing damages. They had just recently finished up such a case in this church, which made Erin all the more careful.
Five years ago, her predecessor had dropped the ball by not checking the gargoyles properly. The result hadn’t looked too bad from the outside, but the southern tower had been completely hollowed out by a Whirlwind Demon. The tower would have fallen soon after, had the creature not crushed itself under the falling Cantabona bell before inflicting any more damage.
Erin arrived at the massive wooden doors and unlocked them with a large skeleton key. This key was one of her most prized possessions, her greatest job perk. She could enter most landmarks worldwide at her whim, when no tourists or even employees were there.
Acoustics worked differently at night. Without the distraction of sunlight shining through the stained glass, she could hear the shuffling of her feet inside the hall much more clearly. Every step returned to her louder – shhk, shhk, SHHK. She coughed; half because her throat itched, half because she was curious about the sound. KAH! The cough mapped out every corner. It helped Erin feel more at home in the space, as if she’d already explored it tonight. No secrets hiding anywhere.
Her eye fell onto a central floor tile in the foyer. A dark, foot-shaped recess, half a centimeter deep. A stubborn reminder that the O.O. could never fully cleanse a sacred place. This was the devil’s footstep: a fun story for tourists by day, an eyesore for Erin and her colleagues by night.
In the fifteenth century, Munich required a new cathedral. An architect had received the commission by promising a construction time of fewer than twenty years. The only way to fulfill this was, ironically, to enlist the devil’s help, in exchange for the architect’s soul.
Through the devil’s supernatural means, the building was completed in record time. When the time came to collect the soul, the devil entered the new building, grinning from ear to ear. But the architect claimed he had done a shoddy job and forgotten the windows! Sure enough, from the place the devil was standing, he saw only stone columns and an altar at the far end of the hall. Angry at his failure, he stomped into the floor, leaving a permanent black mark, and stormed out. Only after the consecration did the devil realize he had been deceived. No longer able to enter the church, he and his followers attacked with a strong wind to try and bring it down. But his own handiwork proved too strong.
This was one of the few cases in which a demon had effectively protected a building from itself. Erin was grateful for the extra help, but she knew the consequences. She needed to be ever watchful of any evil trace within the premises, the largest one being the footstep. Full removal was impossible, like a bad wart. Annual re-consecration of the church was the only way to keep the evil localized. And this year, through no fault of her own, she wasn’t very well prepared.
She produced a small, nearly empty vial from her pocket. A yellowed label identified it as “Myrrh, 1494”, and it emanated a faint olive smell.
The next several minutes were spent walking around the hall, rubbing drops of the oil onto the wood of the chapels, one after the other, until Erin reached the central altar. She tried shaking the last drop from the vial. A small residue ran onto her fingers, but it wasn’t enough to complete the process. Just as she feared.
“I’m surprised it lasted over 500 years, anyway….”, she muttered.
The building groaned, sending an icy shiver down Erin’ back.
The wind outside grew stronger, pounding against the windows, stressing the frames. The ten bells began swinging in the towers, their metal vibrating, close to ringing out.
A tiny piece from the window above the altar gave in. It flew to Erin’ feet and shattered, letting in an otherworldy rush of wind. The air manifested in the center of the hall into a three meter tall, green-scaled goat creature. It cackled and screamed.
Erin regretted picking church duty.
“Fantastic. Why can’t it ever be a small imp, or a leprechaun?”, she whispered.
Before she could think up a plan, the beast took five quick strides toward her and seized her by the collar. She grasped the creatures’ thumbs and scratched and pulled desperately. The hands were just too strong. Erin couldn’t remember any training that was supposed to prepare her for this. The O.O. were a bunch of bureaucrats, not superheroes! She could try citing some regulations?!
Just when she thought the demon was about to squeeze a final time, a disturbing, low creak came from the entrance. The moonlight threw a long, misshapen shadow across the floor. A groan echoed into the hall, followed by sharp clicks. Lumbering slowly toward Erin was a crooked, tattered, hairy, wrinkly…blind old man with a stick.
Seemingly oblivious to the literal hell-creature, the man sat in a pew at the very back of the hall. He took off his heavy, fur-lined jacket, put his head down, hands together, and began to pray silently.
Erin, as well as the demon, paused for a second. They looked at each other, then at the man.
“Get out of here! Run!”, Erin squawked at him through her tightened vocal chords.
The man didn’t budge. He just smiled and continued. A rush of heat hit Erin and the beast in the face. The demon whined and dropped her to the floor. It ran toward the exit, turning to Erin a final time.
The goat-beast let out a roar and stomped its foot down. It unfolded massive leathery wings, swung its claw to create a powerful gust of air, and burst outward through the church doors.
Erin let out a deep breath. Every muscle in her body was going to hurt tomorrow. She wasn’t sure how much of the ordeal the old man had noticed. A surprisingly boyish smile under the man’s thick beard hinted at more than he let on.
“Will you be here for the Christmas service tomorrow?”, Erin asked, not expecting an answer. She was fairly sure the man would be.
Erin helped him up from the pew and they stepped outside into the cold breeze, sinking their shoes into fresh snow. The man thanked Erin with a friendly pat on the shoulder, and walked into the night.
The devil’s footstep was a tiny bit deeper. The wind outside slightly stronger. But Erin had a deep conviction she wouldn’t need to be back next year. Whatever this old man had done, it was going to last a while.