We thought we would be safe in the church. We were wrong.
The icy stone floor dug painfully into my side as I cowered under the pew. My father’s calloused hand cradled the back of my head and pressed my face into the folds of his shirt. The strong scent of sweat and fear leeched from his pores and filled my nostrils. His lips moved against my hair as he spoke.
“Don’t look,” he whispered. “Keep your eyes closed.”
His arms tightened around me. I could hear the thoroughbred pace of his heart in his chest. It thudded against my cheek, pounding like a closed fist punching the inside of his ribs. His breathing was raspy, the sound of a broom sweeping a wooden floor.
A low growl reverberated through the church. The beast drew closer, the click of its claws echoing off the dull granite tiles. The acrid odor of brimstone attacked my senses, along with something else: the smell of rotting meat, of decaying corpses roiling with maggots and flies.
It was the smell of Death.
Ignoring my father’s warning, I edged one eye open. From my position under the pew, I could see along the floor of the church, across the central aisle, and down the opposite side to the base of the altar. Clusters of other parishioners huddled on the floor, just like us. I briefly made eye contact with Mrs. Haverford, an elderly woman I knew best for the fresh bread she baked after Mass on Sundays. Her gnarled hands were clasped to her lips in a prayerful pose. Her eyes were wide with terror.
Suddenly, an enormous black paw thudded to the ground only inches from my face. The paw was far too huge to be that of a dog’s or even a wolf’s. It was as big as a horse’s hoof—maybe bigger—with thick, damp fur the color of burnt wood and curved claws that looked like the sharp, wrought-iron tongs we kept by our fireplace.
With a wet snarl, the beast lowered its head and peered under the pew where we were hiding. It had a wolf-like snout ribboned with scars that marred its matted fur. Its black lips drew back to reveal a mouth full of sharp, yellowed teeth. A massive set of canine fangs protruded from its jaws, both top and bottom. Above its muzzle was a pair of giant ruby-colored eyes that seemed to be lit from within by the fires of Hell.
Another growl, deep and menacing, rumbled in the creature’s throat. Clear tendrils of drool dripped to the floor. Its hot, fetid breath washed across my face.
This is the thing that took the other children, I thought. And now, it has come for me.
Over a dozen children had disappeared from our village in the last few months, ranging in age from five to twelve years old. That included my best friend, Mary, and her sister, Eleanor, both of whom disappeared within a few weeks of each other last summer. The rumor was that they—and all the other children—had been taken by a hellhound, an evil black dog with red eyes that legend said had stalked the East Anglian woods since the 1100s. It was first seen in our village just over a year ago, dragging a small child into the forest as her mother picked wildflowers nearby. Dozens of men armed with weapons and torches swarmed the area looking for the child—and the evil beast that had abducted her—but to no avail. She was never seen again.
Father Joseph came forward as the sole witness to the attack. He said he immediately recognized the beast for what it was: a hellhound, a demon sent by Satan to punish us for our transgressions. We had strayed too far from God, weakening the divide between our world and the next. We had invited evil into our lives. The only way to restore balance was to repent, to atone for our sins. That meant returning to the church, glorifying the Lord with offerings until the collection plates overflowed with our generous bounty.
At first, the adults in the village scoffed at the idea. The child had been taken by a wolf, they thought, or some sort of wild dog. There was no such thing as a red-eyed hellhound sent to steal their kin. But as more children went missing, more people began to believe that Father Joseph might be right. Attendance at his Masses swelled. The church’s coffers did, too.
The parents of the missing children gathered at the church every day to pray. Some of them swore they could hear the children shouting for them, their faint voices calling from just beyond the thin veil that separated our world from the next. They surely were, Father Joseph agreed. The distance between here and the ever-after could be measured crosswise on a human hair. If the Gates of Hell had parted enough to allow the hellhound through, then it might still be possible to bring the children back in the other direction. Only through fervent prayer might they return.
But, despite the parishioners’ devotion, children continued to disappear, one after the other. There didn’t seem to be any pattern. They were boys and girls, younger and older. They disappeared from inside and outside their homes, from fields and forests, during the day and at night. None of their bodies were ever found.
My father had done everything in his power to protect me from the hellhound, confining me to the house most of the time, and keeping me close to his hip whenever we needed to venture out. He had lost my mother to consumption only two years prior. He didn’t want to lose me, too.
Father Joseph, too, had taken a special interest in me. He heard my confession twice a week, asking me about my impure thoughts and seeking to cleanse me of any sin that might attract the beast. But it seemed his efforts had failed. It had found me anyway. I was next.
As the creature’s noxious breath befouled the air around us, my father whispered to me again.
“Stay here. Wait for my sign. When I say so, I want you to run. And don’t look back, understand?”
“What about you?” I said, a solid lump of fear filling my throat.
“Don’t worry about me.” He planted a kiss on my forehead. “I’ll be fine.”
Before I could respond, he pulled his arms away from my body, drew them close to his chest, then barrel-rolled sideways under the pews, toward the front of the church.
“Hey!” he shouted as he moved. “Hey! Over here! This way!”
The creature raised its head, its long, pointed ears tilting upward like a pair of horns. Its scarred nose twitched in the air. Then, with a terrifying roar, it lunged in the direction of my father’s voice, crashing into the pews over his head. The wooden benches collapsed, splintering under the monster’s weight. I lost sight of my father. But I could still hear his voice.
That was the sign. I scooted on my hip out from under the pew and into the center aisle, then scrambled to my feet. The hem of my dress caught on my shoe. I stumbled toward the back of the church, my arms pinwheeling for balance. Behind me, I could hear the enraged growls of the creature as it tore at the pews in search of my father. He continued to distract the beast with breathless taunts. His voice sounded wild, out-of-control.
“Come on! That’s it! Come and get me, you mangy bitch!”
As I sprinted for the exit, a bloodcurdling scream ripped through the air. I slid to a stop. My father had warned me not to look back, but I couldn’t help myself. I turned in time to see the creature dragging him out from under one of the pews, its powerful jaws clamped around his left leg. He kicked against the thing’s muzzle with his free limb, but to no avail. The beast lifted him from the ground, then flung him like a rag doll across the church. His body crashed sideways into a heavy stone pillar. He crumbled to the ground, motionless.
An agonizing cry escaped my lips. The creature’s head whipped around in my direction. It glared at me with its crimson eyes, my father’s blood dripping from its fangs. It took a step toward me, then stopped. Instead of coming closer, it turned and continued down the center aisle toward the altar.
With the creature’s attention focused elsewhere, I ducked down and ran along the back pew to the side of the church. Then, I sprinted to where my father’s body was sprawled, broken and bleeding on the floor. His face was ashen. His eyes were half-open. Blood pulsed from his mangled leg and pooled on the floor around him. I grabbed his shoulder and shook him.
“Papa!” I whispered. Tears streamed down my face. “Papa, wake up!” He didn’t respond.
“No! Get away!” another voice rang out. “In the name of Christ, I compel you!”
It was Father Joseph. From my angle at the side of the church, I could see him crouching behind the altar. He held aloft a gold crucifix that seemed to glow in the flicker of the candlelight. His white vestments pooled around him like a puddle of spilled milk. Moonlight streamed through the stained-glass window behind him, painting the dusty air with a kaleidoscope of colored light.
As the hellhound crept closer, Father Joseph leaped to his feet and fled, sprinting in my direction. The creature jumped at him, crashing into the wooden pulpit and shattering it into pieces. I could hear its jaws snap shut as it grabbed hold of Father Joseph’s flowing robe, jerking him to a stop. The crucifix flew from his fingers and slid across the floor, spinning toward me. It came to rest by my knees.
Without hesitation, Father Joseph twisted away from the beast’s grip and stumbled backward, drawing his body out of the vestments like a snake shedding its skin. He ran past me, striding over the fallen crucifix, then circled behind me. I felt his arms tighten around my ribs as he lifted me off the ground.
“Take her!” he yelled at the creature. “Take the girl!”
I gasped for breath, unable to scream in his crushing embrace. Instead, I thrashed, swinging my elbows into his gut and kicking my heels against his knees. He clutched me even tighter. I felt like my ribs might break.
“Let! Me! Go!” I managed to grunt. I pounded at his hands with my fists.
The beast’s eyes narrowed. Its lips pared back, revealing its fangs. A growl resonated deep in its chest, the sound of distant thunder rolling through the hills. Its muscles tensed as it leaned back, seemingly ready to pounce.
Suddenly, Father Joseph made a strangled sound. He let go of my writhing body, dropping me to the cold stone floor. I landed hard on my side. Something inside my torso snapped like a twig. My senses were flooded with bright-white pain. I cried out, then rolled over. A spiked band of agony tightened around my ribs.
Father Joseph’s face was red. Thick veins bulged from his neck as his lips twisted with incomprehensible curses. His hands reached for his back, where the shaft of the gold crucifix protruded between his shoulder blades. My eyes went wide as I saw who was standing behind him.
It was my father.
His hand was wrapped around the short end of the crucifix, gripping it like the hilt of a sword. He twisted it further into Father Joseph’s spine. Then, he looked down at me. His skin was a ghastly gray color. His lips were blue. He whispered weakly.
His fingers loosened, dropping away from the crucifix as he collapsed in a heap next to me. His eyelids closed.
“Papa!” I yelled. I crawled on my knees over to his body and shook him. “Get up! Please!” I grasped his shirt in my hands and pulled with all my might, drawing his torso up from the floor. His head lolled back, his damp hair dangling like moss hanging from a tree. The weight of his limp body was too much for me. It fell back to the ground, pulling me down on top of him.
As I tumbled, a flash of darkness shot through my peripheral vision. It was accompanied by a rush of hot wind like a blast of fire from the mouth of a furnace. That death-and-brimstone smell overwhelmed my senses, burning my nose and throat with superheated sulfur and ash.
Father Joseph cried out in surprise and pain.
I couldn’t see the attack—the beast had knocked the priest back into the shadows, out of my view—but I could hear it. I could hear Father Joseph’s screams followed by the wet tearing sound of his limbs being ripped from his body. I heard the liquid squelch of his organs spilling from his eviscerated torso. I heard the crunch of his skull as the creature crushed his head between its powerful jaws.
That was enough. I covered my ears, buried my face in my father’s shirt, and waited for death to come. I didn’t bother to run. There was no escape. The creature was too big, too fast. I would never make it out alive. Besides, why would I want to? The only person I loved, the only person I had left, was right here.
My father’s heartbeat was a mere flutter; his breath was a ghost. His chest barely moved under my cheek. He was weak, but he was still alive. With my eyes closed, I reached down and grabbed his limp arm, drawing it up until his hand was on my face. I held it there and waited.
A moment later, a searing gust of heat warmed my face. I squeezed my eyes tighter. I could sense the creature lurking over me like the shadow of death, blocking out whatever light was visible from above. The darkness was absolute. Hot saliva dripped from the beast’s lips, burning like molten glass as it slid down my cheek. I could smell my skin cooking. The creature growled. Sickening waves of dread twisted my stomach like a cloth being wrung out by the river.
I felt the hellhound’s muzzle press into my back. It poked hard—once, then twice—as if checking whether I was still alive. The force was incredible, like being kicked in the back by a mule. It forced the wind from my lungs, again leaving me struggling for breath. The pain in my ribs was unbearable. I moaned in agony, unable to contain the sound.
Suddenly, I was being lifted into the air by the back of my dress. I scrambled to hold onto my father’s body, grasping desperately for his shirt, but the creature was too strong. It easily drew me away, dangling me facedown at least six feet above the floor. As it carried me through the church, I had a memory of the local village stray carrying a puppy that had wandered too far from its litter. The mama dog had grabbed the tiny pup by the scruff of its neck, dangling it above the ground until it was back in its proper place. That’s what it felt like the hellhound was doing with me.
“No,” I said. My voice was thin and weak with fear. “Please. Don’t take me.”
The creature, of course, ignored my pleas. It carried me across the front of the church, past the altar, then turned down the center aisle and headed toward the back of the building. Toward the exit. It was going to steal me, just like it had stolen the other children, taking me beyond the veil, just a hair’s breadth away—audible, yet unreachable—to cry and beg and scream to be saved, suffering along with the others in a pit of eternal damnation.
The beast arrived at the church’s vestibule. A light dusting of snow glided across the floor. Frigid wind from the frozen winter night was spilling through the opening where the doors once had been. The creature had ripped them from their hinges when it tore into the church. The scorched claw marks it left in the heavy wood were still smoldering, trailing thin wisps of white smoke into the freezing air.
The hellhound paused at the threshold as if considering which direction to take me. Steam from its muzzle swirled around me like dragon’s breath, dampening my hair against my forehead. Then, it turned, stepped back into the church, and lowered me to the ground. Its ears stood up. It was listening. Alert. Its nose twitched as it sniffed the air, then the floor. I lay there motionless, afraid to move a muscle for fear that the creature would tear me limb from limb. I clenched my eyes shut and waited for death to take me.
It never did.
Instead, the beast nudged me again, softer this time. When I didn’t respond, it pressed its muzzle under my body and gently lifted, rolling me over onto my back. The pain in my ribs was excruciating, but I managed to remain silent. The creature sniffed my face, then stepped back.
I eased my eyes open. The beast was sitting in front of me. Its posture was relaxed, unthreatening. It seemed to be… waiting. Waiting for what, I didn’t know, but I had the sense it was expecting me to do something.
“What do you want?” I said quietly.
The thing reared back a little, lifting its front paws off the ground, then dropping them heavily on the floor. Unlike the stone floor in the main chapel, the floor of the vestibule was made of wood. The impact of the thing’s paws made a hollow sound. The floorboards seemed to bounce a bit under me.
“I’m sorry, I-I don’t—”
The thing reared back again, driving its paws into the floor. The hollow thump was louder this time. The beast stood and smelled the ground in front of me. It pawed at the wood, then stepped backward. Its massive claws left some deep, charred gouges on the surface. A whine squealed in its throat like a rusty gate. It seemed to be trying to draw my attention to something.
I looked at where the claw marks scarred the wood. There, embedded in one of the boards, was a small metal ring. That’s when I realized: it wasn’t a floor I was sitting on. It was a door. A trapdoor. Sure enough, when I looked around me, I could see the edges of the opening cleverly concealed in the natural lines of the floorboards. I had walked over that spot a hundred times over the years and had never noticed that it was anything other than a normal, solid floor. Neither had anyone else.
The creature backed away, making room for me as I crawled on my hands and knees off the door and over to the metal ring. I slipped my fingers into the shallow depression under the ring, then hooked my fingers through it. Pulling with all my strength, I drew the heavy trapdoor upward, flipping it fully open. It fell back on its hinges with a screech and a crash, the resultant puff of displaced air sending eddies of dust and loose snow swirling around the room.
The opening under the trap door was a featureless black square. The candles in the vestibule had been extinguished by the wind, leaving only the dim light of the moon to cut through the darkness. It barely penetrated a few inches into the shadows below. The only thing visible was the top of a single wooden step leading down into the void. I heard sounds, though, rustling and scraping. And breathing. Something in the dark was breathing.
“Hello?” I spoke. My voice was shaking. I took a step away from the opening. I didn’t want to be too close to whatever was down there.
Stairs creaked as a figure slowly rose from the darkness. A small, pale hand clasped the top step. Its fingernails were torn and raw; its skin was caked with dirt and dried blood. Next, a gaunt, skeletal face emerged from the dark. Its flesh was nearly black with dust. Its filthy hair hung in matted clumps. Its dull brown eyes were sunken into the hollows of its skull. Its lips were cracked and bloody.
“Judith?” the face said.
My heart stuttered in my chest. I didn’t recognize the face, but I recognized the voice. It was Mary, my best friend, the one who had gone missing the summer before. Climbing the steps behind her was Eleanor, her sister. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I could see other faces peering up from the basement below. Children’s faces. Faces that hadn’t been seen in months. Faces that had disappeared from the village. They were pallid and drawn, but they were alive.
“How did you find us?” Mary asked, eyes glistening in the moonlight.
“Did you hear us calling?” Eleanor added. Her voice was hoarse and raw.
I hadn’t. But I knew what had.
The black dog. It wasn’t a hellhound. It was a grim. Legend said that every church had one, a ghostly black canine from the otherworld that prowled the churchyard to protect its inhabitants from evil. I thought it was just a myth. A folktale. I didn’t think it was real.
My mother used to tell me stories about the churchyard grim before she passed. She’d sit on the edge of my bed, stroking my hair with her warm hand as I drifted off to sleep, spinning yarns about the hulking black dog that watched over her when she was a girl. She told me about the time it had pulled her from the river, saving her from drowning after she slipped and fell into the fast-moving waters. And about the time it had chased off a lecherous old man who had been following her as she walked home from church, breathing obscenities that she was too young to comprehend at the time. She told me about its smell, like wet ash after a summer storm, and about the wiry texture of its tar-black fur, and about the way its eyes seemed to smolder like embers in the night. She told me that the grim would be watching over me, too. I may never see it, she said, but if I ever needed it, it would be there.
I realized then that the grim hadn’t come for me. Not really. It had come for Father Joseph, to stop him from doing to me whatever he had done to the other children who had disappeared. When it picked me up, it wasn’t stealing me. It was carrying me to safety. It must have heard the cries of the others under the floor—cries virtually inaudible to human ears—so it stopped to help them as well.
I turned to look at the grim, expecting to see its hulking shape still behind me, its fiery red eyes blazing in the darkness. Four burnt paw prints were seared into the wood where it had been standing, smoke still rising from the charred floorboards.
But the grim was gone.
“Judith, run!” a girl’s voice shouted.
I squealed and sprinted away from my hiding spot behind the woodpile just as Mary appeared around the corner of the house. She chased after me, her braids flipping behind her in the wind. She was fast, much faster than I was. Her fingertips grazed my shoulder.
“Gotcha!” she yelled.
I tumbled to the grass, then rolled to stop. Mary collapsed in a heap beside me. She flipped onto her back. We both stared up at the soft pink sky, gasping for breath and giggling hysterically.
“You’re… the slowest person… in the world,” she panted. That sent us both into fresh peals of laughter.
Eleanor appeared above us, her small form casting a long shadow across our faces. Mary slapped her playfully on the calf.
“You weren’t supposed to tell her I was coming,” she chided. “That’s cheating.”
Eleanor shrugged. “Game’s over, anyway. Mother said it’s time for supper.”
“Already?” Mary groaned and climbed to her feet. She looked at the sun setting on the horizon. “It’s getting dark,” she said to Eleanor. “Come on.” She reached down and extended a hand to help me up. “We’ll walk you home.”
“No, that’s okay,” I said, dusting the grass and dirt from my filthy knees. “I can go myself.”
Mary and Eleanor shared a skeptical look.
“Are you sure?” Mary said. “We’re not supposed to go anywhere alone anymore.”
“Especially at night,” Eleanor added. “Won’t your father be worried?”
I glanced at the trees lining the road. The forest was already dark. Set back deep in the shadows, a pair of glowing red eyes cast a dim glow on the underbrush. The grim was waiting. Watching. I smiled, then turned back to my friends.
“It’s okay,” I said. “I’m sure I’ll be fine.”
Then I headed toward home, with the smell of woodsmoke riding the breeze behind me.