The next couple of days and nights were uneventful, yet Joel, once again transformed, remained vigilant. He reasoned within himself that, were anything else to happen, it would have to be soon. On the third day of travel, halfway between Jericho and Bethlehem, Joel’s instincts proved true.
Joel, holding his staff out beside him, kept to the clouds as he kept watch over his charges. One moment, he was enjoying the warmth of the sun on his face, and in the next moment, he felt the shock of something slamming into his back. He was so unprepared for such an attack that he lost his grip on his staff and began to plummet toward the ground below. When he hit the ground less than a mile from where the couple had stopped to rest, rocks were pulverized instantly into dust, and the earth beneath him gave way, leaving him unable to land on solid ground until he was four feet down. He barely had time to recover his wits and realize that, despite everything, he wasn’t badly hurt when a hand reached down and jerked him from the hole.
“Get up, boy.”
The voice was guttural, and Joel could smell the stench of brimstone with every word. The shape of the being was not human, but with the sun behind his attacker, he wasn’t able to clearly see the creature until it tossed him aside.
No nightmare he had ever experienced could have prepared him for the monstrosity standing before him. The face bore some vague resemblance to that of a man, though one distorted by rage and maliciousness. Lidless eyes watched his every move. Joel could almost see the blood pulsing through the many veins, rushing toward black irises and plunging into crimson pupils. Two slits where its nose should have been opened and closed, though he suspected the creature didn’t need to breathe. An oversized mouth filled with rows of teeth opened, and spittle dripped off its bottom lip, puffs of steam sizzling when it hit the ground. The face seemed to cover invisible bone like some horrible mask, ending where the monster’s ears should be. As large as the neck of a gourd, two deathly white maggots writhed and squirmed, eternally burrowing into the thing’s temples.
The creature had no true neck for the headless face to rest upon. It was connected to the rest of the body by a thorny spine that extended two feet above its shoulders. At the apex, it curved downward where it attached to the face in the center of its forehead. Its body was muscular and mostly covered in what appeared to be ashen-gray petrified tree bark. The few areas of the body not covered revealed the corded muscle beneath. Faster than any animal Joel had ever see, the monster’s hand shot out and grabbed his head. Long six-jointed fingers burned where they made contact with his skin, and thick claws of petrified thorns dug into the back of his neck.
“We are well away from those you seek to protect,” the thing said. “I shall make your death loud and excruciating, and then I shall kill your charges. Even in death you will hear their screams. I shall slice the whelp from her belly and dine upon its tender flesh.”
Joel knew the fiend was trying to goad him into doing something foolish, so he decided, against the wisdom of Mordecai, to do just that.
The lightning struck, transforming him back into a boy and knocking the demon to the ground. Suddenly smaller, Joel slipped from his foe’s grasp as it was thrown back. In the briefest of instances, the boy saw the monster’s wings of rotted, poison leaves smoldering. Taking advantage of the creature’s predicament, Joel dived at him, shouting the old man’s name once again.
The monster was climbing to its root-like feet when the transformed Shepherd hit him. Driving his shoulder into the demon’s chest, the combatants were once again on the ground, this time locked in a battle to the death. There was a snap as one of the thing’s wings broke and hung dangling from its back. Fueled more by outrage than injury, the demon brought a knee up and drove it into Joel’s gut. In addition to the impact, he also felt the bite of a thorn being driven into his stomach. The wisdom of Mordecai recommended he withdraw and check his wound, but the strength of Samson demanded he hit harder; the youth chose strength, and Joel struck as hard as he could. There was a crunch of bone being shattered in the demon’s face, and several teeth fell out, each one biting into his flesh as they touched him.
“You will pay for that, boy!” the creature roared.
The two rolled away from each other and stood. The fiend grabbed his chin and pulled it back into place, while a few feet away, Joel began pulling the teeth from his arms and chest.
“I am not afraid of you,” Joel said, noticing that his words seemed to irritate the maggots almost as much as they did the demon.
“You fear me, boy. You are just too stupid to realize it.”
Joel ignored the taunt. “I pity you,” he said. “All you have is your hatred.”
The demon roared and attacked. “And that hatred is now inside of you,” it said, throwing everything it had at its enemy.
Joel sensed the truth in its words. He grabbed one of the demon’s outstretched arms and stepped to the opposite side.
With his balance thrown off so unexpectedly, the demon tried to shift his weight to keep from falling again. Too late, he realized that his move would put the Shepherd behind him.
It must have been the thorn, Joel thought. It must have been how he spread his hatred into me.
Before the demon could slow his momentum, Joel grabbed the section of spine that connected the face to the rest of the body. Pushed by the hatred now filling his mind, he strained with all the strength he could muster, but the spine would not snap.
Using his good wing, the demon tried to swat Joel away. His efforts were as useless as Joel’s.
The voice was barely louder than a whisper, and the demon seemed to take no notice of it. Joel, on the other hand, ceased trying to break his foe’s neck, though he did not relinquish his hold.
“Remember what the old man said.”
Joel tried to focus on the voice. It sounded strange hearing it, because it sounded unlike the one he heard when he spoke in this form, but he could not deny knowing its origin. It was that of his younger self.
“What words?” he whispered.
The demon struggled to break free. Too late, he realized that the hatred he had infected his foe with was preventing him from attaining victory.
“The sources of your power,” Joel’s younger self said. “They are the key to the demon’s defeat.”
The Shepherd began to think on these things. Samson’s strength was helping him fight the demon, and though he was holding him, he was far from beating him. He had remained faithful to his mission as the prophet Zechariah had done centuries before. Asa’s dedication to seeing Israel return to God was no greater than his dedication to see the couple safely to their destination. Mordecai’s wisdom had guided him on his journey from the start. Had he shown the generosity of Araunah or the forgiveness of Hosea? At the mention of the final two, he realized that they were among the most powerful of his gifts. He knew what he had to do to win this fight.
With a speed that surprised even himself, Joel released the demon’s neck and grabbed the maggots. Pushing his strength to its limits, he pulled with everything in him. “You put this hatred in me,” he said through gritted teeth. “You tried to take my joy and cause me to fail in my task. You tried to kill me.”
The demon struggled even more to break free, its own voice screaming out in pain.
With one final burst of strength, the Shepherd pulled the maggots free and, with a shout, exclaimed, “But I forgive you!”
He was not prepared for what happened next. The maggots immediately became dried husks that crumbled and blew away with the wind, while his foe began to change.
The nightmarish monster became a boy roughly Joel’s age. His skin was ruddy, and his hair dark. He wore the rags of one less fortunate than Joel, and on a thin rope hanging from his neck, he carried a small drum. Looking up at Joel, the boy had tears in his eyes and a grateful smile on his face. “Thank you,” he choked out as he wrapped his arms around the Shepherd’s waist.
Joel gently push him back. “How did you become that monster?” he asked.
The boy fought back tears. “It was a bad dream,” the boy began. “A strange man in black robes came to me in my dreams. He kept offering me things, things I didn’t want, things that I knew weren’t good. He told me that all I had to do was complete a task for him, and these things would be mine. I kept refusing, so he got mad and told me that if I wouldn’t help him willingly, he would take what he wanted. I hated him for what he did to me, and he made me share that hatred. You saved me.”
“Where are you from?” Joel asked. “Where is your family? I’ll bet they are worried about you.”
“I have no family,” the boy said, sobbing.
Joel was silent for a second, then spoke. “Shazam.”
Boy to boy, the two now faced each other. Joel could see the surprise on his counterpart’s face. “Would you like a family?” he asked.
“Really?” the boy asked in return. “I want one more than anything. That’s the one thing the man in my dreams couldn’t offer me.”
“I have a mission to complete,” Joel said. “Once I am done, you can go home with me. I’m sure my parents would love another son.”
“That would be… wonderful,” the boy said. “My name is Aaron.”
The two new brothers hugged.
Arm in arm, the two boys began walking back toward the main road. Something told Joel that he wouldn’t need to transform again.