12 March 2006
“So this thing we’re doing, we’re expected to dress in new clothes for it?” Akshainie asked as we made our way down the street. She was in a dress we had just bought the night before, with some flats and a purse. I had made a point of picking out a nice outfit that wasn’t part of my priestly attire.
“No. But wearing nice clothes is common, and you insisted on buying things for utility when we got your initial outfits.”
“Do you think I look nice today?” It was a very flattering dress. It had been something of a fight to find one that she would be willing to wear that I felt was also appropriate, and this one was something of a compromise. Seeing her move in it now, I felt like she gained somewhat more of what she wanted out of the deal than I did.
“Of course. There will be a lot of moving around, mostly between standing and sitting and kneeling. And there’s going to be a bit we call the Eucharist, this is technically only for—”
“We went over all of this last night, Benedict. I think I can make sense of it.” I sighed as we stopped near the steps leading up to the church to let a pair of older ladies pass.
“I just…I haven’t really taken many guests to Mass before. Usually I was either busy or surrounded by people who I didn’t know.”
“Is that why this is important to you?” I adjusted my tie.
“I want you to know what I’m fighting for.” She looked at a couple walking into the building, then put her arm around mine to mimic them. I looked down at her arm, then back to her face, and she smiled.
“Well then. Let’s go blend in.”
7 March 2006
I had called 911 and told them about the collapsed building as soon as we found a payphone, but when they wanted me to keep talking to them I let the phone hang off the hook. We slipped into the spiritual realm together, now that we could, and made our way back to the site and watched as emergency services arrived and began searching for people. When Akshainie determined the number of broken bodies being pulled out was getting to me too much, we left. I don’t remember much of the walk away. I don’t remember much of that night, mostly just the feeling of her stroking my hair as I fell asleep.
Now here we were, standing in front of a two-story house on a small side road, on the corner of a broken alley. The house was grey, or at least had been made grey by the elements and age, the paint peeling off the porch and various parts of the walls. The fence running along the edge of they alley was rusted, and the grass under it was longer than the neighbors kept theirs. The neighbors were so close. I always thought American homes had more space between them. I stared at it for a long time.
“Are you okay?” Akshainie asked.
“I…I don’t think I expected it to look like this.”
“Are you telling me you’ve been this man’s friend for decades, and you’ve never seen his house?”
“It hasn’t been that kind of friendship.” She huffed. I wondered if maybe it should have been. “Well, come on, then.” We walked up the stone stairs set into the small hill of the front yard, if it could be called a yard, and then onto the porch, where we could hear music coming from inside. There was no doorbell, so I just knocked on the solid wooden door loudly. After a moment I heard a faint shuffling, then the door opened to reveal Henry. He smiled and stepped back, urging us to come in.
The room was much better than the exterior. There was a recliner that looked fairly worn, but otherwise the couch was nice and the hardwood floors were beautiful. The television was off, sitting in a cabinet next to a component stereo system the likes of which I hadn’t seen in probably twenty years. This had a record going, which he turned down as we entered and I later learned was by an artist named Lionel Richie. He waved us toward the couch, then sat down in the recliner.
“What brings you guys here?” he asked, reaching for his glass of water on the end table next to his chair.
“A couple things, really,” I said. I cleared my throat. “So, for one, we met your son.”
“Yeah, he mentioned that. Hell of a night you guys had. I said he should’ve got more money out of those friends of his.”
“Did he mention telling us about your condition?” He paused, then set his glass back down.
“No. No, he didn’t.”
“Don’t. I appreciate the visit, but I sure as hell don’t need reminding what I got.”
“Right. I just, I guess I wanted to check on you.”
“You said there were a few things?” I looked to Akshainie, who pulled the folded map out of her bag and walked over to hand it to him. He began opening it as I continued.
“We found a site the Brood had managed to occupy. They took everyone, Henry. Kept them in some kind of stasis, or death, or something. I don’t know, we weren’t…we didn’t manage to save them. But the whole place had a lot of weirdness to it, and I can’t help but think we’d know a lot more if we could read the symbols on this map.”
“I think you’re right about that,” he muttered, looking it over. “Come with me.” We followed as he made his way into the kitchen, then down the stairs into the basement. This was his library, walls covered in books on shelves, a large table, and assorted smaller ones next to armchairs. He laid out the map on the large table, then went to the shelves and pulled out a couple books before returning. “Let’s see what we have here.” He started talking to himself softly, never quite finishing his sentences, as he ran his fingers over each symbol. He would occasionally pause over one, flip through a book until he found something that apparently satisfied him, and then continue on.
“I thought maybe this was familiar,” I said, pointing at one symbol that I remembered from an alchemy text I’d skimmed through once, “but I don’t know if position means anything.”
“It does,” he said, looking at the symbol over the rim of his glasses.
“So, being here at, what, about five o’clock, that—”
“Wrong,” he snapped. He reached across the table and pointed to a different symbol. “This is your key mark. The structure is aligned to the south, not the north.”
“Now let me finish this before you tell me any other theories.” He continued as I looked to Akshainie, who was beaming. I couldn’t tell if she really enjoyed the things he said, or just the way he was saying them to me. I turned my attention back to the table and waited for Henry to finish. When he finally did, he sat down in one of the chairs and swore.
“What? What is it?” He grumbled and stood back up, making his way past us to a cabinet on the wall, which he opened to reveal a small collection of glasses and liquors.
“You guys want something to drink?”
“I’ll take whatever you’re making,” Akshainie answered. He nodded.
“No, thank you.” He poured two glasses of whiskey on ice, handed one to Akshainie, then returned to his chair before knocking back about half of it.
“Bastards figured out how to do what Johnny does.”
“What?” I walked around the table and sat in the chair closest to him. Akshainie took a careful sip of her drink, nodded, then made her way to another chair near her.
“Look, this…thing they did, in that town. It breaks magic, like my son does. And it does more than that. More than I’ve ever been certain he could do, but now I’m not so sure.”
“Can you walk me through it a bit?” He waved his hand as if trying to form a thought in the air.
“It’s…okay, look. What did you guys experience while you were there?”
“I couldn’t cross over,” Akshainie said, “burned like hell when I tried.”
“Yeah, and neither of us could access anything that wasn’t normally human,” I added. Henry was nodding the whole time. “And there was a strange truck tracking me, but didn’t seem to notice her as much.”
“That’d be the enforcer they used, then,” he said. “John, he doesn’t really break magic. It’s easier to say he does, but that’s not quite what an Anchor does. It’d be more accurate to say that he enforces a certain set of rules on reality.” Akshainie growled slightly, downing the rest of her drink and then sternly making her way to the cabinet to pour another. Henry either didn’t notice or didn’t care. “The metaphysical realm doesn’t really make its own rules. It has rules, near as I can tell, but they’re ultimately decided by the way sapient physical creatures understand and imagine it. Somehow. I don’t understand exactly how that works, I don’t think anyone does, but it’s the best explanation we got. But the rules that keep all the physical stuff here and all the metaphysical stuff there don’t just exist. They’re maintained, passively by all of us, and actively by Anchors.”
“I don’t see how that means he doesn’t anything more than break magic.”
“Normally, it doesn’t. But that,” he said, pointing at the map, “does. And it uses a power very like his to do it.”
“So what does it do?”
“I redefines an area of spiritual reality,” Akshainie said, her hands balled into fists and her back to us. “It takes a place and it cuts it off, and then it gives it a new set of rules, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah, it does.” Henry stood, setting his glass down. “Have you seen this before?”
“Once. But not like this.”
“Well, whoever did it, if they were powerful enough—or had enough raw magical energy to manipulate, like from a town’s population of captured minds—could basically make the rules in that bubble be whatever they want them to be. It’s to be expected that bubbles made by different people would look different in practice.”
“So they were making a pocket of reality that was different? Why?” I asked.
“It’s the Brood, Benedict. This was a practice run, and it probably wasn’t the only one. But that town, by your description and what I’m seeing here, would be completely cut off from the greater spiritual reality of the world. Remade in their image. Devoid of gods and spirits, completely sanitized.”
“Is this their big plan? To do this, what, to the world?”
“We have to consider that possibility. And with what I heard about them trapping and drawing power from dread gods, they may be well on their way to having the power to pull it off.” I stood and Akshainie turned to face us. “You guys need to find out if they have more of these gods, and if so, to break that flow of power. Any way you can. If this is where they’re going with this, they can’t be allowed even another chance to try it.” His hand was shaking, and I considered asking if he was okay, but decided he wouldn’t want me to.
“Of course. Is there anything you can give us to help us find these things?” He nodded, then turned back to the shelves. It took him a minute to dig around, but he finally pulled out a book and set it on the table.
“Did you ever get that Book of Shadows?” I nodded. “Good. That will get you far, but this,” he said, resting his hand on the worn leather cover, “this is basically an index for it. You can find out what you’re looking for with this, and hopefully where it is with your book. Won’t be perfect, things change over the span of a hundred years, but you ought to get some positive hits off it.” We thanked him, accepted the book, and wished him well. He walked us to the door, waved goodbye, and returned to his music as we slipped off down the street.
“They were still alive, Akshainie,” I said. I dropped to my knees and faintly heard the map fall into the street beside me.
“You don’t know that.”
“They had to be. There was no reason otherwise.”
“Well, okay, do you know a reason they would have been kept alive?” I stared in silence for a little while, then closed my eyes and shook my head. “Then you don’t know. It isn’t your fault, you did everything you could for them.”
“No,” I said, wiping a tear from my cheek and standing, “Not yet, I haven’t.” As the dust began to settle, I walked to the very edge of the crater and looked down at the rubble. I couldn’t sense anything. I couldn’t hear anything, I couldn’t see any movement and had no good way to get down there to try and dig anyone out even if I did. I knew, deep in the pit of my stomach, that there was no one alive down there. I watched and listened, tried to reach my spiritual senses out to touch any minds or emotions or anything. I found only silence and wreckage. So, I set myself to the task of reading last rites over the site. May these tortured souls finally know peace. When I turned around after completing that, Akshainie had the map unrolled and was looking it over.
“What is this?” she asked.
“A map of this town, looks like.”
“Well I know that, English. What are the markings?”
“Still not English.”
“Still acting like an ass.” I sighed and started walking over to her.
“I don’t know what the markings are. Seems like a spell of some sort, probably whatever they were trying to accomplish here, but I don’t know how to make out what it means.”
“Know anyone who might?” I slipped my hands into my pockets and looked down.
“Yeah,” I said, softly. “I’ve been meaning to talk to him, anyway.”
On my way to Akshainie, I felt something begin to change in me. I couldn’t quite place the feeling, but I suspected I knew what it was; and when I found myself standing in front of the building identified by the ghosts, I confirmed it by igniting the blade of the sword I carried. I smiled, took a deep breath, and stormed through the door.
The outside of the building looked like a repurposed fire station, presumably the large bay door was where the truck rested when it wasn’t active. Inside the door beside it, however, I found a single large room with a sloped concrete floor running into a tunnel large enough to house the truck. I made my way down the slope, and hadn’t gotten far before I heard the sounds of a fight. I began to run, and when the tunnel finally opened it was to a massive chamber. In the center of that chamber was a man, his arm sheathed in dark energy, his eyes serpentine, trying to shield himself against Akshainie. She was lunging at him from across the room, having regained her full naga form, the shreds that must have been her trousers on the floor near me and far too much of her torso exposed through the slashes and tears in her shirt. I yelled to her as she made contact and was thrown back across the room, sliding to a stop about ten meters away from me. She glared over to me, and I threw her the sword before shielding my eyes.
“The people!” she cried. I looked around, trying to avoid looking directly at her, and it was only in averting my eyes up that I saw them. Pods embedded in the high ceiling, each containing a human being, asleep or dead or something else I dared not imagine. Dear God, there were hundreds of them. Must have been everyone that went missing, everyone that was still alive in this town when the dread work was completed. They must have been alive, I reasoned as I heard the fighting continue, because there’d be no reason to keep them otherwise. But if they were alive, then I needed to find a reason for that, which I hoped would be somewhere near the means to keep them alive. I followed the pipes and wires until I found a rusty electric console against the wall. Words of power were being shouted, there was the clang of steel and explosions echoing through the room, a bit of water splashed against the floor in front of me, as I ran to the console.
The knobs and buttons had no labels, and the few labels that were on the dials were so worn I could barely make them out. I searched the console for some idea on how to free the people safely, but I couldn’t find anything until I stumbled on a map. I unrolled it on the console and looked over the places they had marked, the circle over the town, the way everything was arranged. It was a spell, that much I knew, but they didn’t exactly teach us how to work with or read magic in seminary. The only person I knew I could trust, who I was certain could read this, was apparently dying of cancer across the state line. I should have visited Henry before we dove into this. I considered it of course, but this just seemed so pressing. I think I just wasn’t ready. Wasn’t ready to see someone like Henry in such a state, and then what, dive into this mess, dealing with whatever he said to me? Maybe I made the wrong call. Maybe I really should have. Would that make a difference?
“Do something!” Akshainie hissed, slithering in a wide arc past me at a much higher speed than I realized she could move. I cleared my throat, turned to look in the direction she was going now that I was certain her back was to me, and threw a fireball at the man. He tried to bat it away, and mostly succeeded, but the bit of fire that clung and the distraction was enough of an opening for Akshainie to drive a sword through him. I could learn a thing about focus and combat from that woman. Maybe I underestimated the value of her lessons when we were at Yggdrasil. I turned back to the console, rolled up the map, and tucked it under my arm as the screaming and fighting began to die down. I searched the sea of controls again, found something that looked important, and debated whether or not to press it. I saw the shadow of Akshainie approaching, and paused.
“I don’t know how to free them,” I confessed when I felt her presence close to me. She sighed, then rested her hand on my shoulder.
“Do the best you can.”
“What if I’m wrong?”
“Then you’ll still be a good man who did his best.” I took a deep breath, offered a quick prayer, and just as I went to reach for the button the ground shook. I turned to look at Akshainie only to realize that on her tail her bust was right about the level of my face, and I quickly turned back. I pulled off my outer shirt and offered it to her. “What’s this for?” she asked.
“Modesty.” She groaned and snatched the shirt out of my hand. The ground shook again and I looked at her, hoping she had an answer for the shaking. But she was looking away, back to the body of the man, which was now beginning to sink into the floor as it cracked around him. She turned back to me.
“If you have any ideas, now’s the time!” I turned back and pressed the button. The system shuddered, the dials all dropped to their lowest readings, and the pods above us began to move. We both turned to watch them, but then the ground cracked under us. We jumped away and tried to make our way toward the door, when I saw the cracks continue up the walls.
“No,” I pleaded softly, “no, please!” The ceiling began to break apart, and I screamed as a couple pods broke free and fell, crashing into the ground. I went to run forward, to try and help someone, anyone, but before I could move I felt Akshainie’s arms around me and then we were gone, flying up the slope, the tunnel cracking and collapsing behind us. We burst out into the early morning sunlight and she held me back as I cried out, watching the building sink into a growing crater.
Evidence compiled for use during the trial of Father Benedict de Monte.