9 October 1997
In retrospect, I don't know what we really expected to happen.
We had talked about the investigation of the site as though violence would be a last resort, only used if absolutely necessary. The stated goal had been investigation and, if possible, capture. Bring the Barzai to justice for his murders, let the police crack down on the rest of the organization. The Church had learned long ago that we needed to limit the amount of direct justice we carried out; its why my organization was no longer referred to as an inquisition. But I had also made clear to Tadzio that this was a dangerous force, and I had been sent specifically because I was capable of meeting the violence they could pour out. I had described it as a war, I had prepared for battle, I had let my anger at the Barzai and his little band of murderous zealots and the clergy that fed their cause show and had never sought to temper it. And this was why, when I saw the flash of Tadzio's blade in the candlelight and time seemed to slow to a crawl, I knew I had done this. Every soul that died in this place today was, to some degree, my responsibility. Even the very existence, and therefore the actions, of the Barzai were driven at least partly by my own actions years ago.
I wanted to hate them. I wanted to view them as inferior, as foolish lost souls that bought into lies and had no real chance at redemption. I could see the hate in their eyes, and I knew that no mortal would find my rage against them unjust. They sought to destroy the good in humanity, to tear down every institution that had build society, to burn and kill and rampage until the Earth was reduced to a ruin, and they believed fully that this would be the only true freedom for mankind. They were everything I stood against in this world, and they wanted nothing more in this moment to kill us both and carry on their dread work unhindered.
"You must never forget this, Bene," Father had told me, as I stood in the doorway to leave for seminary. His hands were on my shoulders, his eyes barely holding back tears. "The people that you serve, the souls you shepherd, every one of them has a chance. Every one of them is doing the best they can with what they have and what they know."
The Barzai was charging forward. Tadzio's sword was fully drawn and he was moving forward, flowing like water, hundreds of years of training showing in the smallest movement of every muscle. The small crowd of cultists were drawing knives and moving in.
"If there is hope for you, there is hope for them," Father said, "there is hope for us all." I knew he was right. I knew where my kind stood in the order of things. If there was a redemption offered for me...
I held out my arms. Fire is easy, but this, I had never tried this. I needed to get it just right and didn't have much time to experiment. I exhaled sharply, cleared my mind, focused on every bit of heat in the room. In an arc around Tadzio and I, the air rapidly began to cool as I drew the heat into myself. Let it build. Add to it. Act fast. Don't let it spark.
How foolish I was to lose sight of that. Father was old, dying, battling delusions and a loss of memory. He told me in his final days that he would carry his sin to the grave, but I knew he was wrong. I should have known he was wrong, instead of wondering, dwelling, letting myself believe that maybe all of this was for nothing. Maybe there was, in the end, no hope for him, or for me. I forgot what it meant to receive forgiveness. I let myself believe in judgment so much more strongly than redemption that I had killed a man of the cloth in my rage and now stood poised to slaughter an entire room. But I knew better.
As I reheated that air well above room temperature, there was an audible crack that echoed through the room. The rapidly expanding air sent Tadzio and the cultists flying backward. They were injured, all of them, but they'd live long enough to get medical help. Tadzio was going to be furious.
I snapped my eyes open as the Barzai, undeterred by the blast, threw himself forward and drove me into the stone floor. I used the momentum and threw him back off of me into the wall, and rolled over onto my knees. He crashed to the ground and slithered back to his feet, his body moving unnaturally like a snake's without fully changing form. We each lunged forward and went on the attack. Fists flying, occasionally making contact with ribs, occasionally being deflected. He was fast, angry, and driven to kill, and soon I was finding myself on the defensive more often than not. He was trying to draw my attacks away to get a bite in, and I had to occasionally fend him off with a blast of fire when my hands were occupied. I couldn't get to my gun, despite a part of me screaming in my mind that I needed to. Was capture even a realistic goal here? Could the Barzai ever be stopped while he still lived?
I finally managed to get a hold of him and throw him off me. I reached down for my gun, but before I could grab it, Tadzio's sword plunged into the Barzai's side. He screamed and stumbled backward, and I glanced over to see Tadzio standing where he had fallen from the blast. His left arm was hanging limp and his head was bleeding, but his right arm was apparently still in a suitable condition to throw. It was only then I managed to notice the cultists, moaning on the floor, a couple trying to roll over. I stormed forward and pulled the sword from the Barzai's body, causing him to scream again. Putting the sword to his throat, I pushed him back against the wall.
"It's over. Come with me," I said. He laughed.
"Oh, Father. Next time you underestimate me like that, you'll surely die!" He snapped his fingers and became a mist that suddenly vanished into itself. I fell forward and caught myself against the wall, before spinning around to survey the room. Tadzio was limping toward me.
"Well, that didn't go as planned," he said, reaching out for his sword. I returned it to him as soon as he was close enough.
"The plan was...revised," I answered.
"I noticed. We need to have a chat about that, but first," he turned and pointed at the cultists with his sword, "we need to decide what happens with them."
"Don't worry, I know exactly what to do. But first, we need to leave." He stared at me for a moment, then sighed and put his sword away.
9 October 1997
"I can't believe you killed a bishop," Tadzio whispered in German as we were laying in the woods, watching the cult site through binoculars.
"It wasn't on purpose."
"But do you regret it?" There was a long pause, then I lowered the binoculars and rolled onto my back to check my gun.
"I'm surprised you care, given your distaste for the Church."
"They tried to kill me, Bene! Repeatedly, for years!"
"It was an inquisition and you were literally under the constant influence of demonic power."
"Yeah, well, torture still sours the relationship. But you're dodging the question."
"I don't want to talk about it. You ready?" Tadzio smiled as if he was certain he'd won some argument, then put his binoculars away.
"Lead the way, inquisitor," he said, resting his hand on the hilt of his sword.
The ground floor of the building was dark and damp, having sat undisturbed in the humid air for decades. The rusted frames of hospital beds, broken glass, bits of fallen plaster, and the occasional bit of graffiti or pile of beer bottles and cigarette butts were the only markers still available to trace our path. Occasional holes in the ceiling gave us glimpses that the upper floors were no better, but the floor beneath our feet was as solid as it was filthy. It was probably not enough to tip off the local youth that something was amiss about the location, but Tadzio and I recognized it as evidence that someone was maintaining the lower levels and keeping them hidden from sight. The trick was finding how they got down there.
We scoured the entire ground floor; though we were sure from observation that the cult members who frequent the site used a hidden exterior entrance directly to the basement, we suspected there was still a method for reaching the lower levels from the main structure. If we could find such an entrance, especially a forgotten entrance, we could hopefully catch the people below by surprise. When we found nothing, we debated trying to find the main entrance, but ended up deciding to check the other floors just to be safe before we took that step.
It was on the second floor, in what appeared to have been an administrator's office, that we had our discovery. One desk was attached to the floor and couldn't be moved, and under it we found a secret switch. On activating it, we watched a rusty and likely forgotten part of the wall hesitantly open to reveal a door marked with the red spiral of the Brood of Nachash. We had our entrance.
The elevator that used to connect the office to the subbasement appeared inoperable at a glance, so rather than poke at it and risk alerting the people below, we took to climbing. That much worked, and when we arrived at our destination no one was waiting for us. We agreed on a search pattern, and I stepped into the spiritual realm to take my path as he turned away to find his. As a spirit, I slipped past about a dozen people milling about or praying to their dread gods. In one room I found an assortment of weapons and explosives, with a handful of maps marked with targets. Being that I was alone in the room, I went physical again to gather the maps for future reference and rest my hand on the hinges and latch until they melted. Once the metal hardened behind me, no one was getting in there without magic or running the risk of blowing the whole place. I hoped it would be enough. When I met Tadzio again, he was wiping blood off one of his swords, slipped away in a crevice where I nearly missed him.
"Did you run into trouble?" I whispered. He shook his head.
"No trouble for me." He briefly explained that he had found a passageway that seemed to lead into catacombs, styled to look old and European, but with the wrong stonework. He'd seen enough of the real thing to recognize it, he said. It was the only clue we had to suggest an inner sanctum, so we went back to follow it. We descended into the dark and narrow passage, feeling our way through winding corners and down precarious stairs. I could have done something to help myself see better, but the turns were frequent enough that I wouldn't see much at a time. I probably should have. We saw light seeping in a side passage ahead, and slowly approached it. We paused while still in shadow, he readying his sword and I offering a quick prayer, before we stepped out together.
Spread before us was a large, cave-like room, with rough hewn walls and a vaulted ceiling. From the ground rose a number of jagged pillars, appearing like stalagmites, but flattened about five feet up with idols perched atop. They were scattered around the room in what appeared to our perspective as having no system at all. Among them were about two dozen robed figures with oversized hoods, who all turned to face us as soon as we emerged.
"Father!" one cried out, raising his arms. "Have you come to hear our confessions?"
"I'm sure they would be among the most interesting in my career," I replied. He laughed, lowering his hands to the sides of his hood.
"I didn't get the chance to notice last time that you have a sense of humor," he said, drawing back the hood. I recognized him immediately, the scarred side of his face and his serpentine eye raising every hair on my body. "We were so busy that night, weren't we? Barely got introduced at all. Why, I bet you have all kinds of surprises waiting for me." He smiled and pointed to Tadzio. "Like, you have friends! I wouldn't have expected that." The other figures began to slowly walk toward us.
"And I suppose your friends just want to get to know us, too?"
"Them? They'll leave you alone, don't worry." His smile grew larger, distorting his face and stretching until two fangs began to emerge from his upper jaw. "Your penance will be special."
8 October 1997
While I had been in regular communication with my own superiors concerning my work, the fact is that I was operating in a diocese under the nose of an established bishop and I could progress no further until I had spoken with him about the matter. There was much I would not have to disclose, and much I was under obligation not to disclose; but what I was about to do had a real chance of being too overt to be overlooked by the hierarchy. The meeting itself would be in secret--only he and I officially knew it was happening--but if anything of note happened and the archbishops or cardinals came asking he would be equipped to answer their questions and would have the right to describe our meeting.
I arrived in his study when he was alone, and he welcomed me and directed me to an armchair opposite his own while he finished preparing us each a cup of coffee. We talked a while about the Church, he told me about how things were in America and asked me about events in Europe. It was a pleasant chat for about twenty minutes before we got around to the business at hand.
"So you mean to tell me you know who killed that poor priest?" he asked, refreshing our mugs.
"And blinded the other, yes."
"Nasty business, that." He handed me my coffee before sitting down and taking a thoughtful sip of his own. "Is it someone within the Church?" I shook my head.
"No. We believe he's actually leading up a cult that's set on violently destroying all major religions."
"This sounds like the sort of thing that should go to the police then, yes? Surely secular resources can be spent on secular criminals. The government has a list of dangerous organizations, you know."
"This is not simply a dangerous organization. They have extensive resources and occult support." He stopped and stared off into space for a moment.
"You're telling me this cult is able to use demonic power to their advantage?"
"Yes. And even if the local police could handle that, they seem to have fallen under the cult's sway." He sighed and shook his head, setting his mug down on the small table between us.
"How dark these days become. I fear what the new millennium will bring. There are good Catholics among the local police, are they not on our side?"
"About that. One of the primary recruiting tools being used by the cult seems to be stories about abuse by priests in your diocese. I've heard some of these stories, a few list you by name as active or having knowledge of actions." He waved his hand dismissively.
"Abuse?! Nothing of the sort." I suddenly realized I could smell a faint, almost forgotten, sense of fear coming off him and could hear his heart rate increasing. I decided to press.
"A number of them had very convincing stories. Allegedly, when complaints were made, you simply moved priests around instead of stopping them."
"Is that what they said?" I nodded, then took a sip of my coffee. "Well. There was some moving of priests around, our own church records will show that." He leaned forward, waving and jabbing his hand around to annunciate his points. "When a body grows hostile to a priest, you know, there's nothing else for it! Man can't be expected to lead a flock that won't hear him."
"Of course. But what of the complaints?"
"The complaints. If the priests were being moved because of congregational concerns, what became of those concerns? Did you investigate the abuse charge?"
"Oh, well, of course, the priests were blameless. Comes with the calling, you know." I set my mug down and glared at him.
"That can't be all the effort you put into it."
"Look," he said, pointing angrily at me, "the sheep don't get to decide what the shepherd needs from them, understand?"
"You are a bishop in the Holy Catholic Church of God. You sit in the seat of the Apostles, you are responsible for the well-being of every baptised soul in this diocese!"
"I won't hear it from you, stranger! I asked around about you before I let you come here, you know. Been weeks you've been poking around, I wanted to know who you were. I know you don't serve in a parish, don't know what it's like! And I know there's something unnatural about you, but ain't nobody seems to know what it is. I think if we're hunting monsters, we need to start in-house!"
"You're absolutely right." He huffed and turned, reaching for the phone on his table. I don't remember even thinking about it, or moving, but I felt the heat build in me and before his hand touched the receiver he was burning. I watched him until he was gone, then waved my hand and drew back all the flames that were trying to escape to the rest of the room. With that, I stepped into the spiritual realm and left.
5 October 1997
I had begun trying to reach out to Tadzio last week, and he finally got my message and arrived the day after I met Dr. Harris. As I couldn't go to the town offices, he went to gather all the information he could about the property I saw Mr. Withenow enter after the therapy meeting. It was after dusk when he returned, and we had papers detailing the history of Lot 87 spread around my hotel room within the hour.
It had been a small hospital, that went out of business after World War II when a nearby town became a major suburb and could boast a much larger and better facility. The building sat empty ever since, but has changed hands a few times and is currently owned by a group called the Jörmungandr Trust, who bought the land in 1981. I called Henry at Tadzio's request, and he went to an investigator he knows named Mark Larmais. What we got back was a docket of financial information that was a mess to sift through; but as soon as I saw Edward Withenow as a representative, I knew we were on to something.
We spent a few days sorting out records and found that the land trust was affiliated with a half dozen other shell companies or groups, with their hands in international trade, political activism, and personal security. Most of them incorporated a red spiral into their logo, and some looked very similar to the particular spiral I had seen in the basement of the Frozen Pines Inn.
"I think," Tadzio said, looking over the chart we had drawn in the process of tying everything together, "you've been hunting a very small part of a very large problem." I handed him a coffee and took a sip of my own before nodding.
"The problem is, where's the head? Is it the cult? They don't show up anywhere on here."
"I think maybe this is all the cult, Bene. But look, it seems like a lot of these groups split up and went their own ways for a while, and have only reconvened in the last few years."
"You think the Barzai is reuniting what was once a more powerful empire."
"I think we need to decide whether that hospital on the edge of town is really important enough to risk our lives investigating."
"Well. My life."
"It still hurts when I don't die."
"But I'm serious. Why here?"
"There's a powerful presence there, Tad. I think it's where the last priests were taken, and if that's the case, I know the Barzai has been operating out of it in the recent past. Maybe he still is."
"That's a big maybe."
"Do you have a better idea?" He sighed and looked over the chart again.
"Just. Make sure someone knows where we're going."
Evidence compiled for use during the trial of Father Benedict de Monte.