6 November 2004
The spiral on the ground was crude and shallow. Benedict knelt and ran his fingers along it, feeling the jagged edges. It was composed of short straight lines, five or six abreast, with each set slightly angled from the one next to it. From a distance, it could give the illusion of a smooth curve, but it was clearly unfinished. The scratches suggested it had been scraped in quickly, almost frantically. They hadn’t had time to finish it to the state of the others he’d found around the world, and probably never got to the point where it could be painted red. Not that it mattered. The blood that had flowed into it took care of that.
Seven bodies in all were scattered around the room. Four of them could probably have been identified by family, a couple years ago when they first died. The gashes across their chests and throats betrayed the use of a sword; a sword that was no longer in the room. The heads of the other three were crushed in. Every one of them smelled like sulfur, a sign of their connection to Nachash that he had picked up ever since waking at Yggdrasil a year and a day after arriving there. Benedict stood and slowly stepped around the corpses to the broken and bloody idol that appeared the likely murder weapon. He picked the idol up, a bust emerging from a pillar, and examined it.
It was broken off about three inches below the shoulders, so he carried it over to the disfigured idols and pillars and began testing the fit until he found the one it belonged to. Having found it he looked down at the name engraved on the post and scowled. He didn’t know the language and couldn’t understand what name the idol had, so he set the bust down and pulled his bag around to the front and dug through until he pulled out a notebook and pencil. His superiors had been concerned about his lengthy absence in the Arctic, and now he knew he would need to bring more samples back to justify his globetrotting. As he was taking a rubbing of the engraving, he heard a stone drag across the floor behind him. He turned quickly and looked around, but saw nothing.
He'd been tracking information around the world ever since he left Yggdrasil, looking for any lore related to serpents that may give some indication on a source for the Brood of Nachash or at least an idea of what they were seeking. His search had brought him to the region around Lahore, Pakistan, where he had now found three ritual sites claimed by the Brood, all of them filled with dead cultists.
He finished his work and then began exploring the rest of the cavern, which had multiple branches cutting off into the rock. As he approached the second side passage, something further down the chamber scraped against the rock. He ran down the passage, following the faint noise of very light footsteps ahead of him. He rounded one corner and got a brief glimpse of her, a woman with twin swords and a movement that flowed like water. She was quick, but he saw enough of her face and arms to recognize her as a local. When he rounded the corner she had disappeared around, he found no evidence of her passing. Just a small stream of water, flowing through the stone, not large enough to hide a person or allow one to escape. He slipped into the spiritual realm and looked around, but found little more than a faint trace that led into the water. He scowled, then turned and headed back to finish his report.
20 March 2001
The first few years after Tadzio and I faced the Barzai, my work was largely centered on helping legal authorities sort through the maze of funding and corporate affiliations that had been identified by Mark Larmais. I would find sporadic opportunities to look into rumors of the cult's presence, and sometimes even find something, but the bulk of the cult's activities and the Barzai himself eluded me. One of the few things I had been able to collect from my own research was that the cult seemed to be appropriating serpent-related iconography and beliefs from around the world. Lacking an exhaustive mortal resource on serpents in the collective human imagination, I had now spent the last week hiking into the mountains of northern Norway in search of the one resource I knew collected the information I need.
I had known for decades about the role of the Worldtree in metaphysical affairs, though I had never sought it out. While its branches did literally hold the way to realms known to the Norse people who first interacted with it, its relationship to a well of wisdom and its function as a place where all realms meet ensured that it and its guardian became repositories of all knowledge. I knew it was not the only such repository, but it was the one I knew how to find. I actually knew two ways, one through Norway and one through Muspelheim, but I had sworn never to use that road long ago.
The people of Olderdalen seemed concerned when I arrived on the ferry with nothing but a small pack that contained a Bible and my notes, as well as a couple notebooks and pencils, and did not stop to buy anything. I don't know whether their primary issue was my safety or my money, but they grew silent when they saw the snow melt under my feet. Aside from some whispers, I was left to my own devices as I walked east out of town. My stops for camp were short enough that most of my time was not spent arriving in this area, but in searching it for the entrance. On finally finding a narrow cave etched into the side of a jagged mountain with ancient etchings surrounding the entrance, I took a moment to gather my wits before entering.
The passage was tight and stretched for about forty meters before suddenly opening to a massive chamber. It's probably incorrect to call it a chamber, as there seemed to be no actual walls or ceiling to it, only the hole I emerged from sitting like a doorway without a frame in the middle of a field and an endless night sky above. Before me was a tree larger than any building I had ever seen, and a dazzling array of gates scattered among its branches. There was a great well in its shade, and a worn rope dangling above it. The ground itself seemed to breathe, as something stirred beneath it. Between myself and the tree was a being that resembled a tree in the shape of a man. It was about three and a half meters tall, with four arms that stretched out of its body like gnarled branches and an array of root-like legs that continued into the ground. It rose to its full height on my entrance, and stared at me with a face that looked barely shaped from the bark of its surface, except for its one eye, set where a man's right eye socket would be. The eye itself was small, as though it had been made for the head of a human.
"Yggdrasil," I said as I approached, "forgive my intrusion, I did not know how to announce my coming."
"Nothing surprises me here." Its voice was like the breaking of branches and the roar of fire and the cracking of ice, but I could see no sign of a mouth moving. "Your coming was foretold."
"And my business as well, then?"
"It is customary to state your name and business all the same. However, you have forsaken your name, have you not?" I straightened up and took a deep breath. I had not had that matter mentioned in some time.
"I have taken another, if it pleases you to hear that one."
"It does not. State your business, flameborn."
"I have come in search of knowledge about a cult that claims to honor the Serpent of Old. They have used the visage of Jörmungandr in their works, and I have reason to believe they will do the same with all serpents around the world."
"All knowledge in this place comes with a price."
"What is the price for that which I seek?"
"Far greater than what you can pay. But for what you have requested, that is not my answer to give. You must ask the serpent yourself." It stepped aside to reveal an opening into the ground framed by the arc of a root of the Worldtree, and pointed into the darkness. "Jörmungandr has heard of your coming. You have his attention only briefly before the roots of the tree again draw his eye." I nodded a thanks and descended into the burrow.
The path was steep and winding, hewn from raw earth and decorated only sporadically with stones and glowing mushrooms. The further I traveled, the more the ground shook, and the louder came a sound like ridged metal dragging through the dirt. I finally stepped out into a dome, the roof supported by the roots of the Worldtree, lined with moss and glowing worms dangling from lines of silk, and a series of other passages leading off in every direction. I made careful note of the one I needed to return to the surface, and stepped forward into the center of the cavern. I stood only for a moment before the ground rumbled violently and a massive serpent's head, large enough to swallow me whole as an accident, emerged from one of the passages.
"You must be the flameborn," he said, his tongue darting back and forth as if sampling the air all around me.
"Jörmungandr, I presume."
"The very one. What business have you here?"
"I seek the Brood of Nachash. They have used your likeness, and that of many other great serpents."
"And you think I know them, personally?"
"I think either they are truly associated with you, or they use your name inappropriately. Either way, I see reason for you to take an interest."
"Protection of my name is no concern of yours," he said, drawing further from the ground and circling around me. "But if it is knowledge on the world's serpents you seek, I may have something for you."
"At what price?"
"Clever boy! What price indeed. What I offer you is my venom, flameborn. If you will take it, you may die. If you do not burn it from you, and you do not die, then you will gain what you need to trace the paths of the great serpents; and the price shall be your false name."
"What do you mean?"
"You have forsaken your name and you bring to this place, of all places! You bring to this place a new one, given by the tongue of man. If you take my gift, and use it, then the loss of this second name shall be a curse for you." I stood and stared at him for a moment, before I noticed his eyes drifting to the roots.
"Fine! Fine. I will accept your gift." The serpent's gaze snapped back to me, and he smiled as he drew close.
"Then take it," he said, before opening his mouth wide. A massive fang hung precariously close to my head, and I noticed a large drop of venom forming on it. I clenched my fists, then opened my mouth and caught the drop as it fell. It burned as it passed my throat, and I stumbled backward as the serpent laughed and drew himself back into his burrow. "Good day, flameborn."
I turned and made my way to the passage to the surface, and as I grew close my vision began to blur. I tripped and crawled along the path, coughing and forcing my body not to burn away the toxin. Colors began to flash in my field of vision, and by the time I felt grass under my hands I could barely move or make sense of anything I saw. I felt a cold wooden hand rest on my back, and everything went dark.
Excerpt from Debriefing meeting with Fr. Benedict de Monte, 16 October 1997. Translated from German.
C. Ratz: There is also the matter of the late bishop. Available evidence suggests he was burned to death, in similar fashion as the captured priest. I suppose the best explanation is that this Barzai got to him before we could.
Fr. de Monte: It does appear that way. There was a great deal of rage directed at him from members of the cult. It seems they believe he was facilitating a number of indiscretions, which the Barzai used in his recruitment methods.
C. Ratz: Hmm. I must admit we had been looking into those accusations a bit, ourselves. They do not appear entirely unfounded.
Fr. de Monte: I do not assume this is a matter where I should push for more information.
C. Ratz: Correct. Finally, there is this matter of a...therapy organization?
Fr. de Monte: Dr. Harris is a skilled psychiatrist, and one who is aware of the forces arrayed against us. She seeks to help the victims of the cult and other supernatural threats, and I felt this goal was both noble and in line with our own purposes. I did not, however, devote any more funding than I already had under my control.
C. Ratz: We will have to consider this at greater length, but I see no reason we could not help her, at least a little. I have also approved your request to focus on research and take some initiative with future missions based on the information you find. Do you have any further questions or information for me?
Fr. de Monte: No, sir, it's all in my report.
C. Ratz: Very well. But before you go, I would like to commend you on your work.
Fr. de Monte: In sparing their lives?
C. Ratz: It shows you have matured during your time away, and I appreciate it. I also meant something else.
Fr. de Monte: Sir?
C. Ratz: There were two cups of coffee in the bishop's office, de Monte. I was given a full description of the scene, and a copy of your intended schedule.
Fr. de Monte: Sir, I-
C. Ratz: I sent you there to protect the flock. Thank you for your hard work in this matter.
Fr. de Monte: Of course.
C. Ratz: Dismissed.
12 October 1997
When I arrived, Dr. Harris was sitting in a local coffee shop, with a half-eaten panini getting cold next to an empty mug as she read a worn copy of The Hobbit. I went straight to the counter and ordered a muffin and coffee, and waited for each before sitting down opposite her. She didn't look up from her book, and we sat in silence for a moment as I stirred my coffee and unwrapped the muffin.
"I was questioned about Mr. Withenow," she finally said.
"About why they found him in a site of human ritual sacrifice?"
"About his money and connections, mostly. It seems the FBI is interested in anything with his name attached."
"Perhaps they were warned that his financial advice was in the service of a specific, and questionable, cause."
"Perhaps." I began to eat my muffin as we continued sitting quietly; my eyes wandering around the room, hers fixed to her reading. After about five minutes, she slid a bookmark between the pages and set the book down. She looked at me, as though sizing me up for the first time
"How is it so far?"
"As good was it was the last four times. How much of this stuff is real, Benedict?"
"Everything is real, somewhere. The spiritual plane contains all of mankind's dreams."
"And nightmares." I nodded. "And sometimes, these things really come through? This cult was really able to bring harm to the world?"
"They still are, Dr. Harris. This was just one small part of their network." She scowled, drumming her fingers on the table.
"And you, you go around hunting the things that go bump in the night?"
"Something like that."
"What happens to us?" I stopped, and slowly set my mug down.
"I try, you know," I said, softly. "I try to help people, to comfort them. It's part of my training as a priest. But I can't stick around, and if they don't go to a priest when I refer them-"
"Not everyone wants the help of another priest."
"I know. But that's why I wanted to talk to you before I leave. And the fact that you saw the problem yourself convinces me you're the right person." She stared at me for a moment, then slowly shook her head and leaned forward.
"You want me to start some kind of...mystics anonymous group? Therapy for the haunted?"
"That's a good name for it. And I've already secured you some initial funding, hopefully enough to get you going." I reached into my pocket and produced a cheque, which I slid across the table to her. She glanced down at it, then back to me.
"And what? You just leave some money behind and go traipsing off to kill more monsters?"
"No. I want to be an active part of this. The world needs people who care, Dr. Harris. I care, and you care, and together I hope we can help people who would be dismissed by anyone who doesn't know what we know."
"I know very little so far." She sat upright, pocketing the cheque and then folding her arms. "You'll need to explain a lot more to me before I can do much good here."
"My flight isn't for two days," I said. "If you're free, I can answer as many questions as possible before then."
"I'm never free," she said, putting her book away and grabbing her sandwich, "but I suppose you have already paid for my services." I nodded and we both stood and headed for the door. "If we're going to be partners, you can call me Francesca."
"If we're partners?"
"If you ever back out of this, I expect the more formal title from you." I chuckled as I held the door open for her.
10 October 1997
Tadzio walked into the hotel room and laid a newspaper on the table. The front page story was about a raid last night, where police had received an anonymous tip and investigated the abandoned hospital and found a bunch of injured people in ceremonial robes and evidence of human sacrifice. The investigation was ongoing, and the journalist seemed to expect this story would occupy much of their time in the coming weeks. He sat down in front of the mug of coffee I'd set out for him a couple minutes earlier, careful not to let the sling on his left arm rest against the table.
"At least everyone's okay," he said, sarcastically, bringing his mug to his lips.
"You've had worse," I said, skimming the article. He scoffed and looked out toward the window.
"So what now?"
"I have a couple issues to wrap up here. Then I need to go answer back to the Cardinal."
"Mhm. And then, what? Just keep doing what you did last night?" I leaned back and set the newspaper down.
"No. Look, I really am sorry about that, and I promise I'm going to have a better plan next time I face him. But, I need information. This cult is far larger than we realized, a many-headed beast, and I don't know if just taking down the Barzai will be enough. And I need to find a way to help these people, as much as I can. The next step is going to be a lot of research and planning."
"You know why I work with you?" I took a sip from my coffee and watched him, waiting for him to answer his own question. "There's a lot of your old man in you, and you're probably the best priest I've known. You care about your obligations, you learn from your mistakes, and you really, truly believe in the goodness of God." He turned and looked me in the eye. "The arm will get better. The Barzai has to regroup. But you? You've decided on the harder path, because you believe it isn't just better or more effective, but that it's right." He finished his coffee, then stood and tossed his room key onto the table.
"Thank you. What about you?"
"I need to lay low for a bit until I'm back to full strength. But don't hesitate to call if you need me."
"And how am I going to do that?"
"I hear they have these telephones now you can carry with you. Maybe I'll look into that." I chuckled and stood, extending a hand.
"Good to see you again, old friend." He shook my hand, smiled, and left.
Evidence compiled for use during the trial of Father Benedict de Monte.