As we descended further into the mountain, we came upon a massive chamber. There was fire along the walls, and randomly-placed burning pits scattered along the ground. The chamber went on an impossible distance, with smaller chambers branching off here and there from the uneven walls. I glanced to Akshainie, who was starting to sweat.
“Well, we found somewhere warm,” I said.
“You’re hilarious,” she answered flatly. I laughed and looked around. A small fire spirit, that looked like a living flame with arms and legs, leapt out of one of the pits, carrying a small pile of red hot volcanic rocks. Akshainie drew her swords and stared. It jumped when it saw us, throwing the rocks into the air and landing on its back. The rocks clattered to the ground around it, and it sat rubbing what passed for a head for a moment.
“Oh! Oh my, sorry, I didn’t expect…hold on,” it said, before scrambling to its feet and beginning to gather the stones. Akshainie sighed and put her swords away.
“What is this place?”
“You don’t know? How did you get here if you don’t know?”
“Through the mountain.” I crossed my arms and waited as the flame nodded slowly, then grabbed the last rock.
“Right, well, at any rate, if you don’t know then you haven’t seen the boss, and if you haven’t seen the boss, you really should.”
“What’s it saying?” Akshainie asked, in English. It took me a second to register that we hadn’t been speaking a human language.
“Oh, uh, hold on,” I said, before turning back to the spirit. “So where do I find your boss?”
“Down this way,” the spirit answered. It adjusted the pile of rocks to ensure they were balanced in its arms and started walking.
“It’s leading us to the spirit in charge of this realm.” I started walking, and Akshainie slithered alongside me. “You going to be alright down here?”
“It’s not exactly made to keep water-aligned spirits comfortable. Let alone water-aligned spirits wearing metal.”
“You can take it off.”
“Oh, can I? Would that be alright by you?”
“Why are you being weird about this?”
“I’m being weird!? I can’t so much as wear a thin shirt without you turning away and covering your eyes! What is it about me that you find so impossible to gaze upon?”
“And what’s wrong with my breasts?” she demanded. I groaned and rubbed my neck.
“It’s not that there’s something wrong with them. It’s…let’s call it Catholic Guilt.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“You guys aren’t trying to talk to me, are you? Because I don’t know what language that is,” the spirit said.
“No, sorry, we’re sorting something out is all,” I answered.
“Seems rude to be doing that right now.”
“You’re right.” I looked back to Akshainie. “Look, can we do this later?”
“How much later?” she asked.
“Look, as soon as this is over, we’ll take a break and talk, okay? I know a place you may like.”
We continued in silence after that, occasionally noticing other spirits jumping into pits or dancing or tending the flames on the walls. The place grew more crowded the further we went, and when we reached what seemed to be a fairly busy interchange the spirit stopped and turned to us.
“Okay, look, this is it. I need to take these stones further down, but the boss is here somewhere,” it said.
“Oh, okay. Thank you,” I answered. It nodded and scampered off.
“What now?” Akshainie asked. “Which one of these little…sprite…things is in charge?”
“I don’t think any of them are.”
“Cousin!” a new voice bellowed, echoing around the chamber. We turned to find a large serpentine being made of fire, about as tall as me, with three pairs of arms and a smooth face like an amphibian emerging from one of the chambers. All the other spirits glanced at it, then at us, before resuming their work. The being charged forward and wrapped his arms around me in a tight embrace. He pulled back with his hands on my arms and looked me over. “Haven’t had a visitor of your kind in centuries! And you brought a friend! She…looks uncomfortable.”
“She’s a water-aligned spirit.”
“Oh! You should have said! Hold on,” he let go of me and held his arms out, lowering them slowly as he concentrated. The temperature in the room decreased, and he stopped when we heard a sigh of relief from Akshainie. “There we go. Come! Come, let me show you around.” He slipped off back down the corridor he’d emerged from, and I nodded in that direction. We both set off, following our host.
When we arrived at the campsite that evening, I relit the fire for Akshainie and went to a bit of ice still present on the mountain where I had stored the rest of the deer from the night before. Gathering a sufficient chunk for our dinner, I brought it back and held it over the fire. Akshainie was back in her naga form, had been for a few hours now, and her body was coiled around the fire as close to the stones as she could get without touching them.
“Are you going to be alright down there?” I asked, turning the meat over in my hands.
“It’s a hell of a lot better than that tent.”
“I’m really sorry. We could go see about the cabin if you like.”
“No, you’re right about how uncomfortable I’d be there. But this is hardly the most fire we can have here, isn’t it?”
“Well, there was very little firewood to work with.”
“You don’t need firewood.”
“Well, no,” I said. I sighed and pulled the meat off, testing it. I had learned by now that Akshainie was comfortable with her meat pretty rare, and I was functionally immune to disease, so it didn’t make sense to overcook it. “But you know I’m not super comfortable taking on my alternate form yet.”
“Okay but I am literally a snake and there is a literal glacier close enough for you to store our dinner in.”
“Okay. Okay, fine. Here.” I tore the meat in half and gave her a chunk, which she tore into immediately. I considered the best way to handle the situation, then stepped away from the fire. I pulled my clothes off, folded them nicely at the entrance of my tent, then walked into the center of the campfire. Akshainie loosened her coils to give me more room, and I changed form. The wood on the fire was consumed almost instantly, and the face of the stones pointed in my direction started to hiss as anything organic or liquid sizzled off them. Akshainie recoiled back a bit further, and then we both turned as we heard a cracking noise. There, in the cliff face nearby, a crack was opening.
“Did you do that?” Akshainie asked.
“It seems like it, but I don’t know how I could have.” We watched as the crack grew larger, and then the cliff opened to reveal a cave running into the mountain. There was a glow from deep inside it, and we could hear the distant crackling of fire and cacophony of voices. We looked at each other for a moment, then she threw her armor on and grabbed her swords as I stepped out of the campfire. We cautiously made our way to the entrance, peeked in to find the path ahead twisting away into the rock, then braced ourselves and stepped inside.
20 February 2007
In the morning, we redressed Akshainie’s injury and began our search in concentric circles starting with the edges of the lake and working outward. We took it fairly easy to avoid aggravating her side, which annoyed her to no end, but I insisted on not diving into anything major right away. Especially since she wasn’t wearing her armor, out of concerns about how it might rub against the bandages and disrupt healing. When we made it to the top of the ridge east of our camp, we noticed a large cabin at another nearby lake.
“Did you know that was there?” She pointed her sword at it.
“I did, yeah,” I answered. “It has rented rooms, but it’s pretty specifically for hikers and the beds are in fairly communal spaces.”
“And you elected to have us camping because?”
“Well, we aren’t here as hikers, and I thought you might like being able to assume your naga form for the bulk of our time here.”
“Is it warmer in there than it is in the tents?”
“I suspect so.”
“And that didn’t seem relevant to you?”
“Sorry, I don’t really notice the cold and didn’t think about it. It hasn’t come up aside from Norway.”
“Yeah, well, it’s coming up.”
We made our way over to the cabin, with Akshainie taking on her human form, and met the caretaker of the building. He welcomed us in and we spent a little time chatting about the mountains and local lore. None of his stories, or the stories he reported hearing from others, sounded like anything we recognized as Brood activity, and shortly after lunch we thanked him for his hospitality and returned to the mountains. We continued our search until the sun began to go down, but found nothing indicating the Brood of Nachash was active in the area.
19 February 2007
We heard a lot of stories about a lot of things around town, but very little about a serpent. What bits we were able to gather centered on strange noises and sights in the mountains south of the town, and the spirits of Lac d’Oô refused to talk about it. One thing we learned was that Michael’s information had been somewhat imprecise. It seems the word that reached the Hudson estate was that there was a serpent active in a lake in Oô, and in translation that became Lake Oô, which would be Lac d’Oô. But there were more lakes further up the mountains, and in our conversations it became apparent that the stories took place near a glacial lake further uphill. So, on the second day after our arrival, we set out with camping gear to make our way up the mountain.
It wasn’t a terribly long hike to the lakes, but it was roughly a kilometer in altitude, so we decided to take it easy on the way and camp there while looking for answers instead of going up and down the mountain. It was late afternoon when we reached the lake in question, and we decided to focus on setting up camp and sorting out dinner. We could, after all, begin searching for signs of the Brood in the evening if we had time, or morning if we didn’t. Either way, we weren’t going to be any good at dealing with them if we hadn’t eaten. Akshainie slipped away to hunt as I got a fire going and set up our tents. It took me a while to find a suitable amount of wood for the fire, and I had some trouble with the new tents, but I was still done and sitting around for what must have been an hour before she slithered out from a rocky crag nearby. She had a dead deer slung over her shoulders, the blood from its massive neck wound half dried down her outfit. It took me a moment of observing her approach before I realized some of the blood was not pouring out of the deer, but her own side. I jumped to my feet and ran over, but she just slung the deer around and into my hands.
“You know how to prep this?” she asked. I nodded, and she grunted and slipped past me toward the water. I groaned and turned.
“Are you okay?” I called after her. She waved it off and continued on her way, and I sighed and took the deer back to the camp site. There, I skinned and processed the animal, and was about to hold a chunk of it over the fire for our dinner when I heard her calling for me. I set the meat and fur aside and made my way down to the water, where she was submerged up to her neck and working at something under the water.
“Ah, there you are. Look, I can’t quite reach most of the wound, can you help me with the bandage?”
“Yeah, of course. Is that what you have there?”
“What? Oh, no,” she said, holding up her armored shirt. She had managed to get most of the blood off, and it looked as though she was actively removing the bits that had dried on pretty solid before she arrived. “I have a pack on the shore there, though, which includes some wraps and medicinal herbs.” I dug through her pack until I found what I needed, and when I turned back she had moved far enough ashore that her upper body was out of the water. I turned away from the sight of her standing there topless, and she groaned.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize—”
“I don’t mean to disturb your delicate sensibilities, priest, but I’m not done cleaning this shirt and you’ll need my skin to be exposed to bandage it anyway.”
“Right. Of course.” I removed my shoes and socks and rolled up my pants and waded into the water. I made my way around to her back, where I could see the gash more clearly, and felt a bit of her tail rise up under me.
“You’re too tall up there,” she said, which I had to admit was accurate. I sat on the portion of tail, took a closer look at the wound, and got to work.
“Why not just heal it, like you did with Henry?” I started by cleaning the wound out better. It looked like she had tried, but could only get so much done from her angle.
“It’s…tricky, with spirits. Besides, I earned this one.”
“What happened out there?”
“A stupid accident.”
“How stupid?” I reached down for two stones and used them, and the bit of water still on them, to grind some of the herbs into a paste. She sighed and lowered the shirt.
“I cornered the deer.”
“And it fought back.”
“You know, it’s been a few years traveling with you, and I haven’t had to hunt for one meal in that entire time. And I didn’t honestly do much hunting back at Iravati, if I’m honest.” She winced as I applied the salve, and we were both silent for a moment as she recomposed herself. “It was mostly fishing. So I forgot how good deer were at defending themselves.”
“And how scared animals get when cornered by a snake with swords?” I asked. She chuckled, and I began wrapping the bandage around her. When I reached around to her stomach she raised her arms out of the way so I could grab the bandage with my other hand and continue the work.
“Yeah. Something like that.”
“But this wasn’t done by antlers.”
“Not directly. He knocked me back against a stone outcropping. It was low and pushed the shirt up, caught me by surprise.”
“Is that the deer you brought back to camp?”
“You’re damn right it is.”
I finished up and stood, and she lowered her tail back into the water and ran her hands over the bandage. I made my way back to shore and repacked the materials I hadn’t used. I felt her hand on my shoulder, and turned to find her smiling at me.
“You did good. Thanks. Also, I need the undershirt you’re sitting on,” she said, pointing to a piece of cloth I hadn’t paid much attention to when I came back. I stammered a bit as I shuffled out of the way, and watched as she set the armored shirt down and slipped the cloth one on. “You enjoying the show?”
“Sorry, I guess I didn’t really think about it.”
“It’s okay, Benedict.” She slithered over and rested her hand on my cheek. “It’s probably best we start getting more comfortable around each other. Who knows where the next bandage will be?” We stared at each other for a while, and then I nodded and slid my hand up to move hers away from my face.
“Of course. But you must be famished after all that work.” I went back to the fire and grabbed the hind quarter I’d prepared earlier and held it over the flame. She arrived shortly thereafter, carrying her things, which she dropped next to one of the tents.
“Yeah,” she said, softly. “I am.”
17 February 2007
We really had very little to go on when we landed at Altiport Peyresourde. Michael's information claimed there was some activity involving a great spirit serpent in the mountains south of the airport, near Lac d’Oô, and that it had caused some trouble for locals. Michael had been kind enough to get us a car from the airstrip to the town, but from there we were on our own. I decided to sort out accommodations for us and check in with my supervisor in Rome, and she slipped into the spiritual realm to start asking around. It didn’t really occur to either of us right away that the spirits would be accustomed to speaking French, which she didn’t know. So I was in a small rented room on the phone when she burst out of the spiritual realm ranting about how she couldn’t find a single spirit using a sensible language. On being questioned, I briefly reminded them that I was traveling with an expert who had just returned from some preliminary scouting and quickly got off the phone.
“Do you have any idea how hard it is to maintain permission to travel with you?” I asked.
“Do you have any idea how hard it is to find a spirit that doesn’t turn its nose up at you when you don’t speak the local human tongue?” she demanded, slumping back onto a bed and slowly coiling her lower half on the floor beneath her. “I hate Europe. We’re still in Europe, right?”
“Yes. France is in Europe.”
“Yes, well, am I to take it then that you haven’t found anything useful?”
“Not yet. But I bet there’s spirits that at least speak the language of water in that lake nearby.”
“You didn’t check?”
“I needed to cool down before I dealt with any more locals,” she said, rolling off the bed and stretching. “Any luck on your end?”
“Well, we have this room, which is not a hotel, so please be mindful of the limitations there.”
“I’ve also suggested that we are here to record local lore. We have a dinner tonight with a local man who is very eager to tell us all about local customs and folklore. It seems the Pyrenees do not get nearly as much attention as the Alps and he is excited to correct that.”
“Does he know about me, or is he just expecting you?”
“He’s expecting both of us.”
“What does he think we are?” she asked. I looked at her confused for a moment. “As in, are we dressing nice? Should we be acting like professionals, or romantic partners, or…?”
“I did not indicate anything that would make us pretend to be in a relationship.”
“Bene, we’re in a relationship.”
“I mean a romantic relationship.”
“It might be fun to pretend you have interest in romance, one of these times. Really test our skills at fitting in.”
“I never said I’m not interested in romance. Just that my vows preclude it.”
“Right, your vows, again. Well, at any rate, what image are we putting forth tonight?”
“Dress comfortably,” I said. “I suspect you’ll have legs late into the evening.”
Evidence compiled for use during the trial of Father Benedict de Monte.