22 February 2007
We had been pretty busy packing up, hiking down, and clearing the vacation time and travel arrangements and didn’t have a chance to talk much for a couple days. But now here we were, lounging on the beach in Beaulieu-sur-Mer, and Akshainie was finally comfortable and asking me to clarify what I’d said in Mundir’s realm. We were conversing in Enochian, I guess so the French around us wouldn’t understand. No one paid much mind, they were probably used to foreigners using unknown languages.
“Which part?” I asked.
“Right.” There was a long pause.
“Well? What’s your problem with me?”
“Okay, look.” I rolled over to face her. “I don’t have any problem with you.”
“You sure seem like you do.”
“Akshainie. You’re a great ally, a skilled warrior, and you’ve become a true friend. I appreciate your decisive approach to things, and you have a wealth of knowledge about the spiritual realm and its residents that has been deeply important to our work. I have no issues with you.”
“And how does that translate to guilt?”
“Everything translates to guilt when you’re Catholic.”
“You’re going to have to explain it more than that.”
“Okay so when you grow up Catholic, it’s beaten into your head basically your whole life that anything related to sex, or even the thought of sex, is bad and makes baby Jesus cry and requires a confession, and—”
“Just…I can explain that another time. The point is, you get the notion that any sort of attraction is sinful and some people embrace that and some people struggle with it and some people just kind of decide to ignore it and some people, for reasons that I cannot begin to go into now, go all in to the point where they take an oath to have no romantic or sexual relationships at all, ever.”
“You’ve mentioned your oaths before. I don’t see how—wait!” She propped herself up on her elbow and pulled off her sunglasses, looking me over. “You’re attracted to me!”
“You are not an unattractive woman.”
“I’m not trying to be romantic.”
“No! That’s the problem, isn’t it! You want to be romantic but you can’t let yourself do it so instead you just act like an awkward asshole!”
“Well I didn’t think I was acting quite like that.”
“Oh you have been.” She laid down and put her sunglasses back on. I watched her for a moment, not letting my eyes wander over the new swimsuit she’d bought with some of that money from Michael, and then rolled onto my back again. “So tell me about this oath.”
“It’s a commitment that, as a servant of Christ under the authority of His Holy Church, I will maintain abstinence and forgo earthly marriage. As a priest, I am to represent God to the people and the people to God, and Christ has one bride, the Church, so I can have no different bride as part of that representation.”
“That’s the wording of it?”
“What’s what the wording means.”
“But it’s only in effect as long as you work as a priest.”
“Well, yes. But this isn’t just some job, I’ve committed the rest of my life to it.”
“Your very, very long life.”
“Where are you going with this?”
“Nowhere. Don’t worry about it.” Another long pause. “Do you ever regret it?”
“I don’t know.” I sighed. “It’s a noble calling, and I value it greatly. I do believe it’s the right thing for me.”
“But I’ve never really been like them, you know? I’m a half demon! I’m supposed to be anathema to the Church, and if most of my connections there knew about my nature they would assume I was. It’s hard to feel like you fit into a structure that assumes you’re the enemy. That can’t know the truth about you without hating you.”
“There are many people trying to fit into many such structures in this world.”
“Yeah. I’m becoming aware.”
“So what now?”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re attracted to me, and can’t do anything about it. So what happens now?”
“Out of curiosity, what about you?”
“Are you asking if I’m attracted to you?” she asked, turning to me again. I nodded. “Would it make a difference to your answer?”
“No. I suppose not.”
“Then just answer me.”
I hesitated, thinking about the best answer to give.
“I think,” I said, slowly, “what happens next is that we continue the mission. And I will try to maintain focus, and now that you know what I’m working with, maybe you could take my issues into consideration? Not hold it against me when I’m trying to keep my mind on the task at hand?”
“I think I can do that. If you can not act so disturbed when I need to be less covered than usual.”
“I can try.”
“That’ll do. You’re not so bad, you know.” She turned away again. “For a European.”
“And as a demon?”
“Oh you’re a terrible demon. But I’m sure we can work with it.”
The corridor itself was not long, and opened into another large chamber. This one was relatively small, with piles of stones and pockets of fire and assorted pieces of furniture, mostly designed for lounging. The spirit that led us quickly started shoving rocks aside that were piled on some of the seats.
“Sorry,” he said, in Enochian, “I don’t receive many guests here these days.”
“Finally, someone who speaks a language I understand!” Akshainie said, coiling up on a spot of ground as far as she could get from any active flames. I sat down on one of the freshly-cleared seats, and our host climbed on the largest seat and coiled his body on it.
“Oh good. That was a bit of a guess, really.”
“What are you? What is this place?”
“I am a salamander, but you can call me Mundir. And this is my den, a sort of outpost that was given to me and I’ve never seen fit to give up.”
“I must admit I’ve not seen a salamander that looks quite like you before,” I said. “And I was under the impression your kind were mostly concentrated in the Middle East.”
“I don’t know where that is.” He reached under his coils, pulled out a glowing hot stone, and tossed it aside. “But the people that carried the legends of our kind have traveled far, and had settlements just south of here some time ago. This place was somewhere we could watch invaders from the north when they set their sights on our lands. And, as times change, so do we. It seems mankind has strange ideas about what a salamander should be these days, not that I mind. It’s nice being big for once.”
“So you’re the serpent the locals have started to whisper about?”
“Oh goodness, have they seen me? I didn’t think they’d seen me.”
“What were you doing?”
“Well, look, I get lonely, okay? The people that brought me here left, and no one told me. I went out one day and they were just gone! I couldn’t find another salamander as far as the sea. And of course I had little legs then, so it took me some years to carry out that search. When I found nothing, I came back. I peek out every few decades, you know, to see what’s new and get a glimpse of what the humans are doing. You know they have a whole little town just down the side of this mountain now?”
“We do, yes,” Akshainie said.
“And I guess they noticed me. I hope they didn’t mind too much.”
“The few that mentioned you did seem concerned about their safety,” I pointed out.
“Oh. Well, I wouldn’t do anything to them. Is that why you’re here? To deal with some scary monster?”
“A cult, actually. We’ve been hunting the Brood of Nachash—”
“And you thought those bastards were here!?”
“No,” Akshainie jumped in, “but we couldn’t just dismiss the idea without taking a look.”
“You know of the Brood, though?” I asked.
“Of course I know of them. They were here, you know. Well, not here, but south of here, I think they called it Catalan. You missed them by a few centuries. We burned their sites as soon as we found them, my flames and I. But if they’re still around I suspect every spirit that looks like a serpent knows them by now.”
“Is it because of the perversion they bring to the image of serpents?” Akshainie asked.
“Yes! Yes, exactly, I knew you’d get it, not like hellspawn over here, no offense.”
“A little taken,” I said.
“And you want to know the worst part? Nachash,” here, he spit, “as he calls himself. It just means serpent, that’s the whole thing, it’s just a word that means serpent, but he isn’t even a serpent! The whole thing is a ruse!”
“Why does he call himself Serpent if he isn’t a serpent?” Akshainie asked.
“Something about a garden, I don’t know, I wasn’t that invested in why he was taking a name that didn’t belong to him. But the point is, because he is using it, we have to deal with the fallout of everything he does.”
“Well,” I said, “it sounds like you have as much reason to oppose the Brood as we could hope for. It sounds like pursuing serpent leads isn’t going to be useful, either.”
“We suspected that,” Akshainie said. “I thought we were going to focus on finding their sites of power.”
“We are. It was just handy that Michael had this site on his radar and was willing to fly us here for free.” I turned to Mundir. “Is there any way you could help us going forward?”
“I can’t do much of anything. I can’t even leave this place, not without disturbing the locals,” he answered.
“You can’t travel the infernal roads? I thought they connected all planes of fire.”
“They do. I’m not welcome on any of the roads that connect here. The humans got some ideas into the spirits’ heads that anything vaguely Muslim isn’t welcome.”
“Tell you what. If I can get you access to the roads, would you be willing to send word along to other serpents to aid us?”
“Absolutely! Don’t know how you’ll do that, though.”
“I have an idea. Please show me to a road.” I stood, and Akshainie and Mundir did the same. Mundir led us out of the chamber, down to another corridor, and to a gateway burned into a wall. I stepped through the fires of the gateway alone. I poked my head back through and told Mundir to follow me. On the other side was one of the Infernal Roads, paths I’d determined decades ago to never use. I wasn’t about to change that plan, but I knew what authority I had here. We stepped forward until a small cadre of fire spirits, armed to defend themselves, emerged to block our path.
“Passage from this realm is not permitted,” one of them declared. The others tightened their grip on their weapons.
“On whose authority?” I demanded.
“It has been willed.”
“What does it matter? By what authority do you challenge it?”
“By my own,” I said, straightening to stand at full height.
“And who are you?” it sneered.
“I am Telial of the Broken Oath; heir of Babylon the Great, son of Babylon the whore, seventh horn of the Scarlet Beast, king of a land not yet risen. The humans know me as Father Benedict de Monte, priest of the Holy Catholic Church.” I stepped forward. “And I am ordering you to allow passage from this realm.” Their eyes grew wide and I noticed a few of them begin to tremble. The one who was speaking stood silent for a long moment, then turned to one of the others.
“Go verify this name.” The spirit gave a quick nod and vanished into the walls. I crossed my arms and we all waited about a minute until the spirit returned and whispered in the ear of the apparent leader. “Very well. Do not get used to throwing your weight around here, Telial.”
“I won’t.” The leader nodded, and all of them vanished again into the walls. I turned to find Mundir standing with his eyes wide and his mouth agape.
“You can do that?” he demanded.
“When it suits me. I trust you to keep your end of the deal.”
“Just make sure you call me Benedict when you do.”
“Yeah, yeah, sure, anything you want,” he said. I patted him on the top shoulder and walked out to meet Akshainie.
“Well it seems we’re done here. Let’s go.”
Evidence compiled for use during the trial of Father Benedict de Monte.