As soon as I saw this Black Goat entity, I knew there was no way I was going to get out of this without changing forms. I really didn’t want to change forms, but I saw no other way we were going to battle some false god without it. And once Matteson noted the usefulness of hellfire in the situation, it was basically confirmed for me. I prayed a bit under my breath that that would not be the case anyway, but when I realized Akshainie was in far too much trouble without it, it just seemed…natural.
I didn’t have time to think about that, though. In the process of the fight and the change and the sudden realization that there was a real chance we were going to die here, or at least one of us might, I lost track of where Matteson was and what he was doing. I sent out a burst to clear the area around me of creatures, and started fighting back against the Black Goat itself. They were still coming, and I could take the occasional swipe or area attack to thin them out, but I was running a real risk of getting overrun and I knew it had to be worse in the hallway. Then I heard Akshainie calling out to get my attention. Then I saw her emerge from the horde.
“Finish this!” she shouted, before using her swords to bring down the rest of the loose stonework in the ceiling and closing off the hallway from the chamber I was in. I screamed. I moved to tear the rubble away, pull her out, do something. But I also knew she meant to do it. I watched her move with intention. I knew she had something planned, but I didn’t know what, until I began to see a little bit of water drip through between the rocks.
She’s a water snake, I thought. Of course. I felt a sudden pain in my shoulder, and spun to find a tendril of the Black Goat, with some kind of mouth on it, biting into me. I grabbed it and burned it off, causing another scream from the beast that had so long marked this place as its own. Then I noticed that what was left of the tendril wasn’t recovering as fast as the previous ones had. I looked over, and saw Matteson. He was being held aloft by the Black Goat, bleeding from the mouth and leg, holding on to the arm that was squeezing him and, it looked like, running his mouth. But with that tendril struggling to repair itself, I knew his plan was working. It was my turn.
I directed all my rage at the amorphous beast in the ceiling and felt the ground around me begin to melt as my fire grew stronger. I screamed and lunged. Two fresh arms shot out at me, and I grabbed them both and threw myself forward off them. I drove my own fist into the center of the mass, fire erupting around my hand as soon as it made contact and boiling away a large section of what passed for skin. My hand dug into the screaming, rolling mass, and I grabbed hold of whatever I could inside it and used my other hand to begin ripping parts off of it. Each piece I removed fell into the pit, burning away to ash before hitting whatever ground lay at the bottom. I lost track of myself and my senses. I just remember ripping, tearing, burning, hitting, screams of rage and agony. I don’t know how long I worked at the beast, or how many times I felt its own teeth and claws tearing at me. I was fully consumed by the moment. Fully given over to the nature of this form. I know now, looking back, that what I became in that moment was what I always feared becoming, what I had spent my whole life running from and hiding behind a mask of mundane humanity. This was what was always waiting, just beneath the surface of my anger and frustration. This was what Babylon desired me to become full-time.
The worst part of the whole ordeal was how much I enjoyed it.
The next thing I can remember clearly was falling. At some point in the tirade, between my heat and the writhing of the beast and the force of blows we were laying on each other, the ceiling broke. As we plummeted toward the pit, I ripped what was left of the Black Goat in half. My wings, knowing themselves better than I did, suddenly shot out and I stopped, hovering above the pit, watching the last vestiges of this dark god burn away and vanish into the darkness.
Matteson hit the ground hard, and the noise of him swearing brought me out of my reverie. I flew over and resumed my human form as soon as I touched the ground, then ran over to check if he was okay. He was groaning and bleeding from a number of new places in his chest and arms, and I was pretty sure one of his legs was broken. He rolled onto his back, pulled out a pack of Newport 100’s, slipped one to his mouth, and cocked his head toward me.
“Hey,” he said, weakly, “you got a light?”
“Those things are going to kill you,” I said, igniting the end of his cigarette and sitting back against the wall.
“Not if I keep doing shit like this,” he said. I couldn’t stop myself from letting out a weak chuckle, then winced as my ribs protested. I realized then that I was naked, and covered in cuts and bites and newly-forming bruises. I didn’t realize damage would transfer from one form to another. I didn’t even realize until this moment that I had bones as a demon. I waved my hand.
“I’m sure you’ll be fine. Your dad has always made it through.” Matteson suddenly went quiet, staring up at the ceiling and holding his cigarette away from his face as if deep in thought.
“He’s dying, Benedict,” he finally said, softly.
“He has terminal cancer. I don’t know if he tried to tell you or not, but…”
“But I wasn’t available. I wasn’t on this plane of reality.” He nodded. “Well, we can go to him! Maybe Akshainie, or I, maybe we could—”
“No,” he said, firmly. He turned his head to face me. “He said it was too much magic healing that did it. His body apparently had a bad reaction to it. I don’t know the details, but…it won’t help. Not this time.” We sat in silence for a long while, the weight of the news bearing down on me as if the entire chamber had collapsed. Collapsed like…
“Akshainie!” I cried, jumping up and running to the pile of rubble that used to be a doorway. Or at least what used to be rubble. It seems my fire fused the stones together, and now it was a solid piece of rock that I wasn’t sure I could break in any form. There was no noise coming from the other side. I had no idea what to do. I ran back to Matteson. “We need to help her! Do you have any ideas?” He pointed to a smaller doorway with a stairway in it, tucked away behind a portion of wall, that I hadn’t been able to see before. I lifted him to his one good foot and wrapped his arm around my shoulder, and together we hobbled toward the stairs.
“Any ideas on how to kill it?” I demanded. Akshainie and I turned our focus to the doorway, which we hoped would narrow enough to bottleneck our attackers and help us deal with them.
“I don’t know! I know great-grandma had notes about that, but I never got around to reading them, and I don’t exactly know what we have to work with here!” he answered, pulling out a much older-looking notebook and flipping through it.
“Your great-grandmother was taking notes on how to kill avatars of elder gods?” I threw a fireball into the darkness of the hallway and saw it break up as a host of small, shambling creatures burned or were thrown aside. They were getting close.
“Well, she was actually trying to figure out how to kill gods themselves, but it seems relevant.”
“What the hell is going on with your family?!” Akshainie yelled. A black, amorphous figure leapt out of the hallway at her, sharp paws extended out, and she sliced it in half in the air. “Why are you mortals trying to kill gods?”
“Do you really think we have time for that right now?” he demanded. Akshainie growled as three more creatures entered the doorway and we began attacking. “I mean, shit. Okay. We have, what, swords? A fire mage or something? Is that special fire of some kind?”
“It’s hellfire,” I muttered, throwing another fireball into the hallway and kicking a little creature back.
“Hell—are you fucking kidding me? You’re a priest with hellfire powers? It’s like a goddamn Livejournal story in here.”
“Look, kid, you got any ideas, or what?”
“Is that a thing? Do priests just do that?”
“Matteson!” He knelt down behind us and poked at the flesh of one of the now-dead beings swarming the doorway.
“The Black Goat of the Woods With A Thousand Young,” he said, softly. “Okay! Okay, look, I think she’s made of the same substance these things are, she probably spawned them.”
“Are you going somewhere with this?” Akshainie demanded, pressing forward a bit and cutting down more of the creatures. One managed to get over the pile and bite her arm, and I burned it off and then touched her swords, igniting the blades. She smiled viciously at that and charged into the mob as I continued giving her cover fire.
“Hellfire is pretty impressive stuff. I think it can kill her, but we need to isolate her first.”
“From what? The horde?” I asked. He shook his head and punched a creature, sending it flying back toward Akshainie.
“From Shub-Niggurath. As long as she’s connected to the source, she’ll probably regenerate too fast. We need to sever the connection.”
“How do we do that?” He cracked his knuckles, flicked his cigarette butt aside, and started walking toward the avatar.
“I think,” he said, slowly, “I just need to will it harder than she wills to be connected.”
Matteson, it seems, has not only run into the Brood of Nachash, but has been given the idea that he's important to them in some way. I would love to know more about this, but without assurance he would go into more detail than he has I see no way to learn much more from him. I had other matters to address at that point, anyway.
This underground area was far larger than the structure that sat on it, and clearly belonged to the cult. Not only was it theirs, but it must have been vital to their activities, at least when it was still in use. The importance of the site was not apparent simply from its size. The massive red spiral that occupied the entire floor was, here, more of a path. Maybe it's supposed to be a path everywhere else, as well. But here it was explicit, thanks to the idols and shrines that traced along it and the way the floor was much more worn along the spiral than around it. People regularly walked the spiral itself, and did not regularly walk across the arms of it.
The dust on everything, the old electronic systems, and the stale air all pointed to abandonment some years earlier. There was a part of me that wondered why they would abandon such an important site, and then realized that maybe they didn't know it was here. If I really did kill all the leading members who knew the full scope of the cult in the United States back in the 80s, and the few people left in the building upstairs didn't know what happened below, then it could have easily been forgotten. How many other empty Brood sites lay hidden around the world?
I saw that Matteson and Akshainie were walking the spiral, discussing the different shrines and writing down notes about each one, so I decided to focus on the three exits from the room. Once I was far enough away from them, I was able to call fire into my hand to light the way, which raised some questions for me. What little I knew of Anchors so far was that they prevented magic; but the fire should have been as natural to me as breathing. My natural form is constantly aflame. If it were so simple as negating magic, it would be my human guise that got disrupted. Either the details of what he is are just another thing a Matteson is hiding from me, or maybe he simply doesn’t know how his ability works. I determined to find out; but later, after we were done here.
The light from my flame illuminated the hallway, which was far less worked than the room where I began. The walls were rough-hewn, eventually giving way to what seemed a natural cave, completely unmarked by human tools. After about fifteen meters it began to widen, and soon small alcoves were visible, each containing a strange, limbed, inhuman shape about one meter tall, wrapped in bandages like a mummy, with assorted archaic weapons and artifacts scattered among the corpses. There must have been a hundred or more of them in this chamber, which smoothly curved back in, the walls meeting at a massive altar. The stone slab in front of the altar was stained with blood and surrounded by ancient clay jars, each marked with inscriptions that were distinct enough that they must have been a language, but one that resembled no script I had ever seen. The altar rose behind the slab, with a dozen small platforms sticking out from it that were covered in wax and burnt residue, and another dozen scattered around that were covered in long-dried blood. More of the markings covered the altar, presumably telling a story of some sort. The massive script at the top was, I assume, the name of the figure standing above the main body of the altar. I don’t know what they called the figure, as I could not even begin to make out what sounds the symbols would represent, but I recognized him. I had heard his description too many times, spent years seeing his face in my imagination after hearing in detail how it looked in the throes of vengeful murder, how it looked when offering promises.
I was staring at a statue of Buné, the demon who cursed Tadzio. But why would this cult honor him in this way? It was far too ornate to be a minor deity in their practice. Is this where he had vanished to those hundreds of years ago?
I turned and went back to the main chamber, intending to tell the others what I’d found and explore the opposite hall, but just before I emerged into the chamber I heard a loud roar shake the ground, followed by the grinding noise of stone moving against stone. From behind me came the sound of slow movement, and then the sound of metal tapping or dragging across the ground. I ran into the chamber to find Matteson and Akshainie standing at the end of the spiral, in front of a statue of Nachash. We all looked at each other in silence for a moment.
“So, uh…I think this statue does something bad,” Matteson said. I groaned. From the largest hallway, opposite the elevator, came another roar and a wet, heavy, thud. We all turned to focus on the sound, when from the two other hallways came the sound of dragging feet and tapping metal. Akshainie had her swords out in a flash, and I tried to call more fire but found it inaccessible. I turned and glared at Matteson. “What?”
“I need fire!” I growled. He raised a brow and produced a lighter from his pocket. “No! My fire!”
“Wait. You’re a priest! Do you do magic? Is the Pope cool with that?”
“Can you drop your ability or not?!” He sighed.
“No. But I can let it up a bit.” I felt the block ease, and suddenly my hands were aflame. Akshainie and I both turned toward the side hallways, but Matteson began calmly walking toward the main one.
“What are you doing?” Akshainie hissed. He shrugged.
“Seems to me whatever’s in there is calling whatever’s over there,” he answered, waving his hand dismissively toward the left hallway. “Why fight the horde when you can kill the boss?” Akshainie and I looked at each other, and then quickly made our way to the main hallway to join the boy.
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Evidence compiled for use during the trial of Father Benedict de Monte.