6 March 2006
Based on what we learned from the ghosts, we suspected I could keep the truck busy and away from Akshainie. If it was focused on purging changes to the spiritual realm of the city, it would see my constant human habit of changing as a real threat. We didn’t even know if the truck was itself physically real (aside from interacting with brick walls and fences), or if it was occupied by human drivers, or what it was; it may not, in fact, even sense her, if she had no impact on the spiritual realm while in the flesh. After all, it didn’t seem to notice the walls or fences it crashed into, maybe it really had no idea of anything physical. We collected some information on how to get to a garage the cult members had bought back when they first arrived, I borrowed a sword from Akshainie, and we split ways shortly before dawn. I left first, ensuring I had the truck’s attention before I ran off away from the garage as far as the rooftops could take me. The truck took the bait, and as I glanced back to check on it I could see Akshainie slipping off the other way.
The town was not large, and while we had been fortunate enough to begin the chase downtown in an apartment above a shop, the rooftops I could reach with only human strength behind my jumps were quickly running out. I had never really thought about how much being slightly inhuman affected my physical abilities, until I was stripped of access to anything inhuman about myself. But when we were facing the Black Goat, Matteson hadn’t seemed as weak as I now felt. What is it, exactly, about him and I that we share that would cause such a change from the human normal?
I slid to a stop on the flat roof of a one-story pizza shop. The only way to go was back, and that only a few buildings before I’d have to find a way to get up another story. The alternative was down, and the truck was there before I could realistically consider it. Now that I was close enough to it and had a moment to think, however, I realized that the windows on the truck were completely black. Not tinted, but opaque; I determined that whatever was happening here, it didn’t involve direct human operation. What in the world did this cult pull off? And what were they gaining by it? I decided it was more important to stop it and then consider these questions than to wait around until I slipped up somehow. I pulled out my sword, whispered a quick prayer to St. Michael the Archangel, and then leapt down onto the cab of the truck.
The sword pierced the roof easier than I expected, and drove deep with the force of my weight behind it. My feet, on landing, didn’t produce the hollow clang of a normal truck, and I wanted to debate what this thing was made of but didn’t have time before it started ramming into the building in an apparent attempt to shake me loose. So it could detect the walls. Good to know.
As I held on as tight as I could, I noticed the sword slowly cutting a line into the roof where it moved during the impacts with the building. I also noticed the wall giving way. It was trying to rebuild itself, but the truck wasn’t giving it time to finish. I considered my options, considering I doubted I could really do much more damage from my current situation, and decided to wait and hold on. I braced my feet against the roof of the truck, held on to the sword, and prepared to jump. After a couple more hits, it backed up and rammed the wall harder, and I pressed my face as close to my shoulder as I could to shield it.
We broke through the front wall, and as soon as I was sure we were inside, I pulled the sword out and dove to the side. The truck roared and slammed into the back wall, which stopped it. Just as it began trying to back up, I lunged over and slit the front tire on the passenger side and then ran back to do the same to the rear tire. I jumped back and watched for a moment as it struggled to get traction and the wall we entered regained its structure. I slipped out the front door and watched for a moment, praying that the truck would be too limited to break walls on purpose, as it seemed to be when we were stuck in the alley. I saw the tires begin to reform, but the truck was still not pushing against the walls hard enough to break through. Its roar sounded more alive, more angry, as I ran off to meet Akshainie.
5 March 2006
“How are you here?” I asked as I knelt to check on Akshainie, who was reaching for one of her swords with a shaking hand. “We found no evidence that there was any spiritual activity in this town.”
“We’re still here because we’ve managed to stay out of the truck’s attention, until you led it right to us!” the young man answered, drawing his hands into fists. Akshainie stopped, and let her arm rest on her side as she listened to him.
“Tell us about the truck,” she hissed, rolling onto her back. She was breathing heavy, but I could see the wounds were healing faster now. Her clothes had been badly damaged as well as her skin, so as she began to reform and I realized some of the areas that had become exposed I pulled off my long jacket and held it out to her while I averted my eyes and looked back to the assembled ghosts.
“Are you…a spirit?” he asked, apparently seeing her for the first time.
“Yes,” I answered, drawing his gaze back to me, “and she’s a spirit that asked you something.” He straightened up, as if mustering the will to oppose me, but I narrowed by gaze on him and he briefly shuddered before exhaling hard and shoving his hands into his pockets.
“It cleans,” he said, quietly.
“And what does that mean?”
“It burns away everything the Caretaker does not approve of,” an old woman among the crowd said, stepping forward. The young man winced at the title.
“We don’t speak of him!” he said, sternly. She waved him off and continued forward until she was standing next to him.
“And where has that got us?” she asked. He crossed his arms and huffed, but she turned her attention to me. “Father, I am not inclined to believe you stumbled upon us by accident.”
“Nor am I,” I said. She nodded.
“I didn’t think you would be. What brings you here?”
“The Brood of Nachash. The red spiral on the truck is one of their markings.”
“Is that what they’re called?” She hummed to herself for a moment, staring off into space, then looked back to me. “It sounds like you’ve had some experience with them, then. There is little we know, really, except that they promised us a new start. We…we did not realize what that would look like, in the end.”
“What happened here?” I finally felt the coat leave my hand, and as I looked over Akshainie was donning it and sitting up. She left it open, and one of her breasts was showing, so I shielded my vision and cleared my throat. She looked at me with confusion, then down at herself, before she sighed and rolled her eyes.
“Is that a man thing or just a priest thing?” Akshainie asked, gruffly, as she closed the jacket.
“Yes,” I answered. She looked to the old woman as I lowered my hand.
“Please, continue.” The old woman nodded.
“If you aren’t busy with your own issues,” the young man snapped. The old woman rested a hand on his shoulder.
“This whole area was hit pretty bad by the loss of the steel industry,” she began. “Our little town had some people doing that work, but mostly we had support industry for the steel towns around us. As their economies began to dry up, ours completely collapsed. They had to tighten belts, and we provided the things they had to drop.” She sighed and sat down as though there was a chair behind her, though I saw none. “We got desperate before they did. That’s when the Caretaker arrived. He said he was on a religious mission to free people from various forms of physical and mental bondage, and we wanted to know more.”
“He promised he could see to it that our needs were met, if we allowed him to make a few changes around town,” the young man said, casting his eyes to the floor. “We didn’t ask very many questions about what changes he wanted to make, and if I’m honest, we probably wouldn’t have believed him if we had.”
“What did he do?” Akshainie asked.
“He brought people in,” the woman answered. “They started doing basic infrastructure work, fixing things and so on. It was a year before we noticed anyone going missing, and when we did, we didn’t associate it with them.” The whole room fell silent, and in the quiet I could hear the truck rumbling around outside.
“It’s still searching for you,” the man said, “and it knows you’re nearby.”
“I don’t understand,” I said. “The cult, largely, wants to corrupt mankind, not destroy it. What would it have to gain by any of this?”
“Well I don’t know much about their big picture,” the old woman said, leaning back against the chair I couldn’t see. “What I do know is that they cut us off. I didn’t know that until I died, of course, but this whole city has no connection to the rest of the spiritual reality. We can’t even cross over. Whatever they’re doing, it requires complete isolation.”
“Benedict,” Akshainie said, leaning toward me, “didn’t you say the cult wishes to set mankind free from gods?” I nodded. “And you,” she said, looking to the old woman, “said they offered you a new start.”
“You think this was a test site?” I asked. Akshainie nodded.
“I think they found a way to break the connection between the physical and spiritual realms,” Akshainie answered. She stood and straightened out the jacket. “But it’s sloppy, destructive, probably unreliable if you want to build something new in its place.”
“So the truck enforces the isolation from the ‘old’ spirits and gods by burning away anything that tries to encroach on this place, but they haven’t made it farther than that? But still, why kill people?”
“Oh, they haven’t killed anyone,” the woman said, “at least, not that we know of. Most of the people from this town are still alive, somewhere. We all died through other means. I had a half dozen heart attacks over my last decade, pretty sure it was another one that put me here.” I walked to a window facing the street and looked out at the truck, which was still patrolling the area.
“What are you thinking?” Akshainie asked.
“I think,” I said, slowly, as I watched the truck turn around and begin cruising past the building again, “we need to find out where this thing goes when it doesn’t pick up any threat.” I turned back, and she was already smiling and holding her swords.
5 March 2006
It took us the better part of a day to even find the place where the dirt road would be, based on Matteson’s directions. We didn’t realize until we began actually engaging with them that at least half of his notes were contextual in a way that made no sense to people who were not familiar with local landmarks or the way roads are numbered in rural Pennsylvania. I have begun to understand why Henry once joked that Pittsburgh was designed by three drunk guys with a mean streak, if this is how they do things around here.
But once we found the remnants of the path, and they really were just remnants, we had to figure out how to follow them to a town that may or may not exist when we get there. Most of our early attempts failed, and we came to understand it was because we were not going exactly where the path must have gone, and had to start over. We finally managed to find ourselves on a paved road that just emerged from a field, looking ahead at buildings arrayed like the walls of an ancient city, shortly after sunset on the third day.
We entered and found it largely as it had been described to us. It appeared to be a functioning city, everything was maintained and even looked like it had been in use recently, but there was no direct evidence of people anywhere, and no lights on in any buildings. The city was dead silent, and perfectly cleaned, and sterile. We walked across a park where all the playground equipment showed signs of wear, and the benches had spots that were more worn from use than others and little engravings in them, but the grass was perfectly cut and there was nothing left behind by people. No bits of trash, no lost toys, no scraps of picnics that were overlooked or mittens lost in the recently-thawed snow. The city felt clean, not just on the level of having no trash in the streets, but down to the very spiritual level. As if not only were the humans gone, but the lingering spiritual influence of their existence had been purged. I could sense that my own effects on the spiritual realm were not hindered, but they were alone for the first time in my life. Akshainie explained that, as a fully spiritual being, she does not affect the spiritual realm when she is not actually in it, but she had no answer for the silence beyond that and seemed disturbed at my asking about it.
It was the most unnerving and desolate place I had ever seen, and the complete absence of any physical or spiritual detritus made both Akshainie and I deeply uncomfortable. She had taken on legs in case we ran into any humans, and we both walked in the stilted and hesitant manner of people that know a trap is waiting but don’t know where.
We had been in town nearly an hour, walking along empty sidewalks in front of dark stores and houses, before we heard any noise that wasn’t made by us. As we rounded a corner, we heard an engine rumble a few blocks away, and slipped behind the wooden fence of a nearby house to wait. The noise grew closer, and soon we watched through the slats as a glossy black garbage truck, with a red spiral painted on the side near the back, slowly cruised past our location. It stopped nearby, waiting, and Akshainie offered to slip into the spiritual realm to sneak up on it. She tried, and began to partially vanish before she screamed in pain and incarnated again, her body covered in what looked like chemical burns. As soon as she did so, the truck rumbled into gear and made a quick turn, heading straight for us.
I realized that Akshainie was in no condition to move, so I picked her up and ran across the lawn. The truck followed, smashing through the gate and tearing up the grass in its pursuit. When I glanced back, I saw the fence and the grass mend themselves perfectly, completely erasing the damage of the truck as fast as it was being dealt. I knew I couldn’t outrun a truck, at least not for long, and tried to summon fire to throw at it, but nothing materialized. Akshainie was slowly healing, but I needed to buy us time if she was going to be able to finish. As I ran across the street, I noticed a narrow alley too small for the truck to fit. I cut to the side and made for the alley, and the truck had to slam its brakes and cut the wheel to keep track. We made it to the alley just ahead of it, and when it slammed into the buildings I was hit in the back by broken pieces of brick and black metal. The truck back up and rammed the walls again, and afterward I stopped and looked back to see the truck and walls return to normal as soon as the truck backed up. It drove off, and as I turned around again I realized I was nearing the end of the alley and the truck was probably cutting us off. I backed up a bit, and began looking for another way out of the alley. I saw a manhole cover, but was unsure how well I would be able to open that and get Akshainie down into the sewers. I looked up, and saw a set of windows on the second floor of one of the buildings. I set Akshainie down, jumped up to grab the ledge, and opened the unlocked window before dropping back down. I picked her up again as the truck slammed into the exit of the alley, and made a show of trying to escape out the other end. When the truck drove off again, I apologized to Akshainie, jumped, and threw her into the open window. She was aware enough to grab the ledge, and pulled herself inside while visibly struggling to hold in more screaming. I waited until she was clear, then jumped and to grab the ledge and pull myself in. I closed the window behind me, and turned to find Akshainie laying on the floor in front of a dozen ghosts.
“What have you done?” one of them demanded, a young man with freckles and dark, unkempt hair. The others recoiled back, staring at Akshainie and I with wide eyes.
From the diary of one Sister Agatha, dated 3 March 2006
Today we began a week of work at St. Anthony RCC in Bessemer, Pennsylvania. Delightful country, I expect to find much peace walking the grounds. While we were doing our morning prayers, a priest came in with a woman, the latter waiting with obvious curiosity as the former took time in the confessional. She and her outfit looked foreign, and showed much more skin than I should expect from a parishioner. I attempted to greet her, but she was rather terse and I couldn’t help but notice she was armed with two swords. I kindly asked if she felt it appropriate to bring such things into a church, and she stated it was more appropriate than leaving them alone somewhere. She did quickly catch on that we were talking in hushed tones, but for the short time before she realized it she was certainly a distraction to the gathered faithful. She began to ask me about the candles and the icons, but before we got very far into that discussion the priest returned and thanked me for keeping her busy. The two of them went aside, where he prayed the rosary and she waited, somewhat impatiently, for him to finish. They talked briefly about getting back to work, and finding a path. I made a point to pray for her soul and the will of the priest once they left, and thanked Mother Mary for guiding a priest to someone so clearly in need of one.
The rest of the day was spent in the vestry, where we completed some painting on behalf of the church. Sister Salome told a fascinating local legend about a Protestant church that had gone evil some decades ago. Sister Margaret said that it sounded unbelievable, on the grounds that any Protestant church should hardly have need to succumb to more evil than being Protestant, and we had a good laugh about that.
2 March 2006
The main work floor of the factory was covered in burn marks and blood, and there was a massive amount of raw energy still lingering in the air. I could almost trace Matteson’s steps by the dead zones, areas he had apparently so strongly suppressed magic that the residual energy wouldn’t even seep back in. The existence of those made Akshainie uncomfortable, but she tried to hide it.
The whole site had been closed off by police when they had investigated the events here, and there were still signs of their going. We found a couple paper cups with dried coffee residue near the door, and Akshainie’s heightened senses picked up various scents related to their investigation. It seemed like no one had been in since then, however, and the company that owned the factory did not appear eager to restore it.
“Well, his story lines up, anyway,” Akshainie said, slithering over from the other side of the vast room. “Any idea yet who, or what, they were summoning?” I shook my head as I stood from examining the center of the site, and wiped dust off my trousers.
“It’s hard to tell. There was too much damage to the summoning circle, and any magical energy that I could have compared to the book has been too heavily degraded.”
“By time, or by Matteson?”
“Probably both.” She snorted disapprovingly and looked at the remnants of the circle drawn on the floor. It had been drawn in chalk, and all the activity and the little bit of rain and snow that probably leaked in from the ceiling had erased or warped almost all of it. “You don’t trust him.”
“It’s…” she sat back on her tail and crossed her arms, looking off into space. “It wasn’t just an Anchor, of course. The Anchor was working for someone else. But, you don’t understand how much damage they did to us. How hard it is to believe such a power can be used for anything but…that.”
“No, I don’t. But I might be able to understand you a bit better if you tell me about it.” She sighed and shook her head.
“Not here. We have work to do.”
“Well, I think we’ve got about as much as we’re going to get here.”
“That wasn’t much.”
“No,” I said, walking over and sitting on a metal case in front of her, “but it wasn’t the only part of that story that gave us something to look into.”
“You think we should look into this garbage truck?”
“That, and the city where they found it.” She rose from her position with a smile.
“Very good. Though I do have one question.”
“What is a ‘garbage truck?’”
Evidence compiled for use during the trial of Father Benedict de Monte.