12 March 2006
“So this thing we’re doing, we’re expected to dress in new clothes for it?” Akshainie asked as we made our way down the street. She was in a dress we had just bought the night before, with some flats and a purse. I had made a point of picking out a nice outfit that wasn’t part of my priestly attire.
“No. But wearing nice clothes is common, and you insisted on buying things for utility when we got your initial outfits.”
“Do you think I look nice today?” It was a very flattering dress. It had been something of a fight to find one that she would be willing to wear that I felt was also appropriate, and this one was something of a compromise. Seeing her move in it now, I felt like she gained somewhat more of what she wanted out of the deal than I did.
“Of course. There will be a lot of moving around, mostly between standing and sitting and kneeling. And there’s going to be a bit we call the Eucharist, this is technically only for—”
“We went over all of this last night, Benedict. I think I can make sense of it.” I sighed as we stopped near the steps leading up to the church to let a pair of older ladies pass.
“I just…I haven’t really taken many guests to Mass before. Usually I was either busy or surrounded by people who I didn’t know.”
“Is that why this is important to you?” I adjusted my tie.
“I want you to know what I’m fighting for.” She looked at a couple walking into the building, then put her arm around mine to mimic them. I looked down at her arm, then back to her face, and she smiled.
“Well then. Let’s go blend in.”
7 March 2006
I had called 911 and told them about the collapsed building as soon as we found a payphone, but when they wanted me to keep talking to them I let the phone hang off the hook. We slipped into the spiritual realm together, now that we could, and made our way back to the site and watched as emergency services arrived and began searching for people. When Akshainie determined the number of broken bodies being pulled out was getting to me too much, we left. I don’t remember much of the walk away. I don’t remember much of that night, mostly just the feeling of her stroking my hair as I fell asleep.
Now here we were, standing in front of a two-story house on a small side road, on the corner of a broken alley. The house was grey, or at least had been made grey by the elements and age, the paint peeling off the porch and various parts of the walls. The fence running along the edge of they alley was rusted, and the grass under it was longer than the neighbors kept theirs. The neighbors were so close. I always thought American homes had more space between them. I stared at it for a long time.
“Are you okay?” Akshainie asked.
“I…I don’t think I expected it to look like this.”
“Are you telling me you’ve been this man’s friend for decades, and you’ve never seen his house?”
“It hasn’t been that kind of friendship.” She huffed. I wondered if maybe it should have been. “Well, come on, then.” We walked up the stone stairs set into the small hill of the front yard, if it could be called a yard, and then onto the porch, where we could hear music coming from inside. There was no doorbell, so I just knocked on the solid wooden door loudly. After a moment I heard a faint shuffling, then the door opened to reveal Henry. He smiled and stepped back, urging us to come in.
The room was much better than the exterior. There was a recliner that looked fairly worn, but otherwise the couch was nice and the hardwood floors were beautiful. The television was off, sitting in a cabinet next to a component stereo system the likes of which I hadn’t seen in probably twenty years. This had a record going, which he turned down as we entered and I later learned was by an artist named Lionel Richie. He waved us toward the couch, then sat down in the recliner.
“What brings you guys here?” he asked, reaching for his glass of water on the end table next to his chair.
“A couple things, really,” I said. I cleared my throat. “So, for one, we met your son.”
“Yeah, he mentioned that. Hell of a night you guys had. I said he should’ve got more money out of those friends of his.”
“Did he mention telling us about your condition?” He paused, then set his glass back down.
“No. No, he didn’t.”
“Don’t. I appreciate the visit, but I sure as hell don’t need reminding what I got.”
“Right. I just, I guess I wanted to check on you.”
“You said there were a few things?” I looked to Akshainie, who pulled the folded map out of her bag and walked over to hand it to him. He began opening it as I continued.
“We found a site the Brood had managed to occupy. They took everyone, Henry. Kept them in some kind of stasis, or death, or something. I don’t know, we weren’t…we didn’t manage to save them. But the whole place had a lot of weirdness to it, and I can’t help but think we’d know a lot more if we could read the symbols on this map.”
“I think you’re right about that,” he muttered, looking it over. “Come with me.” We followed as he made his way into the kitchen, then down the stairs into the basement. This was his library, walls covered in books on shelves, a large table, and assorted smaller ones next to armchairs. He laid out the map on the large table, then went to the shelves and pulled out a couple books before returning. “Let’s see what we have here.” He started talking to himself softly, never quite finishing his sentences, as he ran his fingers over each symbol. He would occasionally pause over one, flip through a book until he found something that apparently satisfied him, and then continue on.
“I thought maybe this was familiar,” I said, pointing at one symbol that I remembered from an alchemy text I’d skimmed through once, “but I don’t know if position means anything.”
“It does,” he said, looking at the symbol over the rim of his glasses.
“So, being here at, what, about five o’clock, that—”
“Wrong,” he snapped. He reached across the table and pointed to a different symbol. “This is your key mark. The structure is aligned to the south, not the north.”
“Now let me finish this before you tell me any other theories.” He continued as I looked to Akshainie, who was beaming. I couldn’t tell if she really enjoyed the things he said, or just the way he was saying them to me. I turned my attention back to the table and waited for Henry to finish. When he finally did, he sat down in one of the chairs and swore.
“What? What is it?” He grumbled and stood back up, making his way past us to a cabinet on the wall, which he opened to reveal a small collection of glasses and liquors.
“You guys want something to drink?”
“I’ll take whatever you’re making,” Akshainie answered. He nodded.
“No, thank you.” He poured two glasses of whiskey on ice, handed one to Akshainie, then returned to his chair before knocking back about half of it.
“Bastards figured out how to do what Johnny does.”
“What?” I walked around the table and sat in the chair closest to him. Akshainie took a careful sip of her drink, nodded, then made her way to another chair near her.
“Look, this…thing they did, in that town. It breaks magic, like my son does. And it does more than that. More than I’ve ever been certain he could do, but now I’m not so sure.”
“Can you walk me through it a bit?” He waved his hand as if trying to form a thought in the air.
“It’s…okay, look. What did you guys experience while you were there?”
“I couldn’t cross over,” Akshainie said, “burned like hell when I tried.”
“Yeah, and neither of us could access anything that wasn’t normally human,” I added. Henry was nodding the whole time. “And there was a strange truck tracking me, but didn’t seem to notice her as much.”
“That’d be the enforcer they used, then,” he said. “John, he doesn’t really break magic. It’s easier to say he does, but that’s not quite what an Anchor does. It’d be more accurate to say that he enforces a certain set of rules on reality.” Akshainie growled slightly, downing the rest of her drink and then sternly making her way to the cabinet to pour another. Henry either didn’t notice or didn’t care. “The metaphysical realm doesn’t really make its own rules. It has rules, near as I can tell, but they’re ultimately decided by the way sapient physical creatures understand and imagine it. Somehow. I don’t understand exactly how that works, I don’t think anyone does, but it’s the best explanation we got. But the rules that keep all the physical stuff here and all the metaphysical stuff there don’t just exist. They’re maintained, passively by all of us, and actively by Anchors.”
“I don’t see how that means he doesn’t anything more than break magic.”
“Normally, it doesn’t. But that,” he said, pointing at the map, “does. And it uses a power very like his to do it.”
“So what does it do?”
“I redefines an area of spiritual reality,” Akshainie said, her hands balled into fists and her back to us. “It takes a place and it cuts it off, and then it gives it a new set of rules, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah, it does.” Henry stood, setting his glass down. “Have you seen this before?”
“Once. But not like this.”
“Well, whoever did it, if they were powerful enough—or had enough raw magical energy to manipulate, like from a town’s population of captured minds—could basically make the rules in that bubble be whatever they want them to be. It’s to be expected that bubbles made by different people would look different in practice.”
“So they were making a pocket of reality that was different? Why?” I asked.
“It’s the Brood, Benedict. This was a practice run, and it probably wasn’t the only one. But that town, by your description and what I’m seeing here, would be completely cut off from the greater spiritual reality of the world. Remade in their image. Devoid of gods and spirits, completely sanitized.”
“Is this their big plan? To do this, what, to the world?”
“We have to consider that possibility. And with what I heard about them trapping and drawing power from dread gods, they may be well on their way to having the power to pull it off.” I stood and Akshainie turned to face us. “You guys need to find out if they have more of these gods, and if so, to break that flow of power. Any way you can. If this is where they’re going with this, they can’t be allowed even another chance to try it.” His hand was shaking, and I considered asking if he was okay, but decided he wouldn’t want me to.
“Of course. Is there anything you can give us to help us find these things?” He nodded, then turned back to the shelves. It took him a minute to dig around, but he finally pulled out a book and set it on the table.
“Did you ever get that Book of Shadows?” I nodded. “Good. That will get you far, but this,” he said, resting his hand on the worn leather cover, “this is basically an index for it. You can find out what you’re looking for with this, and hopefully where it is with your book. Won’t be perfect, things change over the span of a hundred years, but you ought to get some positive hits off it.” We thanked him, accepted the book, and wished him well. He walked us to the door, waved goodbye, and returned to his music as we slipped off down the street.
“They were still alive, Akshainie,” I said. I dropped to my knees and faintly heard the map fall into the street beside me.
“You don’t know that.”
“They had to be. There was no reason otherwise.”
“Well, okay, do you know a reason they would have been kept alive?” I stared in silence for a little while, then closed my eyes and shook my head. “Then you don’t know. It isn’t your fault, you did everything you could for them.”
“No,” I said, wiping a tear from my cheek and standing, “Not yet, I haven’t.” As the dust began to settle, I walked to the very edge of the crater and looked down at the rubble. I couldn’t sense anything. I couldn’t hear anything, I couldn’t see any movement and had no good way to get down there to try and dig anyone out even if I did. I knew, deep in the pit of my stomach, that there was no one alive down there. I watched and listened, tried to reach my spiritual senses out to touch any minds or emotions or anything. I found only silence and wreckage. So, I set myself to the task of reading last rites over the site. May these tortured souls finally know peace. When I turned around after completing that, Akshainie had the map unrolled and was looking it over.
“What is this?” she asked.
“A map of this town, looks like.”
“Well I know that, English. What are the markings?”
“Still not English.”
“Still acting like an ass.” I sighed and started walking over to her.
“I don’t know what the markings are. Seems like a spell of some sort, probably whatever they were trying to accomplish here, but I don’t know how to make out what it means.”
“Know anyone who might?” I slipped my hands into my pockets and looked down.
“Yeah,” I said, softly. “I’ve been meaning to talk to him, anyway.”
On my way to Akshainie, I felt something begin to change in me. I couldn’t quite place the feeling, but I suspected I knew what it was; and when I found myself standing in front of the building identified by the ghosts, I confirmed it by igniting the blade of the sword I carried. I smiled, took a deep breath, and stormed through the door.
The outside of the building looked like a repurposed fire station, presumably the large bay door was where the truck rested when it wasn’t active. Inside the door beside it, however, I found a single large room with a sloped concrete floor running into a tunnel large enough to house the truck. I made my way down the slope, and hadn’t gotten far before I heard the sounds of a fight. I began to run, and when the tunnel finally opened it was to a massive chamber. In the center of that chamber was a man, his arm sheathed in dark energy, his eyes serpentine, trying to shield himself against Akshainie. She was lunging at him from across the room, having regained her full naga form, the shreds that must have been her trousers on the floor near me and far too much of her torso exposed through the slashes and tears in her shirt. I yelled to her as she made contact and was thrown back across the room, sliding to a stop about ten meters away from me. She glared over to me, and I threw her the sword before shielding my eyes.
“The people!” she cried. I looked around, trying to avoid looking directly at her, and it was only in averting my eyes up that I saw them. Pods embedded in the high ceiling, each containing a human being, asleep or dead or something else I dared not imagine. Dear God, there were hundreds of them. Must have been everyone that went missing, everyone that was still alive in this town when the dread work was completed. They must have been alive, I reasoned as I heard the fighting continue, because there’d be no reason to keep them otherwise. But if they were alive, then I needed to find a reason for that, which I hoped would be somewhere near the means to keep them alive. I followed the pipes and wires until I found a rusty electric console against the wall. Words of power were being shouted, there was the clang of steel and explosions echoing through the room, a bit of water splashed against the floor in front of me, as I ran to the console.
The knobs and buttons had no labels, and the few labels that were on the dials were so worn I could barely make them out. I searched the console for some idea on how to free the people safely, but I couldn’t find anything until I stumbled on a map. I unrolled it on the console and looked over the places they had marked, the circle over the town, the way everything was arranged. It was a spell, that much I knew, but they didn’t exactly teach us how to work with or read magic in seminary. The only person I knew I could trust, who I was certain could read this, was apparently dying of cancer across the state line. I should have visited Henry before we dove into this. I considered it of course, but this just seemed so pressing. I think I just wasn’t ready. Wasn’t ready to see someone like Henry in such a state, and then what, dive into this mess, dealing with whatever he said to me? Maybe I made the wrong call. Maybe I really should have. Would that make a difference?
“Do something!” Akshainie hissed, slithering in a wide arc past me at a much higher speed than I realized she could move. I cleared my throat, turned to look in the direction she was going now that I was certain her back was to me, and threw a fireball at the man. He tried to bat it away, and mostly succeeded, but the bit of fire that clung and the distraction was enough of an opening for Akshainie to drive a sword through him. I could learn a thing about focus and combat from that woman. Maybe I underestimated the value of her lessons when we were at Yggdrasil. I turned back to the console, rolled up the map, and tucked it under my arm as the screaming and fighting began to die down. I searched the sea of controls again, found something that looked important, and debated whether or not to press it. I saw the shadow of Akshainie approaching, and paused.
“I don’t know how to free them,” I confessed when I felt her presence close to me. She sighed, then rested her hand on my shoulder.
“Do the best you can.”
“What if I’m wrong?”
“Then you’ll still be a good man who did his best.” I took a deep breath, offered a quick prayer, and just as I went to reach for the button the ground shook. I turned to look at Akshainie only to realize that on her tail her bust was right about the level of my face, and I quickly turned back. I pulled off my outer shirt and offered it to her. “What’s this for?” she asked.
“Modesty.” She groaned and snatched the shirt out of my hand. The ground shook again and I looked at her, hoping she had an answer for the shaking. But she was looking away, back to the body of the man, which was now beginning to sink into the floor as it cracked around him. She turned back to me.
“If you have any ideas, now’s the time!” I turned back and pressed the button. The system shuddered, the dials all dropped to their lowest readings, and the pods above us began to move. We both turned to watch them, but then the ground cracked under us. We jumped away and tried to make our way toward the door, when I saw the cracks continue up the walls.
“No,” I pleaded softly, “no, please!” The ceiling began to break apart, and I screamed as a couple pods broke free and fell, crashing into the ground. I went to run forward, to try and help someone, anyone, but before I could move I felt Akshainie’s arms around me and then we were gone, flying up the slope, the tunnel cracking and collapsing behind us. We burst out into the early morning sunlight and she held me back as I cried out, watching the building sink into a growing crater.
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?’”
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.
Evidence compiled for use during the trial of Father Benedict de Monte.