1 March 2006
I was encouraged to take my human form again before climbing the worldtree. The branches can handle the flames of fire giants, Yggdrasil explained, but there was no need to test its resilience to hellfire if we didn't need to. I think it was largely entertaining my own discomfort with having worn no flesh for over a year, but made no indication of my suspicion. I packed the book into my bag, after a reminder that it may not recognize its master in the face of a priest, and walked to the base of the tree. I have never before noticed the way the bark on one side resembled a stairway, but once I looked more closely I couldn't help but see it winding around and around the trunk all the way up, always meeting branches right where one could easily step onto them. Akshainie retained her natural form, slithering up the edge of the tree following a route of minute irregularities I could barely make out as she slipped over them.
I had no idea that the tree could be used to travel within Midgard, but Yggdrasil walked us through how to decide where we emerged on Earth instead of just popping up right outside. We tried to keep the track well, but it took a couple hours to get from the ground to the twig that opened to the world of man, and by then we realized we had forgotten some of the details. We tried to work it out, not desiring to make our way back down and up again, and lightly argued about bits we remembered differently.
"You could just ask," a female-sounding voice said. We both stopped and looked up, our gaze met by two ravens sitting on a branch over us. They were both far larger than normal ravens, almost as large as me; one looked otherwise normal, while the other had shifting blueish runes glowing in and under black feathers.
"I do hope you mean asking you," I said, glancing at Yggdrasil resting far below.
"It's worth a shot," the blue raven replied, connecting the voice we'd already heard to a face. Akshainie slid forward.
"Would you help us find our way? There's a place on the other side of the human world we must find, called Ohio."
"Vienna, Ohio," the raven answered. "An abandoned mental hospital." The black raven nodded silently. I turned to them.
"How do you know that?"
"It is time." She turned and cawed at the twig, and the image through the portal shifted and warped until we saw a dark room, a small amount of pale moonlight shining through the broken and barred window, the walls cracked and crumbling and covered in bits of graffiti, the ground covered in old leaves and broken bits of junk. We looked to the ravens, who nodded. We looked to each other, then Akshainie shrugged, and we walked through.
Once we were fully in the room, we looked back and found no evidence of the opening ever existing. Akshainie had to coil herself low to avoid bumping her head on the ceiling, which was only a foot over my head. It took me a moment to get used to being human-sized again, and as we both looked around and adjusted to the world of man, we heard footsteps crunching through the detritus in the hallway. We braced ourselves and turned, watching, when a young black man entered and pointed a flashlight at us. He looked us each over, with disinterest where I would have expected surprise, and there was silence for a few minutes until he groaned, lowered the flashlight, and lit a cigarette.
"What are you, a naga?" he asked.
"I...yes," Akshainie answered. The young man nodded and exhaled a long string of smoke.
"Always fucking something," he muttered.
27 February 2006
The Book of Shadows is in constant flux, but when the code was broken it largely began to obey the ways I now knew to read it in. It still took us some days to work through it, as even once we knew how to read it we had to figure out what we were even looking for. If there was ever a being named Nachash, it no longer went by such a name, or maybe it originally had no name. We didn't yet know enough of the book to know whether the names used were original or current, or something between.
The point of the book was to track the activities of demonic forces, that much was passed along to me by Tadzio on our way up from Germany. As we worked through, we came to understand that the text would change to show shifting alliances, locations, and even names. There seemed to be ways to use it to see the way things were in the past, but we had no time to dig into that different, and currently unnecessary, mess. What finally gave us a hint was when I began to find connections that lined up with my notes of some of the Brood's network. Some of them were dead ends, other bits were things I knew were being handled, but as I traced the network beyond the strands I knew I found reference to a Mother-in-the-Deep, a being who seemed central to some aspects of the Brood that I hadn't yet uncovered. The locations weren't always perfectly lined up with the human systems of marking them, but we were sure it was a location on the physical plane. It was another day of comparing notes and discussions with Yggdrasil before we were able to track it to a place in North America; when we lined it up with a map in my bag, we found it to be somewhere near the line between Pennsylvania and Ohio, likely on the Ohio side.
"Do you know any paths there?" I asked Akshainie, dreading the odds of her saying she did. But she shook her head.
"I could, through the River Network, probably get there. But without knowing what river we need, or what terms the Network would use for that region, it could take some wandering and guessing." I groaned and leaned back, scratching my chin.
"If it is passage you seek," Yggdrasil said, standing from the dirt, "you may wish to remember where you begin." We looked at it for a moment, then past it to the worldtree itself.
"I hope you've some skill at climbing," Akshainie whispered, looking at the tree's branches.
"Me, too," I answered.
25 February 2006
After a couple months, Benedict and Akshainie stopped keeping track of the time. The day/night cycle was strange in this place anyway, with a sun just orbiting the worldtree and casting light on the realms as it passed, and they had no idea how well it related to the world outside. They would work on translating for as long as they could stand, with Akshainie usually leaving to meditate what felt like a couple hours before Benedict was done. They would sleep when it felt appropriate; sometimes he would find her coiled up next to him when he woke, sometimes she was already up and training, sometimes she was half hidden away under a root. He wasn't even sure if she needed sleep or was just entertaining him. In this form, he mostly did it out of habit, but she was fully spirit and therefore might need even less. It never seemed sensible to ask if naga were a race with something approaching a biological cycle, though, so he never did.
This morning was one in which she was under a root when Benedict rose and went to begin his work, and he absently noticed her when she woke and slipped away toward the river. She returned some time later, still wringing water out of her hair and wrapped in one of the large leaves she had taken to using as towels.
"How's the book today?" she asked, settling down to what passed for sitting in her habit.
"If I was not assured of success," he said, turning a page and comparing to the assorted notes he had next to to, "I would think we were making no progress at all." She sighed.
"I suppose I should get dressed, then."
"I should think that was going to be part of your plan either way."
"Well, yes, of course. But I didn't want to leave you hanging if you were close to something." He nodded but didn't look up, and she waited a moment before rolling her eyes and leaving to gather her outfit. As she was slipping her shirt on, a large shadow began to loom over her.
"I am not equipped to know whether your playful attitude with him is born of amusement or desire," Yggdrasil said. Akshainie gasped and spun around, sword in hand. "But as your time here is nearly finished, I feel it my responsibility to inform you that if it is the latter, he cannot reciprocate."
"I certainly never said it was," she grumbled, putting her sword away. "But what do you mean, cannot?"
"You know how our kind are bound by our vows." She nodded, and it continued. "His priesthood requires some number of vows, one of which includes restraint from romantic or sexual attachments."
"Isn't it a mortal priesthood?" It nodded. "And aren't mortals pretty big on romantic and sexual attachments?"
"Generally. It is considered a sacrifice, in this case."
"Well, thanks for the tip, but don't worry. I'm not about to make any attachments with a joyless fire spirit, anyway." Yggdrasil slowly nodded, then turned away as she began to move toward Benedict. She stopped, suddenly, then turned back. "What do you mean, our time is almost finished." Yggdrasil didn't answer, but did stop and look toward Benedict. She watched it for a moment, then groaned and turned just in time to see Benedict jump up.
"I've got it!" he yelled. A massive smile spread across her face, and she looked to Yggdrasil, who had turned its back to her and continued walking toward its spot at the foot of the worldtree. She turned back and rushed over to see the book.
19 October 2005
Akshainie dove over Benedict's arm as his fist drove into the earth, then quickly wound around his ankles and popped up on his other side, delivering a quick pair of punches to his jaw before he was able to bring his hand back around. He stumbled, tripped over her tail, and fell backward into the grass as Akshainie threw herself over him and whipped him in the face with the end of her tail for good measure. He grunted and rolled over, catching his breath with his knees and fists on the ground.
"You're getting faster in this form," she said, slithering over and applying some ointment from a pouch on her side to her fists.
"Doesn't feel much faster," he grumbled. "Besides, I don't exactly plan on using this form once we leave here."
"What a shame, to hide a face like that just because it isn't traditionally human," she said with a smirk. She coiled her lower body around herself and began applying the ointment to the end of her tail. "But that's not the whole point."
"Oh?" he asked, pushing himself into a seated position. "And what is?"
"You don't know how to be a fighter and a spirit at the same time. You can punch, and you can use your gifts, but you insist on switching between them instead of seeing yourself as one person who has them all available all the time."
"I don't exactly have all the benefits of my demonic form when I'm in human form."
"But you have some, and I bet if you tried to embrace your nature you could have more." He let out a low, slow breath as he rubbed his jaw.
"You want me to, what, just be fine with demonic influence?"
"I want you to accept that you are what you are and make the best of it. I don't care what you think about demons in general. We're going against a force that will use all the powers you refuse to, and better than you can if you don't practice them, and your stories about them sound like they're very good at turning self-loathing to their advantage. If you insist on feeling bad about being imperfect in the eyes of your dad you will lose this fight." Her body slowly uncoiled as her torso lifted into the air, putting her eyes at the same level of his where he sat. She pointed at him as she continued. "And I'm not letting you take me down with you." He stared at her for a second, then groaned as he rested his hand on his knee and pushed himself back up to standing.
"One thing at a time. Ready?"
"Always," she said, smiling, as she dove forward.
6 May 2005
I had been working at the cipher long enough that day that I stopped counting hours. For all I knew it had spanned multiple days. But now I was having trouble seeing the words clearly, and realized I needed a break. I stood, stretched, let my wings twitch a bit to battle the stiffness in them, and then went for a walk.
In this form I couldn't really do much with water and had no desire to; and while I didn't technically need food on a daily basis, I still enjoyed the act and taste, especially of the pure fruits growing on the branches of the worldtree. It took a couple weeks for me to learn how to pick them myself without damaging the tree, which involved Akshainie painfully dousing the flames on my hands with the water she could call on when I did it wrong and nearly caused an issue. Yggdrasil watched these proceedings without comment, but never so relaxed that I thought it wouldn't handle the situation itself if she was just a little too slow. The first time, she picked two beautiful apples herself, taking a bite of the first one before handing me the other. When she slithered away with her prize and I took my first bite, I had heard Yggdrasil snicker.
"Don't they have a story about that among your myths?" it said, bemused. I grunted and it laughed as I walked away with my fruit, and we never spoke of the matter again.
I picked what appeared to be a gourd of some sort, with a crispy outer shell and a moist but chewy center, as I made my way around the tree today. As I made my way around the great roots of the worldtree, I noticed Akshainie sitting next to the well called Mímisbrunnr, quietly meditating with her tail curved around the edges of the water but never quite touching. I paused and watched her for a time, as she quietly hummed and swayed like a cobra enchanting itself, and the well softly humming along. Finally she stopped and, laying down beside the water, glanced over to me. She smiled and waved me over, and I walked closer to sit near her head.
"What do you know of these waters?" she asked, resting her ear on her folded arms and staring into the well's depths.
"I know that Odin, as he's now generally called, gave his eye for a single drink of it because the wisdom it could impart was so valuable."
"Is that how you Europeans think wisdom is gained? By consuming it?"
"It seems to have worked for him, at least once." She laughed.
"Consuming that which you value always seems to work. At least, once."
"Are you a philosopher, as well?"
"All things are connected, Benedict. You, me, this water, even the Barzai, all have their places in the great wheel. Some refuse to honor their place; but knowing this, and learning to recognize one's own place in it, is just the way of life in Iravati. That your people make it a separate discipline, as if such a thing could ever truly be separate from any other discipline, is a strange and probably harmful practice."
"I suppose we have a lot of those." We stared together at the water for a time, before I leaned back and resumed eating my gourd. Her body slid up alongside mine, until her face was next to my face and her eyes turned to me.
"Where do you think wisdom comes from, priest?"
"The One True God, who knows all things, sustains all things, and puts all things in motion. He is the wellspring of all truth and wisdom, and I learn to know the world best when I learn to see it as He does."
"At least it isn't found in consumption."
"Well," I said, "there is some of that. Every time we hold Mass." She laughed and rolled onto her back, and we stared into the endless sky dotted with leaves and branches from which the worlds hung.
"You'll have to show me this Mass one day. I must see this madness." I laughed then, as well, as I broke off part of my gourd and handed it to her.
"I would be glad to have you in attendance."
24 February 2005
The first thing to overcome with the book was the protection on it. Being a magical tome, it had a certain understanding of ownership, and recognized me in that regard; but it was never really intended to be something that was given away to anyone, let alone a priest, and it had the metaphorical teeth so express this discomfort. The process of opening it involved about an hour of placating it, countering its protection magic, and slowly reminding it who was in charge of the situation. By that point Akshainie had come and sat down across from me, watching with a certain amused curiosity as a massive flaming beast negotiated with a demonic book for permission to read it.
"So you've never actually bothered opening this thing before? Not even to find out what it was?" she asked as I was working.
"I wanted nothing to do with my mother, or anything she offered me. That's a dangerous road."
"But what can she really do to you? You're not exactly mortal."
"Her whole thing is control and corruption, and she is no low-ranking demon. Men and gods are equally malleable to her. The only way to win that game is not to play."
"And yet, here we are, opening the book." I sighed.
"I know. And I'm concerned about what happens next. But, I think saving all of mankind is worth it." I finished the procedures and the book relaxed. Akshainie and I looked at each other for a moment before turning our attention to the book again. I cracked it open, turned to the first page, and was met with a convoluted mess of sigils and letters from a dozen different scripts, half of which were either extinct or never used by mortals. I quickly flipped through the other pages, finding only more of the same. The only difference was that the markings on some pages were changing and others weren't. I yelled, got up, and started pacing around.
"I suppose this is why the tree gave you permission to use its resources," she said, looking over the page that was open and avoiding touching the book.
"Do you have any idea how long it's going to take to decipher that?"
"We have all the time in the world."
"We do! They don't!" I yelled, waving my hand toward the entrance to the chamber. "I could probably spend a century working on that and be fine, but if we come out of here at the end of that to find out the Brood had already summoned their dread god and eradicated any remaining good in humanity, what was the point?"
"A year and a day," Yggdrasil said, standing. It walked over to loom over Akshainie, and rested a finger next to the book. "This is not a parable, priest. This is a legend, and if you work at this problem for a year and a day and do not leave my realm, you will have what you seek." I stopped and scowled, knitting my fingers together behind my head and tapping the claws on my wings together.
"Fine," I said, finally, walking back toward the book. "A year and a day." Yggdrasil nodded and rose, turning to return to its resting place.
"Your rage on this matter is admirable. Try not to burn anything in the process." I sat down, took a deep breath, and turned back to the beginning of the book.
"Do you have to do this all day, every day, for a year?" Akshainie asked.
"No," I said. "It doesn't actually matter whether I spend an hour or twenty-four on it per day. As long as I'm doing something, it will come together."
"Well. We do have all this room," she said, leaning back and looking around at the endless fields around us. "Maybe we could work on those combat skills of yours."
"Oh, only mine?" I asked with a smirk.
"I could use some practice fighting someone larger than me," she said, with a chuckle, "but I'm not the one who has to remember how their natural body actually moves."
"Fine, fine. But you need to help me with this."
"As you wish, my lord," she said, getting up faking a bow before slithering away. "I shall begin by finding out what resources a tree has for translating an untranslatable book."
24 February 2005
The weather was fierce as we made our way inland, and although I was able to keep the area around me warm enough to travel through, I could not adequately fight off the snow without causing incredible discomfort for Akshainie. She had difficulty with the extreme cold, as well, but at least the snow didn't dry her out the way my heat did. The first few days we barely made any progress as we worked out a balance that allowed us to travel and gave her the warmth she needed, but didn't damage her. Thankfully she gave up on a human form fairly quickly, and her serpentine body moved through the snow much more gracefully than my legs; still, it ended up taking us far longer than I expected to reach the entrance to Yggdrasil.
The chamber of Yggdrasil felt like summer on the coast, and she immediately perked up once we entered. She laid on her back in the grass, driving herself forward with her powerful lower portion and enjoying the feel of the warm, humid grass on her arms and head and scales.
"You should try it, Benedict!" she called as she slithered along beside me on my way to speak to the guardian.
"I'm afraid my body doesn't quite move that way."
"Oh, but you can enjoy the grass! It's fun, after all that snow."
"I suppose we have fun in different ways." She laughed and started winding in circles around me, finally rising up behind me and resting her arms on my shoulders.
"I'm not sure I believe you've ever cracked even the tiniest smile in your life. Is this what that church of yours does to people?"
"There are some who say it does, yes. But you've also only seen me on business." I stopped as the great wooden being rose from the shadow of the Worldtree and stepped forward.
"You have returned," it said. It glanced to Akshainie, who let go of my shoulders and slid over to stand beside me. "It has been some ages since we have welcomed a naga to these lands, and never quite on purpose." She gave a low bow and then offered the introduction I had told her was customary in this realm.
"I am Akshainie, member of the Iravati guard, under commission by the Great Naga."
"Well met, Akshainie. What business draws you to the Worldtree?"
"Oh," she said with a brief laugh, then pointed at me, "I'm here with him."
"Indeed. Do make yourself comfortable." It turned to me. "What is your business?"
"I have come for the Book of Shadows," I announced.
"The Book of Shadows has an owner. I am merely caring for it."
"I am the owner of the Book of Shadows by right."
"You have not yet introduced yourself in this place to confirm such an identity." I frowned, then straightened up.
"I am Father Benedict Michael de Monte, ordained priest in-"
"The Book does not belong to a mortal," it said, before leveling its gaze intently at me, "not by right." We stared at each other for a moment, then I grumbled and turned to Akshainie.
"You may wish to back up." She raised a brow, but moved aside until I seemed satisfied. I turned back to Yggdrasil, who straightened up and crossed its many arms to wait. For the first time since childhood, I dropped my human guise. I heard Akshainie gasp as I became an eight-foot-tall demon, fire burning across all of my cracked and charred skin and forming something like a corrupted halo around my head, great wings stretching out to snap open and then slowly close. "I was born 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. And rightful owner of the Book of Shadows."* Yggdrasil nodded slowly, then reached one hand to the bark of the Worldtree and pulled the Book of Shadows as if from thin air.
"You are welcome to use this chamber to aid you in your quest, Telial of the Broken Oath." It handed me the book, then turned and returned to its place of rest in the shade of the Worldtree. I was looking at the book when I felt a hand rest against my chest. When I moved the book I saw Akshainie, at her full height and still looking up at me, her hand pressed against me with concern in her eyes.
"Why do you hide this?" she asked.
"It...it is not the life I chose," I said.
"All the way here, though. When no one could see you, even then?" I hesitated, then turned away.
"I could see me." I walked over to a table and seats formed from one of Yggdrasil's roots and set the book down. When I looked back, she had crossed her arms and turned aside to look at the tree and very pointedly not at me.
*- See the Book of Revelation (The Apocalypse of John), chapter 17.
18 January 2005
We stood facing the base of the mountain as we waited for dusk, Akshainie pacing around and idly kicking at rocks and snow.
"I do not see why I need legs now," she muttered, crossing her arms and sending a small puff of snow into the air, "no one can even see us."
"And will you have time to change if they arrive?"
"I do not know! But why can the humans not just know what I am, anyway?"
"It isn't that they can't. It's that they won't. They pride themselves on their very enlightened understanding of the world, and that which disagrees with it will either be dismissed or met with disdain. Besides, our work calls for a certain amount of finesse."
"I'll show you finesse, as soon as you fulfill your promise of letting me fight the Brood."
"I am working on it." She slumped down onto the seat next to me.
"Oh, yes, very important work, sitting outside some mountain you spent a week trying to convince yourself was worth the trouble. Why are you so concerned about this place, anyway?"
"It...I had planned to never return." She went to speak, but as the shadow of night fell over the rest of the mountain a distant singing drifted out on the breeze. She stopped and turned to face it.
"What is that?"
"Time to go," I answered, rising. I took a deep breath, gave a quick nod, and walked toward the mountain. The ladies greeted me as always, attempting to seduce me into staying with them, but soon took notice of Akshainie. Some asked if I had finally succumbed to the temptations of man, while others took to enticing Akshainie to stay. I tried my best to ignore the words and touches as I continued walking.
"This one's friendly," she said with a wry smirk, pointing at the succubus attempting to wrap her arms around Akshainie's bust.
"That is one way to describe them."
"Is this what you're so concerned about here? Oh! It is bad memories? Have you already-"
"I have chosen to turn my back on this place, but they are not the primary reason. And no, I know the price for entertaining their invitation; besides, my vow of celibacy would not allow it."
"Your father made a similar vow," one succubus said, seductively, as she ran her fingers along my jaw, "and yet, here-" I snapped my fingers and she fell to the ground with a yelp, clutching her head and whining softly as Akshainie stepped over her.
"How'd you do that?!" she demanded, pointing at the now-recovering succubus.
"They are mine. They were given to me, and as long as I am in this place they do whatever I desire. I desired for her to shut up." Akshainie glanced at the others, who had all backed away from us and fallen silent, and followed me into the mouth of the Venusberg.
Inside, the mistress of the mountain sat at the far end of a massive table overflowing with food and drink, surrounded by spirits and probably humans engaged in drunken, orgasmic revelry. She gasped and rose when she saw me enter, then ran over and gave me a hug.
"Oh, you've come back! I always knew you would. Has been a while, though, is it so hard to send a message once in a while telling me how you're doing? And you!" She proclaimed, turning to Akshainie and reaching out to embrace her. Akshainie growled and rested her hand on the hilt of one of her swords, and the goddess stopped. "Feisty," she said to me, "a perfect match."
"I'm not here for niceties," I said.
"Oh, no, of course not. You never are," she sighed, as she laid back on the table. She looked to Akshainie. "It's always business with this one. The humans have done a real number on him."
"I have noticed," Akshainie replied, giving me a sideways glance.
"I've come for the book," I said, stepping forward and attempting to cut off the line of that conversation. The goddess rolled her eyes and groaned, picking up a goblet of wine and taking a drink before she answered.
"The Book of Shadows."
"Oh, that dusty old thing? My dear, you didn't seem to want it, and it didn't exactly fit the aesthetic here." She waved her hand dismissively. "I sent it to Yggdrasil." I removed my glasses and rubbed the bridge of my nose.
"I have come all this way to collect my book, which you gave me, and you don't even have it?"
"Well it serves you right!" she announced, jumping to her feet and tossing the goblet aside. A throng of naked beings flocked over to lap up the spilled wine as she stepped forward. "I have offered you everything, would give you the world! You were destined for a kingdom, and power, and all the joys that flesh of yours can ever hope to know, and all you have ever done is repay me with disrespect and derision! You take such great care to keep your little vows and commandments, but ignore the one about honoring me! Is this what it takes to have a simple conversation with you? If I'd known you would care about it so much, do you not think I would have kept it here waiting for you?"
"I know what you want from me, and how well you will dress up your offer to get it. But, I suppose, I have an appointment with Yggdrasil." I turned and began to walk away.
"Wait! Here," she said, turning around. I glanced back, and she produced from the table a platter of perfect shepherd's pie, "I'm sorry I yelled at you. For the road, perhaps?"
"I know better than to eat food from this realm. Goodbye, mother." With that, Akshainie and I left.
Evidence compiled for use during the trial of Father Benedict de Monte.