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.
As soon as I saw this Black Goat entity, I knew there was no way I was going to get out of this without changing forms. I really didn’t want to change forms, but I saw no other way we were going to battle some false god without it. And once Matteson noted the usefulness of hellfire in the situation, it was basically confirmed for me. I prayed a bit under my breath that that would not be the case anyway, but when I realized Akshainie was in far too much trouble without it, it just seemed…natural.
I didn’t have time to think about that, though. In the process of the fight and the change and the sudden realization that there was a real chance we were going to die here, or at least one of us might, I lost track of where Matteson was and what he was doing. I sent out a burst to clear the area around me of creatures, and started fighting back against the Black Goat itself. They were still coming, and I could take the occasional swipe or area attack to thin them out, but I was running a real risk of getting overrun and I knew it had to be worse in the hallway. Then I heard Akshainie calling out to get my attention. Then I saw her emerge from the horde.
“Finish this!” she shouted, before using her swords to bring down the rest of the loose stonework in the ceiling and closing off the hallway from the chamber I was in. I screamed. I moved to tear the rubble away, pull her out, do something. But I also knew she meant to do it. I watched her move with intention. I knew she had something planned, but I didn’t know what, until I began to see a little bit of water drip through between the rocks.
She’s a water snake, I thought. Of course. I felt a sudden pain in my shoulder, and spun to find a tendril of the Black Goat, with some kind of mouth on it, biting into me. I grabbed it and burned it off, causing another scream from the beast that had so long marked this place as its own. Then I noticed that what was left of the tendril wasn’t recovering as fast as the previous ones had. I looked over, and saw Matteson. He was being held aloft by the Black Goat, bleeding from the mouth and leg, holding on to the arm that was squeezing him and, it looked like, running his mouth. But with that tendril struggling to repair itself, I knew his plan was working. It was my turn.
I directed all my rage at the amorphous beast in the ceiling and felt the ground around me begin to melt as my fire grew stronger. I screamed and lunged. Two fresh arms shot out at me, and I grabbed them both and threw myself forward off them. I drove my own fist into the center of the mass, fire erupting around my hand as soon as it made contact and boiling away a large section of what passed for skin. My hand dug into the screaming, rolling mass, and I grabbed hold of whatever I could inside it and used my other hand to begin ripping parts off of it. Each piece I removed fell into the pit, burning away to ash before hitting whatever ground lay at the bottom. I lost track of myself and my senses. I just remember ripping, tearing, burning, hitting, screams of rage and agony. I don’t know how long I worked at the beast, or how many times I felt its own teeth and claws tearing at me. I was fully consumed by the moment. Fully given over to the nature of this form. I know now, looking back, that what I became in that moment was what I always feared becoming, what I had spent my whole life running from and hiding behind a mask of mundane humanity. This was what was always waiting, just beneath the surface of my anger and frustration. This was what Babylon desired me to become full-time.
The worst part of the whole ordeal was how much I enjoyed it.
The next thing I can remember clearly was falling. At some point in the tirade, between my heat and the writhing of the beast and the force of blows we were laying on each other, the ceiling broke. As we plummeted toward the pit, I ripped what was left of the Black Goat in half. My wings, knowing themselves better than I did, suddenly shot out and I stopped, hovering above the pit, watching the last vestiges of this dark god burn away and vanish into the darkness.
Matteson hit the ground hard, and the noise of him swearing brought me out of my reverie. I flew over and resumed my human form as soon as I touched the ground, then ran over to check if he was okay. He was groaning and bleeding from a number of new places in his chest and arms, and I was pretty sure one of his legs was broken. He rolled onto his back, pulled out a pack of Newport 100’s, slipped one to his mouth, and cocked his head toward me.
“Hey,” he said, weakly, “you got a light?”
“Those things are going to kill you,” I said, igniting the end of his cigarette and sitting back against the wall.
“Not if I keep doing shit like this,” he said. I couldn’t stop myself from letting out a weak chuckle, then winced as my ribs protested. I realized then that I was naked, and covered in cuts and bites and newly-forming bruises. I didn’t realize damage would transfer from one form to another. I didn’t even realize until this moment that I had bones as a demon. I waved my hand.
“I’m sure you’ll be fine. Your dad has always made it through.” Matteson suddenly went quiet, staring up at the ceiling and holding his cigarette away from his face as if deep in thought.
“He’s dying, Benedict,” he finally said, softly.
“He has terminal cancer. I don’t know if he tried to tell you or not, but…”
“But I wasn’t available. I wasn’t on this plane of reality.” He nodded. “Well, we can go to him! Maybe Akshainie, or I, maybe we could—”
“No,” he said, firmly. He turned his head to face me. “He said it was too much magic healing that did it. His body apparently had a bad reaction to it. I don’t know the details, but…it won’t help. Not this time.” We sat in silence for a long while, the weight of the news bearing down on me as if the entire chamber had collapsed. Collapsed like…
“Akshainie!” I cried, jumping up and running to the pile of rubble that used to be a doorway. Or at least what used to be rubble. It seems my fire fused the stones together, and now it was a solid piece of rock that I wasn’t sure I could break in any form. There was no noise coming from the other side. I had no idea what to do. I ran back to Matteson. “We need to help her! Do you have any ideas?” He pointed to a smaller doorway with a stairway in it, tucked away behind a portion of wall, that I hadn’t been able to see before. I lifted him to his one good foot and wrapped his arm around my shoulder, and together we hobbled toward the stairs.
“Any ideas on how to kill it?” I demanded. Akshainie and I turned our focus to the doorway, which we hoped would narrow enough to bottleneck our attackers and help us deal with them.
“I don’t know! I know great-grandma had notes about that, but I never got around to reading them, and I don’t exactly know what we have to work with here!” he answered, pulling out a much older-looking notebook and flipping through it.
“Your great-grandmother was taking notes on how to kill avatars of elder gods?” I threw a fireball into the darkness of the hallway and saw it break up as a host of small, shambling creatures burned or were thrown aside. They were getting close.
“Well, she was actually trying to figure out how to kill gods themselves, but it seems relevant.”
“What the hell is going on with your family?!” Akshainie yelled. A black, amorphous figure leapt out of the hallway at her, sharp paws extended out, and she sliced it in half in the air. “Why are you mortals trying to kill gods?”
“Do you really think we have time for that right now?” he demanded. Akshainie growled as three more creatures entered the doorway and we began attacking. “I mean, shit. Okay. We have, what, swords? A fire mage or something? Is that special fire of some kind?”
“It’s hellfire,” I muttered, throwing another fireball into the hallway and kicking a little creature back.
“Hell—are you fucking kidding me? You’re a priest with hellfire powers? It’s like a goddamn Livejournal story in here.”
“Look, kid, you got any ideas, or what?”
“Is that a thing? Do priests just do that?”
“Matteson!” He knelt down behind us and poked at the flesh of one of the now-dead beings swarming the doorway.
“The Black Goat of the Woods With A Thousand Young,” he said, softly. “Okay! Okay, look, I think she’s made of the same substance these things are, she probably spawned them.”
“Are you going somewhere with this?” Akshainie demanded, pressing forward a bit and cutting down more of the creatures. One managed to get over the pile and bite her arm, and I burned it off and then touched her swords, igniting the blades. She smiled viciously at that and charged into the mob as I continued giving her cover fire.
“Hellfire is pretty impressive stuff. I think it can kill her, but we need to isolate her first.”
“From what? The horde?” I asked. He shook his head and punched a creature, sending it flying back toward Akshainie.
“From Shub-Niggurath. As long as she’s connected to the source, she’ll probably regenerate too fast. We need to sever the connection.”
“How do we do that?” He cracked his knuckles, flicked his cigarette butt aside, and started walking toward the avatar.
“I think,” he said, slowly, “I just need to will it harder than she wills to be connected.”
Matteson, it seems, has not only run into the Brood of Nachash, but has been given the idea that he's important to them in some way. I would love to know more about this, but without assurance he would go into more detail than he has I see no way to learn much more from him. I had other matters to address at that point, anyway.
This underground area was far larger than the structure that sat on it, and clearly belonged to the cult. Not only was it theirs, but it must have been vital to their activities, at least when it was still in use. The importance of the site was not apparent simply from its size. The massive red spiral that occupied the entire floor was, here, more of a path. Maybe it's supposed to be a path everywhere else, as well. But here it was explicit, thanks to the idols and shrines that traced along it and the way the floor was much more worn along the spiral than around it. People regularly walked the spiral itself, and did not regularly walk across the arms of it.
The dust on everything, the old electronic systems, and the stale air all pointed to abandonment some years earlier. There was a part of me that wondered why they would abandon such an important site, and then realized that maybe they didn't know it was here. If I really did kill all the leading members who knew the full scope of the cult in the United States back in the 80s, and the few people left in the building upstairs didn't know what happened below, then it could have easily been forgotten. How many other empty Brood sites lay hidden around the world?
I saw that Matteson and Akshainie were walking the spiral, discussing the different shrines and writing down notes about each one, so I decided to focus on the three exits from the room. Once I was far enough away from them, I was able to call fire into my hand to light the way, which raised some questions for me. What little I knew of Anchors so far was that they prevented magic; but the fire should have been as natural to me as breathing. My natural form is constantly aflame. If it were so simple as negating magic, it would be my human guise that got disrupted. Either the details of what he is are just another thing a Matteson is hiding from me, or maybe he simply doesn’t know how his ability works. I determined to find out; but later, after we were done here.
The light from my flame illuminated the hallway, which was far less worked than the room where I began. The walls were rough-hewn, eventually giving way to what seemed a natural cave, completely unmarked by human tools. After about fifteen meters it began to widen, and soon small alcoves were visible, each containing a strange, limbed, inhuman shape about one meter tall, wrapped in bandages like a mummy, with assorted archaic weapons and artifacts scattered among the corpses. There must have been a hundred or more of them in this chamber, which smoothly curved back in, the walls meeting at a massive altar. The stone slab in front of the altar was stained with blood and surrounded by ancient clay jars, each marked with inscriptions that were distinct enough that they must have been a language, but one that resembled no script I had ever seen. The altar rose behind the slab, with a dozen small platforms sticking out from it that were covered in wax and burnt residue, and another dozen scattered around that were covered in long-dried blood. More of the markings covered the altar, presumably telling a story of some sort. The massive script at the top was, I assume, the name of the figure standing above the main body of the altar. I don’t know what they called the figure, as I could not even begin to make out what sounds the symbols would represent, but I recognized him. I had heard his description too many times, spent years seeing his face in my imagination after hearing in detail how it looked in the throes of vengeful murder, how it looked when offering promises.
I was staring at a statue of Buné, the demon who cursed Tadzio. But why would this cult honor him in this way? It was far too ornate to be a minor deity in their practice. Is this where he had vanished to those hundreds of years ago?
I turned and went back to the main chamber, intending to tell the others what I’d found and explore the opposite hall, but just before I emerged into the chamber I heard a loud roar shake the ground, followed by the grinding noise of stone moving against stone. From behind me came the sound of slow movement, and then the sound of metal tapping or dragging across the ground. I ran into the chamber to find Matteson and Akshainie standing at the end of the spiral, in front of a statue of Nachash. We all looked at each other in silence for a moment.
“So, uh…I think this statue does something bad,” Matteson said. I groaned. From the largest hallway, opposite the elevator, came another roar and a wet, heavy, thud. We all turned to focus on the sound, when from the two other hallways came the sound of dragging feet and tapping metal. Akshainie had her swords out in a flash, and I tried to call more fire but found it inaccessible. I turned and glared at Matteson. “What?”
“I need fire!” I growled. He raised a brow and produced a lighter from his pocket. “No! My fire!”
“Wait. You’re a priest! Do you do magic? Is the Pope cool with that?”
“Can you drop your ability or not?!” He sighed.
“No. But I can let it up a bit.” I felt the block ease, and suddenly my hands were aflame. Akshainie and I both turned toward the side hallways, but Matteson began calmly walking toward the main one.
“What are you doing?” Akshainie hissed. He shrugged.
“Seems to me whatever’s in there is calling whatever’s over there,” he answered, waving his hand dismissively toward the left hallway. “Why fight the horde when you can kill the boss?” Akshainie and I looked at each other, and then quickly made our way to the main hallway to join the boy.
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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.
12 november 2004
As the first rays of daylight hit the water of the Ravi north of Lahore, Benedict waited on the south shore, watching the water. He carried his bag, filled with his notes and evidence, and was silently working out the most efficient way to hit the major points. The moment the light reached Benedict, the water before him began to churn. He took a deep breath and watched as the water began to swirl, then rise, until it formed an arched pathway that led down into a brightly-lit chamber. Two naga rushed to the doorway, pointing long spears at Benedict. One looked him over, then sneered.
"State your business, English," he said in a strong accent. Benedict raised his hands slowly.
"I have come by invitation, to discuss a shared enemy," Benedict replied. That guard spoke quickly to the other, in another language, and the other rushed back down the path. The two remaining men stood silent for a few minutes, before that guard returned and passed a message along. The first guard grumbled, then lowered his spear and waved for Benedict to step forward.
The river closed behind them and Benedict found himself in a large chamber that appeared to be constructed of clay bricks, painted with a limited but vibrant palate. He knew from the sense of the air that they were no longer in the physical realm, but very close to it. He was led down a long hall, with doorways dotting the walls. Various naga were bustling about, or peeking out of doorways, but all avoided him. The doors at the end of the hall were opened, and Benedict was led into a massive circular chamber. It had no visible ceiling, the walls just appeared to stretch up and support the night sky itself. It was full of stars, the Milky Way visible in extreme detail, stars completely invisible to the unaided human eye burning bright and shifting clouds of interstellar gas dispersing their light into the whole room.
Opposite the door was a throne, housing the Great Naga. There were two feminine humanoid forms emerging from a single serpentine body, which was itself at least twenty feet thick and circled the entire room multiple times. Benedict walked through a stone archway that lifted the coils up and allowed entrance to the room, and glanced up at the large scales as he passed. Every color seemed to shimmer from them, shifting as they caught the light in different ways, casting spots of color all around the room that moved in response to the restless body. An assortment of courtesans and servants were scattered through the chamber, some rushing on some task or another, others lounging and discussing some matter or another. Benedict was directed to the center of the room, where he stood silently and waited as the Great Naga continued whatever business they were doing when he arrived. Finally, another naga slid forward.
"Welcome to Iravati, Flameborn," he announced, in Enochian. "The Queen of Heaven will now hear you!" Benedict visibly flinched at the title, but straightened up and looked between the two large faces now fixed on him.
"I thank you for the welcome," he called out, using the same language and offering a shallow bow. "I am here on business concerning the Brood of Nachash, who have been active in your domain." The room fell silent and all eyes turned to him. One half of the Queen raised their hand to their chin, as if considering his words, while the other crossed their arms and glared at him.
"And what do you know of them?" they asked.
"I have been actively opposing them for nearly 30 years. I first encountered them on the other side of the world, in the United States, but have since been given reason to believe they do not originate there. Or, for that matter, here." The room erupted into shouts of surprise or arguments among bystanders, but neither Benedict nor the Great Naga averted their gaze to acknowledge it. After a minute of that, the contemplative half raised their hand and the room fell silent again.
"Call for Akshainie," they said to the page, who nodded and rushed out of the chamber. "And what is your name, again?"
"Father Benedict de Monte."
"'Father' is your title, I presume?" Benedict nodded. "Very well. Father, there has been speculation that this cult was an external force attempting to access Iravati, though we have not had solid evidence to support this idea until you arrived. Do you bring us anything of more consequence than a passing observation?"
"I do," he answered, offering his bag. "You will find here my collected notes on the Brood, details of my encounters with them, and the evidence I've collected of their ongoing activities." Another page came forward and accepted the bag, and just as he turned to carry it back Benedict said, "mind that I will need that back. With or without your input on the matter, I must resume hunting them when I leave this place." The Great Naga nodded, and Benedict turned to look when he heard another door open. Akshainie and the first page entered, and she slithered past the crowd to stand beside Benedict.
"You came at dawn. Truly a man of your word," she whispered, as they watched the second page take the bag to the side of the throne and begin talking to some scribes. The Great Naga was watching the page and scribes.
"I am a man of oath, Akshainie," he whispered back. "If I cannot keep my word about a simple meeting, how could I ever keep that oath?"
"What is this oath?"
"These records will take some time to review," the Great Naga announced. "Father, if it is not too much trouble, we would like to offer you accommodations here in Iravati as we process them." Akshainie raised an eyebrow and glanced over to him.
"Father?" she asked, still as a whisper. He smirked but did not look away from the throne.
"If it pleases you, O Queen, I would offer my services in compiling the information during my stay."
"It does. When you are not so occupied, I want you to spend time with Akshainie. She is our resident expert on this cult, perhaps you each may have some information and training that will benefit the other."
"As you wish, my queen," Akshainie replied with a bow.
"I will try not to impose," Benedict said.
"You are both dismissed. Akshainie, show him to some quarters. You will serve as his escort as long as he is within our realm." Both Akshainie and Benedict gave a bow, then headed for the door.
11 November 2004
The market was packed with people and stalls, fresh meat and produce as far as the eye could see and a crowd ready to take all of it home. I was weaving my way through the space, looking for a man I was told had some of the best lamb around. As I slipped from one cluster of stalls to another, I felt a familiar presence. It took me a moment of focus to remember it, but it felt like Akshainie, or maybe like naga in general. It was hard to tell, when I could only confirm meeting one.
I stopped and looked around the market, but no one looked familiar, and the crowds were too thick and busy to focus on details beyond the people closest to me. Once I had to give up, I continued on my quest, but the presence never seemed far from me. It was five minutes of this, all through the market, the presence hanging close to me, with me occasionally stopping to try and find it. Finally, I heard her voice in my ear, ever so briefly.
"Fishmonger to your right." I spun around, but she was gone. Figuring I had nothing else to go on, I went looking for the fishmonger that had been to my right.
His booth was behind a stall, up against the wall of a building. He had a variety of fish from the local river, a gracious smile, and surprisingly few customers. As I approached, he was hanging a fish in a small line of them hanging from the top of the booth. When I stopped and pretended to admire his wares, he turned to me and waved his hand over his stock.
"English! What kind of fish do you seek?"
"I suspect it's very rare," I answered.
"Oh, nothing to rare for me, sir. You tell me, does it have a name?"
"Akshainie," I said, softly, as I glanced around.
"Very rare indeed! But have no fear, you are close." He stepped to the side and pulled a curtain aside slightly, revealing an illuminated room inside the building. "Perhaps you would be so kind as to check in the back for me." I nodded and slipped into the doorway as the curtain closed behind me. Akshainie was there, in her true naga form, in a pose that I must assume would be considered lounging. She was spread out over a number of cushions, wearing a sari, her swords laying in arm's reach. The room looked used, but not lived in, as if it was a place for the man to rest during his work or briefly entertain but with no cooking area or evidence of additional rooms. The tapestries on the walls all displayed life on the river.
"It's rude to stare, English," she said, picking up a bunch of grapes from a bowl of fruit and plucking some off. "Sit down." I moved further into the room and lowered myself onto a large cushion near the low table with the fruit.
"I'm German, for the record." She waved her hand dismissively.
"You're not of us." I indicated the fruit with my hand, as if to ask, and she nodded. I picked out a mango and leaned back against the wall. "But I asked around, and your story sounds true. This Brood of Nachash is not unknown to the rest of the world. And one especially eager water spirit near North America seemed to recognize you from some incident involving a burning island?"
"The island is fine. The cult members gathered there, largely, were not," I said, pulling out a knife and beginning to cut the mango.
"The story was hard to decipher by the time it reached me, but yes. It did sound like you were very active in your opposition to the Brood."
"Is that why you left? To verify my story?"
"And what reason did I have to stay? To suffer your magic further?" I stopped, then set the knife down.
"I'm sorry, but I needed answers, and it was apparent you were not interested in giving them."
"Oh, make no mistake, I appreciated your style. Right up until you apologized for it." I chuckled, shook my head, then picked up the knife and resumed my work.
"I'll be sure not to apologize to you again." She smiled, then popped a grape into her mouth.
"You're doing that wrong, you know."
"I'm doing it in a way that works." She shrugged.
"Suit yourself, English. The fact is that this Brood of Nachash is a problem, one that I thought had been handled. You need to inform the Great Naga that it is not a local issue."
"Will they not listen to you?"
"I would sound...opportunistic. But to you, the cult here was just one stop on a much longer journey. A journey we are invested in seeing complete."
"Why should this cult be your concern, if you've removed them from Pakistan?"
"I think you know full well how the impression of mankind shapes the world of spirits." I stopped, then nodded. "Hm. And tell me, did you come here because you knew the cult was here?"
"No. I came to investigate the legend of the naga, find out if it was connected."
"And what do you suppose happens to the naga, when the whole world thinks as you have? That we should be understood through the lens of those who corrupt the image of the serpent?"
"You're fighting for your very nature." I set the mango and the knife down. "Tell me how I can help."
"Be at the river, at dawn. North of the city. Be ready to tell your story."
10 November 2004
Two more sites, both slaughtered before I arrived. Whatever it was that drew the cult here, they were insistent on getting a foothold, and someone was insistent on stopping them.
I had to assume it was my mystery woman. Once I knew what to look for, I had managed to spot her at both sites, but only briefly. She was always just a step or two ahead, always ready to vanish in the tiniest bit of water, but I had been working on a trick I'd learned back in North America. This time, I was hoping I'd be ready for her. It would have to be enough, if I wanted any answers this way. For all of my searching, I couldn't find evidence of any more cult sites in the area.
I wandered this last site in the spiritual realm before investigating. I don't know if she knows what I am, or what I can do, but I had no reason to think she would assume I could slip by her. I did not find her, but I did locate the water source I was certain she would use to escape. I made a note of its location, found the fastest route from the central chamber to it, then went back to the entrance to carry out my work as usual. I was taking notes on the fatal wounds on the last body when I saw her from the corner of my eye. She was watching, from a crevice above me and to the right. I quickly ran through the map in my head, and determined that if I played it just right I could reach the water just before her. I stood, jotted down the last of my notes, then tucked the notebook away.
"You know, we could try talking about this." I didn't know if she knew English, but I was certain I knew what she'd do the moment she realized I was speaking to her. Sure enough, she dove down the passageway behind her. I smiled, turned, and took off down the path I'd determined. I leapt over rocks and slid under a narrow passage, trying as best I could to reach the end of our race first. "Saint Hubert," I prayed softly in Latin, "please let me have estimated her speed correctly."
As she rounded the last corner and came within sight of the water, she began to change. Her legs gave way to a single, long, serpentine body, and the water started to open. Just as she was about to lunge forward, the water froze and the air in the room dropped to nearly arctic temperatures. Her body grew stiff and she hit the ground hard, gasping in the sharp air. I stepped out from the end of my path, catching my breath as well. She hissed and pulled out her swords.
"Do what you came to do, Colonizer," she practically growled in heavily accented English, "but know it will not be easy for you."
"I've been hunting this cult for a very long time. Well, long in human years, but I suspect you work on a very different scale."
"You...hunt them?" She was breathing very heavy, and I could tell she was having difficulty.
"They're a threat. I want to know what you've learned about them."
"What do you care? Some ridiculous little group of white people show up in my land and start corrupting the name of our serpents, and you expect me to believe this is somehow a problem for you?"
"This is not a local event. I've been tracking them all over the world. Whatever they are, they mean to impose their will everywhere." Her eyes widened for a moment, then narrowed as they fixed on me.
"I will consider it. If you let me breathe."
"You seem to be talking just fine as we are."
"For now. But you want to chat." We watched each other for a long moment, before I sighed.
"Give me something. Anything to know you're serious."
"It is my name. I am Akshainie, of the guard of Iravati." We stared at each other for another moment until I was certain I would get no further assurance, and then I opened my hand and allowed the temperature in the chamber to slowly return to normal.
"Now, you said you would talk."
"No," she replied with a smile, "I said I would consider it. I never said where." Before I could react, she vanished into the water. I screamed, the rocks around me starting to slightly melt as the water quickly evaporated. After I took some deep breaths and centered myself, I turned and made my way back to the hotel.
6 November 2004
The spiral on the ground was crude and shallow. Benedict knelt and ran his fingers along it, feeling the jagged edges. It was composed of short straight lines, five or six abreast, with each set slightly angled from the one next to it. From a distance, it could give the illusion of a smooth curve, but it was clearly unfinished. The scratches suggested it had been scraped in quickly, almost frantically. They hadn’t had time to finish it to the state of the others he’d found around the world, and probably never got to the point where it could be painted red. Not that it mattered. The blood that had flowed into it took care of that.
Seven bodies in all were scattered around the room. Four of them could probably have been identified by family, a couple years ago when they first died. The gashes across their chests and throats betrayed the use of a sword; a sword that was no longer in the room. The heads of the other three were crushed in. Every one of them smelled like sulfur, a sign of their connection to Nachash that he had picked up ever since waking at Yggdrasil a year and a day after arriving there. Benedict stood and slowly stepped around the corpses to the broken and bloody idol that appeared the likely murder weapon. He picked the idol up, a bust emerging from a pillar, and examined it.
It was broken off about three inches below the shoulders, so he carried it over to the disfigured idols and pillars and began testing the fit until he found the one it belonged to. Having found it he looked down at the name engraved on the post and scowled. He didn’t know the language and couldn’t understand what name the idol had, so he set the bust down and pulled his bag around to the front and dug through until he pulled out a notebook and pencil. His superiors had been concerned about his lengthy absence in the Arctic, and now he knew he would need to bring more samples back to justify his globetrotting. As he was taking a rubbing of the engraving, he heard a stone drag across the floor behind him. He turned quickly and looked around, but saw nothing.
He'd been tracking information around the world ever since he left Yggdrasil, looking for any lore related to serpents that may give some indication on a source for the Brood of Nachash or at least an idea of what they were seeking. His search had brought him to the region around Lahore, Pakistan, where he had now found three ritual sites claimed by the Brood, all of them filled with dead cultists.
He finished his work and then began exploring the rest of the cavern, which had multiple branches cutting off into the rock. As he approached the second side passage, something further down the chamber scraped against the rock. He ran down the passage, following the faint noise of very light footsteps ahead of him. He rounded one corner and got a brief glimpse of her, a woman with twin swords and a movement that flowed like water. She was quick, but he saw enough of her face and arms to recognize her as a local. When he rounded the corner she had disappeared around, he found no evidence of her passing. Just a small stream of water, flowing through the stone, not large enough to hide a person or allow one to escape. He slipped into the spiritual realm and looked around, but found little more than a faint trace that led into the water. He scowled, then turned and headed back to finish his report.
9 October 1997
In retrospect, I don't know what we really expected to happen.
We had talked about the investigation of the site as though violence would be a last resort, only used if absolutely necessary. The stated goal had been investigation and, if possible, capture. Bring the Barzai to justice for his murders, let the police crack down on the rest of the organization. The Church had learned long ago that we needed to limit the amount of direct justice we carried out; its why my organization was no longer referred to as an inquisition. But I had also made clear to Tadzio that this was a dangerous force, and I had been sent specifically because I was capable of meeting the violence they could pour out. I had described it as a war, I had prepared for battle, I had let my anger at the Barzai and his little band of murderous zealots and the clergy that fed their cause show and had never sought to temper it. And this was why, when I saw the flash of Tadzio's blade in the candlelight and time seemed to slow to a crawl, I knew I had done this. Every soul that died in this place today was, to some degree, my responsibility. Even the very existence, and therefore the actions, of the Barzai were driven at least partly by my own actions years ago.
I wanted to hate them. I wanted to view them as inferior, as foolish lost souls that bought into lies and had no real chance at redemption. I could see the hate in their eyes, and I knew that no mortal would find my rage against them unjust. They sought to destroy the good in humanity, to tear down every institution that had build society, to burn and kill and rampage until the Earth was reduced to a ruin, and they believed fully that this would be the only true freedom for mankind. They were everything I stood against in this world, and they wanted nothing more in this moment to kill us both and carry on their dread work unhindered.
"You must never forget this, Bene," Father had told me, as I stood in the doorway to leave for seminary. His hands were on my shoulders, his eyes barely holding back tears. "The people that you serve, the souls you shepherd, every one of them has a chance. Every one of them is doing the best they can with what they have and what they know."
The Barzai was charging forward. Tadzio's sword was fully drawn and he was moving forward, flowing like water, hundreds of years of training showing in the smallest movement of every muscle. The small crowd of cultists were drawing knives and moving in.
"If there is hope for you, there is hope for them," Father said, "there is hope for us all." I knew he was right. I knew where my kind stood in the order of things. If there was a redemption offered for me...
I held out my arms. Fire is easy, but this, I had never tried this. I needed to get it just right and didn't have much time to experiment. I exhaled sharply, cleared my mind, focused on every bit of heat in the room. In an arc around Tadzio and I, the air rapidly began to cool as I drew the heat into myself. Let it build. Add to it. Act fast. Don't let it spark.
How foolish I was to lose sight of that. Father was old, dying, battling delusions and a loss of memory. He told me in his final days that he would carry his sin to the grave, but I knew he was wrong. I should have known he was wrong, instead of wondering, dwelling, letting myself believe that maybe all of this was for nothing. Maybe there was, in the end, no hope for him, or for me. I forgot what it meant to receive forgiveness. I let myself believe in judgment so much more strongly than redemption that I had killed a man of the cloth in my rage and now stood poised to slaughter an entire room. But I knew better.
As I reheated that air well above room temperature, there was an audible crack that echoed through the room. The rapidly expanding air sent Tadzio and the cultists flying backward. They were injured, all of them, but they'd live long enough to get medical help. Tadzio was going to be furious.
I snapped my eyes open as the Barzai, undeterred by the blast, threw himself forward and drove me into the stone floor. I used the momentum and threw him back off of me into the wall, and rolled over onto my knees. He crashed to the ground and slithered back to his feet, his body moving unnaturally like a snake's without fully changing form. We each lunged forward and went on the attack. Fists flying, occasionally making contact with ribs, occasionally being deflected. He was fast, angry, and driven to kill, and soon I was finding myself on the defensive more often than not. He was trying to draw my attacks away to get a bite in, and I had to occasionally fend him off with a blast of fire when my hands were occupied. I couldn't get to my gun, despite a part of me screaming in my mind that I needed to. Was capture even a realistic goal here? Could the Barzai ever be stopped while he still lived?
I finally managed to get a hold of him and throw him off me. I reached down for my gun, but before I could grab it, Tadzio's sword plunged into the Barzai's side. He screamed and stumbled backward, and I glanced over to see Tadzio standing where he had fallen from the blast. His left arm was hanging limp and his head was bleeding, but his right arm was apparently still in a suitable condition to throw. It was only then I managed to notice the cultists, moaning on the floor, a couple trying to roll over. I stormed forward and pulled the sword from the Barzai's body, causing him to scream again. Putting the sword to his throat, I pushed him back against the wall.
"It's over. Come with me," I said. He laughed.
"Oh, Father. Next time you underestimate me like that, you'll surely die!" He snapped his fingers and became a mist that suddenly vanished into itself. I fell forward and caught myself against the wall, before spinning around to survey the room. Tadzio was limping toward me.
"Well, that didn't go as planned," he said, reaching out for his sword. I returned it to him as soon as he was close enough.
"The plan was...revised," I answered.
"I noticed. We need to have a chat about that, but first," he turned and pointed at the cultists with his sword, "we need to decide what happens with them."
"Don't worry, I know exactly what to do. But first, we need to leave." He stared at me for a moment, then sighed and put his sword away.
Evidence compiled for use during the trial of Father Benedict de Monte.