22 February 2007
We had been pretty busy packing up, hiking down, and clearing the vacation time and travel arrangements and didn’t have a chance to talk much for a couple days. But now here we were, lounging on the beach in Beaulieu-sur-Mer, and Akshainie was finally comfortable and asking me to clarify what I’d said in Mundir’s realm. We were conversing in Enochian, I guess so the French around us wouldn’t understand. No one paid much mind, they were probably used to foreigners using unknown languages.
“Which part?” I asked.
“Right.” There was a long pause.
“Well? What’s your problem with me?”
“Okay, look.” I rolled over to face her. “I don’t have any problem with you.”
“You sure seem like you do.”
“Akshainie. You’re a great ally, a skilled warrior, and you’ve become a true friend. I appreciate your decisive approach to things, and you have a wealth of knowledge about the spiritual realm and its residents that has been deeply important to our work. I have no issues with you.”
“And how does that translate to guilt?”
“Everything translates to guilt when you’re Catholic.”
“You’re going to have to explain it more than that.”
“Okay so when you grow up Catholic, it’s beaten into your head basically your whole life that anything related to sex, or even the thought of sex, is bad and makes baby Jesus cry and requires a confession, and—”
“Just…I can explain that another time. The point is, you get the notion that any sort of attraction is sinful and some people embrace that and some people struggle with it and some people just kind of decide to ignore it and some people, for reasons that I cannot begin to go into now, go all in to the point where they take an oath to have no romantic or sexual relationships at all, ever.”
“You’ve mentioned your oaths before. I don’t see how—wait!” She propped herself up on her elbow and pulled off her sunglasses, looking me over. “You’re attracted to me!”
“You are not an unattractive woman.”
“I’m not trying to be romantic.”
“No! That’s the problem, isn’t it! You want to be romantic but you can’t let yourself do it so instead you just act like an awkward asshole!”
“Well I didn’t think I was acting quite like that.”
“Oh you have been.” She laid down and put her sunglasses back on. I watched her for a moment, not letting my eyes wander over the new swimsuit she’d bought with some of that money from Michael, and then rolled onto my back again. “So tell me about this oath.”
“It’s a commitment that, as a servant of Christ under the authority of His Holy Church, I will maintain abstinence and forgo earthly marriage. As a priest, I am to represent God to the people and the people to God, and Christ has one bride, the Church, so I can have no different bride as part of that representation.”
“That’s the wording of it?”
“What’s what the wording means.”
“But it’s only in effect as long as you work as a priest.”
“Well, yes. But this isn’t just some job, I’ve committed the rest of my life to it.”
“Your very, very long life.”
“Where are you going with this?”
“Nowhere. Don’t worry about it.” Another long pause. “Do you ever regret it?”
“I don’t know.” I sighed. “It’s a noble calling, and I value it greatly. I do believe it’s the right thing for me.”
“But I’ve never really been like them, you know? I’m a half demon! I’m supposed to be anathema to the Church, and if most of my connections there knew about my nature they would assume I was. It’s hard to feel like you fit into a structure that assumes you’re the enemy. That can’t know the truth about you without hating you.”
“There are many people trying to fit into many such structures in this world.”
“Yeah. I’m becoming aware.”
“So what now?”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re attracted to me, and can’t do anything about it. So what happens now?”
“Out of curiosity, what about you?”
“Are you asking if I’m attracted to you?” she asked, turning to me again. I nodded. “Would it make a difference to your answer?”
“No. I suppose not.”
“Then just answer me.”
I hesitated, thinking about the best answer to give.
“I think,” I said, slowly, “what happens next is that we continue the mission. And I will try to maintain focus, and now that you know what I’m working with, maybe you could take my issues into consideration? Not hold it against me when I’m trying to keep my mind on the task at hand?”
“I think I can do that. If you can not act so disturbed when I need to be less covered than usual.”
“I can try.”
“That’ll do. You’re not so bad, you know.” She turned away again. “For a European.”
“And as a demon?”
“Oh you’re a terrible demon. But I’m sure we can work with it.”
The corridor itself was not long, and opened into another large chamber. This one was relatively small, with piles of stones and pockets of fire and assorted pieces of furniture, mostly designed for lounging. The spirit that led us quickly started shoving rocks aside that were piled on some of the seats.
“Sorry,” he said, in Enochian, “I don’t receive many guests here these days.”
“Finally, someone who speaks a language I understand!” Akshainie said, coiling up on a spot of ground as far as she could get from any active flames. I sat down on one of the freshly-cleared seats, and our host climbed on the largest seat and coiled his body on it.
“Oh good. That was a bit of a guess, really.”
“What are you? What is this place?”
“I am a salamander, but you can call me Mundir. And this is my den, a sort of outpost that was given to me and I’ve never seen fit to give up.”
“I must admit I’ve not seen a salamander that looks quite like you before,” I said. “And I was under the impression your kind were mostly concentrated in the Middle East.”
“I don’t know where that is.” He reached under his coils, pulled out a glowing hot stone, and tossed it aside. “But the people that carried the legends of our kind have traveled far, and had settlements just south of here some time ago. This place was somewhere we could watch invaders from the north when they set their sights on our lands. And, as times change, so do we. It seems mankind has strange ideas about what a salamander should be these days, not that I mind. It’s nice being big for once.”
“So you’re the serpent the locals have started to whisper about?”
“Oh goodness, have they seen me? I didn’t think they’d seen me.”
“What were you doing?”
“Well, look, I get lonely, okay? The people that brought me here left, and no one told me. I went out one day and they were just gone! I couldn’t find another salamander as far as the sea. And of course I had little legs then, so it took me some years to carry out that search. When I found nothing, I came back. I peek out every few decades, you know, to see what’s new and get a glimpse of what the humans are doing. You know they have a whole little town just down the side of this mountain now?”
“We do, yes,” Akshainie said.
“And I guess they noticed me. I hope they didn’t mind too much.”
“The few that mentioned you did seem concerned about their safety,” I pointed out.
“Oh. Well, I wouldn’t do anything to them. Is that why you’re here? To deal with some scary monster?”
“A cult, actually. We’ve been hunting the Brood of Nachash—”
“And you thought those bastards were here!?”
“No,” Akshainie jumped in, “but we couldn’t just dismiss the idea without taking a look.”
“You know of the Brood, though?” I asked.
“Of course I know of them. They were here, you know. Well, not here, but south of here, I think they called it Catalan. You missed them by a few centuries. We burned their sites as soon as we found them, my flames and I. But if they’re still around I suspect every spirit that looks like a serpent knows them by now.”
“Is it because of the perversion they bring to the image of serpents?” Akshainie asked.
“Yes! Yes, exactly, I knew you’d get it, not like hellspawn over here, no offense.”
“A little taken,” I said.
“And you want to know the worst part? Nachash,” here, he spit, “as he calls himself. It just means serpent, that’s the whole thing, it’s just a word that means serpent, but he isn’t even a serpent! The whole thing is a ruse!”
“Why does he call himself Serpent if he isn’t a serpent?” Akshainie asked.
“Something about a garden, I don’t know, I wasn’t that invested in why he was taking a name that didn’t belong to him. But the point is, because he is using it, we have to deal with the fallout of everything he does.”
“Well,” I said, “it sounds like you have as much reason to oppose the Brood as we could hope for. It sounds like pursuing serpent leads isn’t going to be useful, either.”
“We suspected that,” Akshainie said. “I thought we were going to focus on finding their sites of power.”
“We are. It was just handy that Michael had this site on his radar and was willing to fly us here for free.” I turned to Mundir. “Is there any way you could help us going forward?”
“I can’t do much of anything. I can’t even leave this place, not without disturbing the locals,” he answered.
“You can’t travel the infernal roads? I thought they connected all planes of fire.”
“They do. I’m not welcome on any of the roads that connect here. The humans got some ideas into the spirits’ heads that anything vaguely Muslim isn’t welcome.”
“Tell you what. If I can get you access to the roads, would you be willing to send word along to other serpents to aid us?”
“Absolutely! Don’t know how you’ll do that, though.”
“I have an idea. Please show me to a road.” I stood, and Akshainie and Mundir did the same. Mundir led us out of the chamber, down to another corridor, and to a gateway burned into a wall. I stepped through the fires of the gateway alone. I poked my head back through and told Mundir to follow me. On the other side was one of the Infernal Roads, paths I’d determined decades ago to never use. I wasn’t about to change that plan, but I knew what authority I had here. We stepped forward until a small cadre of fire spirits, armed to defend themselves, emerged to block our path.
“Passage from this realm is not permitted,” one of them declared. The others tightened their grip on their weapons.
“On whose authority?” I demanded.
“It has been willed.”
“What does it matter? By what authority do you challenge it?”
“By my own,” I said, straightening to stand at full height.
“And who are you?” it sneered.
“I am 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. The humans know me as Father Benedict de Monte, priest of the Holy Catholic Church.” I stepped forward. “And I am ordering you to allow passage from this realm.” Their eyes grew wide and I noticed a few of them begin to tremble. The one who was speaking stood silent for a long moment, then turned to one of the others.
“Go verify this name.” The spirit gave a quick nod and vanished into the walls. I crossed my arms and we all waited about a minute until the spirit returned and whispered in the ear of the apparent leader. “Very well. Do not get used to throwing your weight around here, Telial.”
“I won’t.” The leader nodded, and all of them vanished again into the walls. I turned to find Mundir standing with his eyes wide and his mouth agape.
“You can do that?” he demanded.
“When it suits me. I trust you to keep your end of the deal.”
“Just make sure you call me Benedict when you do.”
“Yeah, yeah, sure, anything you want,” he said. I patted him on the top shoulder and walked out to meet Akshainie.
“Well it seems we’re done here. Let’s go.”
As we descended further into the mountain, we came upon a massive chamber. There was fire along the walls, and randomly-placed burning pits scattered along the ground. The chamber went on an impossible distance, with smaller chambers branching off here and there from the uneven walls. I glanced to Akshainie, who was starting to sweat.
“Well, we found somewhere warm,” I said.
“You’re hilarious,” she answered flatly. I laughed and looked around. A small fire spirit, that looked like a living flame with arms and legs, leapt out of one of the pits, carrying a small pile of red hot volcanic rocks. Akshainie drew her swords and stared. It jumped when it saw us, throwing the rocks into the air and landing on its back. The rocks clattered to the ground around it, and it sat rubbing what passed for a head for a moment.
“Oh! Oh my, sorry, I didn’t expect…hold on,” it said, before scrambling to its feet and beginning to gather the stones. Akshainie sighed and put her swords away.
“What is this place?”
“You don’t know? How did you get here if you don’t know?”
“Through the mountain.” I crossed my arms and waited as the flame nodded slowly, then grabbed the last rock.
“Right, well, at any rate, if you don’t know then you haven’t seen the boss, and if you haven’t seen the boss, you really should.”
“What’s it saying?” Akshainie asked, in English. It took me a second to register that we hadn’t been speaking a human language.
“Oh, uh, hold on,” I said, before turning back to the spirit. “So where do I find your boss?”
“Down this way,” the spirit answered. It adjusted the pile of rocks to ensure they were balanced in its arms and started walking.
“It’s leading us to the spirit in charge of this realm.” I started walking, and Akshainie slithered alongside me. “You going to be alright down here?”
“It’s not exactly made to keep water-aligned spirits comfortable. Let alone water-aligned spirits wearing metal.”
“You can take it off.”
“Oh, can I? Would that be alright by you?”
“Why are you being weird about this?”
“I’m being weird!? I can’t so much as wear a thin shirt without you turning away and covering your eyes! What is it about me that you find so impossible to gaze upon?”
“And what’s wrong with my breasts?” she demanded. I groaned and rubbed my neck.
“It’s not that there’s something wrong with them. It’s…let’s call it Catholic Guilt.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“You guys aren’t trying to talk to me, are you? Because I don’t know what language that is,” the spirit said.
“No, sorry, we’re sorting something out is all,” I answered.
“Seems rude to be doing that right now.”
“You’re right.” I looked back to Akshainie. “Look, can we do this later?”
“How much later?” she asked.
“Look, as soon as this is over, we’ll take a break and talk, okay? I know a place you may like.”
We continued in silence after that, occasionally noticing other spirits jumping into pits or dancing or tending the flames on the walls. The place grew more crowded the further we went, and when we reached what seemed to be a fairly busy interchange the spirit stopped and turned to us.
“Okay, look, this is it. I need to take these stones further down, but the boss is here somewhere,” it said.
“Oh, okay. Thank you,” I answered. It nodded and scampered off.
“What now?” Akshainie asked. “Which one of these little…sprite…things is in charge?”
“I don’t think any of them are.”
“Cousin!” a new voice bellowed, echoing around the chamber. We turned to find a large serpentine being made of fire, about as tall as me, with three pairs of arms and a smooth face like an amphibian emerging from one of the chambers. All the other spirits glanced at it, then at us, before resuming their work. The being charged forward and wrapped his arms around me in a tight embrace. He pulled back with his hands on my arms and looked me over. “Haven’t had a visitor of your kind in centuries! And you brought a friend! She…looks uncomfortable.”
“She’s a water-aligned spirit.”
“Oh! You should have said! Hold on,” he let go of me and held his arms out, lowering them slowly as he concentrated. The temperature in the room decreased, and he stopped when we heard a sigh of relief from Akshainie. “There we go. Come! Come, let me show you around.” He slipped off back down the corridor he’d emerged from, and I nodded in that direction. We both set off, following our host.
When we arrived at the campsite that evening, I relit the fire for Akshainie and went to a bit of ice still present on the mountain where I had stored the rest of the deer from the night before. Gathering a sufficient chunk for our dinner, I brought it back and held it over the fire. Akshainie was back in her naga form, had been for a few hours now, and her body was coiled around the fire as close to the stones as she could get without touching them.
“Are you going to be alright down there?” I asked, turning the meat over in my hands.
“It’s a hell of a lot better than that tent.”
“I’m really sorry. We could go see about the cabin if you like.”
“No, you’re right about how uncomfortable I’d be there. But this is hardly the most fire we can have here, isn’t it?”
“Well, there was very little firewood to work with.”
“You don’t need firewood.”
“Well, no,” I said. I sighed and pulled the meat off, testing it. I had learned by now that Akshainie was comfortable with her meat pretty rare, and I was functionally immune to disease, so it didn’t make sense to overcook it. “But you know I’m not super comfortable taking on my alternate form yet.”
“Okay but I am literally a snake and there is a literal glacier close enough for you to store our dinner in.”
“Okay. Okay, fine. Here.” I tore the meat in half and gave her a chunk, which she tore into immediately. I considered the best way to handle the situation, then stepped away from the fire. I pulled my clothes off, folded them nicely at the entrance of my tent, then walked into the center of the campfire. Akshainie loosened her coils to give me more room, and I changed form. The wood on the fire was consumed almost instantly, and the face of the stones pointed in my direction started to hiss as anything organic or liquid sizzled off them. Akshainie recoiled back a bit further, and then we both turned as we heard a cracking noise. There, in the cliff face nearby, a crack was opening.
“Did you do that?” Akshainie asked.
“It seems like it, but I don’t know how I could have.” We watched as the crack grew larger, and then the cliff opened to reveal a cave running into the mountain. There was a glow from deep inside it, and we could hear the distant crackling of fire and cacophony of voices. We looked at each other for a moment, then she threw her armor on and grabbed her swords as I stepped out of the campfire. We cautiously made our way to the entrance, peeked in to find the path ahead twisting away into the rock, then braced ourselves and stepped inside.
20 February 2007
In the morning, we redressed Akshainie’s injury and began our search in concentric circles starting with the edges of the lake and working outward. We took it fairly easy to avoid aggravating her side, which annoyed her to no end, but I insisted on not diving into anything major right away. Especially since she wasn’t wearing her armor, out of concerns about how it might rub against the bandages and disrupt healing. When we made it to the top of the ridge east of our camp, we noticed a large cabin at another nearby lake.
“Did you know that was there?” She pointed her sword at it.
“I did, yeah,” I answered. “It has rented rooms, but it’s pretty specifically for hikers and the beds are in fairly communal spaces.”
“And you elected to have us camping because?”
“Well, we aren’t here as hikers, and I thought you might like being able to assume your naga form for the bulk of our time here.”
“Is it warmer in there than it is in the tents?”
“I suspect so.”
“And that didn’t seem relevant to you?”
“Sorry, I don’t really notice the cold and didn’t think about it. It hasn’t come up aside from Norway.”
“Yeah, well, it’s coming up.”
We made our way over to the cabin, with Akshainie taking on her human form, and met the caretaker of the building. He welcomed us in and we spent a little time chatting about the mountains and local lore. None of his stories, or the stories he reported hearing from others, sounded like anything we recognized as Brood activity, and shortly after lunch we thanked him for his hospitality and returned to the mountains. We continued our search until the sun began to go down, but found nothing indicating the Brood of Nachash was active in the area.
19 February 2007
We heard a lot of stories about a lot of things around town, but very little about a serpent. What bits we were able to gather centered on strange noises and sights in the mountains south of the town, and the spirits of Lac d’Oô refused to talk about it. One thing we learned was that Michael’s information had been somewhat imprecise. It seems the word that reached the Hudson estate was that there was a serpent active in a lake in Oô, and in translation that became Lake Oô, which would be Lac d’Oô. But there were more lakes further up the mountains, and in our conversations it became apparent that the stories took place near a glacial lake further uphill. So, on the second day after our arrival, we set out with camping gear to make our way up the mountain.
It wasn’t a terribly long hike to the lakes, but it was roughly a kilometer in altitude, so we decided to take it easy on the way and camp there while looking for answers instead of going up and down the mountain. It was late afternoon when we reached the lake in question, and we decided to focus on setting up camp and sorting out dinner. We could, after all, begin searching for signs of the Brood in the evening if we had time, or morning if we didn’t. Either way, we weren’t going to be any good at dealing with them if we hadn’t eaten. Akshainie slipped away to hunt as I got a fire going and set up our tents. It took me a while to find a suitable amount of wood for the fire, and I had some trouble with the new tents, but I was still done and sitting around for what must have been an hour before she slithered out from a rocky crag nearby. She had a dead deer slung over her shoulders, the blood from its massive neck wound half dried down her outfit. It took me a moment of observing her approach before I realized some of the blood was not pouring out of the deer, but her own side. I jumped to my feet and ran over, but she just slung the deer around and into my hands.
“You know how to prep this?” she asked. I nodded, and she grunted and slipped past me toward the water. I groaned and turned.
“Are you okay?” I called after her. She waved it off and continued on her way, and I sighed and took the deer back to the camp site. There, I skinned and processed the animal, and was about to hold a chunk of it over the fire for our dinner when I heard her calling for me. I set the meat and fur aside and made my way down to the water, where she was submerged up to her neck and working at something under the water.
“Ah, there you are. Look, I can’t quite reach most of the wound, can you help me with the bandage?”
“Yeah, of course. Is that what you have there?”
“What? Oh, no,” she said, holding up her armored shirt. She had managed to get most of the blood off, and it looked as though she was actively removing the bits that had dried on pretty solid before she arrived. “I have a pack on the shore there, though, which includes some wraps and medicinal herbs.” I dug through her pack until I found what I needed, and when I turned back she had moved far enough ashore that her upper body was out of the water. I turned away from the sight of her standing there topless, and she groaned.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize—”
“I don’t mean to disturb your delicate sensibilities, priest, but I’m not done cleaning this shirt and you’ll need my skin to be exposed to bandage it anyway.”
“Right. Of course.” I removed my shoes and socks and rolled up my pants and waded into the water. I made my way around to her back, where I could see the gash more clearly, and felt a bit of her tail rise up under me.
“You’re too tall up there,” she said, which I had to admit was accurate. I sat on the portion of tail, took a closer look at the wound, and got to work.
“Why not just heal it, like you did with Henry?” I started by cleaning the wound out better. It looked like she had tried, but could only get so much done from her angle.
“It’s…tricky, with spirits. Besides, I earned this one.”
“What happened out there?”
“A stupid accident.”
“How stupid?” I reached down for two stones and used them, and the bit of water still on them, to grind some of the herbs into a paste. She sighed and lowered the shirt.
“I cornered the deer.”
“And it fought back.”
“You know, it’s been a few years traveling with you, and I haven’t had to hunt for one meal in that entire time. And I didn’t honestly do much hunting back at Iravati, if I’m honest.” She winced as I applied the salve, and we were both silent for a moment as she recomposed herself. “It was mostly fishing. So I forgot how good deer were at defending themselves.”
“And how scared animals get when cornered by a snake with swords?” I asked. She chuckled, and I began wrapping the bandage around her. When I reached around to her stomach she raised her arms out of the way so I could grab the bandage with my other hand and continue the work.
“Yeah. Something like that.”
“But this wasn’t done by antlers.”
“Not directly. He knocked me back against a stone outcropping. It was low and pushed the shirt up, caught me by surprise.”
“Is that the deer you brought back to camp?”
“You’re damn right it is.”
I finished up and stood, and she lowered her tail back into the water and ran her hands over the bandage. I made my way back to shore and repacked the materials I hadn’t used. I felt her hand on my shoulder, and turned to find her smiling at me.
“You did good. Thanks. Also, I need the undershirt you’re sitting on,” she said, pointing to a piece of cloth I hadn’t paid much attention to when I came back. I stammered a bit as I shuffled out of the way, and watched as she set the armored shirt down and slipped the cloth one on. “You enjoying the show?”
“Sorry, I guess I didn’t really think about it.”
“It’s okay, Benedict.” She slithered over and rested her hand on my cheek. “It’s probably best we start getting more comfortable around each other. Who knows where the next bandage will be?” We stared at each other for a while, and then I nodded and slid my hand up to move hers away from my face.
“Of course. But you must be famished after all that work.” I went back to the fire and grabbed the hind quarter I’d prepared earlier and held it over the flame. She arrived shortly thereafter, carrying her things, which she dropped next to one of the tents.
“Yeah,” she said, softly. “I am.”
17 February 2007
We really had very little to go on when we landed at Altiport Peyresourde. Michael's information claimed there was some activity involving a great spirit serpent in the mountains south of the airport, near Lac d’Oô, and that it had caused some trouble for locals. Michael had been kind enough to get us a car from the airstrip to the town, but from there we were on our own. I decided to sort out accommodations for us and check in with my supervisor in Rome, and she slipped into the spiritual realm to start asking around. It didn’t really occur to either of us right away that the spirits would be accustomed to speaking French, which she didn’t know. So I was in a small rented room on the phone when she burst out of the spiritual realm ranting about how she couldn’t find a single spirit using a sensible language. On being questioned, I briefly reminded them that I was traveling with an expert who had just returned from some preliminary scouting and quickly got off the phone.
“Do you have any idea how hard it is to maintain permission to travel with you?” I asked.
“Do you have any idea how hard it is to find a spirit that doesn’t turn its nose up at you when you don’t speak the local human tongue?” she demanded, slumping back onto a bed and slowly coiling her lower half on the floor beneath her. “I hate Europe. We’re still in Europe, right?”
“Yes. France is in Europe.”
“Yes, well, am I to take it then that you haven’t found anything useful?”
“Not yet. But I bet there’s spirits that at least speak the language of water in that lake nearby.”
“You didn’t check?”
“I needed to cool down before I dealt with any more locals,” she said, rolling off the bed and stretching. “Any luck on your end?”
“Well, we have this room, which is not a hotel, so please be mindful of the limitations there.”
“I’ve also suggested that we are here to record local lore. We have a dinner tonight with a local man who is very eager to tell us all about local customs and folklore. It seems the Pyrenees do not get nearly as much attention as the Alps and he is excited to correct that.”
“Does he know about me, or is he just expecting you?”
“He’s expecting both of us.”
“What does he think we are?” she asked. I looked at her confused for a moment. “As in, are we dressing nice? Should we be acting like professionals, or romantic partners, or…?”
“I did not indicate anything that would make us pretend to be in a relationship.”
“Bene, we’re in a relationship.”
“I mean a romantic relationship.”
“It might be fun to pretend you have interest in romance, one of these times. Really test our skills at fitting in.”
“I never said I’m not interested in romance. Just that my vows preclude it.”
“Right, your vows, again. Well, at any rate, what image are we putting forth tonight?”
“Dress comfortably,” I said. “I suspect you’ll have legs late into the evening.”
Evidence compiled for use during the trial of Father Benedict de Monte.