Purgatory, Part Eight
7 March 2006
I had called 911 and told them about the collapsed building as soon as we found a payphone, but when they wanted me to keep talking to them I let the phone hang off the hook. We slipped into the spiritual realm together, now that we could, and made our way back to the site and watched as emergency services arrived and began searching for people. When Akshainie determined the number of broken bodies being pulled out was getting to me too much, we left. I don’t remember much of the walk away. I don’t remember much of that night, mostly just the feeling of her stroking my hair as I fell asleep.
Now here we were, standing in front of a two-story house on a small side road, on the corner of a broken alley. The house was grey, or at least had been made grey by the elements and age, the paint peeling off the porch and various parts of the walls. The fence running along the edge of they alley was rusted, and the grass under it was longer than the neighbors kept theirs. The neighbors were so close. I always thought American homes had more space between them. I stared at it for a long time.
“Are you okay?” Akshainie asked.
“I…I don’t think I expected it to look like this.”
“Are you telling me you’ve been this man’s friend for decades, and you’ve never seen his house?”
“It hasn’t been that kind of friendship.” She huffed. I wondered if maybe it should have been. “Well, come on, then.” We walked up the stone stairs set into the small hill of the front yard, if it could be called a yard, and then onto the porch, where we could hear music coming from inside. There was no doorbell, so I just knocked on the solid wooden door loudly. After a moment I heard a faint shuffling, then the door opened to reveal Henry. He smiled and stepped back, urging us to come in.
The room was much better than the exterior. There was a recliner that looked fairly worn, but otherwise the couch was nice and the hardwood floors were beautiful. The television was off, sitting in a cabinet next to a component stereo system the likes of which I hadn’t seen in probably twenty years. This had a record going, which he turned down as we entered and I later learned was by an artist named Lionel Richie. He waved us toward the couch, then sat down in the recliner.
“What brings you guys here?” he asked, reaching for his glass of water on the end table next to his chair.
“A couple things, really,” I said. I cleared my throat. “So, for one, we met your son.”
“Yeah, he mentioned that. Hell of a night you guys had. I said he should’ve got more money out of those friends of his.”
“Did he mention telling us about your condition?” He paused, then set his glass back down.
“No. No, he didn’t.”
“Don’t. I appreciate the visit, but I sure as hell don’t need reminding what I got.”
“Right. I just, I guess I wanted to check on you.”
“You said there were a few things?” I looked to Akshainie, who pulled the folded map out of her bag and walked over to hand it to him. He began opening it as I continued.
“We found a site the Brood had managed to occupy. They took everyone, Henry. Kept them in some kind of stasis, or death, or something. I don’t know, we weren’t…we didn’t manage to save them. But the whole place had a lot of weirdness to it, and I can’t help but think we’d know a lot more if we could read the symbols on this map.”
“I think you’re right about that,” he muttered, looking it over. “Come with me.” We followed as he made his way into the kitchen, then down the stairs into the basement. This was his library, walls covered in books on shelves, a large table, and assorted smaller ones next to armchairs. He laid out the map on the large table, then went to the shelves and pulled out a couple books before returning. “Let’s see what we have here.” He started talking to himself softly, never quite finishing his sentences, as he ran his fingers over each symbol. He would occasionally pause over one, flip through a book until he found something that apparently satisfied him, and then continue on.
“I thought maybe this was familiar,” I said, pointing at one symbol that I remembered from an alchemy text I’d skimmed through once, “but I don’t know if position means anything.”
“It does,” he said, looking at the symbol over the rim of his glasses.
“So, being here at, what, about five o’clock, that—”
“Wrong,” he snapped. He reached across the table and pointed to a different symbol. “This is your key mark. The structure is aligned to the south, not the north.”
“Now let me finish this before you tell me any other theories.” He continued as I looked to Akshainie, who was beaming. I couldn’t tell if she really enjoyed the things he said, or just the way he was saying them to me. I turned my attention back to the table and waited for Henry to finish. When he finally did, he sat down in one of the chairs and swore.
“What? What is it?” He grumbled and stood back up, making his way past us to a cabinet on the wall, which he opened to reveal a small collection of glasses and liquors.
“You guys want something to drink?”
“I’ll take whatever you’re making,” Akshainie answered. He nodded.
“No, thank you.” He poured two glasses of whiskey on ice, handed one to Akshainie, then returned to his chair before knocking back about half of it.
“Bastards figured out how to do what Johnny does.”
“What?” I walked around the table and sat in the chair closest to him. Akshainie took a careful sip of her drink, nodded, then made her way to another chair near her.
“Look, this…thing they did, in that town. It breaks magic, like my son does. And it does more than that. More than I’ve ever been certain he could do, but now I’m not so sure.”
“Can you walk me through it a bit?” He waved his hand as if trying to form a thought in the air.
“It’s…okay, look. What did you guys experience while you were there?”
“I couldn’t cross over,” Akshainie said, “burned like hell when I tried.”
“Yeah, and neither of us could access anything that wasn’t normally human,” I added. Henry was nodding the whole time. “And there was a strange truck tracking me, but didn’t seem to notice her as much.”
“That’d be the enforcer they used, then,” he said. “John, he doesn’t really break magic. It’s easier to say he does, but that’s not quite what an Anchor does. It’d be more accurate to say that he enforces a certain set of rules on reality.” Akshainie growled slightly, downing the rest of her drink and then sternly making her way to the cabinet to pour another. Henry either didn’t notice or didn’t care. “The metaphysical realm doesn’t really make its own rules. It has rules, near as I can tell, but they’re ultimately decided by the way sapient physical creatures understand and imagine it. Somehow. I don’t understand exactly how that works, I don’t think anyone does, but it’s the best explanation we got. But the rules that keep all the physical stuff here and all the metaphysical stuff there don’t just exist. They’re maintained, passively by all of us, and actively by Anchors.”
“I don’t see how that means he doesn’t anything more than break magic.”
“Normally, it doesn’t. But that,” he said, pointing at the map, “does. And it uses a power very like his to do it.”
“So what does it do?”
“I redefines an area of spiritual reality,” Akshainie said, her hands balled into fists and her back to us. “It takes a place and it cuts it off, and then it gives it a new set of rules, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah, it does.” Henry stood, setting his glass down. “Have you seen this before?”
“Once. But not like this.”
“Well, whoever did it, if they were powerful enough—or had enough raw magical energy to manipulate, like from a town’s population of captured minds—could basically make the rules in that bubble be whatever they want them to be. It’s to be expected that bubbles made by different people would look different in practice.”
“So they were making a pocket of reality that was different? Why?” I asked.
“It’s the Brood, Benedict. This was a practice run, and it probably wasn’t the only one. But that town, by your description and what I’m seeing here, would be completely cut off from the greater spiritual reality of the world. Remade in their image. Devoid of gods and spirits, completely sanitized.”
“Is this their big plan? To do this, what, to the world?”
“We have to consider that possibility. And with what I heard about them trapping and drawing power from dread gods, they may be well on their way to having the power to pull it off.” I stood and Akshainie turned to face us. “You guys need to find out if they have more of these gods, and if so, to break that flow of power. Any way you can. If this is where they’re going with this, they can’t be allowed even another chance to try it.” His hand was shaking, and I considered asking if he was okay, but decided he wouldn’t want me to.
“Of course. Is there anything you can give us to help us find these things?” He nodded, then turned back to the shelves. It took him a minute to dig around, but he finally pulled out a book and set it on the table.
“Did you ever get that Book of Shadows?” I nodded. “Good. That will get you far, but this,” he said, resting his hand on the worn leather cover, “this is basically an index for it. You can find out what you’re looking for with this, and hopefully where it is with your book. Won’t be perfect, things change over the span of a hundred years, but you ought to get some positive hits off it.” We thanked him, accepted the book, and wished him well. He walked us to the door, waved goodbye, and returned to his music as we slipped off down the street.
Mark of the Beast, Part Ten
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.
Broken Tablets, Part Four
28 December 2004
"What was that?" Akshainie called as she ran over to us. She stopped when she saw Henry, then turned to me. "You're a priest! Can you not simply heal him?"
"I do not think that word means what you think it means!" I answered.
"To the water!" She didn't even wait for us to acknowledge her words before she was off again, slithering through the cave at top speed. Tadzio and I looked at each other, then I threw Henry over my shoulder and ran after her.
When I got to the brook she was already in the water with her eyes closed, chanting and holding her hands over the surface. The water around her and under her hands was glowing. I knelt down at the edge of the water beside her, unsure what she wanted me to do.
"I am not a healer," she said, softly, "but if the River Network will allow it, I can buy him some time." I nodded, as I heard Tadzio approach and stop next to me. She held her arms out to me, and I handed Henry over and stood up to watch. As she lowered him into the glowing water, I glanced over and noticed Tadzio had the book.
"Why did you grab the book?!" I demanded.
"It may yet be useful," he answered.
"I will get us the real thing, and that should not be in the hands of mortals!"
"Well it's a good thing I am no longer mortal, isn't it!"
"By the gods," Akshainie hissed, "could you idiots do that somewhere else?" I grunted and glared at Tadzio, whose eyes grew wide as the pages began to faintly glow again.
"Give me the book," I said. Tadzio handed it to me, and I walked about a hundred feet away and focused. The glow remained for a moment, then began to fade. Once it was gone, the book caught flame, and let out an otherworldly scream that sent birds flying away. I did not relent or let go of the book until it was completely consumed and the fire in my hand died out. I walked back to Tadzio, who was sulking.
"I would have probably been fine, but you know I would accept if I wasn't," he said.
"If and when you die, old man, it will not be just to prove me wrong."
"Oh, but now it must be! One last joke on my way out." Henry coughed, and we both knelt immediately to check on him. Akshainie was lifting him from the water and his wounds were still faintly glowing; they looked much better, but he would still need medical attention.
"Can you get him to a hospital?" Tadzio nodded, and Akshainie handed Henry to him.
"Will you not come with us?" I sighed.
"No," I said, looking to Akshainie. "I think we need to get that book, and I fear the fastest way is in this very brook." She smiled, extending her hand to me.
"Very well. It was good to meet you, Miss Akshainie. Bene, until next time." I nodded, and watched him run off with Henry before taking Akshainie's hand and falling beneath the brook into the River Network.
Broken Tablets, Part Three
28 December 2004
Henry finally pinpointed the location of this relic shortly after the rest of us had gone to bed, so despite his excitement it was generally agreed that we would set out first thing in the morning.
Where we were going was a cave about two miles from our cabin. It was near a few other small openings in the rocks, and apparently a significant portion of his time researching was learning which cave we wanted and which path to follow once we'd entered. We traveled light; while there was the possibility we would need to spend some time in the cave, Akshainie and I knew we could go an extended period without food and water and Tadzio brushed off any concern but made sure to grab his extra large travel mug for coffee, which meant only Henry had a day's worth of supplies on hand. Akshainie decided to grab a snack on the way, however, and snatched a couple fish out of a brook as we passed. She offered one to each of us, but Tadzio declined and Henry expressed concern about eating raw fish. She shrugged and started eating hers as it was; I heated mine up in my hands before doing the same.
I grew thankful for the time Henry spent in research when I saw how much of a maze the cave was. He had managed to draw up a map by piecing together accounts from various journals and interviews he had found, bought, or conducted himself, and that map led us well through the cave and only made us stop and verify our orientation twice. We finally found ourselves in a dead end chamber, engraved with symbols from all over the world that strongly resembled the markings I found in the cave where I first encountered the Brood. I informed Akshainie of this, and she demanded everyone stop and help record what we found. Henry pulled a digital camera from his bag, taught her how to use it, and then insisted the rest of us press on to the darker section ahead.
As we shone our lights on the end of the chamber, we found a rough-hewn pedestal with a large, dust-covered, leather-bound book. Henry blew it off, and I recognized the shifting letters on the cover.
"This is a replica of the Book of Shadows?" I asked.
"A replica?" Henry replied, turning to me.
"Why are we looking for the Book of Shadows?"
"Remember, when we first met, and I told you there was a rumored tome with all the information we could ever want about demonic forces? This is that book!"
"You seem concerned about this," Tadzio said.
"We could have saved a great deal of time if you had simply told me this is what we were looking for."
"You knew the Book of Shadows was here?!" Henry demanded.
"I know where the Book of Shadows is, and this is not the place."
"Why have you never mentioned this!? How long have you known?"
"I've always known. I...did not know it was relevant. I know where it is, I have never asked what it is."
"The Pope hiding it in his personal library, Bene?" Tadzio asked, leaning back against a wall.
"No, it..." I sighed and rubbed the bridge of my nose. "It does not belong to the Church. It belongs to me."
"You own this book and don't know what it is?" Henry yelled, picking up the book. I noticed a faint glow begin to emanate from the pages but did not have time to react before he grabbed the front cover. "This book contains everything, Benedict! You can track every demon in real time with it, if you can break the code!" He threw the cover open, and just as he went to point at something on the page a bolt of dark lightning erupted from the book and struck him in the chest. The book fell to the ground as Tadzio and I ran over to him. He was unconscious and barely breathing, his shirt torn open and his chest badly burned; the back of his head was bleeding from where it hit the wall, and his arm looked like it was laying wrong, possibly broken. Tadzio began cursing in Spanish as he checked Henry, then turned to me with fear in his eyes.
"I do not think there is a hospital close enough to save him," he said.
Broken Tablets, Part Two
Translated From the confiscated diary of Tadzio García
Evidence compiled for use during the trial of Father Benedict de Monte.
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