“They were still alive, Akshainie,” I said. I dropped to my knees and faintly heard the map fall into the street beside me.
“You don’t know that.”
“They had to be. There was no reason otherwise.”
“Well, okay, do you know a reason they would have been kept alive?” I stared in silence for a little while, then closed my eyes and shook my head. “Then you don’t know. It isn’t your fault, you did everything you could for them.”
“No,” I said, wiping a tear from my cheek and standing, “Not yet, I haven’t.” As the dust began to settle, I walked to the very edge of the crater and looked down at the rubble. I couldn’t sense anything. I couldn’t hear anything, I couldn’t see any movement and had no good way to get down there to try and dig anyone out even if I did. I knew, deep in the pit of my stomach, that there was no one alive down there. I watched and listened, tried to reach my spiritual senses out to touch any minds or emotions or anything. I found only silence and wreckage. So, I set myself to the task of reading last rites over the site. May these tortured souls finally know peace. When I turned around after completing that, Akshainie had the map unrolled and was looking it over.
“What is this?” she asked.
“A map of this town, looks like.”
“Well I know that, English. What are the markings?”
“Still not English.”
“Still acting like an ass.” I sighed and started walking over to her.
“I don’t know what the markings are. Seems like a spell of some sort, probably whatever they were trying to accomplish here, but I don’t know how to make out what it means.”
“Know anyone who might?” I slipped my hands into my pockets and looked down.
“Yeah,” I said, softly. “I’ve been meaning to talk to him, anyway.”
On my way to Akshainie, I felt something begin to change in me. I couldn’t quite place the feeling, but I suspected I knew what it was; and when I found myself standing in front of the building identified by the ghosts, I confirmed it by igniting the blade of the sword I carried. I smiled, took a deep breath, and stormed through the door.
The outside of the building looked like a repurposed fire station, presumably the large bay door was where the truck rested when it wasn’t active. Inside the door beside it, however, I found a single large room with a sloped concrete floor running into a tunnel large enough to house the truck. I made my way down the slope, and hadn’t gotten far before I heard the sounds of a fight. I began to run, and when the tunnel finally opened it was to a massive chamber. In the center of that chamber was a man, his arm sheathed in dark energy, his eyes serpentine, trying to shield himself against Akshainie. She was lunging at him from across the room, having regained her full naga form, the shreds that must have been her trousers on the floor near me and far too much of her torso exposed through the slashes and tears in her shirt. I yelled to her as she made contact and was thrown back across the room, sliding to a stop about ten meters away from me. She glared over to me, and I threw her the sword before shielding my eyes.
“The people!” she cried. I looked around, trying to avoid looking directly at her, and it was only in averting my eyes up that I saw them. Pods embedded in the high ceiling, each containing a human being, asleep or dead or something else I dared not imagine. Dear God, there were hundreds of them. Must have been everyone that went missing, everyone that was still alive in this town when the dread work was completed. They must have been alive, I reasoned as I heard the fighting continue, because there’d be no reason to keep them otherwise. But if they were alive, then I needed to find a reason for that, which I hoped would be somewhere near the means to keep them alive. I followed the pipes and wires until I found a rusty electric console against the wall. Words of power were being shouted, there was the clang of steel and explosions echoing through the room, a bit of water splashed against the floor in front of me, as I ran to the console.
The knobs and buttons had no labels, and the few labels that were on the dials were so worn I could barely make them out. I searched the console for some idea on how to free the people safely, but I couldn’t find anything until I stumbled on a map. I unrolled it on the console and looked over the places they had marked, the circle over the town, the way everything was arranged. It was a spell, that much I knew, but they didn’t exactly teach us how to work with or read magic in seminary. The only person I knew I could trust, who I was certain could read this, was apparently dying of cancer across the state line. I should have visited Henry before we dove into this. I considered it of course, but this just seemed so pressing. I think I just wasn’t ready. Wasn’t ready to see someone like Henry in such a state, and then what, dive into this mess, dealing with whatever he said to me? Maybe I made the wrong call. Maybe I really should have. Would that make a difference?
“Do something!” Akshainie hissed, slithering in a wide arc past me at a much higher speed than I realized she could move. I cleared my throat, turned to look in the direction she was going now that I was certain her back was to me, and threw a fireball at the man. He tried to bat it away, and mostly succeeded, but the bit of fire that clung and the distraction was enough of an opening for Akshainie to drive a sword through him. I could learn a thing about focus and combat from that woman. Maybe I underestimated the value of her lessons when we were at Yggdrasil. I turned back to the console, rolled up the map, and tucked it under my arm as the screaming and fighting began to die down. I searched the sea of controls again, found something that looked important, and debated whether or not to press it. I saw the shadow of Akshainie approaching, and paused.
“I don’t know how to free them,” I confessed when I felt her presence close to me. She sighed, then rested her hand on my shoulder.
“Do the best you can.”
“What if I’m wrong?”
“Then you’ll still be a good man who did his best.” I took a deep breath, offered a quick prayer, and just as I went to reach for the button the ground shook. I turned to look at Akshainie only to realize that on her tail her bust was right about the level of my face, and I quickly turned back. I pulled off my outer shirt and offered it to her. “What’s this for?” she asked.
“Modesty.” She groaned and snatched the shirt out of my hand. The ground shook again and I looked at her, hoping she had an answer for the shaking. But she was looking away, back to the body of the man, which was now beginning to sink into the floor as it cracked around him. She turned back to me.
“If you have any ideas, now’s the time!” I turned back and pressed the button. The system shuddered, the dials all dropped to their lowest readings, and the pods above us began to move. We both turned to watch them, but then the ground cracked under us. We jumped away and tried to make our way toward the door, when I saw the cracks continue up the walls.
“No,” I pleaded softly, “no, please!” The ceiling began to break apart, and I screamed as a couple pods broke free and fell, crashing into the ground. I went to run forward, to try and help someone, anyone, but before I could move I felt Akshainie’s arms around me and then we were gone, flying up the slope, the tunnel cracking and collapsing behind us. We burst out into the early morning sunlight and she held me back as I cried out, watching the building sink into a growing crater.
6 March 2006
Based on what we learned from the ghosts, we suspected I could keep the truck busy and away from Akshainie. If it was focused on purging changes to the spiritual realm of the city, it would see my constant human habit of changing as a real threat. We didn’t even know if the truck was itself physically real (aside from interacting with brick walls and fences), or if it was occupied by human drivers, or what it was; it may not, in fact, even sense her, if she had no impact on the spiritual realm while in the flesh. After all, it didn’t seem to notice the walls or fences it crashed into, maybe it really had no idea of anything physical. We collected some information on how to get to a garage the cult members had bought back when they first arrived, I borrowed a sword from Akshainie, and we split ways shortly before dawn. I left first, ensuring I had the truck’s attention before I ran off away from the garage as far as the rooftops could take me. The truck took the bait, and as I glanced back to check on it I could see Akshainie slipping off the other way.
The town was not large, and while we had been fortunate enough to begin the chase downtown in an apartment above a shop, the rooftops I could reach with only human strength behind my jumps were quickly running out. I had never really thought about how much being slightly inhuman affected my physical abilities, until I was stripped of access to anything inhuman about myself. But when we were facing the Black Goat, Matteson hadn’t seemed as weak as I now felt. What is it, exactly, about him and I that we share that would cause such a change from the human normal?
I slid to a stop on the flat roof of a one-story pizza shop. The only way to go was back, and that only a few buildings before I’d have to find a way to get up another story. The alternative was down, and the truck was there before I could realistically consider it. Now that I was close enough to it and had a moment to think, however, I realized that the windows on the truck were completely black. Not tinted, but opaque; I determined that whatever was happening here, it didn’t involve direct human operation. What in the world did this cult pull off? And what were they gaining by it? I decided it was more important to stop it and then consider these questions than to wait around until I slipped up somehow. I pulled out my sword, whispered a quick prayer to St. Michael the Archangel, and then leapt down onto the cab of the truck.
The sword pierced the roof easier than I expected, and drove deep with the force of my weight behind it. My feet, on landing, didn’t produce the hollow clang of a normal truck, and I wanted to debate what this thing was made of but didn’t have time before it started ramming into the building in an apparent attempt to shake me loose. So it could detect the walls. Good to know.
As I held on as tight as I could, I noticed the sword slowly cutting a line into the roof where it moved during the impacts with the building. I also noticed the wall giving way. It was trying to rebuild itself, but the truck wasn’t giving it time to finish. I considered my options, considering I doubted I could really do much more damage from my current situation, and decided to wait and hold on. I braced my feet against the roof of the truck, held on to the sword, and prepared to jump. After a couple more hits, it backed up and rammed the wall harder, and I pressed my face as close to my shoulder as I could to shield it.
We broke through the front wall, and as soon as I was sure we were inside, I pulled the sword out and dove to the side. The truck roared and slammed into the back wall, which stopped it. Just as it began trying to back up, I lunged over and slit the front tire on the passenger side and then ran back to do the same to the rear tire. I jumped back and watched for a moment as it struggled to get traction and the wall we entered regained its structure. I slipped out the front door and watched for a moment, praying that the truck would be too limited to break walls on purpose, as it seemed to be when we were stuck in the alley. I saw the tires begin to reform, but the truck was still not pushing against the walls hard enough to break through. Its roar sounded more alive, more angry, as I ran off to meet Akshainie.
5 March 2006
“How are you here?” I asked as I knelt to check on Akshainie, who was reaching for one of her swords with a shaking hand. “We found no evidence that there was any spiritual activity in this town.”
“We’re still here because we’ve managed to stay out of the truck’s attention, until you led it right to us!” the young man answered, drawing his hands into fists. Akshainie stopped, and let her arm rest on her side as she listened to him.
“Tell us about the truck,” she hissed, rolling onto her back. She was breathing heavy, but I could see the wounds were healing faster now. Her clothes had been badly damaged as well as her skin, so as she began to reform and I realized some of the areas that had become exposed I pulled off my long jacket and held it out to her while I averted my eyes and looked back to the assembled ghosts.
“Are you…a spirit?” he asked, apparently seeing her for the first time.
“Yes,” I answered, drawing his gaze back to me, “and she’s a spirit that asked you something.” He straightened up, as if mustering the will to oppose me, but I narrowed by gaze on him and he briefly shuddered before exhaling hard and shoving his hands into his pockets.
“It cleans,” he said, quietly.
“And what does that mean?”
“It burns away everything the Caretaker does not approve of,” an old woman among the crowd said, stepping forward. The young man winced at the title.
“We don’t speak of him!” he said, sternly. She waved him off and continued forward until she was standing next to him.
“And where has that got us?” she asked. He crossed his arms and huffed, but she turned her attention to me. “Father, I am not inclined to believe you stumbled upon us by accident.”
“Nor am I,” I said. She nodded.
“I didn’t think you would be. What brings you here?”
“The Brood of Nachash. The red spiral on the truck is one of their markings.”
“Is that what they’re called?” She hummed to herself for a moment, staring off into space, then looked back to me. “It sounds like you’ve had some experience with them, then. There is little we know, really, except that they promised us a new start. We…we did not realize what that would look like, in the end.”
“What happened here?” I finally felt the coat leave my hand, and as I looked over Akshainie was donning it and sitting up. She left it open, and one of her breasts was showing, so I shielded my vision and cleared my throat. She looked at me with confusion, then down at herself, before she sighed and rolled her eyes.
“Is that a man thing or just a priest thing?” Akshainie asked, gruffly, as she closed the jacket.
“Yes,” I answered. She looked to the old woman as I lowered my hand.
“Please, continue.” The old woman nodded.
“If you aren’t busy with your own issues,” the young man snapped. The old woman rested a hand on his shoulder.
“This whole area was hit pretty bad by the loss of the steel industry,” she began. “Our little town had some people doing that work, but mostly we had support industry for the steel towns around us. As their economies began to dry up, ours completely collapsed. They had to tighten belts, and we provided the things they had to drop.” She sighed and sat down as though there was a chair behind her, though I saw none. “We got desperate before they did. That’s when the Caretaker arrived. He said he was on a religious mission to free people from various forms of physical and mental bondage, and we wanted to know more.”
“He promised he could see to it that our needs were met, if we allowed him to make a few changes around town,” the young man said, casting his eyes to the floor. “We didn’t ask very many questions about what changes he wanted to make, and if I’m honest, we probably wouldn’t have believed him if we had.”
“What did he do?” Akshainie asked.
“He brought people in,” the woman answered. “They started doing basic infrastructure work, fixing things and so on. It was a year before we noticed anyone going missing, and when we did, we didn’t associate it with them.” The whole room fell silent, and in the quiet I could hear the truck rumbling around outside.
“It’s still searching for you,” the man said, “and it knows you’re nearby.”
“I don’t understand,” I said. “The cult, largely, wants to corrupt mankind, not destroy it. What would it have to gain by any of this?”
“Well I don’t know much about their big picture,” the old woman said, leaning back against the chair I couldn’t see. “What I do know is that they cut us off. I didn’t know that until I died, of course, but this whole city has no connection to the rest of the spiritual reality. We can’t even cross over. Whatever they’re doing, it requires complete isolation.”
“Benedict,” Akshainie said, leaning toward me, “didn’t you say the cult wishes to set mankind free from gods?” I nodded. “And you,” she said, looking to the old woman, “said they offered you a new start.”
“You think this was a test site?” I asked. Akshainie nodded.
“I think they found a way to break the connection between the physical and spiritual realms,” Akshainie answered. She stood and straightened out the jacket. “But it’s sloppy, destructive, probably unreliable if you want to build something new in its place.”
“So the truck enforces the isolation from the ‘old’ spirits and gods by burning away anything that tries to encroach on this place, but they haven’t made it farther than that? But still, why kill people?”
“Oh, they haven’t killed anyone,” the woman said, “at least, not that we know of. Most of the people from this town are still alive, somewhere. We all died through other means. I had a half dozen heart attacks over my last decade, pretty sure it was another one that put me here.” I walked to a window facing the street and looked out at the truck, which was still patrolling the area.
“What are you thinking?” Akshainie asked.
“I think,” I said, slowly, as I watched the truck turn around and begin cruising past the building again, “we need to find out where this thing goes when it doesn’t pick up any threat.” I turned back, and she was already smiling and holding her swords.
5 March 2006
It took us the better part of a day to even find the place where the dirt road would be, based on Matteson’s directions. We didn’t realize until we began actually engaging with them that at least half of his notes were contextual in a way that made no sense to people who were not familiar with local landmarks or the way roads are numbered in rural Pennsylvania. I have begun to understand why Henry once joked that Pittsburgh was designed by three drunk guys with a mean streak, if this is how they do things around here.
But once we found the remnants of the path, and they really were just remnants, we had to figure out how to follow them to a town that may or may not exist when we get there. Most of our early attempts failed, and we came to understand it was because we were not going exactly where the path must have gone, and had to start over. We finally managed to find ourselves on a paved road that just emerged from a field, looking ahead at buildings arrayed like the walls of an ancient city, shortly after sunset on the third day.
We entered and found it largely as it had been described to us. It appeared to be a functioning city, everything was maintained and even looked like it had been in use recently, but there was no direct evidence of people anywhere, and no lights on in any buildings. The city was dead silent, and perfectly cleaned, and sterile. We walked across a park where all the playground equipment showed signs of wear, and the benches had spots that were more worn from use than others and little engravings in them, but the grass was perfectly cut and there was nothing left behind by people. No bits of trash, no lost toys, no scraps of picnics that were overlooked or mittens lost in the recently-thawed snow. The city felt clean, not just on the level of having no trash in the streets, but down to the very spiritual level. As if not only were the humans gone, but the lingering spiritual influence of their existence had been purged. I could sense that my own effects on the spiritual realm were not hindered, but they were alone for the first time in my life. Akshainie explained that, as a fully spiritual being, she does not affect the spiritual realm when she is not actually in it, but she had no answer for the silence beyond that and seemed disturbed at my asking about it.
It was the most unnerving and desolate place I had ever seen, and the complete absence of any physical or spiritual detritus made both Akshainie and I deeply uncomfortable. She had taken on legs in case we ran into any humans, and we both walked in the stilted and hesitant manner of people that know a trap is waiting but don’t know where.
We had been in town nearly an hour, walking along empty sidewalks in front of dark stores and houses, before we heard any noise that wasn’t made by us. As we rounded a corner, we heard an engine rumble a few blocks away, and slipped behind the wooden fence of a nearby house to wait. The noise grew closer, and soon we watched through the slats as a glossy black garbage truck, with a red spiral painted on the side near the back, slowly cruised past our location. It stopped nearby, waiting, and Akshainie offered to slip into the spiritual realm to sneak up on it. She tried, and began to partially vanish before she screamed in pain and incarnated again, her body covered in what looked like chemical burns. As soon as she did so, the truck rumbled into gear and made a quick turn, heading straight for us.
I realized that Akshainie was in no condition to move, so I picked her up and ran across the lawn. The truck followed, smashing through the gate and tearing up the grass in its pursuit. When I glanced back, I saw the fence and the grass mend themselves perfectly, completely erasing the damage of the truck as fast as it was being dealt. I knew I couldn’t outrun a truck, at least not for long, and tried to summon fire to throw at it, but nothing materialized. Akshainie was slowly healing, but I needed to buy us time if she was going to be able to finish. As I ran across the street, I noticed a narrow alley too small for the truck to fit. I cut to the side and made for the alley, and the truck had to slam its brakes and cut the wheel to keep track. We made it to the alley just ahead of it, and when it slammed into the buildings I was hit in the back by broken pieces of brick and black metal. The truck back up and rammed the walls again, and afterward I stopped and looked back to see the truck and walls return to normal as soon as the truck backed up. It drove off, and as I turned around again I realized I was nearing the end of the alley and the truck was probably cutting us off. I backed up a bit, and began looking for another way out of the alley. I saw a manhole cover, but was unsure how well I would be able to open that and get Akshainie down into the sewers. I looked up, and saw a set of windows on the second floor of one of the buildings. I set Akshainie down, jumped up to grab the ledge, and opened the unlocked window before dropping back down. I picked her up again as the truck slammed into the exit of the alley, and made a show of trying to escape out the other end. When the truck drove off again, I apologized to Akshainie, jumped, and threw her into the open window. She was aware enough to grab the ledge, and pulled herself inside while visibly struggling to hold in more screaming. I waited until she was clear, then jumped and to grab the ledge and pull myself in. I closed the window behind me, and turned to find Akshainie laying on the floor in front of a dozen ghosts.
“What have you done?” one of them demanded, a young man with freckles and dark, unkempt hair. The others recoiled back, staring at Akshainie and I with wide eyes.
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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1 March 2006
They were conducting human experiments.
Matteson explained the local lore, that the place had been owned by the military and seen some form of experimentation, presumably to make more perfect soldiers, until it was handed off as an insane asylum and later a nursing home before finally closing some decades ago. The skeleton we found, and the ghost associated with it, showed that there was probably at least some truth to the legend; part of the jaw was fused shut, there were five holes that looked to be for eyes in the skull, the legs were shrunken to near uselessness but four of the extra arms were certainly long enough to make up the difference in mobility. Assuming they worked, of course; it was impossible to tell from what remained, or at least impossible for all of us. The hands looked like they'd been broken and healed over a few times, likely injuries related to the damage we found to one of the walls. Poor soul didn't even know where it was going--even if it had succeeded in punching through that wall, another cell waited on the other side.
Matteson took notes on the scene as I examined the corpse and Akshainie compared the mad scribblings on the walls against my notes. She didn't see any connections, but it was always unlikely she was going to, anyway. Even if the Brood was behind this, somehow, the deceased probably wouldn't know how to say that unless they had been members themselves. We knew from the Book that an entity somehow connected to the Brood was here; that said nothing about whether it had been here when the place was still in mortal use. Or, for that matter, whether or not the ghost we'd already encountered was all there was.
"Well," Matteson said, closing his notebook, "I could go for some answers. Anyone else?" I turned to him and furrowed my brow.
"And where, exactly, do you expect to get those?" He shrugged.
"Won't know until we look. But I saw an office upstairs, if there's anything left there it may be useful." Akshainie and I looked to each other, and she hesitantly nodded.
"I have no better ideas," she said. I sighed, stood, dusted myself off, and held out my hand toward the door.
"Lead the way, young man." He did exactly that, wandering back to where we had met him before continuing just a little further down the hall to a corner that hid a stairway up. He showed us around, indicating a room with long tables, all but one of which was broken, that he described as a break room before showing us the office.
The office was in complete disarray. If there was anything of value still in it, it would be the work of the night digging it out from the scattered shreds of paper, broken bits of plaster, and assorted junk left lying around by, it seemed, the same people who had spray painted on the walls. I groaned as Matteson held his arms out as if presenting us with some fantastic gift, and he laughed and started walking toward the only desk that hadn't been destroyed or knocked over. Akshainie and I began sifting through the piles of stuff nearish the door, looking for anything that might have been original and still in a legible condition.
"What are you doing over there?" I asked Matteson, who seemed to be checking the drawers on the desk.
"Well, this thing doesn't move, I tried. And it's still locked up. So maybe there's something in it."
"And how are you intending to find out?"
"You know," he said, kneeling down, "desk locks are a lot easier to work with than the door ones downstairs."
"Are you telling me you know how to pick locks?"
"Yeah, dad taught me."
"...I didn't know Henry knew how to pick locks, either."
"Has he not been your friend for decades?" Akshainie asked.
"There's a lot he doesn't tell anyone, it seems," he muttered, before I heard a faint sound and he stood up with a smile. Akshainie and I went over to the desk, and Matteson opened the center drawer to reveal a collection of old pens and pencils. "Oh! Score," he announced, grabbing a couple and shoving them into his bag. I shook my head and opened one of the side drawers, which appeared to be empty. Just as I was about to close it, Akshainie stopped me.
"What is that?" she asked, pointing to a small bump I'd failed to notice inside the drawer. I reached into the drawer to feel it, and when I pushed against it we learned it was a button. There was a low whine from one of the wall to our right for a few seconds, and then part of the wall began to move. Akshainie had her swords out the moment it clunked into action, and I braced myself for whatever was waiting behind. Matteson, for his part, just seemed to be watching with general disinterest. As the portion of wall moved out of the way, we all stopped and tensed at the sight of a painted red spiral on a set of steel doors.
"Aw, shit, not these assholes again," Matteson grumbled as he pulled his cigarettes from his bag.
1 March 2006
There was some back-and-forth before we pieced together that we had a shared connection in Henry. The young, annoyed man standing before us was, in fact, Henry's son. I knew Henry had a son, as the matter had been discussed when I first met him and he was dealing with his divorce and the prospect of being a single father; but Henry, I suddenly realized, was so quiet about his personal life that I didn't even know the boy's name. When he introduced himself only as Matteson, I resisted the temptation to sigh and ask if this was what everyone in his family was like.
The initial concern was something to do with a bet Matteson had with some friends that meant we could not be seen by them, but once that was resolved I asked how Henry was doing. He went quiet for a moment.
"What's the last thing you heard?" he asked. We explained that we hadn't seen or heard from him since December 2004, because we were not exactly near a phone. He grunted. "He recovered fine from that," he said, before turning to the doorway. "What're you doing here?"
"We're on the trail of a cult."
"And you're here because of the presence in this place?" Akshainie and I stopped and looked at each other. I had been so thrown off by Matteson that I hadn't even taken the time to register that there was a presence here with us, and I gathered from her look that she hadn't, either. But it was certainly there, strong and malevolent, weighing down the air like a thick fog. We turned back to him.
"You can feel that?"
"It's a thing of mine. And if you have anything magic you'd like to keep, maybe don't bring it too close." Akshainie's eyes grew wide. She said something in, I presume, the language of Iravati as her hand reached for a sword. Matteson raised a brow curiously and I reached over to stop her.
"What are you doing!?"
"We know of his kind! They unravel the powers of spirits and tear the world apart!" She yelled.
"Huh," he said, softly. "I guess I never thought about how spirits would view it."
"He cannot be allowed to interfere!" She drew her swords and I stepped in front of her.
"Wait! Wait. Henry has always been on our side, maybe give us just a moment," I said. She exhaled, hard, and glared at him for a moment before scowling and giving a quick nod. She did not put the swords away.
"Matteson, what exactly are your intentions here?"
"I was just here to make some money off a bunch of people," he answered, lighting another cigarette. "But, once I noticed there was something off about the place, I thought I'd look around and see what it was."
"Whatever it is you do to spirits, could you promise not to do it to us?"
"Yeah, sure." I turned to Akshainie.
"Can you just give him a chance, see if we can work together?" She growled and put her swords away.
"Do you not know of his kind where you come from?" she asked, bitterly, in Enochian. I sighed.
"I wasn't raised with spirits, Akshainie," I told her. "I only ever heard the Church's view of most of this until very recently." She rolled her eyes.
"The division between the worlds is maintained by his kind. They break down magic, drive spirits out of the physical realm, and destroy anything they touch. They say some can bring ruin to us with just a look." I glanced over to him to find he was halfway out of the room already and looking down the hall.
"We'll keep an eye out, okay? Just give him a chance." She agreed, and I gave her the Book of Shadows. "Please put this somewhere safe." She slipped away toward the broken wall behind her, and came back after a moment without it. With that settled, we went to find Matteson and see what he was getting into.
Evidence compiled for use during the trial of Father Benedict de Monte.