10 October 1997
Tadzio walked into the hotel room and laid a newspaper on the table. The front page story was about a raid last night, where police had received an anonymous tip and investigated the abandoned hospital and found a bunch of injured people in ceremonial robes and evidence of human sacrifice. The investigation was ongoing, and the journalist seemed to expect this story would occupy much of their time in the coming weeks. He sat down in front of the mug of coffee I'd set out for him a couple minutes earlier, careful not to let the sling on his left arm rest against the table.
"At least everyone's okay," he said, sarcastically, bringing his mug to his lips.
"You've had worse," I said, skimming the article. He scoffed and looked out toward the window.
"So what now?"
"I have a couple issues to wrap up here. Then I need to go answer back to the Cardinal."
"Mhm. And then, what? Just keep doing what you did last night?" I leaned back and set the newspaper down.
"No. Look, I really am sorry about that, and I promise I'm going to have a better plan next time I face him. But, I need information. This cult is far larger than we realized, a many-headed beast, and I don't know if just taking down the Barzai will be enough. And I need to find a way to help these people, as much as I can. The next step is going to be a lot of research and planning."
"You know why I work with you?" I took a sip from my coffee and watched him, waiting for him to answer his own question. "There's a lot of your old man in you, and you're probably the best priest I've known. You care about your obligations, you learn from your mistakes, and you really, truly believe in the goodness of God." He turned and looked me in the eye. "The arm will get better. The Barzai has to regroup. But you? You've decided on the harder path, because you believe it isn't just better or more effective, but that it's right." He finished his coffee, then stood and tossed his room key onto the table.
"Thank you. What about you?"
"I need to lay low for a bit until I'm back to full strength. But don't hesitate to call if you need me."
"And how am I going to do that?"
"I hear they have these telephones now you can carry with you. Maybe I'll look into that." I chuckled and stood, extending a hand.
"Good to see you again, old friend." He shook my hand, smiled, and left.
9 October 1997
In retrospect, I don't know what we really expected to happen.
We had talked about the investigation of the site as though violence would be a last resort, only used if absolutely necessary. The stated goal had been investigation and, if possible, capture. Bring the Barzai to justice for his murders, let the police crack down on the rest of the organization. The Church had learned long ago that we needed to limit the amount of direct justice we carried out; its why my organization was no longer referred to as an inquisition. But I had also made clear to Tadzio that this was a dangerous force, and I had been sent specifically because I was capable of meeting the violence they could pour out. I had described it as a war, I had prepared for battle, I had let my anger at the Barzai and his little band of murderous zealots and the clergy that fed their cause show and had never sought to temper it. And this was why, when I saw the flash of Tadzio's blade in the candlelight and time seemed to slow to a crawl, I knew I had done this. Every soul that died in this place today was, to some degree, my responsibility. Even the very existence, and therefore the actions, of the Barzai were driven at least partly by my own actions years ago.
I wanted to hate them. I wanted to view them as inferior, as foolish lost souls that bought into lies and had no real chance at redemption. I could see the hate in their eyes, and I knew that no mortal would find my rage against them unjust. They sought to destroy the good in humanity, to tear down every institution that had build society, to burn and kill and rampage until the Earth was reduced to a ruin, and they believed fully that this would be the only true freedom for mankind. They were everything I stood against in this world, and they wanted nothing more in this moment to kill us both and carry on their dread work unhindered.
"You must never forget this, Bene," Father had told me, as I stood in the doorway to leave for seminary. His hands were on my shoulders, his eyes barely holding back tears. "The people that you serve, the souls you shepherd, every one of them has a chance. Every one of them is doing the best they can with what they have and what they know."
The Barzai was charging forward. Tadzio's sword was fully drawn and he was moving forward, flowing like water, hundreds of years of training showing in the smallest movement of every muscle. The small crowd of cultists were drawing knives and moving in.
"If there is hope for you, there is hope for them," Father said, "there is hope for us all." I knew he was right. I knew where my kind stood in the order of things. If there was a redemption offered for me...
I held out my arms. Fire is easy, but this, I had never tried this. I needed to get it just right and didn't have much time to experiment. I exhaled sharply, cleared my mind, focused on every bit of heat in the room. In an arc around Tadzio and I, the air rapidly began to cool as I drew the heat into myself. Let it build. Add to it. Act fast. Don't let it spark.
How foolish I was to lose sight of that. Father was old, dying, battling delusions and a loss of memory. He told me in his final days that he would carry his sin to the grave, but I knew he was wrong. I should have known he was wrong, instead of wondering, dwelling, letting myself believe that maybe all of this was for nothing. Maybe there was, in the end, no hope for him, or for me. I forgot what it meant to receive forgiveness. I let myself believe in judgment so much more strongly than redemption that I had killed a man of the cloth in my rage and now stood poised to slaughter an entire room. But I knew better.
As I reheated that air well above room temperature, there was an audible crack that echoed through the room. The rapidly expanding air sent Tadzio and the cultists flying backward. They were injured, all of them, but they'd live long enough to get medical help. Tadzio was going to be furious.
I snapped my eyes open as the Barzai, undeterred by the blast, threw himself forward and drove me into the stone floor. I used the momentum and threw him back off of me into the wall, and rolled over onto my knees. He crashed to the ground and slithered back to his feet, his body moving unnaturally like a snake's without fully changing form. We each lunged forward and went on the attack. Fists flying, occasionally making contact with ribs, occasionally being deflected. He was fast, angry, and driven to kill, and soon I was finding myself on the defensive more often than not. He was trying to draw my attacks away to get a bite in, and I had to occasionally fend him off with a blast of fire when my hands were occupied. I couldn't get to my gun, despite a part of me screaming in my mind that I needed to. Was capture even a realistic goal here? Could the Barzai ever be stopped while he still lived?
I finally managed to get a hold of him and throw him off me. I reached down for my gun, but before I could grab it, Tadzio's sword plunged into the Barzai's side. He screamed and stumbled backward, and I glanced over to see Tadzio standing where he had fallen from the blast. His left arm was hanging limp and his head was bleeding, but his right arm was apparently still in a suitable condition to throw. It was only then I managed to notice the cultists, moaning on the floor, a couple trying to roll over. I stormed forward and pulled the sword from the Barzai's body, causing him to scream again. Putting the sword to his throat, I pushed him back against the wall.
"It's over. Come with me," I said. He laughed.
"Oh, Father. Next time you underestimate me like that, you'll surely die!" He snapped his fingers and became a mist that suddenly vanished into itself. I fell forward and caught myself against the wall, before spinning around to survey the room. Tadzio was limping toward me.
"Well, that didn't go as planned," he said, reaching out for his sword. I returned it to him as soon as he was close enough.
"The plan was...revised," I answered.
"I noticed. We need to have a chat about that, but first," he turned and pointed at the cultists with his sword, "we need to decide what happens with them."
"Don't worry, I know exactly what to do. But first, we need to leave." He stared at me for a moment, then sighed and put his sword away.
9 October 1997
"I can't believe you killed a bishop," Tadzio whispered in German as we were laying in the woods, watching the cult site through binoculars.
"It wasn't on purpose."
"But do you regret it?" There was a long pause, then I lowered the binoculars and rolled onto my back to check my gun.
"I'm surprised you care, given your distaste for the Church."
"They tried to kill me, Bene! Repeatedly, for years!"
"It was an inquisition and you were literally under the constant influence of demonic power."
"Yeah, well, torture still sours the relationship. But you're dodging the question."
"I don't want to talk about it. You ready?" Tadzio smiled as if he was certain he'd won some argument, then put his binoculars away.
"Lead the way, inquisitor," he said, resting his hand on the hilt of his sword.
The ground floor of the building was dark and damp, having sat undisturbed in the humid air for decades. The rusted frames of hospital beds, broken glass, bits of fallen plaster, and the occasional bit of graffiti or pile of beer bottles and cigarette butts were the only markers still available to trace our path. Occasional holes in the ceiling gave us glimpses that the upper floors were no better, but the floor beneath our feet was as solid as it was filthy. It was probably not enough to tip off the local youth that something was amiss about the location, but Tadzio and I recognized it as evidence that someone was maintaining the lower levels and keeping them hidden from sight. The trick was finding how they got down there.
We scoured the entire ground floor; though we were sure from observation that the cult members who frequent the site used a hidden exterior entrance directly to the basement, we suspected there was still a method for reaching the lower levels from the main structure. If we could find such an entrance, especially a forgotten entrance, we could hopefully catch the people below by surprise. When we found nothing, we debated trying to find the main entrance, but ended up deciding to check the other floors just to be safe before we took that step.
It was on the second floor, in what appeared to have been an administrator's office, that we had our discovery. One desk was attached to the floor and couldn't be moved, and under it we found a secret switch. On activating it, we watched a rusty and likely forgotten part of the wall hesitantly open to reveal a door marked with the red spiral of the Brood of Nachash. We had our entrance.
The elevator that used to connect the office to the subbasement appeared inoperable at a glance, so rather than poke at it and risk alerting the people below, we took to climbing. That much worked, and when we arrived at our destination no one was waiting for us. We agreed on a search pattern, and I stepped into the spiritual realm to take my path as he turned away to find his. As a spirit, I slipped past about a dozen people milling about or praying to their dread gods. In one room I found an assortment of weapons and explosives, with a handful of maps marked with targets. Being that I was alone in the room, I went physical again to gather the maps for future reference and rest my hand on the hinges and latch until they melted. Once the metal hardened behind me, no one was getting in there without magic or running the risk of blowing the whole place. I hoped it would be enough. When I met Tadzio again, he was wiping blood off one of his swords, slipped away in a crevice where I nearly missed him.
"Did you run into trouble?" I whispered. He shook his head.
"No trouble for me." He briefly explained that he had found a passageway that seemed to lead into catacombs, styled to look old and European, but with the wrong stonework. He'd seen enough of the real thing to recognize it, he said. It was the only clue we had to suggest an inner sanctum, so we went back to follow it. We descended into the dark and narrow passage, feeling our way through winding corners and down precarious stairs. I could have done something to help myself see better, but the turns were frequent enough that I wouldn't see much at a time. I probably should have. We saw light seeping in a side passage ahead, and slowly approached it. We paused while still in shadow, he readying his sword and I offering a quick prayer, before we stepped out together.
Spread before us was a large, cave-like room, with rough hewn walls and a vaulted ceiling. From the ground rose a number of jagged pillars, appearing like stalagmites, but flattened about five feet up with idols perched atop. They were scattered around the room in what appeared to our perspective as having no system at all. Among them were about two dozen robed figures with oversized hoods, who all turned to face us as soon as we emerged.
"Father!" one cried out, raising his arms. "Have you come to hear our confessions?"
"I'm sure they would be among the most interesting in my career," I replied. He laughed, lowering his hands to the sides of his hood.
"I didn't get the chance to notice last time that you have a sense of humor," he said, drawing back the hood. I recognized him immediately, the scarred side of his face and his serpentine eye raising every hair on my body. "We were so busy that night, weren't we? Barely got introduced at all. Why, I bet you have all kinds of surprises waiting for me." He smiled and pointed to Tadzio. "Like, you have friends! I wouldn't have expected that." The other figures began to slowly walk toward us.
"And I suppose your friends just want to get to know us, too?"
"Them? They'll leave you alone, don't worry." His smile grew larger, distorting his face and stretching until two fangs began to emerge from his upper jaw. "Your penance will be special."
Evidence compiled for use during the trial of Father Benedict de Monte.