30 November 2004
The court of Iravati wanted absolutely everything. There were scribes working around the clock, between the process of translation and transcription. My notes were in German, and they wanted the end result to be their own local language as well as having a copy in the original German just in case; sadly, I was the only person present who would read German. So I would sit for hours each day, providing a shared Enochian translation of my notes, which they would then use to make their own translation. In the process, they would ask me for more information or clarification or personal experiences, and I would relate as much as I could. As my guide, Akshainie was required to be present for every word, and while the content seemed occasionally interesting to her, the activity itself was obviously wearing on her nerves.
When we were not doing that, however, all of her pent up energy needed to be spent. She gave me an exhaustive tour of Iravati, a lavish realm of gardens and flowing water and long, winding paths. I met almost every naga she knew, and her family had much to say and no desire to translate it for me. We would spend time each day sparring, as she taught me bits of her own fighting style and I taught her some of mine. Aside from the education, the discussion was always the same: she wanted to know absolutely everything I had experienced in my confrontations with the cult, especially the Barzai, and she was eager to tell me how the cult members she faced tried to stand against her. Then we would usually end up in a garden somewhere, laying in the cool grass and watching the sky, eating fruit unseen by mortal eyes for hundreds of generations, usually in silence. She asked, once, what it was like where I was from. By the end of trying to describe southern West Germany, she said she would like to see it someday, but in a manner that suggested the conversation was over. Some days later, she asked where I was really from; I told her I never lived there, at least not long enough to remember it, and we never spoke of my origins again.
I learned that time passed differently in Iravati, at the whim of the Great Naga, and that we had done months of work in the span of a couple weeks in the world of man. When I was finally called back before the Queen, the work of translating into Enochian was complete, and the scribes had made some significant progress in translating it from there. The Queen was given a brief, in Enochian, of all we had discussed.
"You provide a compelling case," she announced, as Akshainie and I stood in the center of her chamber. "Your descriptions of this Barzai are most concerning. And your role in creating him, no less so."
"It is a matter of some disturbance for me, as well," I replied.
"So it seems. Akshainie has testified to me already of your sincerity in this mission, and I see no alternative to such a threat but to offer the support of Iravati in your work."
"Thank you, your majesty. Might I ask what the nature of this support would be?"
"We will provide any information we gather on this Brood of Nachash, I have sent messengers to the waters of the world toward this end. More relevant to your own experiences, however, I have decided to task Akshainie with joining your quest." Akshainie tensed and straightened up. I glanced over and could see the surprise and a million questions forming behind her eyes, but she maintained her composure.
"If that is your wish, my queen," she answered.
"It is. Prepare for your journey, Akshainie. You are both to depart as soon as you are able." We both nodded and were escorted out of the room. Akshainie was silent, but visibly upset, as we made our way back to her chambers. I decided it was best not to press just yet. It was the work of an hour for her to gather her supplies and some food for the road, speak with her family, and take on a human appearance. As we made our way to the gate of the river, she finally turned her attention to me.
"Will I need to wear a human guise all the time?" she asked.
"Not all the time. But a lot of it," I answered.
"It is bothersome. These legs are impractical! How do you tolerate them?"
"I suppose I've never thought about it."
"It is going to be a great deal of effort to look human so often."
"You get used to it," I said, as the gate opened before us and the sunlight hit us.
"What is that supposed to mean?" I picked up my bag and walked forward.
"Come on, we have work to do."
"Benedict!" she yelled, grabbing her own bag. "You tell me what that means!"
"Are you coming?" She groaned and ran to me, tripping on a stone near the edge of the river. I caught her, and helped her back to her feet.
"Very impractical," she muttered, as we set off.
12 november 2004
As the first rays of daylight hit the water of the Ravi north of Lahore, Benedict waited on the south shore, watching the water. He carried his bag, filled with his notes and evidence, and was silently working out the most efficient way to hit the major points. The moment the light reached Benedict, the water before him began to churn. He took a deep breath and watched as the water began to swirl, then rise, until it formed an arched pathway that led down into a brightly-lit chamber. Two naga rushed to the doorway, pointing long spears at Benedict. One looked him over, then sneered.
"State your business, English," he said in a strong accent. Benedict raised his hands slowly.
"I have come by invitation, to discuss a shared enemy," Benedict replied. That guard spoke quickly to the other, in another language, and the other rushed back down the path. The two remaining men stood silent for a few minutes, before that guard returned and passed a message along. The first guard grumbled, then lowered his spear and waved for Benedict to step forward.
The river closed behind them and Benedict found himself in a large chamber that appeared to be constructed of clay bricks, painted with a limited but vibrant palate. He knew from the sense of the air that they were no longer in the physical realm, but very close to it. He was led down a long hall, with doorways dotting the walls. Various naga were bustling about, or peeking out of doorways, but all avoided him. The doors at the end of the hall were opened, and Benedict was led into a massive circular chamber. It had no visible ceiling, the walls just appeared to stretch up and support the night sky itself. It was full of stars, the Milky Way visible in extreme detail, stars completely invisible to the unaided human eye burning bright and shifting clouds of interstellar gas dispersing their light into the whole room.
Opposite the door was a throne, housing the Great Naga. There were two feminine humanoid forms emerging from a single serpentine body, which was itself at least twenty feet thick and circled the entire room multiple times. Benedict walked through a stone archway that lifted the coils up and allowed entrance to the room, and glanced up at the large scales as he passed. Every color seemed to shimmer from them, shifting as they caught the light in different ways, casting spots of color all around the room that moved in response to the restless body. An assortment of courtesans and servants were scattered through the chamber, some rushing on some task or another, others lounging and discussing some matter or another. Benedict was directed to the center of the room, where he stood silently and waited as the Great Naga continued whatever business they were doing when he arrived. Finally, another naga slid forward.
"Welcome to Iravati, Flameborn," he announced, in Enochian. "The Queen of Heaven will now hear you!" Benedict visibly flinched at the title, but straightened up and looked between the two large faces now fixed on him.
"I thank you for the welcome," he called out, using the same language and offering a shallow bow. "I am here on business concerning the Brood of Nachash, who have been active in your domain." The room fell silent and all eyes turned to him. One half of the Queen raised their hand to their chin, as if considering his words, while the other crossed their arms and glared at him.
"And what do you know of them?" they asked.
"I have been actively opposing them for nearly 30 years. I first encountered them on the other side of the world, in the United States, but have since been given reason to believe they do not originate there. Or, for that matter, here." The room erupted into shouts of surprise or arguments among bystanders, but neither Benedict nor the Great Naga averted their gaze to acknowledge it. After a minute of that, the contemplative half raised their hand and the room fell silent again.
"Call for Akshainie," they said to the page, who nodded and rushed out of the chamber. "And what is your name, again?"
"Father Benedict de Monte."
"'Father' is your title, I presume?" Benedict nodded. "Very well. Father, there has been speculation that this cult was an external force attempting to access Iravati, though we have not had solid evidence to support this idea until you arrived. Do you bring us anything of more consequence than a passing observation?"
"I do," he answered, offering his bag. "You will find here my collected notes on the Brood, details of my encounters with them, and the evidence I've collected of their ongoing activities." Another page came forward and accepted the bag, and just as he turned to carry it back Benedict said, "mind that I will need that back. With or without your input on the matter, I must resume hunting them when I leave this place." The Great Naga nodded, and Benedict turned to look when he heard another door open. Akshainie and the first page entered, and she slithered past the crowd to stand beside Benedict.
"You came at dawn. Truly a man of your word," she whispered, as they watched the second page take the bag to the side of the throne and begin talking to some scribes. The Great Naga was watching the page and scribes.
"I am a man of oath, Akshainie," he whispered back. "If I cannot keep my word about a simple meeting, how could I ever keep that oath?"
"What is this oath?"
"These records will take some time to review," the Great Naga announced. "Father, if it is not too much trouble, we would like to offer you accommodations here in Iravati as we process them." Akshainie raised an eyebrow and glanced over to him.
"Father?" she asked, still as a whisper. He smirked but did not look away from the throne.
"If it pleases you, O Queen, I would offer my services in compiling the information during my stay."
"It does. When you are not so occupied, I want you to spend time with Akshainie. She is our resident expert on this cult, perhaps you each may have some information and training that will benefit the other."
"As you wish, my queen," Akshainie replied with a bow.
"I will try not to impose," Benedict said.
"You are both dismissed. Akshainie, show him to some quarters. You will serve as his escort as long as he is within our realm." Both Akshainie and Benedict gave a bow, then headed for the door.
11 November 2004
The market was packed with people and stalls, fresh meat and produce as far as the eye could see and a crowd ready to take all of it home. I was weaving my way through the space, looking for a man I was told had some of the best lamb around. As I slipped from one cluster of stalls to another, I felt a familiar presence. It took me a moment of focus to remember it, but it felt like Akshainie, or maybe like naga in general. It was hard to tell, when I could only confirm meeting one.
I stopped and looked around the market, but no one looked familiar, and the crowds were too thick and busy to focus on details beyond the people closest to me. Once I had to give up, I continued on my quest, but the presence never seemed far from me. It was five minutes of this, all through the market, the presence hanging close to me, with me occasionally stopping to try and find it. Finally, I heard her voice in my ear, ever so briefly.
"Fishmonger to your right." I spun around, but she was gone. Figuring I had nothing else to go on, I went looking for the fishmonger that had been to my right.
His booth was behind a stall, up against the wall of a building. He had a variety of fish from the local river, a gracious smile, and surprisingly few customers. As I approached, he was hanging a fish in a small line of them hanging from the top of the booth. When I stopped and pretended to admire his wares, he turned to me and waved his hand over his stock.
"English! What kind of fish do you seek?"
"I suspect it's very rare," I answered.
"Oh, nothing to rare for me, sir. You tell me, does it have a name?"
"Akshainie," I said, softly, as I glanced around.
"Very rare indeed! But have no fear, you are close." He stepped to the side and pulled a curtain aside slightly, revealing an illuminated room inside the building. "Perhaps you would be so kind as to check in the back for me." I nodded and slipped into the doorway as the curtain closed behind me. Akshainie was there, in her true naga form, in a pose that I must assume would be considered lounging. She was spread out over a number of cushions, wearing a sari, her swords laying in arm's reach. The room looked used, but not lived in, as if it was a place for the man to rest during his work or briefly entertain but with no cooking area or evidence of additional rooms. The tapestries on the walls all displayed life on the river.
"It's rude to stare, English," she said, picking up a bunch of grapes from a bowl of fruit and plucking some off. "Sit down." I moved further into the room and lowered myself onto a large cushion near the low table with the fruit.
"I'm German, for the record." She waved her hand dismissively.
"You're not of us." I indicated the fruit with my hand, as if to ask, and she nodded. I picked out a mango and leaned back against the wall. "But I asked around, and your story sounds true. This Brood of Nachash is not unknown to the rest of the world. And one especially eager water spirit near North America seemed to recognize you from some incident involving a burning island?"
"The island is fine. The cult members gathered there, largely, were not," I said, pulling out a knife and beginning to cut the mango.
"The story was hard to decipher by the time it reached me, but yes. It did sound like you were very active in your opposition to the Brood."
"Is that why you left? To verify my story?"
"And what reason did I have to stay? To suffer your magic further?" I stopped, then set the knife down.
"I'm sorry, but I needed answers, and it was apparent you were not interested in giving them."
"Oh, make no mistake, I appreciated your style. Right up until you apologized for it." I chuckled, shook my head, then picked up the knife and resumed my work.
"I'll be sure not to apologize to you again." She smiled, then popped a grape into her mouth.
"You're doing that wrong, you know."
"I'm doing it in a way that works." She shrugged.
"Suit yourself, English. The fact is that this Brood of Nachash is a problem, one that I thought had been handled. You need to inform the Great Naga that it is not a local issue."
"Will they not listen to you?"
"I would sound...opportunistic. But to you, the cult here was just one stop on a much longer journey. A journey we are invested in seeing complete."
"Why should this cult be your concern, if you've removed them from Pakistan?"
"I think you know full well how the impression of mankind shapes the world of spirits." I stopped, then nodded. "Hm. And tell me, did you come here because you knew the cult was here?"
"No. I came to investigate the legend of the naga, find out if it was connected."
"And what do you suppose happens to the naga, when the whole world thinks as you have? That we should be understood through the lens of those who corrupt the image of the serpent?"
"You're fighting for your very nature." I set the mango and the knife down. "Tell me how I can help."
"Be at the river, at dawn. North of the city. Be ready to tell your story."
10 November 2004
Two more sites, both slaughtered before I arrived. Whatever it was that drew the cult here, they were insistent on getting a foothold, and someone was insistent on stopping them.
I had to assume it was my mystery woman. Once I knew what to look for, I had managed to spot her at both sites, but only briefly. She was always just a step or two ahead, always ready to vanish in the tiniest bit of water, but I had been working on a trick I'd learned back in North America. This time, I was hoping I'd be ready for her. It would have to be enough, if I wanted any answers this way. For all of my searching, I couldn't find evidence of any more cult sites in the area.
I wandered this last site in the spiritual realm before investigating. I don't know if she knows what I am, or what I can do, but I had no reason to think she would assume I could slip by her. I did not find her, but I did locate the water source I was certain she would use to escape. I made a note of its location, found the fastest route from the central chamber to it, then went back to the entrance to carry out my work as usual. I was taking notes on the fatal wounds on the last body when I saw her from the corner of my eye. She was watching, from a crevice above me and to the right. I quickly ran through the map in my head, and determined that if I played it just right I could reach the water just before her. I stood, jotted down the last of my notes, then tucked the notebook away.
"You know, we could try talking about this." I didn't know if she knew English, but I was certain I knew what she'd do the moment she realized I was speaking to her. Sure enough, she dove down the passageway behind her. I smiled, turned, and took off down the path I'd determined. I leapt over rocks and slid under a narrow passage, trying as best I could to reach the end of our race first. "Saint Hubert," I prayed softly in Latin, "please let me have estimated her speed correctly."
As she rounded the last corner and came within sight of the water, she began to change. Her legs gave way to a single, long, serpentine body, and the water started to open. Just as she was about to lunge forward, the water froze and the air in the room dropped to nearly arctic temperatures. Her body grew stiff and she hit the ground hard, gasping in the sharp air. I stepped out from the end of my path, catching my breath as well. She hissed and pulled out her swords.
"Do what you came to do, Colonizer," she practically growled in heavily accented English, "but know it will not be easy for you."
"I've been hunting this cult for a very long time. Well, long in human years, but I suspect you work on a very different scale."
"You...hunt them?" She was breathing very heavy, and I could tell she was having difficulty.
"They're a threat. I want to know what you've learned about them."
"What do you care? Some ridiculous little group of white people show up in my land and start corrupting the name of our serpents, and you expect me to believe this is somehow a problem for you?"
"This is not a local event. I've been tracking them all over the world. Whatever they are, they mean to impose their will everywhere." Her eyes widened for a moment, then narrowed as they fixed on me.
"I will consider it. If you let me breathe."
"You seem to be talking just fine as we are."
"For now. But you want to chat." We watched each other for a long moment, before I sighed.
"Give me something. Anything to know you're serious."
"It is my name. I am Akshainie, of the guard of Iravati." We stared at each other for another moment until I was certain I would get no further assurance, and then I opened my hand and allowed the temperature in the chamber to slowly return to normal.
"Now, you said you would talk."
"No," she replied with a smile, "I said I would consider it. I never said where." Before I could react, she vanished into the water. I screamed, the rocks around me starting to slightly melt as the water quickly evaporated. After I took some deep breaths and centered myself, I turned and made my way back to the hotel.
6 November 2004
The spiral on the ground was crude and shallow. Benedict knelt and ran his fingers along it, feeling the jagged edges. It was composed of short straight lines, five or six abreast, with each set slightly angled from the one next to it. From a distance, it could give the illusion of a smooth curve, but it was clearly unfinished. The scratches suggested it had been scraped in quickly, almost frantically. They hadn’t had time to finish it to the state of the others he’d found around the world, and probably never got to the point where it could be painted red. Not that it mattered. The blood that had flowed into it took care of that.
Seven bodies in all were scattered around the room. Four of them could probably have been identified by family, a couple years ago when they first died. The gashes across their chests and throats betrayed the use of a sword; a sword that was no longer in the room. The heads of the other three were crushed in. Every one of them smelled like sulfur, a sign of their connection to Nachash that he had picked up ever since waking at Yggdrasil a year and a day after arriving there. Benedict stood and slowly stepped around the corpses to the broken and bloody idol that appeared the likely murder weapon. He picked the idol up, a bust emerging from a pillar, and examined it.
It was broken off about three inches below the shoulders, so he carried it over to the disfigured idols and pillars and began testing the fit until he found the one it belonged to. Having found it he looked down at the name engraved on the post and scowled. He didn’t know the language and couldn’t understand what name the idol had, so he set the bust down and pulled his bag around to the front and dug through until he pulled out a notebook and pencil. His superiors had been concerned about his lengthy absence in the Arctic, and now he knew he would need to bring more samples back to justify his globetrotting. As he was taking a rubbing of the engraving, he heard a stone drag across the floor behind him. He turned quickly and looked around, but saw nothing.
He'd been tracking information around the world ever since he left Yggdrasil, looking for any lore related to serpents that may give some indication on a source for the Brood of Nachash or at least an idea of what they were seeking. His search had brought him to the region around Lahore, Pakistan, where he had now found three ritual sites claimed by the Brood, all of them filled with dead cultists.
He finished his work and then began exploring the rest of the cavern, which had multiple branches cutting off into the rock. As he approached the second side passage, something further down the chamber scraped against the rock. He ran down the passage, following the faint noise of very light footsteps ahead of him. He rounded one corner and got a brief glimpse of her, a woman with twin swords and a movement that flowed like water. She was quick, but he saw enough of her face and arms to recognize her as a local. When he rounded the corner she had disappeared around, he found no evidence of her passing. Just a small stream of water, flowing through the stone, not large enough to hide a person or allow one to escape. He slipped into the spiritual realm and looked around, but found little more than a faint trace that led into the water. He scowled, then turned and headed back to finish his report.
20 March 2001
The first few years after Tadzio and I faced the Barzai, my work was largely centered on helping legal authorities sort through the maze of funding and corporate affiliations that had been identified by Mark Larmais. I would find sporadic opportunities to look into rumors of the cult's presence, and sometimes even find something, but the bulk of the cult's activities and the Barzai himself eluded me. One of the few things I had been able to collect from my own research was that the cult seemed to be appropriating serpent-related iconography and beliefs from around the world. Lacking an exhaustive mortal resource on serpents in the collective human imagination, I had now spent the last week hiking into the mountains of northern Norway in search of the one resource I knew collected the information I need.
I had known for decades about the role of the Worldtree in metaphysical affairs, though I had never sought it out. While its branches did literally hold the way to realms known to the Norse people who first interacted with it, its relationship to a well of wisdom and its function as a place where all realms meet ensured that it and its guardian became repositories of all knowledge. I knew it was not the only such repository, but it was the one I knew how to find. I actually knew two ways, one through Norway and one through Muspelheim, but I had sworn never to use that road long ago.
The people of Olderdalen seemed concerned when I arrived on the ferry with nothing but a small pack that contained a Bible and my notes, as well as a couple notebooks and pencils, and did not stop to buy anything. I don't know whether their primary issue was my safety or my money, but they grew silent when they saw the snow melt under my feet. Aside from some whispers, I was left to my own devices as I walked east out of town. My stops for camp were short enough that most of my time was not spent arriving in this area, but in searching it for the entrance. On finally finding a narrow cave etched into the side of a jagged mountain with ancient etchings surrounding the entrance, I took a moment to gather my wits before entering.
The passage was tight and stretched for about forty meters before suddenly opening to a massive chamber. It's probably incorrect to call it a chamber, as there seemed to be no actual walls or ceiling to it, only the hole I emerged from sitting like a doorway without a frame in the middle of a field and an endless night sky above. Before me was a tree larger than any building I had ever seen, and a dazzling array of gates scattered among its branches. There was a great well in its shade, and a worn rope dangling above it. The ground itself seemed to breathe, as something stirred beneath it. Between myself and the tree was a being that resembled a tree in the shape of a man. It was about three and a half meters tall, with four arms that stretched out of its body like gnarled branches and an array of root-like legs that continued into the ground. It rose to its full height on my entrance, and stared at me with a face that looked barely shaped from the bark of its surface, except for its one eye, set where a man's right eye socket would be. The eye itself was small, as though it had been made for the head of a human.
"Yggdrasil," I said as I approached, "forgive my intrusion, I did not know how to announce my coming."
"Nothing surprises me here." Its voice was like the breaking of branches and the roar of fire and the cracking of ice, but I could see no sign of a mouth moving. "Your coming was foretold."
"And my business as well, then?"
"It is customary to state your name and business all the same. However, you have forsaken your name, have you not?" I straightened up and took a deep breath. I had not had that matter mentioned in some time.
"I have taken another, if it pleases you to hear that one."
"It does not. State your business, flameborn."
"I have come in search of knowledge about a cult that claims to honor the Serpent of Old. They have used the visage of Jörmungandr in their works, and I have reason to believe they will do the same with all serpents around the world."
"All knowledge in this place comes with a price."
"What is the price for that which I seek?"
"Far greater than what you can pay. But for what you have requested, that is not my answer to give. You must ask the serpent yourself." It stepped aside to reveal an opening into the ground framed by the arc of a root of the Worldtree, and pointed into the darkness. "Jörmungandr has heard of your coming. You have his attention only briefly before the roots of the tree again draw his eye." I nodded a thanks and descended into the burrow.
The path was steep and winding, hewn from raw earth and decorated only sporadically with stones and glowing mushrooms. The further I traveled, the more the ground shook, and the louder came a sound like ridged metal dragging through the dirt. I finally stepped out into a dome, the roof supported by the roots of the Worldtree, lined with moss and glowing worms dangling from lines of silk, and a series of other passages leading off in every direction. I made careful note of the one I needed to return to the surface, and stepped forward into the center of the cavern. I stood only for a moment before the ground rumbled violently and a massive serpent's head, large enough to swallow me whole as an accident, emerged from one of the passages.
"You must be the flameborn," he said, his tongue darting back and forth as if sampling the air all around me.
"Jörmungandr, I presume."
"The very one. What business have you here?"
"I seek the Brood of Nachash. They have used your likeness, and that of many other great serpents."
"And you think I know them, personally?"
"I think either they are truly associated with you, or they use your name inappropriately. Either way, I see reason for you to take an interest."
"Protection of my name is no concern of yours," he said, drawing further from the ground and circling around me. "But if it is knowledge on the world's serpents you seek, I may have something for you."
"At what price?"
"Clever boy! What price indeed. What I offer you is my venom, flameborn. If you will take it, you may die. If you do not burn it from you, and you do not die, then you will gain what you need to trace the paths of the great serpents; and the price shall be your false name."
"What do you mean?"
"You have forsaken your name and you bring to this place, of all places! You bring to this place a new one, given by the tongue of man. If you take my gift, and use it, then the loss of this second name shall be a curse for you." I stood and stared at him for a moment, before I noticed his eyes drifting to the roots.
"Fine! Fine. I will accept your gift." The serpent's gaze snapped back to me, and he smiled as he drew close.
"Then take it," he said, before opening his mouth wide. A massive fang hung precariously close to my head, and I noticed a large drop of venom forming on it. I clenched my fists, then opened my mouth and caught the drop as it fell. It burned as it passed my throat, and I stumbled backward as the serpent laughed and drew himself back into his burrow. "Good day, flameborn."
I turned and made my way to the passage to the surface, and as I grew close my vision began to blur. I tripped and crawled along the path, coughing and forcing my body not to burn away the toxin. Colors began to flash in my field of vision, and by the time I felt grass under my hands I could barely move or make sense of anything I saw. I felt a cold wooden hand rest on my back, and everything went dark.
Excerpt from Debriefing meeting with Fr. Benedict de Monte, 16 October 1997. Translated from German.
C. Ratz: There is also the matter of the late bishop. Available evidence suggests he was burned to death, in similar fashion as the captured priest. I suppose the best explanation is that this Barzai got to him before we could.
Fr. de Monte: It does appear that way. There was a great deal of rage directed at him from members of the cult. It seems they believe he was facilitating a number of indiscretions, which the Barzai used in his recruitment methods.
C. Ratz: Hmm. I must admit we had been looking into those accusations a bit, ourselves. They do not appear entirely unfounded.
Fr. de Monte: I do not assume this is a matter where I should push for more information.
C. Ratz: Correct. Finally, there is this matter of a...therapy organization?
Fr. de Monte: Dr. Harris is a skilled psychiatrist, and one who is aware of the forces arrayed against us. She seeks to help the victims of the cult and other supernatural threats, and I felt this goal was both noble and in line with our own purposes. I did not, however, devote any more funding than I already had under my control.
C. Ratz: We will have to consider this at greater length, but I see no reason we could not help her, at least a little. I have also approved your request to focus on research and take some initiative with future missions based on the information you find. Do you have any further questions or information for me?
Fr. de Monte: No, sir, it's all in my report.
C. Ratz: Very well. But before you go, I would like to commend you on your work.
Fr. de Monte: In sparing their lives?
C. Ratz: It shows you have matured during your time away, and I appreciate it. I also meant something else.
Fr. de Monte: Sir?
C. Ratz: There were two cups of coffee in the bishop's office, de Monte. I was given a full description of the scene, and a copy of your intended schedule.
Fr. de Monte: Sir, I-
C. Ratz: I sent you there to protect the flock. Thank you for your hard work in this matter.
Fr. de Monte: Of course.
C. Ratz: Dismissed.
12 October 1997
When I arrived, Dr. Harris was sitting in a local coffee shop, with a half-eaten panini getting cold next to an empty mug as she read a worn copy of The Hobbit. I went straight to the counter and ordered a muffin and coffee, and waited for each before sitting down opposite her. She didn't look up from her book, and we sat in silence for a moment as I stirred my coffee and unwrapped the muffin.
"I was questioned about Mr. Withenow," she finally said.
"About why they found him in a site of human ritual sacrifice?"
"About his money and connections, mostly. It seems the FBI is interested in anything with his name attached."
"Perhaps they were warned that his financial advice was in the service of a specific, and questionable, cause."
"Perhaps." I began to eat my muffin as we continued sitting quietly; my eyes wandering around the room, hers fixed to her reading. After about five minutes, she slid a bookmark between the pages and set the book down. She looked at me, as though sizing me up for the first time
"How is it so far?"
"As good was it was the last four times. How much of this stuff is real, Benedict?"
"Everything is real, somewhere. The spiritual plane contains all of mankind's dreams."
"And nightmares." I nodded. "And sometimes, these things really come through? This cult was really able to bring harm to the world?"
"They still are, Dr. Harris. This was just one small part of their network." She scowled, drumming her fingers on the table.
"And you, you go around hunting the things that go bump in the night?"
"Something like that."
"What happens to us?" I stopped, and slowly set my mug down.
"I try, you know," I said, softly. "I try to help people, to comfort them. It's part of my training as a priest. But I can't stick around, and if they don't go to a priest when I refer them-"
"Not everyone wants the help of another priest."
"I know. But that's why I wanted to talk to you before I leave. And the fact that you saw the problem yourself convinces me you're the right person." She stared at me for a moment, then slowly shook her head and leaned forward.
"You want me to start some kind of...mystics anonymous group? Therapy for the haunted?"
"That's a good name for it. And I've already secured you some initial funding, hopefully enough to get you going." I reached into my pocket and produced a cheque, which I slid across the table to her. She glanced down at it, then back to me.
"And what? You just leave some money behind and go traipsing off to kill more monsters?"
"No. I want to be an active part of this. The world needs people who care, Dr. Harris. I care, and you care, and together I hope we can help people who would be dismissed by anyone who doesn't know what we know."
"I know very little so far." She sat upright, pocketing the cheque and then folding her arms. "You'll need to explain a lot more to me before I can do much good here."
"My flight isn't for two days," I said. "If you're free, I can answer as many questions as possible before then."
"I'm never free," she said, putting her book away and grabbing her sandwich, "but I suppose you have already paid for my services." I nodded and we both stood and headed for the door. "If we're going to be partners, you can call me Francesca."
"If we're partners?"
"If you ever back out of this, I expect the more formal title from you." I chuckled as I held the door open for her.
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.
Evidence compiled for use during the trial of Father Benedict de Monte.