Honestly, I missed most of what happened after Benedict attacked the Black Goat. I was fighting my own battle, trying not to get crushed to death while focusing on keeping the avatar separated from its source. I noticed, partway through, that it wasn’t just one connection I was severing, but many. I hadn’t even realized before that I could sense things like that, but there it was, once it was the only thing my mind was fixed on. I knew, somehow, that this creature wasn’t just summoned for the sake of being there, or whatever. Someone, some massive group of people, was siphoning its power for themselves. It was an intermediary, a means by which the dread power of an unknowable god was filtered and distributed to mortal practitioners. Were there any others of these out there? I suspected there were, though I couldn’t seem to identify that from this point in the power network.
Then I was falling, and I blacked out until Benedict woke me. Everything hurt. Then we were off again, him slowly helping me as I went along, unable to put weight on my right leg. My left hurt like hell, too, from the spear wound, but at least it would still push against the ground a bit.
“You disrupt magic, right?” Benedict asked me at one point, when we had stopped to rest partway up the stairs. I nodded, catching my breath. “Why am I able to keep this form around you, then? Why couldn’t I access my fire, which is just part of my natural form?”
“Is it not obvious?” I asked. He furrowed his brow as he watched me. I sighed. “It isn’t magic.”
“What do you mean?”
“Magic is…” I waved my hand in a circle a few times, trying to place the words. “It’s like, it’s something from one side influencing the other, is how Jackie describes it. It isn’t magic for you to look human, because on some basic level, you are human. I don’t even see the demon when you’re in this form. They’re just…ways for you to be, I guess?” He sat in silence for a while after that, before helping me up and continuing along the stairway.
We came eventually to a large rock blocking the way, and with some effort he managed to shove it just far enough out of the way for us to slip through. We were in the woods, and sat down again while we debated which direction the building would be based on the layout of the chambers and the curve of the stairway, and finally agreed on a way to go. He left me there to rest a bit longer as he ran off to check our chosen direction, and came back after about a half hour to tell me we were wrong. So we tried again, and he ran off again, and returned after ten minutes with news that we were wrong again, but close enough that he was able to see which way was right. So we set off again. We ended up on the road the military hospital was on, and as we approached I realized the cars my friends had been in were gone.
“Cowards,” I muttered as we made our way inside. We remembered that one room still had an intact bed, in highly questionable condition but much better for dealing with our injuries than the floor, and we made our way there. As we passed another room we heard a familiar voice.
“Took you boys long enough,” Akshainie said, putting a sword and a whetstone away. She helped Benedict get me to a bed and looked me over. She tried to use magic to heal me, but of course it didn’t work, and when she insisted I drop my power long enough for her to help me I had to explain that it didn’t quite work like that. Sure, I could prevent it from affecting another target, if I tried hard enough, but I knew of no way to allow magic to touch me. At least, not without granting them knowledge about, and power over, me that I wasn’t ready to just throw out there. While she went about tending my wounds in the normal fashion with the supplies from a first aid kit they had and whatever crap she found laying around, I explained the connections I sensed while making the Black Goat functionally mortal. Benedict theorized that it was the cult itself, that the Brood of Nachash had summoned an avatar of a dark god specifically for the purpose of binding its power to themselves. And if they had done it once, they very well may have done it many times over the years. The current cult members might not even know they were gaining power this way. I think I may have changed their entire approach, as they spent the rest of the night carrying on about the possibility of hunting down any other similar ritual sites and undermining the cult’s power before facing them directly again. The only break in the conversation was when Akshainie left to slip down the stairway we took and gather my bag and notebook I had lost during the fight. She reported that there was still no sign of the Black Goat regenerating, and that my friends hadn’t returned yet.
She never did tell me how she got through the horde.
They helped me make a cobbled-together crutch, and we exchanged contact information. Benedict said he was going to visit my dad, but first he wanted to follow up on that town we found back in fall. I told him what I knew, and they slipped off before morning. When I emerged from the hospital after dawn, as agreed, I was met by Tony and his coworkers. They ran out of the cars when they saw how messed up I was, and Tony hopped into Alpha’s driver seat and ran me to the hospital. I made sure to collect my money on the way there. I was admitted, as there was a lot of work to do, but I didn’t much care. As soon as I was in one of those nice, fancy hospital beds, I slipped right off to sleep.
I tried to turn my focus to the Black Goat, but there were too many creatures at the doorway now. I didn’t realize some were slipping past the other two until I felt a stab in my leg. I dropped down to my knee and screamed, then blocked another strike from the small spear the creature held and punched it repeatedly until its head burst. I looked over and saw more coming, and from my location I could see that the Black Goat was extending itself and reaching down to join the fight.
“There’s too many!” I called over. “We can’t do this and face the horde at the same time!”
“We need you at full strength, Benedict!” Akshainie yelled from the hallway. Benedict hesitated, but then sighed and stepped backward from the doorway a bit. I started attacking the other creatures that were slipping past him.
“Behind you!” I called, as the Black Goat extended a long, clawed tentacle toward him. Suddenly, his entire body caught fire and grew, quickly going from a white man a little over six feet tall to a huge, muscular, horned demon composed of flame and standing at least twelve feet tall. He growled and turned, grabbing the tentacle and breaking it off. The Black Goat roared and writhed in pain, shaking the whole chamber and sending more stones down into the doorway from the arch surrounding it. It recoiled what was left of the tentacle, reabsorbing it and shooting out what looked like a massive tiger paw at him. Benedict slammed his foot down and a burst of fire erupted around him, consuming the smaller creatures and pushing the paw back. It threw me, as well, and I lost my notebook as I hit the ground and rolled into the far wall.
The blow knocked the wind out of me, and for a moment everything went out of focus and I had a ringing in my ears. I rolled onto my stomach and groaned, before slowly pushing myself back up. I felt a sharp pain shoot up the leg that had been stabbed before it went out from under me and I crashed back onto the ground. As my senses started to focus, I pushed myself up again enough to look over and assess the situation. Benedict, or whatever he was now, was actively trying to fight the creatures and the Black Goat, but the horde showed no signs of slowing down and I could barely see Akshainie anymore. Then, much to my surprise, I saw her leap out of the mass of creatures. She shouted something to Benedict, I couldn’t make it out; whatever it was, he looked deeply concerned and turned, apparently to stop her. It was too late, though. She went up again, this time driving her swords into the ceiling.
The doorway collapsed entirely, crushing a host of the creatures and blocking the rest from entering. Benedict screamed and I started breathing heavy as I realized she was still on the other side. As he screamed, another burst of fire shot out from him, incinerating fully two-thirds of the creatures that had managed to make it through before the way was cut off. I tried to call over to him, but before the words were out of my throat I felt a heavy, wet thud crash into my chest and at least two ribs break. I was lifted up by a massive three-fingered hand, which began to sprout eyes looking at me and a sharp-toothed mouth near the wrist. I glanced over and saw Benedict, his fire growing in intensity, turning to the Black Goat. I smiled, turning my attention back to the entity, and grabbed its wrist with both hands.
“Oh, you’re fucked now,” I said, focusing my mind on severing the connection feeding the Black Goat.
There was a large set of doors a little ways down the main hallway, and we forced it open and then closed it behind us. Beyond that the hall tapered as it descended, eventually leading to a doorway that was only large enough for two people to pass through at a time. Must have been part of whatever ritual was happening down here. The structure was old and poorly-maintained; when Benedict sent fire up to see it, we were able to identify a number of structural weaknesses in the doorway and surrounding ceiling. I remembered the couple small earthquakes that had happened in the area during my lifetime, and figured another one would probably bring this whole chamber down.
From beyond that doorway, we could hear the roar and arrhythmic beating of whatever was in there hitting the ground. Each time, the ground shook, and the ceiling dropped a few small rocks or bits of dust. It wasn’t going to be safe to stay here, but going forward meant facing whatever was causing all of this trouble. And now, as we heard things hammering against the doors, we knew it was too late to go back. We pressed on.
As we passed into the inner chamber, we finally got to see what was causing all the noise. Embedded in the ceiling, probably fifty feet or so up, was a mass of black goo, with an assortment of eyes and mouths and legs, appearing and disappearing across its surface, each different in form and size from the others. It hung suspended above a pit, with the same diameter as the hole in the ceiling holding the mass; at a glance, I would have figured it about thirty feet across, with a ring of smooth floor stretching another fifteen feet from the edge of the pit to the walls. The ceiling was domed, beginning to curve just a little above Benedict’s head and rising gracefully to meet the edges of the entity’s housing. I frowned as I began to remember my dad’s books.
“The Black Goat of the Woods,” I muttered. Benedict and Akshainie turned to me.
“What was that?” she asked. I pointed at the elder god as it slammed a clawed fist against the ceiling.
“It’s a Lovecraftian monster. Dad has a book that theorized about the metaphysical implications of their place in pop culture.” Both of their faces seemed to glaze over, as if I was speaking a completely different language. “You guys…do you know who Lovecraft was?” They both shook their heads, and I sighed and pinched the bridge of my nose. “Okay, look, he wrote fiction stories, basically established the cosmic horror genre. His stories involved these entities of madness like the elder gods or outer gods. There’s some speculation that he was describing actual spirits tied to madness and the concept of an outer darkness from various mythologies, but the popularity of his stories in the minds of so many readers may have actually caused them to change to reflect his descriptions. I think we’re looking at confirmation of that theory.”
“Are you telling me that the Brood of Nachash found and built a temple around a god of madness from a horror story?” Benedict asked. The thing roared again, and we had to cover our ears from the noise. It took a moment for us to recover, but the beast did not seem to have noticed us yet. That, or it was expecting something from us and waiting to see if we would do it.
“No, well, maybe? I don’t know. But chances are this is just an avatar for one of the elder gods, specifically Shub-Niggurath, which they may have actually summoned here.”
“They do seem fond of summoning,” Akshainie noted.
“Does that make a difference?” Benedict growled. “We still have to deal with it.”
“Yeah,” I said, lighting a cigarette. I took a drag and blew out the smoke in the entity’s direction. “An avatar can be killed.” Both of them smiled at that and looked toward it. That’s when we heard the massive doors behind us finally drag open, and the sound of scurrying and tapping approaching.
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1 March 2006
Having made our way around the place, we ended up back at the office upstairs. The place was a mess, but there was one desk that seemed attached to the floor, and further investigation revealed a button that opened a secret passage in the wall. Behind it was a pair of doors, marked with a single large red spiral painted across their front.
"Oh," I muttered, "these guys again." I lit a cigarette as Benedict turned to me and Akshainie walked over to investigate the doors.
"You're familiar with the Brood of Nachash?" he asked me.
"Is that what they're called? We just called them The Red Spiral."
"How do you know about them? Who is 'we?' What happened?"
"Is this important?"
"They're why we're here!" he cried out, indicating the spiral with his outstretched hand. "They're a danger to the world and we're trying to find and stop them."
"Oh. Yeah, I guess that checks out."
"There is a button here, but no handles," Akshainie said. We both turned and looked just in time to see her press the button. There was a loud clunking noise followed by an electric whine as long-abandoned machinery debated whether to respond. After a few seconds of that, the doors jumped open a few inches, whined some more, and then opened in slow jerking motions. Beyond them was a large elevator car, which looked like it could house about a dozen people or a small team surrounding a hospital bed. The metal rail on the walls was rusted, the carpet worn thin and fraying, the light at the top faintly flickering and giving off a low hiss. The entire car looked to be slightly crooked, and there was an audible groan as it held itself in place. It took me a moment of looking at it to realize that no other part of the building so far had still been receiving any electricity; at that, I frowned and put out my cigarette on the bottom of my shoe.
"How mortal are you guys?" I asked. Benedict gave a non-committal grimace.
"I'm not entirely sure," he said.
"I am not mortal," Akshainie answered with a shrug. I tucked the short back into my pack and pointed at her as I walked into the elevator.
"Well I am. If this thing tries to kill us, you save my ass." She rolled her eyes and slithered in just ahead of the priest, who then pushed the bottom button on the panel. The doors complained, but eventually jerked their way closed. We stood in silence for another few seconds before the elevator suddenly dropped about a foot and then started descending in a more controlled, but clearly strained, fashion. I began wishing I hadn't snuffed my cigarette before climbing in.
"You never answered me," Benedict said, finally.
"Oh. Right. Well, okay, so back in September? October? I was driving around with a few friends, you know, and we stumble across this ghost town a bit south of here where we got chased by a black garbage truck with that spiral on it. We'd already seen it around a bit on some standing stones earlier that night, so it stood out. After a couple encounters with that over the next few days, and it trying to kill us, we came across a factory or something with the same logo and decided to check it out. Well, they were trying to summon something, it turns out, so Rick, Jackie, and I broke it up and undid the ritual and some of them got arrested on an anonymous tip."
"Did you see anything strange?"
"By whose definition?" He turned his head to give me a level glare. "Fine, fine. One guy had this, I dunno, snake eye? And some scars? He said I was an omen of the end of their mission, but he never really explained as I was kinda busy punching him in the face." The elevator came to a sudden stop, nearly throwing me and Benedict off our balance, and the doors began their slow ritual of trying to open.
"You met the Barzai."
"An omen?" Akshainie asked. I shrugged. The door finished opening, and we found ourselves staring into a little bit of stone floor dimly lit by the elevator that faded off into darkness. Benedict opened his hand as if he expected something to happen, then looked at his hand, looked at me, and grumbled. He lowered his hand and stepped forward into the darkness, followed by Akshainie. I stepped out and felt along the wall beside the elevator until I found a switch, which I flicked.
The lights flickered a bit at first before the filaments in them began to glow, weak but steady. As they warmed up and grew brighter, we started to make out the chamber ahead of us. It was massive; well over ten feet tall, and probably as large as my dad's entire property over on Oakland. The ceiling was rough and natural, like a cave, but the floor was smooth and carefully worked. Occasional spires reached from one to the other, and the room was dotted with idols about four feet tall. There were three passageways leading out of the room, small ones to either side and then a large, arched one straight ahead. The light did not reach into any of them. We all waited there a moment, then I pulled out my notebook and we began investigating the chamber.
1 March 2020
Being that we were going to be working together, and they clearly had access to magic of some sort, I warned them about bringing any magic too close to me and apparently that was enough to make Akshainie want to kill me. I had known some spirits liked me more than others; to some, I was a handy means to access the physical realm, and to others I was some kind of generalized danger, but the latter group never spoke to me enough to know what their problem was. I was thinking about what she'd said, about people like me being destructive, while Benedict tried to calm her down. As I was thinking this over and made my way toward the hallway door, I thought I heard crying.
When I looked back to tell them, they were having a heated conversation in some language I'd never heard, so I decided to leave them to it and head off to investigate. The noise was coming from somewhere down a side hall, so I crept along, trying to trace the echoes to a specific room. The hallway turned a corner, and I stopped to peek around the edge just in case before continuing. Right at the start of that hallway was a thick metal doorframe, as if this whole hallway had been closed off by strong doors at some point. There was what looked to have been a poorly-removed circuit panel next to the frame. Near the end of that hall, I found a closed door.
The rest of the rooms I'd seen so far had had doors at some point, of course. Most were gone, a few wooden ones were still attached to a hinge or two but clearly broken. This hall, however, still had almost all of its doors, and they were all metal. Only one of those doors was closed, however; and it was the one with the crying.
I glanced in the others as I passed. The mess of previous visitors was nearly impossible to distinguish from the mess that must have been left behind by occupants, especially with the drawings on the walls. But this area was less vandalized than others, and I suspected that other people who won the bet did so by deciding this hall was not worth looking into. As I got to the door, I noticed Benedict and Akshainie find the end of the hallway and follow me down. I tried to test the door before they got there, but it was locked. I explained that to them when they arrived, and Benedict focused for a moment and then walked right into the door and bounced back, rubbing his head.
"What the hell was that!?" I asked, pointing at the door.
"I usually...ow, usually I can make myself pass through stuff like that."
"It's him," Akshainie hissed, glaring at me. I raised my hands then backed away. Once I was about six feet or so from them, I lit a cigarette while Benedict took a breath and did it again, this time walking right past the door into the room.
"So," I said, "what do you do? Where are you from?"
"I kill things that need to die. And that is no concern of yours." I shrugged and leaned against the wall for a moment, before we heard a loud scream come from the room and the door was blown off and slammed into the wall across the hall from it, Benedict landing hard on it.
"Not this shit again!"
"It's been a rough year, murder hobo! Get those swords ready!" She drew her swords and I dropped my backpack, pulling out my notebook as the ghost of a man floated into the hallway. His face was twisted in pain and his body was covered in arcane markings. His arms bent the wrong way and in more places than they should have, and his legs hung limp from his body, waving in a way that looked like they had no bones. Which, admittedly, they didn't, but usually you can tell in ghosts that the person had bones when they were still alive. Benedict coughed and stood.
"Oh, what did they do to you?" he asked as he caught his breath. The ghost screamed again and a pulse of energy blew away all the debris on the floor and pushed Benedict and Akshainie back. I stood, flipping through my notebook, until I found the sigil page I was looking for. I waited until the shockwave had finished and the ghost was moving again as I held my hand over the page, then I threw the notebook onto the ground just in front of the ghost. It moved forward just a few inches until it was over the page, then the sigils began to glow and the ghost stopped like it had hit a brick wall. It screamed again, the air around it and above the notebook swirling wildly, but not reaching any of us. Akshainie screamed and lunged forward, slicing at the ghost in a series of rapid strikes I could barely keep up to watch. When she stopped, the ghost gasped and broke apart, fading into nothing. It was as I was watching it disappear that I was able to pay enough attention to it to realize that it was not, in fact, a ghost, but an echo.
"Let me just slip by you," I said, walking past Akshainie and picking my notebook up again. She mumbled a brief thing that sounded like a vague thanks as she put her swords away, and we all turned to look in the room.
The walls of the room were lined with arcane scribblings, not unlike those on the body of the echo. They were certainly more extensive, and I recognized some sets as showing up in various summoning rites I'd seen in my dad's books. These were mixed in with drawings, mostly of inhuman faces, with faces too long or with too many eyes or noses or ears, some of them completely alien, some of them serpentine. The cot was torn to shreds, and there was a blood-stained depression in the wall where it looked like someone had desperately tried to claw through the stone but hadn't made it all the way through. Under that was a body, largely decayed, but mostly human. Its two human arms were bent in a multitude of ways, its human legs shriveled and useless. It had four additional legs which resembled those of a spider, large and still generally intact. What was left of the face looked like it had been warped into a form that would have been terrible to behold while there was still flesh on it.
"I guess that supports the experimental testing theory," I muttered, taking notes.
1 March 2006
Tony had picked up a job out in Girard, and after a couple months there he began to hear stories from some of his coworkers who had grown up over there. One of these stories involved an allegedly haunted building out by the Vienna air force base. The rumor was that the site had originally been a small hospital as part of the base, then shifted into use as a mental hospital which was supposed to be related to some kind of testing the military had carried out, until it was sold by the government to a private enterprise who used it as a nursing home for a couple years. That nursing home was wracked with problems, which were blamed on the restless dead from among those who had been experimented on and then locked away there, and the company that owned it abandoned it and left it to decay as the woods slowly reclaimed the property.
There was a challenge, among kids from over that way, that was proposed to people who made too much of a show of not being afraid of anything. A pool of money would be gathered, and a bet would be made that the person in question couldn't spend the whole night there alone. If they pulled it off, they'd get all the money; if they refused or failed to spend the whole night there, they'd get nothing. Tony's coworkers could only name one person who had actually made any money on this venture. A flashlight was allowed, and some water, but nothing else. This apparently came up in the context of Tony telling stories about his friend who believed he could see ghosts and looked into things like this.
And that was how, at the end of February, I was suddenly offered a little over a thousand dollars if I could spend the night in a haunted hospital I'd never heard of by people I'd never met.
Tony and a couple of his coworkers were camped out in a couple cars already when I pulled up in Alpha. There had to be witnesses, it was explained, to prove that no one else had joined me, that I did not leave and return, and that I had only taken the approved materials. Once we were all clear on the rules and I was found acceptable (I managed to convince them to let me bring my cigarettes and a lighter as well), I climbed the fence left in place by the military and made my way through the tall grass to the collapsed front door.
There was certainly a presence, I realized as I approached. I didn't see any specific ghosts, and very few remaining impressions of anything. But there was something here, or very nearby and connected to this place, and it felt evil. I had originally planned to find somewhere comfortable to hang out and maybe get some sleep, talk to some spirits if necessary, and that would be that. But now I had to do some investigating.
The rooms on the ground floor were a mess. There were the remains of other attempts to stay the night among the fallen plaster and remnants of archaic hospital equipment. In one closet, I found a stack of folded papers that had been overlooked by previous visitors, which turned out to be an inspection report on some local fallout shelters from 1957. I decided to keep that, maybe hang it up at home. From the outside, the building only looked to have one full floor and one partial above it, but as I explored I found that there was one also one floor beneath the ground. I decided to explore that last, and continued on my way deeper into the main floor of the building. The upper floor was office space and what I gathered was a private staff lunch room, which had been raided long ago. I took a smoke break on what was left of a bench there, and as I made my way back down to the ground floor I suddenly heard a few footsteps and something dragging along the ground in a nearby room. I suspected it was Tony and his lot trying to scare me off, so I went to confront them.
What I actually found when I entered the doorway and shined the flashlight was a white Catholic priest, standing next to a woman who had the look of someone from near or in India and a serpent's body from about the belly down. Her top barely covered anything, and she had swords strapped to her side and nothing covering the serpent part of her. We all stopped and looked at one another, and I shone the light at the woman.
"What are you supposed to be, a naga or something?" I asked.
"Yes," she said, "I'm a naga." I grumbled and lit another cigarette.
"Always something. Did the people outside see you two come in here?"
"I can't see how they would have," the priest answered, in a German accent, "why would that matter?"
"I got a thousand bucks riding on staying the night by myself, and I don't want you two fucking it up just cause you needed somewhere to hide whatever," I waved my light between them, "this is."
"This," he answered, emphatically, "is an investigation into a dangerous cult. Which should take some priority over your poor gambling choices." I eyed him up. Something about him wasn't right, but I couldn't put my finger on it yet. But she was absolutely a spirit, walking around in the real world. Or at least what passed for walking.
"Is this about the presence here?" She moved forward, her eyes wide.
"You know of it already?" She seemed very excited to ask.
"I've got a knack for these things."
"Wait," the priest said, "you...we're near the Pennsylvania line, yes?" I nodded. "And you do look...are you Henry Matteson's boy?"
"Aw hell, you're his secret priest friend, aren't you?" I pointed at the naga. "Dad said he was warning you about fucking around with the naga!"
"Henry warned you about me?" she asked, turning back to him.
"He said your kind may be dangerous, which I would remind you is true," he answered. She looked like she was considering that for a moment, then shrugged and nodded. "And does your dad know you're out poking around places like this, young man?"
"Oh, no, we're not doing that," I said, pointing at him. "I'm a grown ass man, priest, and he's got enough shit to deal with right now." The naga held up a hand toward each of us.
"I am Akshainie," she said, turning her head to face me, "it is a pleasure to meet you."
"Call me Matteson. Dad says you healed him."
"It was the least I could do."
"Yeah. You got a name, priest?"
"You can call me Father Benedict."
"I don't do titles. Well, Akshainie, Benedict. Sounds like we've got new plans for the evening."
15 February 2006
I mostly did paperwork when I first started at Laurel, and was given my first case in late January. It was, by that time, mostly handled; I just had to connect a few last dots and hand it back, a case for a debt collector of some sort. My second case was more of a personal favor. Mark took me aside and explained that he and my dad had a mutual friend who'd started some kind of network, and occasionally Mark liked to keep an eye on it. He gave me the information he had on a Dr. Francesca Harris and a group called Mystics Anonymous, and asked me to just check on them.
His information was recent, just a few months old, and with some training on how to access some of the networks available to us, I was able to start getting some usable information. I told him I could say the group had started meeting in Louisville, Kentucky, and it looked like Dr. Harris was still there. He asked me to go to confirm, gave me access to a travel account, and the next day Alpha and I were heading southwest.
Mark warned me that he had never actually been asked by either dad, or their mutual friend, to check on this group, and wasn't entirely sure they would be fond of the work if they found out. But they had asked for help from a detective, he noted, and were just going to have to live with the consequences of that. "All the same," he said, "try not to let Harris think to ask them about it." I began to suspect this case was more of a test than anything.
I had some notes on how to find where someone was staying, even if it was just a hotel room, but thought I might as well try using my own options just to see if they would help. I arrived in town at night, and went wandering until I'd found a nexus, grabbed some chicory I'd brought along, and climbed out of Alpha. Gathering at the nexus was a small assortment of local spirits, carrying on their own conversations and gambles, and they stopped and looked toward me as I approached. I held the bundle of flowers and bag of ground root up with one hand and the picture of Harris with the other as I stopped.
"I'm sure someone here would like a bundle of good fortune," I said, with a smile, "and I might be convinced to part with it for information on this woman."
There were three places Dr. Harris frequented reliably; one was her hotel, another was a local coffeeshop, and the third was a church where she met with a group of other people every week. That weekly meeting was only two days away, so I spent my first day in town eyeing up the church and finding the best place to watch for the comings and goings of what I assumed would prove to be Mystics Anonymous.
I parked myself on a fire escape in an alley where I could see the door Harris and her group used a couple hours before the meeting, somewhere they wouldn't think to glance while entering unless they were being particularly paranoid, and waited with a camera. I brought some snacks and a book to pass the time. Right on schedule, I saw Harris arrive and unlock the door, so I zoomed in and got a couple pictures of her doing so. Shortly after, a group of three people came walking up together from the parking lot. From my angle, I couldn't see whether they'd come in one car or met there, but it didn't seem to much matter. I lifted my camera again to catch them as well, just in case, and then froze. I stared for a moment, breathing heavy, then closed my eyes and set the camera down beside me. I pulled out my phone and called Mark.
"I can confirm Harris is in Louisville, meeting with her group right now at the church I told you about," I said, as I watched Lori enter the building, "but I'm afraid that's all I can do for this case. I'll explain when I get back." Once I was sure they were inside and couldn't see me, I gathered my things, walked back to Alpha, and drove straight out of town.
26 December 2005
Christmas was weird. Usually I'd swing by dad's, at least for an early dinner, and we'd hang out and talk and spend some time together. Ever since I'd grown, there weren't always presents involved, and ever since grandma died there wasn't much of a larger family aspect to it, but it was pretty steady. This year, though, he asked me to wait a day. Come by the day after Christmas instead.
When I got there, he was in the process of cooking and I jumped in to help. He seemed to be moving a little slower than usual, had been recently, and I knew he was supposed to have seen a doctor recently about it. I asked him if he'd done so, and he waved the question off and pointed me toward the potatoes. So we kept working, listening to music, and he mostly asked if anything new was going on and if I had heard anything from Lori yet, which I hadn't and confessed I was starting to suspect I wouldn't.
We had dinner and joked a bit, and he asked how my study of possession and my new job were going. I told him about my encounter with Hecate and he commended me for not taking the bait, reminding me yet again that nothing from spirits ever comes without a price. Then he stopped, and set his fork down, and just stared at the table for a while.
"Dad?" I asked, setting mine down.
"Look, John. I...you remember last year, when I called you from the hospital and admitted that I had had some magical healing?"
"That wasn't the first time, or the last time, I let myself accept a bit of cleaning up from magic. And it gets easy to forget there's a price for something so small, and so common, and so...natural."
"What are you getting at?" He sighed, and got up from the table and walked into the living room. I waited a moment, then followed him. He had one of his books open on the table, in one of the languages he hadn't taught me. He pointed at one paragraph as I sat down next to him.
"A lot of healing magic works by just speeding up what your body can do on its own, John. Close a wound a bit faster, regrow normal tissue, that sort of thing." I nodded. "And too much of it can teach your body some habits it shouldn't have."
"Is this about your doctor's appointment?"
"What'd they say?"
"John." He closed the book and sighed. "I have cancer." I leaned back in the seat and covered my mouth. "I didn't want to tell you on Christmas. I don't know if a day makes any difference, but..." He trailed off, then reached under the coffee table and pulled out a metal box. "I want you to know what's coming next, and what I want you to do...after."
"Look, did they say it was terminal? People beat cancer, you know."
"Not like this. I'm gonna fight, stick around as long as I can, but, no. I knew what this meant as soon as they called me to come in and discuss my test results." He opened the box and pulled out some paperwork. There was a treatment plan, with dates highlighted. A will. A hand-bound book. Some bags and jars filled with stuff. He began to walk me through all of it; what the doctors were going to do, what he wanted his final arrangements to be like, his cipher on reading through all his notes on Jeremiah and spirits, how he used the materials in the case to defend himself or push back against supernatural forces. We spent hours going through everything, with me eventually heating up our plates in the microwave and bringing them into the living room. As we ate our reheated Christmas dinner, we planned for a future we both knew only one of us would see.
5 December 2005
I closed the door to the office at Laurel Detective Agency, as requested, and sat down across the desk from Mark Larmais, who was adjusting paperwork and didn't look up or speak for a solid few minutes. I waited, quietly, and tried not to make it obvious that I was glancing around at the decorations on the wall and shelves, some of which were commendations or letters of thanks for different cases he'd solved. I didn't really have time to read any of them, I was just skimming and thinking about the assortment available.
"Something seem off to you, John?" he finally asked, laying out a folder in front of himself and still not looking up as he opened it.
"You didn't solve the JonBenét Ramsey case. No one did." He laughed and finally looked at me.
"You'd be surprised how many people either don't notice or don't want to mention that one. How many ghosts are in this room?"
"Like...literal ghosts?" I asked, raising a brow.
"Uh...well, none right now. But why-"
"Right now?" I sighed.
"Yes, right now. There's a faint trail over there," I said, pointing at a small filing cabinet on the other side of the room, "but it's gotta be a day old or so by now."
"Probably Murray, the asshole," he muttered, pulling out a paper from the file. "Nice to meet you, kid. Why do you wanna work at a detective agency?"
"I like to look for things. And I hear it pays better than pizza."
"I'm sure at least one of those is true. Look, I'm gonna be straight with you. You're here because your dad and I go way back. He said you'd be good for the work, and he tends to know what he's talking about. But he also mentioned your little...thing, with spirits and shit."
"Is that a good or bad thing?"
"Depends on you. Here's the thing. Most work from private firms these days is just finding people. Occasionally it's uncovering an affair, but most of our money comes from collections agencies trying to track down someone who didn't leave a forwarding address. So don't expect it to be like the movies."
"Now as for your thing. If it's a tool that helps you finish a job, use it. That's fine. But I can't take that shit to court, so you better have used it to get me something I can. No one's really going to ask me how we found Joe Smith's new phone number, as long as we didn't break the law, so I won't ask you. But if by some turn of fate you get a murder case dropped in your lap, and you go find the victim's ghost and ask them how they died and call it a day, we're all fucked. You get useful information, got it? Weapon, witnesses, locations, anything that we can then use to build a case through conventional means." I nodded. "Good. Any questions?"
"You're just fine with this whole thing?"
"I've seen worse. You ready to start on Monday?"
"Good. Buy a tie."
17 November 2005
With my books returned and in light of recent events, I made the decision to become an expert at possession. Jackie was concerned that I was beating myself up a bit too much, but I reminded her that I can see spirits, and it shouldn't be hard to train that sense to see spirits inside people. And I can't let this happen again. Not if I can help it.
To that end, I had been reading one of my books at Pizza Joe's while I ate, and decided to take a short walk afterwards to think about what I had read before going back to Alpha in the Reyer's parking lot. I was on my way back, going down State Street toward the river, when my thoughts were interrupted by sudden silence. There seemed to be a pressure, not quite squeezing me, but almost as if it was squeezing something surrounding me. My head felt odd, almost like a headache, but not yet painful, so I stopped and rubbed my temple and looked around.
Everything was frozen in place. The cars, the birds, even an empty McDonald's cup about four feet ahead of me was just hanging perfectly still a few inches off the ground. There was no sound, no movement of any sort, just...me. I looked at the cup and took a few slow steps forward, and as soon as the cup was a little under to feet away it moved again as if carried by the wind, freezing in place less than a second later. I continued looking around for anything else that might be responding to the environment, and it was only then that I noticed the faint sound of waved lapping against something to my left. There was an alley there, which I knew to have nothing but apartment doors, the backs of a couple shops, and a pair of dumpsters. When I looked now, though, the alley faded away after about twenty feet and gave way to a series of flat, hexagon-shaped stones set into a flowing sea. A large black hound with red eyes and fur that seemed to start as hair but change to shadow as it grew away from the skin was sitting on the second stone, watching me.
"Do you talk?" I asked it. It cocked its head slightly to the side.
"I doubt you would understand," a woman's voice answered. It echoed through the alley, but seemed like it started somewhere out of sight and straight down that path.
"Try me." The hound looked back over its shoulder, as if waiting for permission, then to me.
"Δεῦτε ὀπίσω μου." I knew the voice came from the hound, somehow, but it certainly didn't use its mouth to form the words.
"As long as there's no 'fishers of men' speech at the end," I answered. The hound perked up, and I sighed and walked toward it. When I stepped on the first stone, it leaned forward and nuzzled me briefly until I scratched behind its ears, then it drew back with its tail wagging, turned, and led me down the path.
We walked until I could no longer see the alley behind me, surrounded only by the water and the smell and sounds of the open sea. I had to remove my jacket and roll up my sleeves as we continued as the weather was growing warmer and I could feel, but not see, a hot sun bearing down on us. The stones were laid out like a garden path, each a little offset from the ones before and after it, and when I stopped and looked into the water I could see fish passing beneath. I continued watching for a moment, and a mermaid at least ten feet long and proportioned to match drifted into view and waved at me. I waved back, and she dove deeper, so I straightened up and continued my walk.
The path ended at an island, a few dozen yards across in any given direction, with two more paths leading off to either side and another directly opposite mine. The island was rocky, breaking the waves that lazily tried to wash over it, with a lush green field in the center and a few short trees. In their shade was a marble slab, with animal skins laid out like a rug and a woman resting on them. Her back was against a tree, and she was eating grapes and staring off into the distance as we approached. Her skin was deeply bronzed, her hair black and loose with a slow curl to it, her dress ornately woven but made of such light material that I knew it would take very little staring to see clean through it. Her arms and most of her legs were bare. I knew that I could see three versions of her, or at least three faces, but they occupied the same space and I can't imagine how to describe anything about each that was different from the others. They were there, but they made one face in practice, and that was all there was to the matter in the end.
"You keep surprising me, John Matteson," she said, finally, once I stepped over the rocks and stood in the grass. The hound continued over and laid down beside her.
"I do that." She chuckled and turned her gaze to me.
"Do you have any idea how much power it takes to offset mine, even just the little bit you managed? I stopped time itself, and you, without realizing it, pushed back just enough to stay aware."
"I suppose I could guess, if you would be so kind as to give me your name."
"I will offer to give you much, human. You do not need to play such games here."
"Forgive me if I wait to determine that for myself." She nodded, then pointed to a place on the skins. I walked over and sat down, leaning back against another tree so we could look each other in the eyes.
"You know Greek. I'm sure you know me, then, as Hekate."
"I have to admit, I expected your realm to be a bit darker."
"The Crossroads you see says more about you than about me." I hummed in understanding and set my jacket down beside me. "How much do you know about what you are?"
"I cancel magic, unless I choose not to. I see spirits, regardless of my opinion on the matter."
"It works for me."
"Does it work for everyone around you?" I glared at her and straightened my back. "I can help you, Riverborn. I know everything there is to know about Anchors, such as yourself. They are, after all, mine."
"In what way?"
"I am the goddess of the liminal places. You are a liminal being, straddling the worlds of mortals and spirits. You are a gateway, a door that closes to keep the forces of one world from impacting the other. But I know all about that doorway, and those forces, and the keys made for you."
"So what, exactly, are you offering me?"
"Power, training, information. I can show you how to unlock your full potential, how to discover everything that comes with that gift in your blood. With raw power like yours, honed properly, you could stand against gods and demand respect few mortals could even imagine. I will give you the tools to see everything, to know anything you want to know, to control the flow of magic on a global scale if you wish. And," she said, absently adjusting the bottom hem of her dress to reveal just a little more thigh, "I know how to make education fun for you mortals."
"Why now?" I asked, keeping my eyes fixed on her face. "I've been an Anchor now over two decades."
"You've proven yourself useful."
"Ah," I said, smiling, "there it is." She let go of her dress and straightened up, setting her bowl of grapes down.
"There what is?"
"Your price. Useful for what, Hekate?" She smiled.
"I would have some work for you, of course. I doubt you would object to any of it." I looked out at the water, then picked up my jacket and stood.
"I'm not looking for work at this time. Not anything that gets me wrapped up in divine nonsense."
"I understand you're dealing with a lot right now, Riverborn. Take your time. I can wait; you are still mine, after all."
"Call me Matteson," I said, slipping my jacket on. "Just like everyone else." I stepped onto the first stone and found myself immediately standing on the sidewalk on State Street. Everything was moving again, picking up right where it had left off. I zipped up my jacket, grunted against the wind, and made my way back to Alpha.
The blog of John Matteson.