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.
1 November 2005
The ride to Lori's place was awkward and quiet. I didn't know what to say or how to begin saying it, and she seemed to only be interested in holding the blanket tight around herself, leaning away from me, and looking out the window. The only words exchanged the whole time were right when she got in, when she said he had a splitting headache and asked me to turn down the music; I just turned it off. I couldn't exactly blame her, I couldn't imagine what she'd been through these past few months. So we rode along, in silence. When I pulled up to her house, I put on the brake and we sat for a moment.
"Do you...is there anything you need? I can help you inside, or run to the store, or-"
"No," she said, in a very definitive tone. She sighed and looked down, then turned back to me. "But thank you."
"Of course." She turned back to the window, but neither of us moved for another minute. "Oh, um, I should tell you. We were able to summon Alethea, and you, because of stuff I stole from that...shrine in the broom closet. I'm sorry, I can bring it back."
"Right." She sighed, opened her door a little bit, and then closed it again before turning to me.
"What's your deal, John?"
"...I think I need you to be more specific."
"Why you?" I hummed and leaned back in my seat.
"I don't know. I think it's because, somehow, she saw me in her last moments?"
"Yes, I know all that. But why? Why are you important to all of this?"
"I don't know. I don't think I am." I tapped on the steering wheel a few times as I stared at the motionless speedometer. "This story might not even be about me." She exhaled hard and looked out the windshield, for a few moments, then shook her head.
"No. There's something about you. I don't think you take this all seriously enough to notice yet, but things are converging on you. And until you learn how to see them coming, more people are going to get hurt." I looked down and scratched the back of my neck.
"I'm sorry, Lori."
"I know." We sat for another minute in silence before she opened the door. She paused.
"Do you need some space?" She laughed and looked away, then took a sharp breath as she shook her head and held her fist up to her mouth.
"John, I...I never agreed to any of this. You must realize, it was never me. Not even the first time we met, it was always her. We're not..." She trailed off, then got out of Alpha and held the door as she looked at the sky. "Yeah. I need some space." I nodded. "Thanks for the help. And for the ride. See you around." She closed the door and made her way inside. I watched her go, until she was inside the building. Then I leaned back, lit a cigarette, swore at myself a bit, and then took a deep breath and drove to Denny's.
1 November 2005
Everything around us melted back into a normal sort of silence and it was just the two of us, sitting in the aftermath of a poltergeist's rage on the only scrap of undamaged ground in the clearing. I barely noticed Alethea changing as she continued to weep and softly protest the way things turned out, pressed against me, my arms wrapped around her and lightly rubbing her back. It had been so long since I saw her in that bathtub that I didn't even register how different she had looked, the decades of death and isolation and obsessive pain warping her into something larger, angrier, more wild and inhuman. When she finally pulled back a little and I saw her again, I was nearly startled by the forgotten realization that this was just a sixteen-year-old girl with soft cheeks and warm eyes and a button nose whose life had been destroyed before it had ever really had a chance to be enjoyed.
"I'm so sorry," I said, wiping her hair out of her eyes and behind her ear. It was the first time I'd ever seen it obey gravity. She wiped spectral tears from her cheeks.
"What do I do now? I don't know how else to fix this."
"There...Alethea, I was never going to be able to fix this. No one can." She sniffled a bit and looked at me with pleading eyes. "What happened to you was terrible, it was unjust, it was horrendous; and nothing I or anyone else can do will change that. You have to decide what to do with it." I took my hoodie off and slipped it onto her, and her acceptance of it let it stay as she slipped her arms into the sleeves and wrapped them around herself.
"I don't know how to move on from this."
"I don't think you ever really do. It just becomes a part of you that you have to give a healthy outlet. You were robbed of the chance to get the help you needed, and the metaphysical realm isn't kind to souls that linger long. But you've seen where this path leads, right?" She teared up again, but nodded. "Lori, and Jackie, they deserved better. But so did you. You didn't deserve any of what happened to you, do you know that?" Tears rolled down her cheeks, and she nodded again. I stood, took her hand, and helped her to her feet.
"I don't want to become that again. I don't...I can't stay here, can I?" Once she said that, a white door appeared about ten feet away, glowing bright. We both looked at it. "Is that...is this when I go?"
"I think that's up to you."
"What's over there?"
"I don't know, kid. But I like to think it's better than this. Maybe you'll find healing there." She pulled close, wrapping her arms around my arm and squeezing it against her.
"I think you've already been through the worst of it." We stood in silence for a moment, before she nodded.
"Tell them I'm sorry?"
"Can you...will you come with me?"
"As far as I can." She let go of my arm and pressed herself against my side, and I wrapped my arm around her as we started to walk forward. The door swung itself open as we approached, and on the other side I saw only bright white light. It was silent for me, but she smiled like she saw or heard something familiar. When we reached the threshold we stopped, and she turned her face toward me.
"I guess you were what I needed, after all." I smiled, let go of her, and rustled her hair a bit.
"What you needed was to remember who you are. Good bye, Alethea." She gave me a quick peck on the cheek, took a determined breath, and stepped forward.
1 November 2005
I had never taken the time to do anything about my rib from my previous encounter with Alethea, and I definitely felt it when I started trying to dodge her. She was coming at me with far greater fury than before, but she was limited in space. As soon as she entered the area Jackie had laid out with that powder of hers, she was unable to leave it, but didn't seem to have any restriction on height as she continued trying to fly and strike me as she passed. This seemed worse to me, as the lag between Alethea's actions and Lori's was increasing and their conflicting desires were becoming more pronounced. If she lost control of Lori while in the air, I wasn't sure I would be able to catch her safely, especially with everything flying around us. I had to make my move.
She was diving at me again. Nearly every time, she would aim to curve up again either just before or just after she hit me; this one looked like it would be just before. I timed it as best I could and took a single step forward, catching her right before she expected me to be there. My hands hit and clamped down on her shoulders and her momentum pushed me backward until my feet made contact with the wall of stones and branches that had been gathering around me. I braced myself against that and stopped us both, pushed against her until her legs were on the ground, then pressed my right hand against her forehead. She screamed, both voices screaming, loud and shrill and painful. The powder in the grass was suddenly glowing, and all of the wind beyond it suddenly stopped and sent everything it was carrying flying to the ground. All of the energy she had been spending gathered at the edges of the circle, whipping into a wind storm that sounded like a hurricane. I held her in place for a few moments, focusing on bringing order to the metaphysical realm just like Jackie had said, and then pushed forward with my right hand. It passed directly through Lori, who slumped to the side. In my hand was the top of Alethea's head; she was scared, crying, on her knees and staring up at me. The wind broke and sent out a shockwave that shattered the wall around us and put out all the fires.
I let go, and Alethea rocked back and forth, her head in her hands. I looked down at Lori, half conscious, bleeding from the small cuts and abrasions she'd picked up in the two encounters today. I knelt down and suddenly there was someone else, a park guard, running into view. I was still catching my breath and didn't manage to ask him what he was doing before he picked up Lori and ran in the direction of Jackie and Alpha. I watched them go for a moment, then turned back to Alethea.
"You...you were supposed to fix this," she said, softly and between sobs. I told Jackie I'd had a plan for what to do once Alethea was out of Lori's body, but that was at least partly a lie. I was planning to find something in my notebook, but I realized shortly after this started that I'd forgotten it in the car. I didn't know what to do. I didn't know what to say.
I wrapped my arms around her, pulled her close, closed my eyes, and sat in silence as she wept on my chest.
The blog of John Matteson.