We arrived at the hospital shortly before they started limiting visitors for the night. Alice began to fidget with the book slightly after we were reminded that we were on a time limit, and I rested my hand on her back in the elevator.
“You’re going to do fine,” I told her. She gave me a weak smile but didn’t otherwise respond.
Once we were in the hospital room, I sat down as far from the bed as I could to limit how much I would interfere with the work. Mandy set up the book for Alice, who paced for a few moments, taking deep breaths and letting them out slowly. Finally, she pulled a small, metallic case from her purse, and opened it to reveal a pale green crystal.
“What’s that?” Mandy asked.
“A focus I got in England,” Alice answered. “It helps me see the metaphysical, has magic on it that lets me look beyond the Hedge without needing to cast a spell.”
“And it’s fine around him?” Mandy asked, pointing toward me. “You guys were sitting next to each other in the car.”
“I don’t know yet. The case is made from cold iron, so it’s supposed to shield the contents from the powers of magical beings.”
“I’m not fae,” I said.
“By what definition?”
I grumbled and crossed my arms.
Mandy laughed. “Can you do that? Play with semantics to make it just kinda work?”
“One thing I’ve learned is that magic is like 90% playing with semantics to make it work.” Alice closed her eyes, took one more deep breath, then held the crystal to her eyes with her left hand and opened them again. “Holy shit,” she muttered, “this is a mess. Are you seeing this?”
“Have been the whole time,” I answered.
“I’m not! I want to borrow that crystal some time,” Mandy said.
“Sure. But first, could you turn back a page?”
Mandy nodded and turned the book back a page, and Alice started switching her focus between the book and Jackie. She was whispering the whole time, reading incantations from the book as her right hand began tracing over the tangle of magic surrounding Jackie. Occasionally she would grab something, or sweep something aside, and the magic would untangle slightly. The process took about a half hour, as Alice carefully separated every aspect of the spell. I watched the process as patiently as I could muster, and when she had untangled it enough for me to safely work I stood.
“Mandy, please put the book away,” I said.
“Why?” she asked.
“So the doctors don’t ask weird questions.”
She nodded and put it away as I stepped closer.
“I knew you could do it, babe,” I said, smiling to Alice. She blushed. “Now, please hold everything still for a moment.” Mandy stepped in and held the crystal in place, and Alice used both hands to hold the various spells in place. I focused on them, dispelling the dangerous ones individually until it was safe, then clearing the lot at once. Jackie sat bolt upright, taking a deep gulp of air as the monitors she was attached to went wild. Mandy handed Alice the crystal, which was then returned to its case and slipped back into her purse. Two nurses burst in from the hallway, shooing us away as they ran to the bed to check on Jackie who was, by now, looking around the room wide-eyed and trying to catch her breath. The three of us gathered on the other side of the room, all of us holding hands and leaning close together as we watched the nurses work. In a matter of moments, they had calmed Jackie and fiddled with all the machines, and informed us all that she appeared to have made a sudden, unexpected recovery.
We were each given the chance to welcome Jackie back before being led out of the room for the night. I was informed that Jackie would need to stay overnight for observation, but they expected that if they could find nothing still wrong with her, a doctor would release her in the morning. We promised to show up first thing the next day, then made our way to the car. As soon as we were inside, Alice cracked and began to cry. Mandy held her, explaining to me that it was just stress, and gave me the keys so I could drive us back to my place. There, we all crashed as soon as we arrived.
19 June 2007
In order to carry out my investigation yesterday, I had to push some work at the agency off to today, which meant I absolutely had to be in the office. Alice had stayed over again, still in Jackie’s room, and we didn’t speak much this morning as we each rushed around getting ready for our own activities for the day. That silence got to me hard, and I spent too much of my day distracted. Still, I finished the paperwork I’d been given and made some headway on tracking down some guy for a hearing, and made a brief stop at home to clean up and check on a project before heading out to the hospital.
I did, in fact, know why I couldn’t just break the spell on Jackie. It wasn’t that I wasn’t able to—it was all to easy for me to do that, which was part of why I hadn’t been in the hospital room as much as Alice—but that it was too dangerous. It was the most complex spellwork I’d ever seen, Jeremiah had done his homework; and part of the weave of magic was a system of checks that were keeping Jackie alive through the process. I couldn’t dispel any part of it without dispelling all of it, my ability wasn’t really built for fine-tuned work like that, and dispelling all of it meant killing her. But I knew enough about him to know that he had a way to reverse it if I’d gone along with what he wanted. All I had to do was find the one safe thread to pull that would unravel the whole thing. And get someone else to do the pulling. Someone with a more precise use of magic open to them.
Someone like Alice.
Now, you can’t just ask a Brownie to do a certain task. They have to be let on to believe they’re doing whatever they like at all times. But you can, if you phrase it carefully, suggest that something needs done about an issue but oh look at the time, now I have to run and can’t get to that right now. Damn shame, that. I guess it’ll have to wait. And, sure enough, when I got home, I found the Brownie poring over books in the study. I didn’t mention it, and neither did he, but he kept right at it as I threw my shirt in the laundry and headed back upstairs to get ready to leave. And that is when I found Jeremiah waiting for me on the couch.
“You don’t take hints very well,” I said, grabbing a t-shirt I’d left on my chair.
“I thought it prudent to verify your message. Before I did anything rash.”
“What a gentleman. Did you intend to take me out for dinner to make your proposal?”
“This isn’t a joke, John.” He stood and held his hands out at his side. “Her life is in my hands, you know.”
“No, it isn’t.”
“And how do you figure that?”
“Because you’re in my house.” I slipped on the shirt. “See, that spell you put on her, it’ll sustain itself. You’re not maintaining it. Which means she doesn’t suffer from me cutting you off from it, which happened as soon as you broke into this house. You can’t do any magic to affect it right now. You also can’t cross over, since I know full well that this house has been largely cut off from my living here. Didn’t take much to close that door tight the moment I saw you. Which means if you want to do anything to her,” I cracked my knuckles, “you’re gonna have to get through me. And I’m just itching for you to fucking try.”
“Then test me, old man.”
He thrust his hand forward and I could see the strain on his face, but nothing happened. When that didn’t work, he straightened up and removed his tie. “Very well,” he growled, then lunged forward. I stepped aside and kicked his leg out from under him, and he smashed face-first into the stairway. He quickly recovered and spun around, hitting me hard enough that I slid backward and nearly fell over my chair. He wiped the blood from his nose and smiled. “You don’t have the same protection from me that Henry did. I can break you and not feel anything about it.”
“You can try,” I corrected, before stepping forward and catching him in the ribs with a punch. He hit back, but when he went to swing again I caught his arm and threw him across the room. I dove and he dodged, we traded blows all throughout the first floor, a couple of my dining room chairs got broken. I wasn’t thinking about the time, or how many hits either of us got in; it was just wild abandon, throwing ourselves into melee, until I heard Alice’s voice.
“John!” she called. Jeremiah had just gotten me pinned against the wall and was about to throw another punch when she did, and we both snapped our attention to her and, it turned out, Mandy beside her.
“Who are these two?” he hissed. “More little mortals you care about?”
“I’ll fucking kill you,” I replied. He laughed and threw me aside. I crashed into the table as he turned and bolted for them, and I reached out toward him. “No!” I screamed, and suddenly he froze in place. I closed my fist and jerked my hand back toward my body, and he vanished.
“What the fuck was that?!” Mandy yelled.
“My grandfather!” I answered, standing up and dusting myself off. Alice’s face went pale.
“Jeremiah?” she asked.
“That’s the one. We have to go! Now!” I started walking toward them. I wanted to run, but my leg very quickly informed me that I wasn’t going to be running for a couple days at least.
“Back to the hospital. We have to protect Jackie!”
“How?!” As soon as she asked it, one of the books from downstairs fell open at her feet.
“What was that?!?” Mandy yelled again.
“A Brownie. Alice, grab the book and save that page; Mandy, you’re driving. I’ve got some explaining to do on the way.”
After I left Alice at the hospital I made my way to Pulaski. I pulled over on an empty stretch of road to center myself. I was having trouble shuttling Alice around and having her at the house when I wasn’t even sure if we were still together, and if something dangerous really was waiting at the site, I needed to focus. So I took some time, a few deep breaths, had a smoke, and pushed that matter out of mind. I didn’t continue until I was sure I was as sharp as I was going to get.
I was following a ley line map Jackie had whipped up or something, but the geographic features on it were also hand-drawn and imperfect, so it took me about a half hour of walking around the woods along the river to find the site. It was pretty obvious, once I’d found it; whoever found her hadn’t cleaned up the blood or the candles, and I was frankly kind of surprised the place wasn’t crawling with cops with how much blood she’d used. Maybe they had some experience in the difference between a ritual and a murder scene.
It was definitely a high-traffic area. I couldn’t believe it hadn’t occurred to me to just follow the spirits to find the locus point and save myself a ton of time, but that would just have to be filed away for next time. A group of river spirits and lesser fae were gathered around the ritual site, lounging against rocks and trees and joking as they passed snacks and a pipe around. They stopped and watched me as I stepped into the center of the candles.
“Y’ain’t gonna try opening this place up again, are you?” a naiad asked.
“That’s not really my thing,” I answered.
“No no, you’re one a those…what’re they called?” a pixie asked, fluttering closer to me but stopping about five feet away.
“Yeah! Shit, guys, this guy’s an Anchor!” She zipped away from me to hide in some leaves.
“I’m not going to hurt you. And I’ll try very hard not to hurt your magic. I just need information.”
“Hurt my magic!” Another pixie stood to full height and flew closer to inspect me. “Listen to this asshole! How do you like this, huh?” He fired off a bolt of magical energy right between my eyes, but it burst harmlessly a foot from my face.
I groaned and sat down, lighting a cigarette as he sputtered and demanded how I did that.
“He’s an Anchor!” the first pixie answered. “They break magic! It’s their whole thing!”
“Well, not my whole thing, but it’s a major aspect of our interactions,” I said. “Now I’ll behave if you will.”
“What d'you want, Riverborn?” the naiad asked.
“I want to know what happened to the witch that made this ritual.”
“And what do we get out of it?”
“I should have expected you to be here, I’d have brought something. What would you like?”
“A favor!” the first pixie shouted, zipping back out and landing on a rock in front of me with her hands on her hips.
“I know the fae too well to agree to an undefined favor.”
“She weren’t here anyway,” a brownie muttered, adjusting his cap to expose his eyes and look me over.
“I’m surprised you were. Your kind don’t tend to hang out in the woods.”
“We do when our house is lost and there isn’t another one that’ll take us.”
“Is that your price? A house to mind?”
“One that won’t drive a spirit out.”
“How do you feel about occasional visits from a faun?”
“Does the faun bring drink?”
“None that he offers me, but I don’t think it would take much to convince him to start.”
“I’ll take it. This your house?”
“The witch lives there, too.”
“Even better. Alright,” he stood, brushing himself off before walking toward me. “It’s a pact?” He extended a hand.
“You are officially invited to take up residence in the house I share with Jackie.” I shook his hand.
“She was looking to find something,” he said, sitting down in front of me. The rest of the crowd resumed their snacks and smokes but listened in. “I didn’t know the language but I can tell a searching spell when I see one. And she made progress, too. Tore this place right open, scared the hell out of most everyone resting here. She didn’t seem to take mind of us, you know, was looking on past. I thought, and this is just based on what I could make of it you know, but I thought she maybe saw as far as the Crossroads.”
“Seeing the Crossroads didn’t put her into a coma.”
“No, that’s true, that’s true. But she was looking past us, mind you. So she didn’t see the man standing here, like he was waiting for her.”
“The other Riverborn,” the naiad said.
“And what’s your price?”
“What do you find entertaining here?”
“You two Riverborn.” She nodded as if indicating a point behind me, and I rose to my feet as I spun around.
There was a man standing there. His hair was long and dark, his features bold but his frame thin. He was light-skinned, which stood out against his dark blue suit.
“Jonathan,” he said, smiling and stepping forward out of the metaphysical realm. “So good to finally meet you.”
“Who are you?” I demanded, clenching my fists.
“Did Henry really never show you any pictures? Describe his father in any way?”
I glanced over my shoulder. “Get back.” I saw the other spirits begin to cluster at the edge of the water as I turned my attention back to the man. “Jeremiah Matteson, I presume?”
“In the flesh.”
“What did you do to Jackie?”
“That witch? Nothing that can’t be reversed. But it does need to be reversed. I’m sure you noticed that, right?”
“If you are what they say you are, you should know why the spell can’t just be broken.”
“I mean why attack her? What’s your issue with her?”
“I have no issue with her. I just needed to get your attention.”
“Well, you have it. Start talking, old man, before I make you regret getting it.”
“There’s that fire Henry was so fond of. I’m not here to fight you, John. I want to offer you a proposition.” He sat down on a large stone and crossed his arms.
“What kind of proposition?”
“I need an heir. Someone to take on the favors and goods I’ve acquired over the decades, to carry on my work.”
“And you skipped over your own son with such a gracious offer?”
“He wouldn’t listen. And he wasn’t worthy.”
“Worthy? Who the fuck do you think you are?”
“I think I’m not some normal, basic human cut off from the world of the spirits.” He stood and waved his hand to indicate the crowd gathered around us. “Look at us! I can call the water and it does my bidding, step between worlds as easily as men walk through an open door! And you, just casually talking to spirits in the woods, making carefully constructed deals, shrugging off the full wrath of a spirit made entirely of magic!” He stepped forward and leaned in close to my face. “We’re not like your little witch whore, or your frail old daddy, or those robed assholes trying to petition gods for a shred of what we can do. Why should we live like them?” He threw his hands up and began walking in a circle around me. “Afraid of things they don’t understand and can’t control! Bowing to whatever earthly power can make their lives marginally better! Waiting around for a savior that’s never coming! This isn’t the life for us, John. Not for people like us.”
“And what are you proposing is the life for us?” I turned to face him.
“Power. Prestige! We take what we want, we live whatever life we desire. What do you want, John? You want money? We have ways to get it. Women? Men? As many as you can handle. Slavish devotion from an entire culture? Why not! You have the power to redefine the rules of their collective unconscious! Do you have any idea what you can make people do for you? And them!” He pointed to the spirits. “They need you! You create or destroy the world they know, at a whim!”
“Now that’s quite the claim,” the naiad said, stepping forward.
“And what are you to me, little river sprite?”
“You just play at making water dance. I am water!”
“Yes. You are.” He extended his hand toward her, and she began to choke and gasp as she lifted off the ground. She screamed, or what she could muster of a scream, as her body began to contort and change shape.
“Knock it off!” I yelled. As I did, she fell back onto the river bank and caught her breath.
He tried his trick two more times, unsuccessfully, before smiling. “You see? They’re just playthings to me, and to you? You can do so much more, to so many more of them. Why do you sit here trying to negotiate when you can just make them as pliable as you want? Why go through the trouble when you can just will their compliance?”
“Do you have any idea how horrible this path you’re describing is? You’re talking about corrupting everything for your own gain.”
“Corruption? This is the system that exists! This is our place in it! Why should we not play the hand we’ve been dealt?”
“The world needs them!”
“The world needs us! We sit around in the shadows, playing by their rules, and what good comes of it? Spirits don’t hold themselves accountable to the humans who define them, deities play stupid little games with mortal pawns, humans destroy each other and the world itself because they don’t see their connection to it, and all the while, you just play along. Let them have their little trinkets and wars and lies! You could send a ripple that makes every human rethink their fears, you could put every single spirit into nice little categories and send them out to make the world a better place.”
“I’m not powerful enough to do that.”
“Not yet! But that spark lives in you! And I could show you how to make it grow. I could lead you to realize the fullness of what you are, to become what you truly are!”
“What you’re talking about is evil. To take control of everything, to force all of mankind and all of spiritkind into some kind of slaves to my own agenda? Or your agenda, that you hope to put into my head? You’re just some second-rate dictator looking for a general, and I won’t have it! I’m not interested.”
“I’m offering you a chance to really do something good, John!”
“You know what the worst part is? I bet you really believe that.”
“I could be your greatest ally, you know. I promise, you don’t want me as an enemy!”
“Why not?” I walked over to him and pointed, pushing my finger into his chest. “What was it you thought you were? A god? And I’m the one that can make gods kneel, right? What threat are you to me?”
“You care,” he hissed. “You care an awful lot about petty little mortals. I can wait as long as I need to for you to break. But how long do you think Jackie can wait in that coma? How long do you think she can stay there, waiting for me to set her free, waiting for you to submit to your true nature? How long can you watch her in that state?”
I threw a punch, but he dodged.
“Water, remember? I’ll be back, John. I eagerly await your answer.” With that, he slipped back into the realm, then quickly vanished into the Deeper Realms beyond my reach.
I screamed and punched a tree, shattering half its trunk. The spirits watched, cautiously, as it creaked and fell to the side. My hand was bleeding, and the brownie stepped forward and pulled a length of cloth from behind his back.
“I sure hope you take care of our house better than you take care of yourself,” he said, wrapping the cloth around my hand as a bandage. “Now, normally this would have a healing balm attached to it, but I’m not wasting that on an Anchor. I hope you understand.”
“Yeah,” I grunted. “I better get you home before I go back to the hospital.” As we walked away toward Alpha, I heard the spirits slowly resume their conversation. Their tone was much darker and more hushed than it had been when I arrived.
17 June 2007
When I heard the footsteps on the stairs, I was in the basement reading through a book on the Deeper Realms which may or may not have been written by someone who’d actually been there.
“You were out late,” I said, flipping the page. “It’s almost noon, I was considering starting to worry.”
“Hey John,” Alice said. I set the book on my lap and snapped my attention to her. “Sorry if this is a bad time, I—”
“No, no, of course not!” I stood and placed the book on the table, then started to fiddle with my hands as I resisted the urge to go directly to where she was standing. “Come in, have a seat,” I said, waving toward an empty chair. She nodded and made her way over to the chair. We both stood silent for a moment, watching each other. “It’s good to see you. I didn’t know you were back. When did you get back?”
“About a week ago.”
“Oh.” We continued to stand there for a little while. I think we were both waiting to see what the other did. She cracked first.
“Maybe this wasn’t a great idea.”
“No, sorry, here, please.” I sat down and held my hand out toward her seat. She sat down as well, bolt upright, as if she wasn’t sure she could relax in it yet. “You drove a long way, I’m sure. I’d like to know why.”
“Right. Well. I don’t know, exactly. I guess I thought, you know…maybe I should check in.”
“On me? I’m healing pretty well.”
“That’s good. But I think I meant, on us.”
“Are you checking in to find out if there still is an ‘us?’”
She hesitated. “Yeah,” she finally said, softly.
“Alice, look. I’m still here. I still want us. And we can talk through whatever you need to talk through, and I’ll do that, but it’s gonna be your call whether or not it does any good.”
“I just don’t know.”
“You don’t know what?”
“If I can be okay with all…this,” she said, sweeping her arm to indicate the collection of metaphysical books, “and I know you can’t really separate yourself from it.”
“I know it’s not your fault, John,” she said, reaching over and resting a hand on my knee, “and I’m not saying we’re done. I’m just telling you, this is scary, and it’s what I’m dealing with as I consider our future.”
“Okay. Yeah, that makes sense.”
“Can you promise I’ll be safe?”
I thought about that question for a moment. I know what I would have said a few months ago, but now… “No,” I finally answered her. “I can try, and I will try. I’ll do everything I can to protect you, but I can’t promise it will ultimately be enough.”
She pulled her hand to her lap and leaned back into the chair. “Thank you for being honest.”
“So what now?”
“Now, I guess, we—” She stopped as my phone began to ring. We both turned toward it, and when it appeared she wasn’t going to continue, I picked it up. It was Jackie’s phone.
“I’m sorry, I should take this. Jackie went out looking for Rick last night, and…” I started to explain, but she nodded, so I stopped and answered.
“Is this John Matteson?” a female voice asked. It wasn’t Jackie. I stood up.
“Yes. Who is this?” I listened as the nurse explained that Jackie had been found this morning in a bit of woods near the river, surrounded by a bunch of weird stuff, by a local man out on a morning jog. She was at Jameson, and they couldn’t wake her up and I was the emergency contact in her phone. I was pacing around the basement the whole time, and Alice was leaning forward in her seat watching me and waiting.
“What happened? Who was that?” she asked as I hung up and set the phone on the table.
“Jackie’s in the hospital. They’re admitting her. She isn’t awake and they don’t know why.”
“Oh my God!” She jumped to her feet.
“I gotta get down there.”
“Yeah, well, I’m coming with you.”
We climbed into Alpha and headed down to New Castle, where we were shown to Jackie’s room. I had to explain that she didn’t have any living family in the country, and they had to explain that I wasn’t legally authorized to make decisions for her, so the ultimate end of the conversation was that she would just get what services they could do for her and I would try to find a solution for any long-term care that may arise from whatever was keeping her unconscious. Alice and I started making phone calls to make sure everyone who needed to know about her situation did, and stayed there with her until they sent us home for the night. Alice decided to crash here for the night, since she didn’t have any pressing need to go home and wanted to be able to visit Jackie in the morning. She still had some clothes in my room, which she grabbed, but she went to sleep in Jackie’s bed. So now I’m in the basement, tracking where Jackie went and trying not to think too much about Alice.
12 May 2007
“Are you supposed to be doing that?” Benedict asked.
I groaned and set my mug down on the counter I was leaning against. “I can make my own tea once in a while, priest.”
“I didn’t ask if you can. I asked if you’re supposed to be.”
“I don’t know! They said to take it easy for a while. Are you suggesting this isn’t easy?”
“I’m just keeping an eye out.” He walked the rest of the way into the kitchen and started a pot of coffee as I resumed adding the sugar to my tea. “But since you’re up and we don’t have to focus on meeting needs for a moment, maybe we could talk.”
“Your father’s theories.”
“I thought maybe you wanted to talk about whether Jackie and Akshainie are okay.”
“I trust they’re fine. Akshainie is capable. Frustratingly so, at times. I get the impression Jackie is not an easy target, either.”
“Alright, fine. But I’m sitting down for this.”
“I would insist on it if you hadn’t,” he said as I made my way to the living room. I sat in the recliner and made myself as comfortable as I could. By the time he joined me with his cup of coffee in hand, I was halfway through a cigarette.
“So what did you want to know?” I asked as he sat on the couch.
“Well, when last we talked about it, I had informed you that he thought your power was more complex than simply breaking magic. And then we never explored that.”
“Okay, well, I have.” I adjusted my position to face him better. “I think he was right.”
So I told him about the first time I met Alice, how I managed to change the rules of the local Metaphysical Realm to make the echoes more visible and then clear them away. He sat silent as I spoke, his face only showing any change when he brought his coffee to his mouth.
“Fascinating,” he said, finally. “And Akshainie tells me you were able to close and then reopen a locus point while we were in Britain.”
“I fear what this means for us all, then.”
He sighed, then indicated he would be just a minute before making his way back to the kitchen. I lit another cigarette while he was gone, and he returned with more coffee. “Okay,” he said, before taking a sip and sitting down. “You said that the Barzai referred to you as ‘the omen?’ The sign their work was nearing completion?”
“Seemed to think I was the avenue through which their work would be concluded.”
“That’s a concern. Do you have any idea what they could do if they gained control over your power?”
“I don’t see how they would,” I said, adjusting again to avoid putting too much pressure on the stitches. “They’d have to gain some means of controlling me with magic, which I’m immune to.”
“Well. We assume you’re immune.”
“I seem pretty immune.”
“And yet you can do powerful magic effects, such as controlling the flow of a ley line and exorcising spirits.”
“What are you getting at?”
“If your power is more accurately described as setting the rules within an area, then it stands to reason you aren’t truly immune. It’s just very difficult to break the rules you enforce. With enough effort and a very clever approach, someone could slip a spell past you. Has that ever happened? Can you think of any time when someone found a way around your immunity?”
“Well. I didn’t really think about it in those terms…”
“Back in high school. I had broken a focusing crystal. The witch who owned it said I’d be cursed for doing so, which I didn’t think was a valid threat.”
“Well. I didn’t really get cursed. Whatever ill fate was supposed to befall me never happened. But, there was this supernatural beast that started following me around. I had to learn how to perform an exorcism just to get rid of it.”
“The curse bypassed your immunity by having a spirit act in your vicinity rather than directly affecting you.”
“Yeah, it was well played.”
“It also tells me there are ways around your magical resistance, if one approaches it properly. I don’t know what it would take to directly affect you, but we should probably operate on the assumption such an option exists. And that the Brood of Nachash is working on it.”
“So, what do I do about that? Add more protection? Avoid them? I don’t think I like any of this notion.”
“You’re too useful against them to ask you to stay on the side.” He sighed and leaned with his elbows on his knees. “We just need to be very mindful of how much access they have to you. Whatever it is they’re going to try, if you’re the key, they need to do something to or with you.” We sat in silence for a little bit as I considered that suggestion, and then after a few minutes he checked his watch. “Well, I better start making us some lunch. You don’t get up unless you absolutely have to.”
“Yes, mom,” I said as he made his way into the kitchen.
“No, I…ugh, nevermind.”
8 May 2007
When the phone rang, I almost didn’t answer. I had been half asleep, and I could ignore the noise of the phone vibrating on my night stand, and given how little I’d been able to sleep the last few days it was very tempting. Honestly, I only checked who it was out of some meager hope it was going to be Alice. It wasn’t, which wasn’t much of a surprise. I hadn’t heard from her since she asked for space and ran off to England. As if going halfway around the world wouldn’t be space enough if I didn’t know that that’s what it was. What did surprise me, however, was that it was Benedict. It shouldn’t have surprised me. I’d called him about the Brood of Nachash the day before we confronted them, hopeful that he and Akshainie would be able to help. But I had to leave a voice mail, and then everything happened, and I guess it wasn’t forefront in my mind anymore.
“Benedict,” I said, answering the call.
“You left me a voice mail that you had found the Brood preparing for a ritual?”
“That was a week ago, man.”
He cursed under his breath in German for a moment before returning to the call. “What happened?”
“We confronted them.”
“Me, Alice, Jackie, and Rick.”
“You met him at the funeral.”
“Oh, right. What happened?”
“We…I think we won.”
“What does that mean?”
“They opened a portal. The guy with the burned face was thrown into it. We…we lost Rick in the process.”
“What’s the closest body of water to you?”
“Uh…probably the Shenango River? It’s right downtown. But—”
“See you soon.” He hung up and I stared at the phone for a minute before rolling over.
I was nearly asleep when I heard a pounding on the front door. I grumbled and pulled one of the pillows over my head and tried to ignore it, until Jackie threw my door open a few minutes later.
“It’s Benedict and Akshainie,” she said. “Get dressed and come downstairs.”
“I’m supposed to be resting,” I reminded her.
“If you can come downstairs for a bottle of vodka you didn’t think I’d notice was missing, you can come down for this!” She slammed the door and I heard her go back down the stairs. She was right, of course. I was allowed to move around now, which is how I got up to my room in the first place, it just hurt like hell to be very active.
“You’re late,” I said when I was reaching the bottom of the stairs. “We had to fight the bastards without you.”
“We were dealing with a situation,” Benedict answered. In the time it’d taken me to get downstairs, he’d apparently managed to get his hands on a cup of coffee. He was alone in the living room.
“Where are the girls?”
“Downstairs, looking for information on a spell. What happened to you?”
“Got stabbed again. And some other shit.”
“I feel like you don’t take knives seriously enough until they’re in you.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” I sat down on my recliner and laid it back. “So what were you doing?”
“Something that wasn’t important enough to miss what you were doing, I’m afraid. I didn’t get your call until we were done. Tell me more about what happened. You said it was the Barzai?”
“It was the same guy that I saw at that warehouse. You’re the one who calls him the Barzai.”
“Me and his whole cult. Tell me about this portal.”
So I did. I told him about the ritual, and the things trying to come through the portal, and how Rick threw himself and the Barzai through and the portal closed behind them. He listened without interruption, and once I was done, he leaned back and thought for a little while.
“So we don’t know if the Barzai is actually neutralized?” he asked.
“Not unless we can find his body over wherever they landed,” I answered.
“I may have some thoughts on that,” Jackie said. I turned to look just as she entered the room from the kitchen carrying a book and her backpack. Akshainie was close behind. “Akshainie tells me there are paths through the metaphysical realm that we can use to reach the other end of the portal!”
“Really? And how will you know which road to take?”
“Roads,” Akshainie corrected. As Jackie sat down on the couch next to Benedict and checked the contents of her bag, Akshainie stood with her arms crossed and looked me over. “You look like shit.”
“I must be recovering, then.”
“Good. I’ll guide Jackie through the roads to the Deeper Realms. Benedict can stay here and keep an eye on you.”
“I don’t recall us discussing that,” Benedict said.
“We didn’t. But this is how it has to be. You would be hopelessly lost out there, and I’m told Matteson should not be alone.”
“I’m sure I’d manage,” I said.
“Barely. I’ll need two spells at least,” Jackie said. “One to step into the metaphysical realm, and another to track the energy signature of the portal spell.” She opened the book and showed me a page. “We found what we needed for those two already, and have them memorized. This one, and a couple others in this book, will keep me from starving or something if the realms get weird or we’re separated from crucial supplies.”
“The realms will absolutely get weird,” Akshainie added.
“Oh, good,” I said. “When are you doing this?”
“Rick can’t wait,” Jackie said, standing and closing the book. She slipped it into her backpack and put that on. “If we’re lucky, he landed or found his way to somewhere that had food and water, and got away from the Barzai. If not, he’s already going to be near death. Or worse.”
“We’re going to the river,” Akshainie said, “where your influence can’t ruin the spells. We’ll use the River Network to reach Iravati. I know the roads from there.”
“Be careful,” Benedict said.
“We will return.” With that, Akshainie and Jackie left, while Benedict and I sat in silence.
“Well,” I finally said, “what do you wanna do while they’re gone?”
“Worry,” Benedict answered. He knocked back the rest of his coffee and stood. “But I’m sure we can find a more productive use of our time.”
3 May 2007
The air just before dawn was crisp, the last vestiges of chilly mornings still holding on despite the fact that the weather said it would be pushing 70 by the end of the day. Jackie and I were sitting on Alpha’s hood, smoking and staring out over Sharon from the top of West Hill, when we heard a car approach. We both turned and watched as the car parked and Bob and Charles got out. They both walked over and leaned against the car, looking toward the eastern horizon.
“I was afraid you’d be here,” Charles said.
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“Because if you’re here, now, then Rick is really gone.” There was a cold silence for a little while after that.
“We’re trying to find him,” Jackie finally said.
“Not in the woods, I suppose.”
“What are you getting at?” I asked.
“I want to know the truth.”
“I mean it, John!” He pushed off from the car and stepped directly in front of me. “He was my best friend for as long as I can remember. I’ve been on too many stupid ghost hunts to be fooled by your stupid fucking story. What happened to Rick? Was he really taken?”
I sighed. “That red spiral cult.”
He threw his arms in the air and stormed off, then turned around and stormed right back. “This is your fault, you know!”
“Charles, wait,” Bob said, reaching for him. Charles shoved his hands out of the way and jammed his finger in my face.
“You got him into all this shit, you got the attention of that fucking cult, you dragged him into whatever mess was going on out there in the woods, and now he’s gone and it’s all your fucking fault! Is he even alive?”
“As far as we know,” I said, softly.
“As far as you know. Great. That’s comforting.” He put his hands on his side and turned his back to me, fuming quietly for a minute or two. “How many others?”
“How many others?” He spun around. “How many other people have been hurt by the shit you get involved in, huh? What happened to Lori, or Alice? Do you know anything about Mark’s mysterious car accident?”
“Charles, please,” Bob said, but he sounded less committed than he did the last time.
“I want to fucking know!”
“Lori was possessed,” I said. Bob stopped and turned to me. “The ghost wanted something from me and was trying to use Lori to get it. I don’t know what happened to Mark.”
“But it might have been related?”
“I don’t know.”
“You know what, fine. Don’t tell me. But don’t you fucking tell me anything else either, got it?” Charles demanded, then pointed at Jackie. “If you find Rick, you tell me. But other than that? I don’t want to see or hear from either of you ever again! I don’t want any more of this shit in my life!” He stormed off toward the other car, but Bob hesitated.
“How long have you known?” he asked, softly, after Charles was in the car.
“Not long enough, I’m afraid.”
He stood there for a moment, then nodded. “Right. Fuck off, Matteson.” With that, he walked to the car, and then they drove away.
“I don’t think it was your fault,” Jackie said, after they were gone.
“How could it not be?” I asked.
“That portal, it took a lot of effort to keep it open. It probably just closed because the Barzai wasn’t focused on it anymore.”
“Do you really believe that?”
“I don’t know.”
We didn’t say anything else after that. Just sat on the hood of Alpha, waiting for the sun to rise again.
End of Volume Two
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1 May 2007
It was instinct that drove me to try and catch Rick, and I hadn’t even registered what that would do to the portal until it was too late. It exploded, and I jumped up onto the altar and reached out, hoping somehow, maybe, he was still there. But it was just empty air.
I stood silent for a while, trying to process what had just happened. I slowly turned to look at the rest of the clearing. Alice was laying on the ground crying. There were five people laying around the clearing, and it was hard to tell from where I was, but they didn’t look like they were breathing or moving at all. Any other cultists that were able to move had already disappeared into the trees. Jackie was approaching the altar, visibly trying to hold back tears.
“I need you to move,” she said. I nodded and stepped down, then ran over to Alice. I tried to comfort her, but there was nothing I could find to say. So I just sat next to her rubbing her back, and she cried into my lap.
Jackie was trying desperately to reverse-engineer the spell that opened the portal, but it wasn’t working. We stayed there a while watching her try over and over again, growing more and more angry the whole time, until finally she collapsed on the altar and wept. Alice had stopped by this point, so I helped her up and we both went over and gave Jackie a hand off the altar. I could barely move at that point, with the knife still in my side, so we all leaned on each other the whole way back to the cabin. We agreed on a story as we went; strangers in masks had invaded the cabin and kidnapped us, we fought back, Rick had a gun, we ultimately managed to escape somewhere in the woods but they disappeared with Rick. No mention of the portal.
We called 911 as soon as Jackie had reception, and there was an ambulance arriving at the cabin for me when we emerged from the forest. The police ran over to check on the girls and collect their stories, and I was rushed to the hospital. There, while confirming my identity, a nurse asked my birth date. I told her, and she looked at the time and date on the computer.
“Oh, honey,” she said, “I’m so sorry you have to spend it like this.”
“It’s not your fault,” I told her, before I was wheeled in for surgery to remove the knife and stitch up whatever damage it, and my continuing to move and fight with it in me, had done.
“John!” Rick called. I paused and held my hand to my side, discovering the knife was still there. I thought maybe I should leave it there. When I looked back to him, though, he was pointing. I turned away from the cultist I’d just laid out to the portal. It was still there. I didn’t know why. If their chanting had been holding it open, and we’d already silenced over half of them, why wasn’t it closing? Jackie said it would take a lot of cultists, or a lot of…
I looked at the blood on my hands.
I looked around at the clearing around me.
There was blood everywhere.
I looked back up at the portal and finally saw what Rick must’ve seen better from his angle. There was something starting to reach through the portal. It was grayish, with splotches of black and deep red over it. It wouldn’t be wrong to call it a tentacle, but it certainly wouldn’t be right, either. It was smooth and thick like one, and even had some shapes on one side that kinda resembled one? But there was a clawed, three-fingered hand at the end, just starting to grasp the altar. They were succeeding. Something was coming through! I turned back to Rick to tell him to concentrate whatever shots he had left on that…thing, whatever it was, but he wasn’t there. I turned back and found that lead priest standing in front of the altar. With one arm he was holding Rick against himself, and with the other he was holding a knife to Rick’s throat. His back was to the portal and he was staring at me.
“Do you see, Omen!” he cried out, over the rumbling sound of whatever was dragging itself closer to the portal. “Do you see how you are the key to our victory? You delivered this into our hands today!”
“Like hell I will,” I answered, stepping toward him. He pressed the blade against Rick’s neck.
“One more step, and his blood joins ours! We’re so close. Do you really think you can close this portal before your friend’s blood brings the ritual to completion?” There wasn’t time. I knew that. I was still too far away. I saw Jackie emerge from the trees out of the corner of my eye. Maybe she could do something. Maybe she could help. I resisted the urge to look at her and see what she was planning, and instead stood tall and put my hands on my head. I had to trust the others now. Just as long as his attention was focused on me, maybe it would work.
As soon as I saw that Rick and Alice were the sacrifice, any plans went out the window. I don’t even really remember starting to move. One moment I was talking to Jackie about how we were going to handle the scene, and the next I was on my feet and breaking the tree line. One cultist stepped slightly in my way, and I punched them directly in the face without slowing down. I barely even registered the sound of them hitting the ground behind me before I was gone again, making a bee line for the three robed figures holding Rick and Alice. I didn’t notice one of them had a gun until my left shoulder erupted in pain.
I’ve since read that people don’t fall when they’re shot because the shot actually knocks them down. It happens, sure, but that’s usually only the case when the shot kills them. Mostly people fall when shot because of a combination of shock and a cultural understanding that that’s what happens to people when a bullet hits them. I don’t know how much truth there is to that, but I wasn’t thinking about cultural expectations and certainly didn’t have time for shock. I kept going, and the shooter made the mistake of hesitating when they didn’t see me drop. They scrambled to make a second shot, but it was too late. I had the wrist of their shooting arm by the time they pulled the trigger again, and I felt their arm snap in my hands when I went to disarm them. They dropped the gun and fell backward, screaming and holding their arm, and I kicked the next cultist away. I grabbed the third and threw them at the second, and then turned my attention to untying Alice.
“Holy shit, dude,” Rick said, looking around. “I didn’t know you could do that!” A cultist was running at us with a knife, but was stopped when they ran into an invisible barrier about ten feet away. The others drew weapons and approached more slowly, continuing to chant. I got the ropes off Alice, and she started to run toward where I knew Jackie was waiting. I turned to Rick and focused on his hands, a bit less gently. As soon as his hands were free, he dove over and grabbed the gun.
“How many more shots you got?” I asked, catching my breath as the cultists drew closer. I counted about ten moving toward us, and then noticed the asshole with the burned face and snake eyes next to the altar.
“Six, I think.”
“I was under a spell for a while there, you know!”
“Fine. Six. You ready?” I asked, clenching my fists. He raised his gun.
“I’m good. You gonna be okay with that shoulder wound?”
“Let’s do this.” I ran forward at some cultists, and heard shots fired as I did. I dodged an attack from the first person and drove my knee into their gut before tossing them aside, and felt a knife stab into my side. I spun around and drove my elbow into the head of the cultist behind me, throwing them to the ground. When I looked up, the apparent leader was already gone. I grumbled and made for the next person in line as I saw a cultist to my right catch fire. The cultist ahead charged at me, and I let them get close before I stepped aside and kicked them in the ribs. I heard multiple cracks as they hit the ground and rolled away. I glanced over and saw that the portal was shrinking and growing more unstable. I smiled and charged the next robe I saw.
The blog of John Matteson.