We had the light off by the time we left the trail, and came within view of the clearing around 11:30. We didn’t know which way the cultists would be using to get to the clearing, as there was no obvious trail leading into it, so we moved around it to ensure we didn’t have our backs to the trail. Just in case doing so put us directly in the path of the people attending the ritual.
It appeared they were already at the altar, however, once we got close enough to see more clearly. I expressed this to Jackie, but she wasn’t so sure. She pointed out that, if they were doing the same type of thing they’d been trying to do at the warehouse where we first met them, they’d need either more people or some blood sacrifice. I remembered the bodies we’d found at the last site and decided not to argue. One of these days I really should ask her how she can calculate the amount of blood needed for a ritual on the fly like that, though.
We continued to watch, and only rarely whisper to one another, as they continued preparations. She said it looked like they were going to try opening a portal and then summoning something through it, and sure enough, around midnight they began the ritual in earnest and after a couple minutes of chanting and dancing around, the stone altar began to glow and a hole in reality opened above it. I went to move forward until I felt Jackie’s hand on my shoulder.
“They need blood,” she whispered.
“And we haven’t seen the victims yet. We don’t know if they’re sacrificing people in the cult or volunteers or people they kidnapped.”
“And you think if we scare them off now, and they have people kidnapped, we won’t be able to help them.”
She nodded, and I grumbled softly but knelt back down in the weeds with her. It didn’t seem they’d noticed my movement, and they continued on while we waited.
There was very little preparation we could do the next day. Alice can’t practice magic she can’t access, my ability to stifle magic seems more a matter of will than anything, Jackie could spend some time meditating but there was very little else available to her in the cabin, and Rick…well, it wouldn’t take Rick long to load his gun. So part of our plan involved spending today the way we were already planning. Alice and I drove down to the reservoir for the day.
She did the driving, and tolerated Alpha’s quirks for about two miles before she turned back and asked Rick if we could borrow his car instead. Then it was down to Kinzua Beach, where we spent some time swimming and hiking and had a picnic lunch. It was getting later in the afternoon, shortly before we were to head back, when she finally decided to say what I now suspect was on her mind the whole time.
“Is there an end to this?”
“To what?” I asked. “I mean, we’re only here for a few days.”
“No, I mean, the cult thing.”
“Benedict and Akshainie are actively hunting down ways to ensure there is.”
“But they’re here, John. The cult is here, and we don’t know what they want, and where are Benedict and Akshainie? Did we even reach out to them for help?”
“I did call, actually. Got his voicemail, didn’t even ring. I don’t know where they are, but the fact that he hasn’t called back suggests he doesn’t have reception. But it’s okay. We just have to find their ritual and stop it, and then we can tell them what we learned and let them deal with it. The Vatican’s footing the bill for that.”
“And what happens next time? Or the time after?”
“What makes you think there’s going to be a next time?”
“I’m getting the impression there’s always a next time. With the cult, with Hecate, with ghosts and spirits and ravens and God knows what else. Is there an end? Is there something you want out of all of this, is there something you’re trying to make happen?”
“I told you about this very early on, Alice. I don’t control it, I don’t go looking for it, it’s just part of my life.”
“But what are you doing with it? If it’s a part of your life, are you doing anything to shape what part it has? What your life will look like with it? Are you thinking about what your relationship with all this will look like in twenty years?”
I sat quiet for a long moment, thinking of the best way to answer. I finally realized I had only one real option. “I never thought about that.”
“I just…it’s always been unavoidable, I guess I just assumed there was nothing I could do about it. And dad did all that work preparing me to keep up his fight, and I just…I suppose I’ve just gotten used to rolling with it.”
“But you haven’t taken up his fight.”
“No, I guess I haven’t.”
“Why not? What is it you wanted that stopped you?”
I stared out over the water. “When you first decided you wanted to go into biology, into conservation, did you immediately believe you had that option?”
“That’s the thing. It isn’t an ‘of course.’ It makes sense to you because you come from a different world. Yeah, Pittsburgh lost the steel industry, too, but your family’s money isn’t in steel, is it?” I asked. She shook her head. “You grew up knowing that the world was available to you. That any hurdles you faced were of your own making. That if you just put in the effort and got the grades, you could go to school for whatever you wanted and graduate and find a job in your field and do what you love. And that’s great for you, I’m very happy you’ve been able to do that. But that’s you.” I sighed and got up and walked around a bit to keep my head clear. “I grew up with empty steel mills, surrounded by people whose lives were crushed by someone else’s greed. I come from a place where dreams rust and hopes all rely on finding some way out first. I live in a world where things happen to you because you just happen to be there and no one is coming to help, and no one will know what you’re going through, and people assume you chose it because they don’t know that even if you manage to sell your house you won’t make enough money to go anywhere else. I come from a world where there are no real options, no real solutions, just loss and decay and a life you see on tv but can’t ever imagine being real somewhere else. And on top of all of it, I live in a country that dismisses me for the color of my skin.”
“Tell me. Tell me where in that you think I was supposed to pick up the lesson that I get to decide my own fate, that I get to make this life be what I want it to be, that I can do anything about great powers that want to give me hassle, other than shut them down when they show up and hope it doesn’t bite me too hard in the ass later?”
“I…I don’t know.”
“You know what I would love? You know what would be great? A shut-off switch. The ability to just get a little peace and quiet from all of it sometimes. To have little pockets of my life that don’t have spirits or ghosts or whatever hanging around in it. But I can’t. I can’t turn it off. I can’t get away from it. Even on vacation, it finds me. You know there’s a water spirit in that reservoir right now that wants to fuck me because she can smell my connection to a powerful river spirit and thinks getting entangled with me will make her stronger?”
“Is that why you got out of the water so quickly earlier?”
“Yes! And she’s still right there at the edge of the water, watching me and occasionally calling for my attention. And when we go back to the cabin, there’s the cult to deal with.” I sat down again, and she reached over and rubbed my shoulder.
“Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize.” She pulled her hand up to my chin and gently turned my face toward her. “But, barring that. If you never find a way to turn it off. What would you want to do?” She watched me intently, waiting for an answer, and I had to think for a little bit about what that answer would be.
“You know, I do enjoy the investigation work I’m doing. Maybe I could do that. Start up my own practice when I have enough experience to get a license, take cases from humans and spirits, deal with real issues.”
“And interact with the spiritual world on your own terms, deciding for yourself whether or not to take a case.”
“Okay. Maybe we could explore that.”
I gave her hand a squeeze, and she smiled. We kissed, then packed up and headed back to the cabin.
28 April 2007
My birthday was coming up, and Alice had made arrangements for the two of us, along with Jackie and Rick, to spend a few days at a cabin her family owned or had a timeshare on or something, I don’t remember, up in the Allegheny State Forest. It sounded nice, and she was very excited about the idea, and I liked the thought of getting out and doing something, especially something away from town, so we’d secured the days off. Alice stayed at my place the night before we were supposed to leave so we could all go up together first thing in the morning, but Rick had some appointment in Ohio that he couldn’t break so it was just the three of us who left on time. Rick swore up and down he’d go straight to the cabin from the appointment, and Jackie called to remind him in the morning to have his luggage in the car before he left.
Alice and I took the master bedroom, and Jackie set off to pick one of the two other rooms for her and Rick. I asked Alice if it would be weird for us to have sex in the bed her parents usually used on their family camping trips, and she said “only if you fucking talk about it,” so I dropped the subject. There was a large living room, with a small balcony overlooking it that served as the place for the stairs and the upstairs hallway to meet. The rooms Jackie was looking at, and a bathroom, were up there. Honestly, the place was way larger than I expected, and I was convinced it was only considered a ‘cabin’ because it was made mostly of logs.
“I’m pretty sure this place is as big as my actual house,” I’d commented.
“Well, yeah, it’s meant to house a family,” Alice had answered.
“It’s meant to be a vacation home for a family. I feel like that’s different. Like it should be smaller.”
“Yeah. It is smaller than my family home.” I couldn’t really argue with that.
I cooked us some lunch on a grill on the back porch. Well, she called it a porch. It was a deck. I had friends in Sharon whose entire backyards were the size of this deck. But she’d corrected me when I called it the deck, and I decided I was not going to spend my birthday weekend fighting about rich people semantics with my amazing girlfriend who brought me to a beautiful spot in the woods, so apparently it’s a porch. And it was beautiful. The yard, which had been mowed by someone, sloped down away from the house which ensured that the trees at the end of it were low enough not to block the sight of the rolling hills off in the distance. There were some hiking trails in those woods, Alice said, and an outlook spot down one of them that gave an amazing view of a nearby river. We’d all agreed to check that out tomorrow.
True to his word, Rick showed up a couple hours later. By then we were all out on the porch drinking, and he jumped right in on that. He’d brought some weed, too, and was certain he had enough that we could enjoy a blunt right away and still smoke me up on my actual birthday. Well, we weren’t about to turn that down. So we spent a little while smoking and drinking and carrying on, and I cooked us some burgers on the grill, and we rolled into the cabin a little after dusk and disappeared into our respective rooms.
I was only half awake a few hours later, with Alice asleep and half laying on me, when I was startled by some noises in the woods. I listened for a minute, and thought they didn’t sound natural, so I jumped out of the bed and made my way to the window. I couldn’t see anything in the dark out there.
“Are you okay?” Alice asked, barely coherent.
“I thought I heard something.”
“There’s always noises. It’s a forest.”
“But this sounded different.”
“Everything sounds different in the forest. Come back to bed.”
I looked around again, but the sound had stopped and was definitely distant to begin with, and I had to admit that Alice spent a lot more time in the woods at night than I had. I slipped back into the bed and fell asleep.
I hesitated, put out my cigarette, and leaned forward.
“Lori is…she’s this girl I met, two years ago. We dated most of that year, but it turns out she was being controlled, so Jackie and I had to break her free from that and then she promptly skipped town.” I wrung my hands for a moment, thinking about what to say next, then looked over to Alice. “Jackie told me after her trip to Chicago that she saw Hecate was behind the whole thing, but it didn’t seem like a big deal, you know?”
“No, John, I absolutely do not know,” Alice said, crossing her arms. “Maybe you should enlighten me on why I shouldn’t be concerned about a goddess manipulating people around you in some elaborate power play that she hasn’t given up on.”
“I don’t know. Maybe you should be a bit concerned, but. Look, Jackie, she’s been under Hecate’s teaching for a long time. She thinks the world of her, and primarily sees her in the context of being a source of power and information. But that’s not that big a deal! I know how to deal with spirits, I know how to deal with magic. She only has as much power in my life as I give her.”
“But that isn’t true. Did you give her power to manipulate Lori?”
“Yes, dammit!” I pounded my fist on my knee and Alice jumped. We both sat silent for a moment as I rubbed my face. “I didn’t stop it. I didn’t see. I should have seen she was possessed, I know how to do that now, but I didn’t ever think to do it then. I left an opening in my knowledge and she used it.” I leaned back and lit a cigarette. “I failed her, Alice. I failed her, and I played along with what Alethea was doing to her, and I didn’t do anything to help her until it was already so bad. So much worse than it ever should have been.”
“Who’s Alethea?” she asked, softly. “What happened?”
“Alethea was a ghost. She died while she was pregnant and she was obsessive about bringing that baby to term. That was her goal with Lori, to use a body to produce a child. And when…” I hesitated again, took a few more drags, and felt a few tears on my cheeks. “When she lost the baby,” I said, quietly, “she snapped. Tried to kill me. Her grip on Lori weakened and that was when I learned she was there.”
“Oh my God.”
“I’m never letting it happen again. I promise, I learned from what happened. I learned how to never let it happen again. And now that I know Hecate was behind it…I don’t care what she wants from me, Alice.” I turned to face her. “I will never let her have it. I don’t care what she is, I don’t care what I have to do to stop her. No one does that and gets what they want from me out of it.”
“Is this why Jackie is so afraid of her trying to contact you?”
“It’s a lot harder for Jackie to stand against her than it is for me.”
Neither of us said anything for a long while, and then she got up and went downstairs. I waited, because I didn’t know what she was doing, for about a half hour.
18 March 2007
By the time Alice woke me, she was fully dressed and had breakfast from Dunkin sitting on my nightstand. She was sitting next to me, drinking her coffee, and poking me until I rolled over.
“What time is it?” I muttered. She looked over at the clock on my dresser.
“Almost noon,” she said. I groaned and pulled myself up to sit against the wall, and she handed me a chai and a bag. “Today is a workout day for you, right?”
“Uh, yeah, why?”
“I want to try something. Tell me, have you ever worked out with someone else? Like at a gym or something?”
“Jackie has hung out and chatted while I was lifting,” I answered, fishing out some hashbrowns from the bag.
“No, I mean, where they were also working out and you could tell how much weight they were lifting. Have you ever spotted someone?”
“Oh. No. Why, you want to get in on it?”
“No, I was just wondering if you had a frame of reference for what people your size and weight generally can lift.”
“I’ve never thought about it.”
“I have!” She hopped off the bed, set the coffee down, and rested her hands on her hips. “You know those tables you moved in the Hudson library normally take two men with some equipment to lift and move?” I shook my head. “I have a theory about this, but I need actual numbers.”
“And that means you need to monitor my workout routine?”
“Not just your workout routine. I need you to push yourself. I need your actual limits. You think you’re up for that today?”
“I’m not up for much of anything until I’ve eaten this sandwich.”
“You and I both know that’s not true,” she said with a wry smile. I chuckled.
“Okay, well. I’m not up for anything outside of this bed until I’ve had my breakfast.” She sat back down and grabbed a second bag, from which she produced another sandwich for herself.
“That’s fine. When you’re ready, we’ll head downstairs. I already have a clipboard with my notes on it waiting there.”
“How long have you been up?”
“Just eat your food.”
It was the weirdest workout I’ve ever had. Dad had, of course, been present when he was teaching me how to do it, and Alice herself sometimes hung around and occasionally her and Jackie would trade commentary, but this was the first time anyone actively checked every single thing I did and checked my heart rate between things and wrote stuff down and sometimes made thoughtful noises without telling me what the hell she was doing. Jackie found the whole thing fascinating, and made a point to hang around and occasionally look over Alice’s shoulder and whisper something to her, which sometimes elicited another thoughtful noise from Alice and more notes. It was, frankly, hard to concentrate with all that going on. I did what she asked, and pushed myself on certain exercises to see where my limit was, and when I was finally done she told me she needed to check and finalize her notes while I got a shower and we could talk afterward. So I went to do that, and when I was done she and Jackie were sitting in the living room waiting for me.
“So,” I said, sitting down and lighting a smoke, “what’s the verdict?”
“Okay, so first off, you lift way more than you should be able to,” Alice said. “I mean, okay, so this isn’t my specialty within biology, but I’ve been looking up numbers for comparison. And there are different classes of ability one can have in weightlifting, so I’m using the ‘advanced’ numbers for you since you’ve been at this for a while.”
“Uh huh. And?”
“And you’re generally lifting much higher weights than those numbers! Your normal routine is almost twice as heavy as the standard for an advanced weightlifter of your size, and your limits are similar.”
“This was all related to a theory, I thought you said.”
“Yes! Okay, so I don’t know if I can account for it physically. I’d have to do a whole battery of tests to be certain about that, but your muscles aren’t more defined and don’t seem more dense than someone with more standard numbers.”
“What are you basing that on?”
“I know what your body feels like, dear. But the point is, and I’d have to check some other factors to be certain, but I was talking to Jackie about the ontological gap, and I think what’s happening is that your spiritual aspect is so closely infused with your physical aspect that it grants you additional physical power. I’d like to compare these numbers to Benedict some time, since he should have more of his spiritual nature infused into his physical nature—”
“Well, no. I don’t know if Akshainie follows the same rules. She’s a naga, her physical form is generated by her own magic, so it wouldn’t necessarily follow the same biological structures, you know?”
“Okay well I don’t think her results would help me understand the matter more because she’s fundamentally not human, even when she looks human.”
“Well!” Jackie said, slapping her knees and then standing. “It’s about time for me to head to work. You two have fun! I’d love to hear more about this when you have more data!” And then she was gone, and Alice was putting her notes aside.
“So what now?”
“Oh, nothing,” Alice said. “I’ll have to determine my testing parameters and what specifically I need to do to see if my theory is correct, which I’m not going to do now.”
“Oh, alright. You wanna go out or something, then?”
“No.” She leaned back, crossed her legs, and rested her hands on her knee. “I want you to tell me about Lori and Hecate.”
The blog of John Matteson.