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.
The blog of John Matteson.