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.
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.
The blog of John Matteson.