By the time I pulled into the graveyard, it had been about 22 hours since I got the call from the hospital, and I had only had a half hour of sleep in that window. I spent my entire day focused on finding any trace I could of Dad, or researching what I could about King and Queen (which was not much), or trying to focus on controlling my ability more carefully. Before Jackie left for work she expressed concern about me, and offered to call out if I needed anything, but she wasn’t willing to do it to come to the Devil’s Church. It was very apparent that she felt this was a poor use of my time and that I should be home dealing with my emotions and probably sleeping. She would have gladly helped me with that; but not with this.
When I arrived at Rick’s to pick him up, Charles and Bob were with him. Charles was hesitant to actually go along to the Devil’s Church, but Bob and Rick had convinced him shortly before I arrived. I don’t know if they knew about my dad. Maybe Jackie had told Rick, or maybe one of them heard some other way, or maybe they had no idea. I know I didn’t tell them, but in retrospect it really seems like Charles would not have agreed if he didn’t at least suspect it was a favor of some sort. We made a point to bring flashlights this time, to help ease his concerns and because the half moon out that night wouldn’t give near enough light. He also brought along a cheap machete, but somewhere along the half hour drive he apparently forgot it. When we emerged from Alpha, we only had two flashlights, our cigarettes and lighters, and each of us had a drink in hand.
There was a path leading off of the graveyard and along the edge of the woods, which had clearly been made by cars but was not used often enough to avoid grass from growing in it. We decided to take that path and watch for an opening in the trees to enter instead of plunging straight in, and went probably forty feet or so down that way before finding a place that seemed easier to enter. It was dark, but the trees were farther apart here than in other places and the grass was short, and the ground looked pretty even. It seemed about the best place we would find to start, so we took it. We walked in, past the first half dozen trees or so, before Charles remembered that he’d left his machete and asked if we could go back for it. We agreed it was probably worth it to turn back while we were still so close to the entrance. We turned around to leave and found the path back completely blocked by thick jaggerbushes five or six feet tall.
“That…was the way we just came from, right?” Charles asked. We all confirmed it was. We slowly turned to look in every other direction to find more of those bushes, their thorns long and woody and threatening, on every side except the one that led deeper into the forest. We all agreed that the machete would, indeed, have been a good choice, but it was clearly too late for that now. We pressed on.
We soon found ourselves facing a thick section of the woods and, deeming it better than the bushes that seemed to keep popping up just outside our field of vision, we spent a good half hour stumbling over roots and dodging branches and squeezing between trunks. When we finally emerged into a somewhat more sparse region, we paused to light cigarettes and take drinks. It was then that Bob looked up and paused.
“Hey guys, you see that?” he asked, pointing. We turned and looked up and realized he was pointing at the full moon.
“Yeah,” Rick said, “it’s the moon.”
“It wasn’t full when we came in,” I said.
“That’s what I thought! And it shouldn’t be that high yet either, right?” Bob was getting excited. I had to remember that this was all new to him.
“What does that mean?” Charles asked.
“It means,” I said, shoving my drink back into my jacket pocket, “we should probably keep an eye on it.” I didn’t mention the call I was still sensing. I was trying to ignore it, but it had been growing stronger ever since we entered the woods and I knew whatever it was, we were getting closer. I knew I needed to face it, but I was growing less convinced that I was really ready to do that. Two large black birds took to flight over us and vanished into the trees. Charles jumped when they did, and Bob began talking softly to him. I didn’t hear what he said, but I recognized the look Charles has when someone is trying to calm him down and he’s considering whether or not to try it.
“What was that?” Rick asked, shining a flashlight in the direction they’d gone.
“Probably just ravens,” I said, finishing my cigarette and smashing the butt to death with my shoe. “This is more their territory than ours.” He hummed in agreement, and Charles and Bob walked the few feet back over to us.
“Where do we go from here?” Bob asked.
“Not the way we came,” Rick answered. “I ain’t doing that shit again if I can help it.”
“If the trees would even let us anyway,” Charles muttered, looking around with the other flashlight. I looked deeper into the woods, the direction I knew something wanted to pull me. Then I looked left of that and saw a line of jaggerbushes. I turned to look to the right, and saw a clearing. There was more dark forest, and it wasn’t exactly the way the forest wanted us to go. But it was open.
“That way,” I said.
“Why that way?” Rick asked.
“I feel better about it.” With that I started walking again, and the others followed. It’s not like anyone else had any better ideas.
We went along for maybe five minutes before we found jaggerbushes blocking our path. We turned back, but that was blocked, too. The only way ahead was to go deeper into the forest. Closer to the source. Something, or someone, was drawing us in. I suspected that wherever we were being led would have the church itself waiting.
“What’d you say?” Bob asked. We all stopped.
“What?” I asked.
“Someone, I don’t know which one of you, said something, but I must not have been paying attention because I missed most of it.”
“No one said anything,” Rick offered. “Are you sure you heard us say something?”
“Well…I mean, I assumed it was you, right? No one else is here.” Rick and Charles did a sweep with the flashlights but saw only trees and thorns.
“Seems that way.”
“Okay,” Bob said softly, and we continued a bit more slowly.
“Have you come to join us, John?” a female voice whispered in my ear. I spun around, expecting to see a spirit, but only the guys were there.
“You alright?” Rick asked.
“I think I know what Bob heard,” I answered.
“Oh, was it a bird or something?” Charles asked hopefully.
“No. It is definitely not a bird. Be careful, everyone.” Charles moved closer to Bob, and Rick suggested that we avoid silence to see if that would help. We all agreed, but I wasn’t much in the mood for it, so the three of them began telling stories and jokes as we progressed. I checked the sky again, and the moon was still full directly overhead.
“They don’t understand, do they?” the voice in my ear returned. I ignored it and kept walking. “It’s all a game to them. But this is so much bigger than they realize. Your fate lies ahead. Are you man enough to claim it?” I slipped between two large trees trying to avoid two more lines of jaggerbushes and stopped. Ahead of me was a few feet of tall grass, and then a large clearing. It was oddly shaped, clearly defined by the trees rather than people. On the opposite side of the clearing were two massive pine trees, jutting up above the canopy around them, and perfectly framing the full moon which had a moment ago been above us. It glared down on us like the eye of a cold god, and the sensation I couldn’t shake of something pulling me forward felt almost irresistible here. This was it. This was the heart of the site, the place where the earth swallowed the Devil’s Church, the core of whatever power was calling to me. According to the voice, my fate waited in that clearing.
I knew, somewhere deep down, that I wasn’t ready for it yet.
30 October 2006
By the time I arrived at the hospital, Dad was gone. Really, truly, gone. Because I had been working on my skill with tracking ghosts, I was able to pick up a faint trace of him in the hallway with something…else. Something powerful. But about two doors down, the trail just ended. Wherever he went beyond that point, and for that matter wherever else the other presence went, was beyond my ability to sense.
The staff were kind and gave me a little bit of time to say goodbye, but it felt hollow knowing that he wasn’t anywhere nearby. Once they took his body away and I had no reason to be in the hospital anymore, I drove to his house and checked around. There was no sign of him there, except the normal traces left just from him living there as long as he did. I drove to Erie to check the neighborhood where he lived with Grandma and Jeremiah back in the 70s, but found no sign of him there at all. As I sat on the shore of Lake Erie and watched the sun rise, I tried to sort out anywhere else he could be.
“What’re you thinking about?” a female voice asked. I turned and saw a blue woman with runes moving around on her body standing with a man in robes that mostly hid what seemed to be armor and a hood that cast his entire face in shadow. They were clearly spirits, and I immediately recognized their mark on the Realm.
“You!” I said, jumping to my feet. “You were with my dad, last night, when he died! Is that what you are, some kind of fancy death?” I looked to the man and waved my hand up and down in his direction. “And, I guess, regular death?”
“We’re not death. We don’t normally collect the dying, but we had something to say to Henry Matteson.”
“Yeah? What was that?”
“We delivered our message to its recipient, and it was not you.” I clenched my fist and felt my teeth begin to grind, then turned around and kicked some sand before I began pacing. “You seem troubled.”
“My fucking dad died last night, and I don’t know if you know this, but the fact that I can’t find his spirit anywhere is kind of a new thing for me!”
“Well, yes, there is that. But there seems to be something else on your mind.” I turned back toward them and threw my arms out.
“Oh yeah?! You picked up on that? You must be psychic or something!”
“Well, he does remember everything most mortals remember,” she said, pointing to the robed man, “but Anchors are…tricky. Either way, you are being very obvious.”
“What’s your deal?” I asked, storming back toward them. “You don’t normally take the dead, but you decided to escort my dad wherever he’s gone to, and then you show up to fuck with me? Is this some kind of game for you?”
“No, John Matteson. It was time for you to meet us. For us to help you stay on track.”
“On track for what?”
“We cannot say.”
“We? He seems like he cannot say anything about anything,” I said, pointing at the man again. I leaned over to look closer at him, but if he had any features at all they were completely consumed by the shadow. “Do you speak?”
“He speaks quite a lot, when he has occasion to.”
“Hm. Do you two have names?”
“We have many.” I groaned and rolled my eyes.
“What should I call you?”
“That is up to you.” My fists shook in front of my face. I lowered my arms, took a few deep breaths, and then looked her in the eyes again.
“Give me something I can use here. He remembers things? Is that his whole shtick?”
“He is the memory, order, and structure of the Metaphysical Realm. I am the flow, life, and chaos of the Metaphysical Realm.”
“You—you two are in charge of the Realm?”
“Something like that.”
“Fine. Fine. King and Queen, how does that work?”
“Good! Queen, what the fuck is going on here?”
“Matteson, you are entering a very dangerous time. The forces arrayed against you are already closing in. Your father is on the Other Side, you will not find him here. And you cannot afford to be distracted by that which you cannot find.”
“And you know all that, huh? Even though dark and broody here can’t remember me?”
“He remembers you. He does not—”
“Remember what I remember, yeah, I got it.” I groaned, then dropped back down to sit in the sand. “This all important to you somehow?”
“We cannot say.” I laughed as I pulled out my cigarettes. I lit one, looked out over the water, and took a few drags as King and Queen stood waiting.
“You’re not gonna warn me about these things killing me while you’re at it?” I asked, dryly.
“That’s not how you die.” I considered that for a moment, then shrugged and took another drag. “Matteson, please—”
“Get my shit in order, yeah, I heard you. And how do you suggest I do that?”
“You must prepare to face great forces. You must learn to resist a trap laid for you. But you must decide how you do that.” I nodded, then rubbed my eyes against the growing light. When I opened them again, the spirits were gone. I looked around for a bit, then stood and dusted the sand off myself. I walked back to Alpha thinking about their words, and once I reached the car I pulled out my phone and called Rick. He was sure to be asleep, but he was a light sleeper.
“Hello?” he asked, his voice weak and confused.
“Rick, it’s Matteson.”
“Yeah, yeah, what’s up?”
“Devil’s Church. Tonight.” I hung up, took the last drag off my cigarette, and threw it aside before I climbed in and drove away.
26 October 2006
Dad had been admitted into the hospital, and we were fairly sure he wasn’t going to come out alive. I tried to stay with him, but he insisted that I needed to get out sometimes, give him a little space and take some time to myself. I fought, at first, but once he made his wishes known to the nurses there wasn’t much of a choice left for me.
Rick decided that I needed something interesting to occupy my time, and managed to convince Charles and Jackie to join us on a little adventure. I told him I wasn’t up for it, but he already had everyone ready, and I had little strength to fight him on it, so I quickly found myself riding shotgun in my own car as Rick took us to his surprise.
Charles realized where we were going before I did, as my mind had started to wander somewhere along 18. I snapped out of it after he told Jackie and she demanded to know if he was right.
“What exactly is this Devil’s Church, anyway?” she asked after Rick sighed and confirmed that as our destination.
“It’s a local legend, is all,” he answered, waving it off as he took the left turn off the freeway.
“About an evil site that was consumed by the earth itself and now curses anyone who approaches!” Charles was getting frantic, and Jackie reached over to calm him.
“I don’t know if ‘curses’ is the right word,” I said, sitting up and looking around, “but the stories do not describe it as a particularly safe or friendly place.”
“This is your idea of getting Matteson’s mind off of things?!” Jackie demanded. Rick winced.
“Well, I mean, he did, you know, want to visit it, right?” Rick muddled through the question, and I sighed and leaned my head back against the seat.
“I did express some interest in seeing if there was anything really here, yes.” I turned to look at Jackie. “We tried to go, once. It didn’t work out.”
“Karen backed out,” Charles said. “Violently. I bet Rick’s balls still ache at the memory of it. It’s surprising he wanted to do this at all.” Rick pulled into the graveyard and parked, then turned and looked around at all of us.
“Look,” he said, “this is one of the greatest mysteries around here, and if anything is gonna shake things up, it’s gonna be the Devil’s Church. It feels…” he turned and looked out the windshield at the trees illuminated by Alpha’s headlights, “important.” Jackie sighed and rubbed the bridge of her nose.
“Fine,” she said, firmly. “Just don’t pull something like this again, okay?” He nodded and turned the engine off, tossing the keys into my lap before he climbed out into the night. By the time I emerged, Rick had turned on a flashlight and Charles was hanging close to him, probably to avoid getting too far from the light, and they had begun looking at headstones. I felt a hand on my arm, and turned to find Jackie trying to offer a comforting smile. “Do you want to talk about it?” I took a deep breath and looked back to the guys.
“Not here,” I said, softly. “Not now.” She nodded and pulled her jacket tight around herself.
“Do you feel it?”
“No.” I opened my mouth to answer, then closed it again and nodded. “What is it?”
“I don’t know. I sensed it last time, too. Karen picked up on it, somehow, and that’s why she refused to go any further.”
“Is Karen a witch or something?” I shrugged.
“She’s never mentioned it to me.”
“Interesting. Did anyone else sense it?”
“They didn’t seem to.”
“You guys coming?” Rick called, turning the flashlight on us. We each shielded our eyes.
“Not with that light in our faces!” I answered. Jackie chuckled as Rick lowered the light. I closed the door and we started to move forward. Rick was telling Charles a story, probably about the site, but I wasn’t really listening. The forest seemed to be calling me. I found myself drawn forward, just like I had last time. Something in there wanted me, personally, to go deeper. I was pretty sure I didn’t trust whatever that was, but I couldn’t shake the desire to at least find out what it wanted. Jackie wrapped her arm around mine, a move that at first seemed to be an attempt to offer emotional support; but soon, I could feel her begin to tense and hold tighter as we approached the woods. We were maybe five feet from the tree line when she stopped dead in her tracks. I stopped, and when I turned I saw her face was going pale.
“Rick,” she hissed. He stopped and looked to us again. He and Charles were right at the edge of the field. “I think we should go.”
“Oh, come on! Not you, too!” he whined, his shoulders dropping before he threw his arms out wide. “This is your thing!”
“My thing,” she said, sternly, “involves a lot of recognizing what is and is not okay to dabble in. And this,” she said, waving her free hand at the trees, “is not something to dabble in!”
“Why not? What’s going on?”
“There’s something in there,” I said. “Something powerful.”
“Okay, but we’ve faced a crazy cult summoning some kind of god! We’ve seen powerful things, man!”
“Not like this.”
“And more importantly,” Jackie said, “we had taken some precautions before, which we haven’t taken tonight because you didn’t tell us what we were dealing with.”
“Well, okay, but-” Rick began. Jackie interrupted him.
“AND, it bears noting, that Matteson is probably our best defense if we get into real trouble, and I suspect his power is at least a little bit tied to emotion, and he is not emotionally prepared for this right now!”
“Well-” I started.
“We’re right here!” Rick was getting frustrated. “I could literally turn around and put my hand into the woods, and now we’re backing off again? Because of some…thing you guys say you’re sensing?”
“It’s a pretty good reason!” Jackie answered.
“And what, you’re just assuming Matteson’s broke or something? Because of his dad? We already knew his dad was dying, Jackie, that’s why we’re fucking here!” Charles took in a sharp breath at that, and I shrugged Jackie off and walked back to Alpha. I sat down in the driver’s seat and lit a cigarette, ashing out the open door as I stared blankly at the instrument panel. I was about halfway through it when the other doors opened. Jackie slipped into the passenger seat, followed by Rick and Charles climbing into the back.
“Sorry,” Rick muttered. I nodded, closed my door, and started the engine.
“Denny’s?” I asked. I got a round of soft agreements, decided that was good enough, and we left.
Honestly, I missed most of what happened after Benedict attacked the Black Goat. I was fighting my own battle, trying not to get crushed to death while focusing on keeping the avatar separated from its source. I noticed, partway through, that it wasn’t just one connection I was severing, but many. I hadn’t even realized before that I could sense things like that, but there it was, once it was the only thing my mind was fixed on. I knew, somehow, that this creature wasn’t just summoned for the sake of being there, or whatever. Someone, some massive group of people, was siphoning its power for themselves. It was an intermediary, a means by which the dread power of an unknowable god was filtered and distributed to mortal practitioners. Were there any others of these out there? I suspected there were, though I couldn’t seem to identify that from this point in the power network.
Then I was falling, and I blacked out until Benedict woke me. Everything hurt. Then we were off again, him slowly helping me as I went along, unable to put weight on my right leg. My left hurt like hell, too, from the spear wound, but at least it would still push against the ground a bit.
“You disrupt magic, right?” Benedict asked me at one point, when we had stopped to rest partway up the stairs. I nodded, catching my breath. “Why am I able to keep this form around you, then? Why couldn’t I access my fire, which is just part of my natural form?”
“Is it not obvious?” I asked. He furrowed his brow as he watched me. I sighed. “It isn’t magic.”
“What do you mean?”
“Magic is…” I waved my hand in a circle a few times, trying to place the words. “It’s like, it’s something from one side influencing the other, is how Jackie describes it. It isn’t magic for you to look human, because on some basic level, you are human. I don’t even see the demon when you’re in this form. They’re just…ways for you to be, I guess?” He sat in silence for a while after that, before helping me up and continuing along the stairway.
We came eventually to a large rock blocking the way, and with some effort he managed to shove it just far enough out of the way for us to slip through. We were in the woods, and sat down again while we debated which direction the building would be based on the layout of the chambers and the curve of the stairway, and finally agreed on a way to go. He left me there to rest a bit longer as he ran off to check our chosen direction, and came back after about a half hour to tell me we were wrong. So we tried again, and he ran off again, and returned after ten minutes with news that we were wrong again, but close enough that he was able to see which way was right. So we set off again. We ended up on the road the military hospital was on, and as we approached I realized the cars my friends had been in were gone.
“Cowards,” I muttered as we made our way inside. We remembered that one room still had an intact bed, in highly questionable condition but much better for dealing with our injuries than the floor, and we made our way there. As we passed another room we heard a familiar voice.
“Took you boys long enough,” Akshainie said, putting a sword and a whetstone away. She helped Benedict get me to a bed and looked me over. She tried to use magic to heal me, but of course it didn’t work, and when she insisted I drop my power long enough for her to help me I had to explain that it didn’t quite work like that. Sure, I could prevent it from affecting another target, if I tried hard enough, but I knew of no way to allow magic to touch me. At least, not without granting them knowledge about, and power over, me that I wasn’t ready to just throw out there. While she went about tending my wounds in the normal fashion with the supplies from a first aid kit they had and whatever crap she found laying around, I explained the connections I sensed while making the Black Goat functionally mortal. Benedict theorized that it was the cult itself, that the Brood of Nachash had summoned an avatar of a dark god specifically for the purpose of binding its power to themselves. And if they had done it once, they very well may have done it many times over the years. The current cult members might not even know they were gaining power this way. I think I may have changed their entire approach, as they spent the rest of the night carrying on about the possibility of hunting down any other similar ritual sites and undermining the cult’s power before facing them directly again. The only break in the conversation was when Akshainie left to slip down the stairway we took and gather my bag and notebook I had lost during the fight. She reported that there was still no sign of the Black Goat regenerating, and that my friends hadn’t returned yet.
She never did tell me how she got through the horde.
They helped me make a cobbled-together crutch, and we exchanged contact information. Benedict said he was going to visit my dad, but first he wanted to follow up on that town we found back in fall. I told him what I knew, and they slipped off before morning. When I emerged from the hospital after dawn, as agreed, I was met by Tony and his coworkers. They ran out of the cars when they saw how messed up I was, and Tony hopped into Alpha’s driver seat and ran me to the hospital. I made sure to collect my money on the way there. I was admitted, as there was a lot of work to do, but I didn’t much care. As soon as I was in one of those nice, fancy hospital beds, I slipped right off to sleep.
I tried to turn my focus to the Black Goat, but there were too many creatures at the doorway now. I didn’t realize some were slipping past the other two until I felt a stab in my leg. I dropped down to my knee and screamed, then blocked another strike from the small spear the creature held and punched it repeatedly until its head burst. I looked over and saw more coming, and from my location I could see that the Black Goat was extending itself and reaching down to join the fight.
“There’s too many!” I called over. “We can’t do this and face the horde at the same time!”
“We need you at full strength, Benedict!” Akshainie yelled from the hallway. Benedict hesitated, but then sighed and stepped backward from the doorway a bit. I started attacking the other creatures that were slipping past him.
“Behind you!” I called, as the Black Goat extended a long, clawed tentacle toward him. Suddenly, his entire body caught fire and grew, quickly going from a white man a little over six feet tall to a huge, muscular, horned demon composed of flame and standing at least twelve feet tall. He growled and turned, grabbing the tentacle and breaking it off. The Black Goat roared and writhed in pain, shaking the whole chamber and sending more stones down into the doorway from the arch surrounding it. It recoiled what was left of the tentacle, reabsorbing it and shooting out what looked like a massive tiger paw at him. Benedict slammed his foot down and a burst of fire erupted around him, consuming the smaller creatures and pushing the paw back. It threw me, as well, and I lost my notebook as I hit the ground and rolled into the far wall.
The blow knocked the wind out of me, and for a moment everything went out of focus and I had a ringing in my ears. I rolled onto my stomach and groaned, before slowly pushing myself back up. I felt a sharp pain shoot up the leg that had been stabbed before it went out from under me and I crashed back onto the ground. As my senses started to focus, I pushed myself up again enough to look over and assess the situation. Benedict, or whatever he was now, was actively trying to fight the creatures and the Black Goat, but the horde showed no signs of slowing down and I could barely see Akshainie anymore. Then, much to my surprise, I saw her leap out of the mass of creatures. She shouted something to Benedict, I couldn’t make it out; whatever it was, he looked deeply concerned and turned, apparently to stop her. It was too late, though. She went up again, this time driving her swords into the ceiling.
The doorway collapsed entirely, crushing a host of the creatures and blocking the rest from entering. Benedict screamed and I started breathing heavy as I realized she was still on the other side. As he screamed, another burst of fire shot out from him, incinerating fully two-thirds of the creatures that had managed to make it through before the way was cut off. I tried to call over to him, but before the words were out of my throat I felt a heavy, wet thud crash into my chest and at least two ribs break. I was lifted up by a massive three-fingered hand, which began to sprout eyes looking at me and a sharp-toothed mouth near the wrist. I glanced over and saw Benedict, his fire growing in intensity, turning to the Black Goat. I smiled, turning my attention back to the entity, and grabbed its wrist with both hands.
“Oh, you’re fucked now,” I said, focusing my mind on severing the connection feeding the Black Goat.
There was a large set of doors a little ways down the main hallway, and we forced it open and then closed it behind us. Beyond that the hall tapered as it descended, eventually leading to a doorway that was only large enough for two people to pass through at a time. Must have been part of whatever ritual was happening down here. The structure was old and poorly-maintained; when Benedict sent fire up to see it, we were able to identify a number of structural weaknesses in the doorway and surrounding ceiling. I remembered the couple small earthquakes that had happened in the area during my lifetime, and figured another one would probably bring this whole chamber down.
From beyond that doorway, we could hear the roar and arrhythmic beating of whatever was in there hitting the ground. Each time, the ground shook, and the ceiling dropped a few small rocks or bits of dust. It wasn’t going to be safe to stay here, but going forward meant facing whatever was causing all of this trouble. And now, as we heard things hammering against the doors, we knew it was too late to go back. We pressed on.
As we passed into the inner chamber, we finally got to see what was causing all the noise. Embedded in the ceiling, probably fifty feet or so up, was a mass of black goo, with an assortment of eyes and mouths and legs, appearing and disappearing across its surface, each different in form and size from the others. It hung suspended above a pit, with the same diameter as the hole in the ceiling holding the mass; at a glance, I would have figured it about thirty feet across, with a ring of smooth floor stretching another fifteen feet from the edge of the pit to the walls. The ceiling was domed, beginning to curve just a little above Benedict’s head and rising gracefully to meet the edges of the entity’s housing. I frowned as I began to remember my dad’s books.
“The Black Goat of the Woods,” I muttered. Benedict and Akshainie turned to me.
“What was that?” she asked. I pointed at the elder god as it slammed a clawed fist against the ceiling.
“It’s a Lovecraftian monster. Dad has a book that theorized about the metaphysical implications of their place in pop culture.” Both of their faces seemed to glaze over, as if I was speaking a completely different language. “You guys…do you know who Lovecraft was?” They both shook their heads, and I sighed and pinched the bridge of my nose. “Okay, look, he wrote fiction stories, basically established the cosmic horror genre. His stories involved these entities of madness like the elder gods or outer gods. There’s some speculation that he was describing actual spirits tied to madness and the concept of an outer darkness from various mythologies, but the popularity of his stories in the minds of so many readers may have actually caused them to change to reflect his descriptions. I think we’re looking at confirmation of that theory.”
“Are you telling me that the Brood of Nachash found and built a temple around a god of madness from a horror story?” Benedict asked. The thing roared again, and we had to cover our ears from the noise. It took a moment for us to recover, but the beast did not seem to have noticed us yet. That, or it was expecting something from us and waiting to see if we would do it.
“No, well, maybe? I don’t know. But chances are this is just an avatar for one of the elder gods, specifically Shub-Niggurath, which they may have actually summoned here.”
“They do seem fond of summoning,” Akshainie noted.
“Does that make a difference?” Benedict growled. “We still have to deal with it.”
“Yeah,” I said, lighting a cigarette. I took a drag and blew out the smoke in the entity’s direction. “An avatar can be killed.” Both of them smiled at that and looked toward it. That’s when we heard the massive doors behind us finally drag open, and the sound of scurrying and tapping approaching.
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1 March 2006
Having made our way around the place, we ended up back at the office upstairs. The place was a mess, but there was one desk that seemed attached to the floor, and further investigation revealed a button that opened a secret passage in the wall. Behind it was a pair of doors, marked with a single large red spiral painted across their front.
"Oh," I muttered, "these guys again." I lit a cigarette as Benedict turned to me and Akshainie walked over to investigate the doors.
"You're familiar with the Brood of Nachash?" he asked me.
"Is that what they're called? We just called them The Red Spiral."
"How do you know about them? Who is 'we?' What happened?"
"Is this important?"
"They're why we're here!" he cried out, indicating the spiral with his outstretched hand. "They're a danger to the world and we're trying to find and stop them."
"Oh. Yeah, I guess that checks out."
"There is a button here, but no handles," Akshainie said. We both turned and looked just in time to see her press the button. There was a loud clunking noise followed by an electric whine as long-abandoned machinery debated whether to respond. After a few seconds of that, the doors jumped open a few inches, whined some more, and then opened in slow jerking motions. Beyond them was a large elevator car, which looked like it could house about a dozen people or a small team surrounding a hospital bed. The metal rail on the walls was rusted, the carpet worn thin and fraying, the light at the top faintly flickering and giving off a low hiss. The entire car looked to be slightly crooked, and there was an audible groan as it held itself in place. It took me a moment of looking at it to realize that no other part of the building so far had still been receiving any electricity; at that, I frowned and put out my cigarette on the bottom of my shoe.
"How mortal are you guys?" I asked. Benedict gave a non-committal grimace.
"I'm not entirely sure," he said.
"I am not mortal," Akshainie answered with a shrug. I tucked the short back into my pack and pointed at her as I walked into the elevator.
"Well I am. If this thing tries to kill us, you save my ass." She rolled her eyes and slithered in just ahead of the priest, who then pushed the bottom button on the panel. The doors complained, but eventually jerked their way closed. We stood in silence for another few seconds before the elevator suddenly dropped about a foot and then started descending in a more controlled, but clearly strained, fashion. I began wishing I hadn't snuffed my cigarette before climbing in.
"You never answered me," Benedict said, finally.
"Oh. Right. Well, okay, so back in September? October? I was driving around with a few friends, you know, and we stumble across this ghost town a bit south of here where we got chased by a black garbage truck with that spiral on it. We'd already seen it around a bit on some standing stones earlier that night, so it stood out. After a couple encounters with that over the next few days, and it trying to kill us, we came across a factory or something with the same logo and decided to check it out. Well, they were trying to summon something, it turns out, so Rick, Jackie, and I broke it up and undid the ritual and some of them got arrested on an anonymous tip."
"Did you see anything strange?"
"By whose definition?" He turned his head to give me a level glare. "Fine, fine. One guy had this, I dunno, snake eye? And some scars? He said I was an omen of the end of their mission, but he never really explained as I was kinda busy punching him in the face." The elevator came to a sudden stop, nearly throwing me and Benedict off our balance, and the doors began their slow ritual of trying to open.
"You met the Barzai."
"An omen?" Akshainie asked. I shrugged. The door finished opening, and we found ourselves staring into a little bit of stone floor dimly lit by the elevator that faded off into darkness. Benedict opened his hand as if he expected something to happen, then looked at his hand, looked at me, and grumbled. He lowered his hand and stepped forward into the darkness, followed by Akshainie. I stepped out and felt along the wall beside the elevator until I found a switch, which I flicked.
The lights flickered a bit at first before the filaments in them began to glow, weak but steady. As they warmed up and grew brighter, we started to make out the chamber ahead of us. It was massive; well over ten feet tall, and probably as large as my dad's entire property over on Oakland. The ceiling was rough and natural, like a cave, but the floor was smooth and carefully worked. Occasional spires reached from one to the other, and the room was dotted with idols about four feet tall. There were three passageways leading out of the room, small ones to either side and then a large, arched one straight ahead. The light did not reach into any of them. We all waited there a moment, then I pulled out my notebook and we began investigating the chamber.
1 March 2020
Being that we were going to be working together, and they clearly had access to magic of some sort, I warned them about bringing any magic too close to me and apparently that was enough to make Akshainie want to kill me. I had known some spirits liked me more than others; to some, I was a handy means to access the physical realm, and to others I was some kind of generalized danger, but the latter group never spoke to me enough to know what their problem was. I was thinking about what she'd said, about people like me being destructive, while Benedict tried to calm her down. As I was thinking this over and made my way toward the hallway door, I thought I heard crying.
When I looked back to tell them, they were having a heated conversation in some language I'd never heard, so I decided to leave them to it and head off to investigate. The noise was coming from somewhere down a side hall, so I crept along, trying to trace the echoes to a specific room. The hallway turned a corner, and I stopped to peek around the edge just in case before continuing. Right at the start of that hallway was a thick metal doorframe, as if this whole hallway had been closed off by strong doors at some point. There was what looked to have been a poorly-removed circuit panel next to the frame. Near the end of that hall, I found a closed door.
The rest of the rooms I'd seen so far had had doors at some point, of course. Most were gone, a few wooden ones were still attached to a hinge or two but clearly broken. This hall, however, still had almost all of its doors, and they were all metal. Only one of those doors was closed, however; and it was the one with the crying.
I glanced in the others as I passed. The mess of previous visitors was nearly impossible to distinguish from the mess that must have been left behind by occupants, especially with the drawings on the walls. But this area was less vandalized than others, and I suspected that other people who won the bet did so by deciding this hall was not worth looking into. As I got to the door, I noticed Benedict and Akshainie find the end of the hallway and follow me down. I tried to test the door before they got there, but it was locked. I explained that to them when they arrived, and Benedict focused for a moment and then walked right into the door and bounced back, rubbing his head.
"What the hell was that!?" I asked, pointing at the door.
"I usually...ow, usually I can make myself pass through stuff like that."
"It's him," Akshainie hissed, glaring at me. I raised my hands then backed away. Once I was about six feet or so from them, I lit a cigarette while Benedict took a breath and did it again, this time walking right past the door into the room.
"So," I said, "what do you do? Where are you from?"
"I kill things that need to die. And that is no concern of yours." I shrugged and leaned against the wall for a moment, before we heard a loud scream come from the room and the door was blown off and slammed into the wall across the hall from it, Benedict landing hard on it.
"Not this shit again!"
"It's been a rough year, murder hobo! Get those swords ready!" She drew her swords and I dropped my backpack, pulling out my notebook as the ghost of a man floated into the hallway. His face was twisted in pain and his body was covered in arcane markings. His arms bent the wrong way and in more places than they should have, and his legs hung limp from his body, waving in a way that looked like they had no bones. Which, admittedly, they didn't, but usually you can tell in ghosts that the person had bones when they were still alive. Benedict coughed and stood.
"Oh, what did they do to you?" he asked as he caught his breath. The ghost screamed again and a pulse of energy blew away all the debris on the floor and pushed Benedict and Akshainie back. I stood, flipping through my notebook, until I found the sigil page I was looking for. I waited until the shockwave had finished and the ghost was moving again as I held my hand over the page, then I threw the notebook onto the ground just in front of the ghost. It moved forward just a few inches until it was over the page, then the sigils began to glow and the ghost stopped like it had hit a brick wall. It screamed again, the air around it and above the notebook swirling wildly, but not reaching any of us. Akshainie screamed and lunged forward, slicing at the ghost in a series of rapid strikes I could barely keep up to watch. When she stopped, the ghost gasped and broke apart, fading into nothing. It was as I was watching it disappear that I was able to pay enough attention to it to realize that it was not, in fact, a ghost, but an echo.
"Let me just slip by you," I said, walking past Akshainie and picking my notebook up again. She mumbled a brief thing that sounded like a vague thanks as she put her swords away, and we all turned to look in the room.
The walls of the room were lined with arcane scribblings, not unlike those on the body of the echo. They were certainly more extensive, and I recognized some sets as showing up in various summoning rites I'd seen in my dad's books. These were mixed in with drawings, mostly of inhuman faces, with faces too long or with too many eyes or noses or ears, some of them completely alien, some of them serpentine. The cot was torn to shreds, and there was a blood-stained depression in the wall where it looked like someone had desperately tried to claw through the stone but hadn't made it all the way through. Under that was a body, largely decayed, but mostly human. Its two human arms were bent in a multitude of ways, its human legs shriveled and useless. It had four additional legs which resembled those of a spider, large and still generally intact. What was left of the face looked like it had been warped into a form that would have been terrible to behold while there was still flesh on it.
"I guess that supports the experimental testing theory," I muttered, taking notes.
1 March 2006
Tony had picked up a job out in Girard, and after a couple months there he began to hear stories from some of his coworkers who had grown up over there. One of these stories involved an allegedly haunted building out by the Vienna air force base. The rumor was that the site had originally been a small hospital as part of the base, then shifted into use as a mental hospital which was supposed to be related to some kind of testing the military had carried out, until it was sold by the government to a private enterprise who used it as a nursing home for a couple years. That nursing home was wracked with problems, which were blamed on the restless dead from among those who had been experimented on and then locked away there, and the company that owned it abandoned it and left it to decay as the woods slowly reclaimed the property.
There was a challenge, among kids from over that way, that was proposed to people who made too much of a show of not being afraid of anything. A pool of money would be gathered, and a bet would be made that the person in question couldn't spend the whole night there alone. If they pulled it off, they'd get all the money; if they refused or failed to spend the whole night there, they'd get nothing. Tony's coworkers could only name one person who had actually made any money on this venture. A flashlight was allowed, and some water, but nothing else. This apparently came up in the context of Tony telling stories about his friend who believed he could see ghosts and looked into things like this.
And that was how, at the end of February, I was suddenly offered a little over a thousand dollars if I could spend the night in a haunted hospital I'd never heard of by people I'd never met.
Tony and a couple of his coworkers were camped out in a couple cars already when I pulled up in Alpha. There had to be witnesses, it was explained, to prove that no one else had joined me, that I did not leave and return, and that I had only taken the approved materials. Once we were all clear on the rules and I was found acceptable (I managed to convince them to let me bring my cigarettes and a lighter as well), I climbed the fence left in place by the military and made my way through the tall grass to the collapsed front door.
There was certainly a presence, I realized as I approached. I didn't see any specific ghosts, and very few remaining impressions of anything. But there was something here, or very nearby and connected to this place, and it felt evil. I had originally planned to find somewhere comfortable to hang out and maybe get some sleep, talk to some spirits if necessary, and that would be that. But now I had to do some investigating.
The rooms on the ground floor were a mess. There were the remains of other attempts to stay the night among the fallen plaster and remnants of archaic hospital equipment. In one closet, I found a stack of folded papers that had been overlooked by previous visitors, which turned out to be an inspection report on some local fallout shelters from 1957. I decided to keep that, maybe hang it up at home. From the outside, the building only looked to have one full floor and one partial above it, but as I explored I found that there was one also one floor beneath the ground. I decided to explore that last, and continued on my way deeper into the main floor of the building. The upper floor was office space and what I gathered was a private staff lunch room, which had been raided long ago. I took a smoke break on what was left of a bench there, and as I made my way back down to the ground floor I suddenly heard a few footsteps and something dragging along the ground in a nearby room. I suspected it was Tony and his lot trying to scare me off, so I went to confront them.
What I actually found when I entered the doorway and shined the flashlight was a white Catholic priest, standing next to a woman who had the look of someone from near or in India and a serpent's body from about the belly down. Her top barely covered anything, and she had swords strapped to her side and nothing covering the serpent part of her. We all stopped and looked at one another, and I shone the light at the woman.
"What are you supposed to be, a naga or something?" I asked.
"Yes," she said, "I'm a naga." I grumbled and lit another cigarette.
"Always something. Did the people outside see you two come in here?"
"I can't see how they would have," the priest answered, in a German accent, "why would that matter?"
"I got a thousand bucks riding on staying the night by myself, and I don't want you two fucking it up just cause you needed somewhere to hide whatever," I waved my light between them, "this is."
"This," he answered, emphatically, "is an investigation into a dangerous cult. Which should take some priority over your poor gambling choices." I eyed him up. Something about him wasn't right, but I couldn't put my finger on it yet. But she was absolutely a spirit, walking around in the real world. Or at least what passed for walking.
"Is this about the presence here?" She moved forward, her eyes wide.
"You know of it already?" She seemed very excited to ask.
"I've got a knack for these things."
"Wait," the priest said, "you...we're near the Pennsylvania line, yes?" I nodded. "And you do look...are you Henry Matteson's boy?"
"Aw hell, you're his secret priest friend, aren't you?" I pointed at the naga. "Dad said he was warning you about fucking around with the naga!"
"Henry warned you about me?" she asked, turning back to him.
"He said your kind may be dangerous, which I would remind you is true," he answered. She looked like she was considering that for a moment, then shrugged and nodded. "And does your dad know you're out poking around places like this, young man?"
"Oh, no, we're not doing that," I said, pointing at him. "I'm a grown ass man, priest, and he's got enough shit to deal with right now." The naga held up a hand toward each of us.
"I am Akshainie," she said, turning her head to face me, "it is a pleasure to meet you."
"Call me Matteson. Dad says you healed him."
"It was the least I could do."
"Yeah. You got a name, priest?"
"You can call me Father Benedict."
"I don't do titles. Well, Akshainie, Benedict. Sounds like we've got new plans for the evening."
15 February 2006
I mostly did paperwork when I first started at Laurel, and was given my first case in late January. It was, by that time, mostly handled; I just had to connect a few last dots and hand it back, a case for a debt collector of some sort. My second case was more of a personal favor. Mark took me aside and explained that he and my dad had a mutual friend who'd started some kind of network, and occasionally Mark liked to keep an eye on it. He gave me the information he had on a Dr. Francesca Harris and a group called Mystics Anonymous, and asked me to just check on them.
His information was recent, just a few months old, and with some training on how to access some of the networks available to us, I was able to start getting some usable information. I told him I could say the group had started meeting in Louisville, Kentucky, and it looked like Dr. Harris was still there. He asked me to go to confirm, gave me access to a travel account, and the next day Alpha and I were heading southwest.
Mark warned me that he had never actually been asked by either dad, or their mutual friend, to check on this group, and wasn't entirely sure they would be fond of the work if they found out. But they had asked for help from a detective, he noted, and were just going to have to live with the consequences of that. "All the same," he said, "try not to let Harris think to ask them about it." I began to suspect this case was more of a test than anything.
I had some notes on how to find where someone was staying, even if it was just a hotel room, but thought I might as well try using my own options just to see if they would help. I arrived in town at night, and went wandering until I'd found a nexus, grabbed some chicory I'd brought along, and climbed out of Alpha. Gathering at the nexus was a small assortment of local spirits, carrying on their own conversations and gambles, and they stopped and looked toward me as I approached. I held the bundle of flowers and bag of ground root up with one hand and the picture of Harris with the other as I stopped.
"I'm sure someone here would like a bundle of good fortune," I said, with a smile, "and I might be convinced to part with it for information on this woman."
There were three places Dr. Harris frequented reliably; one was her hotel, another was a local coffeeshop, and the third was a church where she met with a group of other people every week. That weekly meeting was only two days away, so I spent my first day in town eyeing up the church and finding the best place to watch for the comings and goings of what I assumed would prove to be Mystics Anonymous.
I parked myself on a fire escape in an alley where I could see the door Harris and her group used a couple hours before the meeting, somewhere they wouldn't think to glance while entering unless they were being particularly paranoid, and waited with a camera. I brought some snacks and a book to pass the time. Right on schedule, I saw Harris arrive and unlock the door, so I zoomed in and got a couple pictures of her doing so. Shortly after, a group of three people came walking up together from the parking lot. From my angle, I couldn't see whether they'd come in one car or met there, but it didn't seem to much matter. I lifted my camera again to catch them as well, just in case, and then froze. I stared for a moment, breathing heavy, then closed my eyes and set the camera down beside me. I pulled out my phone and called Mark.
"I can confirm Harris is in Louisville, meeting with her group right now at the church I told you about," I said, as I watched Lori enter the building, "but I'm afraid that's all I can do for this case. I'll explain when I get back." Once I was sure they were inside and couldn't see me, I gathered my things, walked back to Alpha, and drove straight out of town.
The blog of John Matteson.