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.”
17 March 2007
I finished my shower and spent a little time checking my hair at the mirror before wrapping the towel around myself and heading down the hall to my room. When I passed the top of the stairs, I could hear Jackie and Alice chatting downstairs. I didn’t know Alice was here already, and made a mental note to hurry up a bit instead of leaving her waiting. She’d been a bit tense ever since England, and I was looking forward to taking her out to the St. Pat’s celebrations downtown with some friends. Hopefully a night of not thinking would help put her at ease. I entered my room and closed the door to find the woman from the alley island, naked, sprawled out on my bed.
“Didn’t you try this already?” I asked, walking past her to open my closet and look for a suitably green shirt.
“I was curious if it was really that useless. Maybe if circumstances were different, if you would react differently.”
“Hecate, was it?” I asked, grabbing a shirt and tossing it beside her on the bed as I went to my dresser. “If that was your goal, you should have tried it when my girlfriend wasn’t sitting downstairs waiting for me.”
“You know full well I can give us all the time in the world,” she said, standing up as a robe materialized on her. “Which I have done, by the way.” I looked at her for a moment, then out the window, where I saw a bird frozen in mid-flight.
“You like recycling your tricks.”
“I like not being rushed by mortals who think their agendas are more important than the will of a god.”
“I guess I could see where you’d get that.” I dropped the towel and grabbed a pair of boxers from the dresser. Hecate straightened up and took a sharp breath. “Oh don’t play coy now,” I groaned, pulling on the underwear and kneeling down to grab some pants from the lowest drawer.
“Is my presence such little concern for you?”
“I am a mortal with an agenda, remember.”
“John Matteson, I would remind you that I am offering you incredible power—”
“Yeah, yeah, power to stand even against gods.” I put on an undershirt and tucked it in before securing my pants. “I decided to start with you.” I brushed past her to grab my shirt, and she grabbed my shoulder and squeezed. It stung, but I refused to show that to her.
“You do not want me as an enemy, Anchor. I can make your life very painful.”
“Why? You think you have some right to boss me around?”
“I have every right!” she screamed, spinning me to face her. I met her gaze and silently slipped my shirt on as she continued. “I am the goddess of liminal beings! You are under my purview, your very existence hinges on my favor, and you dare question what authority I have to command your use of my gifts?”
“If you can take my power away, then do it.” I stood with my arms out, waiting, as she glared at me. “No?” I finally asked. She growled. “I think this story’s a bit more complicated than you want me to believe. And I think you need me more than I need you. Now, as for tonight?” I brought my hands together in a loud clap, focusing all my energy on it, and heard it ripple through the house. Hecate’s robe blew as if in a wind, and the air crackled, and the bird outside my window resumed its flight. “I have somewhere to be.” I turned away from her and reached for the door.
“Mark my words. You will have me, John Matteson, or you will have no one.”
“Next time, you should try something new. I’d be curious what you have to offer besides sex and parlor tricks.” I opened the door and headed downstairs.
The damage to the house was significant, especially in the kitchen, but it would have been far worse if the building hadn’t been made of stone. It was exhausting to even make Kastor visible to the bishop, so I didn’t bother doing it again when I thanked Kastor for his help and let him run back to whatever he was doing. I insisted on not knowing what that was. The bishop wanted to have a long chat about the nature of the supernatural, but I was antsy about getting back to check on Alice, so we gave him a very brief overview and reminded him about the Hudsons as specialists and I gave him my number before we left. On the way, though, Akshainie insisted we make one more stop, and I could hardly deny the request.
So I called Alice and she confirmed that everyone was back, and that she was okay, though she really sounded shaken. I didn’t press. But with assurance that it wouldn’t be a problem for anyone currently fighting, Akshainie and I made our way through the security checks and back to the locus I had silenced. She believed she could cleanse it now that the cult wasn’t actively using it, after I opened it again. I didn’t know how to open it again, I warned her, but she asked if I had known how to close it and I had to admit I didn’t until I tried. So she was comfortable assuming I would figure it out.
When we got to the locus, she stayed behind at the entrance of the chamber to give me room to work. We weren’t sure what was going to happen, but she wasn’t comfortable being close to me while I’m using a lot of energy to undo something magical.
“I doubt I would do anything very harmful to you,” I pointed out.
“Tell that to the Hudson estate,” she replied. There really wasn’t much argument to be made there.
So I went back to the center of the locus and focused, trying to feel what I had done to the flow of energy. It took a few moments, but I was able to identify that the locus was essentially an antimagic dam now, functionally blocking and absorbing all the energy that was coming to it. And it felt like me. I can’t really explain it, but the sense of interacting with it almost felt like interacting with my own arm or something. Whatever I had done here, I think I had left a piece of myself behind, and that was what was actually cutting off the locus. So all I had to do was take my piece back, right?
How do you even do that?
It took about a half hour of me trying things, and Akshainie giving her input, and me trying something else, before I finally felt like I’d connected with the blockage. And then it was a few minutes of focus and pulling and willing the locus to open before I was knocked on my back by a sudden tidal wave of magical energy and an audible popping sound. Akshainie rushed past me to the locus point, by now in her naga form, and wrapped her coils around the center of the site as she started her invocation. I dusted myself off and walked out of the chamber, to make sure I didn’t cause her any issues, and made my way back to the car. I made it through half a cigarette while leaning on the car before she came into view, human guise up, looking tired.
“You okay? Did it work?” I asked when she practically fell into the side of the car, leaning next to me.
“Let me get one of those,” she said. So I pulled out my pack and gave her a smoke and a light.
“I didn’t know you smoked.”
“I don’t usually. And I rarely smoke whatever the hell these are. But we have something similar in Iravati.”
“Lung cancer not a big concern for you, then?”
“I don’t have lungs. What’s your excuse?”
“I have it on good authority that won’t be what kills me,” I said. She grunted, and we both stayed there for a quiet moment.
“It worked,” she finally said. “Thank you.”
“Of course.” With that, she handed me the rest of her cigarette and walked around the car, I took a drag off it and then climbed in to take us back to the estate.
The initial strike wasn’t quite what we expected.
We were so used to the cult’s reliance on magic that we weren’t even thinking about the possibility of them using mundane means. Thankfully, between having noticed movement outside and Akshainie’s preternatural reflexes, she was in position to stop the first bullet from hitting the bishop.
“I need my armor!” she called as we all hit the floor, her arm bleeding where the shot had hit. I grabbed the bishop and shoved him out of the room. We ran down the hall and I heard shots begin and things in the kitchen breaking, hopeful most of that noise was Akshainie taking on her larger and more well-defended form. We made our way through the stone house, avoiding windows as much as possible, until we found a secure room to wait. I waited by the door, clenching my fists and trying to think through my options.
“That woman!” he cried, pacing behind me. “Oh God, she’s probably dead and they’re on their way to kill us…”
“She’s fine,” I said, “ Akshainie can handle her own. Now shut up before they find you.”
“You came to protect me, surely you have a gun or something?”
“I don’t carry a gun.”
“But you’re an American!”
“I’m a black American. I decided having a gun wasn’t worth the hassle of being seen with a gun.”
“Then what do we do?”
“What you do is shut up! Let me try something.” I closed my eyes and thought hard about what I’d learned concerning my relationship to the Metaphysical Realm. If what I actually did was set the rules in a given place, maybe I could use that somehow? I quickly considered and dismissed a handful of ideas before I settled on one that seemed worth a shot. I focused, I tried really hard to define my space, to make something specific true of the area that hadn’t been true a moment before.
“What the hell is this?” Kastor demanded. I opened my eyes and looked down at him.
“What worked?” the bishop asked. I held up a finger, telling him to wait, and he grunted and slumped into a chair.
“Did you summon me?” Kastor asked, hands on his hips. “I didn’t think you could do that!”
“I think I get to decide what I can do, within reason.”
“This isn’t within reason! I was with this dryad, Johnny, you never saw—”
“Listen, this is important!” I grabbed him by the shoulders and gave him a good shake. “There are cultists here trying to kill us and I’m not really armed to deal with them. Akshainie is out there alone right now. Can you get her some backup?”
“I don’t know! Whoever’s around, get them to help her stop the cultists!”
“Why would they do that?” he asked, pushing my hands off him.
“The cultists were corrupting the ley network.”
“Is that why it’s so…weird, right now? It feels like it got fucked up.”
“It’s…related to that. I’ll explain later. Can you do this, or not?”
“Yeah, yeah, let me see what I can do. But you owe me big for this!”
“Are you talking to yourself!?” the bishop demanded. Kastor and I both looked at him.
“Oh for crying out loud, look,” I said. I shifted the rules a bit, and soon the bishop jumped up from his seat.
“Is that a demon!?”
“I’m a faun,” Kastor answered, before turning to me again. “You can make people see me?”
“I think I know how you’re going to pay me back for this.”
“I’m not paying you back for shit if you don’t get moving!”
Kastor grumbled as he ran off, and I slumped against the wall and held my head. It was starting to throb, and I considered the possibility I had pushed too much too quickly. The bishop was praying under his breath and trying to control the look of shock on his face, but I decided it was best to leave him to it. Pretty soon I heard thunder, and screaming, and then the door flew open and Akshainie, covered in small wounds and fully in her naga form, shoved her upper body in.
“There you are!” She said. “Are you aware there’s a small army of weather spirits and some kind of goat man killing the cultists?”
“I’m aware I owe the goat man one hell of a favor,” I answered.
“And what are you!?” the bishop screamed. Akshainie and I both looked at him.
“Busy!” she yelled, before slipping back out of the room and rushing down the hall. There was a brief burst of gunshots, which were quickly silenced. I shrugged.
“She knows what she’s doing,” I said. “You should work on the way you introduce yourself to spirits.” He stared at me for a minute, then went back to praying as I closed the door.
16 February 2007
The papers we brought back from the church indicated a complex plan, but we were aided in our study of it by some interrogation of the cultists we recovered. There were a few cells scattered around, and they were all going to attack in unison once they received a specific sign. Thankfully, we were able to work out the nature of that sign: the priest we captured was supposed to kill a specific bishop some time today, with the help of a different local cell, and when he sent off a message confirming the deed the others would strike.
Of course, the priest was in no condition to actually carry out that step of the plan or to alert the others to his situation, and they were unlikely to realize he was out of commission. Alice’s claim that he was connected to at least some of the cultists gave us some pause, but we determined that with the ley network’s disruption it would take them longer to check on him than it would take us to act. So we set out.
Alice was left in Melinda’s care after she barely stopped me from ripping Michael to shreds for putting Alice in danger. She promised she would have words with him herself, and I trust that was why he was pulled aside as soon as our plan was made and I didn’t see him before we left in the morning. ‘We’ being Akshainie and me. We were tasked with protecting the bishop at any cost today, to ensure the signal to strike never went out. Meanwhile, Benedict and Michael would round up the cultists from the other cells, who should be gathered nice and tight in their positions.
We arrived at the bishop’s house early, and he greeted us and welcomed us in for breakfast. He had been told we were coming, but was given little more than that, so we roughly explained the situation and showed him our papers from the Hudsons confirming our work was under the auspices of the crown. But there was no activity while we were eating, so Akshainie made her way to an upper floor to watch for movement outside as I escorted the bishop in his duties. We made our way to his study, where he was planning to carry out a period of study. When we got there, he asked me about my faith, and I confessed that while I had a generally Christian understanding of the ultimate afterlife, thanks to my grandmother, my own relationship with the supernatural was a bit too complicated to fit into any religions I’d yet encountered. He pressed for more information on that, and while I hedged my answers a bit to avoid giving away too much detail about myself, we spent the next few hours talking about ghosts, natural spirits, and my function as an Anchor. He seemed fascinated by the idea, but was insistent that all of what I was saying could be explained with a Christian understanding of the mystical side of reality. I entertained his theories, but remained unconvinced.
I was growing antsy, and the increasing frequency of Akshainie poking in to check on us suggested she was, as well. But nothing was happening, and the bishop began urging her to stay and explain her experience of the supernatural. He didn’t know she was a naga, of course, and we didn’t tell him, but she did finally sit down and begin talking about Hinduism until we all returned to the kitchen for lunch. It was there, while we were cleaning up after eating, that we first noticed some movement in the shrubs outside.
I was already in the car and heading back for Alice when she called me. I glanced at the clock and realized I’d been away longer than we’d hoped, she was probably annoyed about sitting at the church waiting for me.
“Hey hon,” I said, answering the call on speaker. “Sorry about the delay, I—”
“The priest,” she gasped. My grasp on the steering wheel tightened at the pain in her voice. “It’s the priest. He’s in the cult.”
“What happened? Are you okay?”
“I’ll make it back to the estate if you can get here soon. He didn’t want to kill me, he wanted information.”
“Where are you now?” I listened as she described the area, a place we’d walked past the night before, and where she was hiding. I promised I’d be there as soon as I could, then hung up and punched the gas. I tore across England completely oblivious to any cops, and if they saw me they apparently didn’t think it worth the effort to stop me. Maybe the Hudson name on the plates helped with that, who knows. The whole ride was spent thinking about what I was going to do to that priest, and to Michael, when I had the chance.
The car screeched to a halt when I found the alley where Alice was hiding, and she limped out of the shadows and slipped into the passenger seat. Half her shirt and a part of her pants were burned off, exposing a large burn across her side. Once she was in and I was assured she was stable, I drove to the church. She insisted it was pointless, as he surely wouldn’t be there anymore, but I was barely listening. I had to try. I couldn’t risk not checking. She stayed in the locked car, parked a block away to avoid drawing attention to her, while I went inside to check. Sure enough, the doors to the office area was locked, and I kicked them off the hinges before storming through and tearing the place apart looking for any information. I found some records and notes that looked promising, and grabbed those, but the priest was clearly gone. Once I returned to the car, I gave the papers to Alice and made for the estate.
As I was turning into the entrance of the estate, I saw a man walking with purpose, holding a notebook. Alice gasped and pressed herself back into the seat. I asked if that was the priest, and when she confirmed it was, I punched the gas again. He heard the noise of the engine, and turned just in time to see the car hit him. He was thrown off to the side, rolling over the corner of the hood, and I continued up the drive as Alice screamed. I slammed the brakes as we got to the building, set the parking brake, and jumped out without bothering to turn off the engine. The man was slowly getting to his feet, and on seeing me heading for him, he threw a fireball at me. I batted it away, hearing it fizzle out as soon as it left my hand, and neither slowed nor sped up as I approached him. His eyes grew large, and then he started to chant and I watched his form crack and shift, as his arms grew muscular and his body took on the form of a large serpent. I ripped my shirt off and tossed it aside, and we lunged at each other.
The blog of John Matteson.