After I left Alice at the hospital I made my way to Pulaski. I pulled over on an empty stretch of road to center myself. I was having trouble shuttling Alice around and having her at the house when I wasn’t even sure if we were still together, and if something dangerous really was waiting at the site, I needed to focus. So I took some time, a few deep breaths, had a smoke, and pushed that matter out of mind. I didn’t continue until I was sure I was as sharp as I was going to get.
I was following a ley line map Jackie had whipped up or something, but the geographic features on it were also hand-drawn and imperfect, so it took me about a half hour of walking around the woods along the river to find the site. It was pretty obvious, once I’d found it; whoever found her hadn’t cleaned up the blood or the candles, and I was frankly kind of surprised the place wasn’t crawling with cops with how much blood she’d used. Maybe they had some experience in the difference between a ritual and a murder scene.
It was definitely a high-traffic area. I couldn’t believe it hadn’t occurred to me to just follow the spirits to find the locus point and save myself a ton of time, but that would just have to be filed away for next time. A group of river spirits and lesser fae were gathered around the ritual site, lounging against rocks and trees and joking as they passed snacks and a pipe around. They stopped and watched me as I stepped into the center of the candles.
“Y’ain’t gonna try opening this place up again, are you?” a naiad asked.
“That’s not really my thing,” I answered.
“No no, you’re one a those…what’re they called?” a pixie asked, fluttering closer to me but stopping about five feet away.
“Yeah! Shit, guys, this guy’s an Anchor!” She zipped away from me to hide in some leaves.
“I’m not going to hurt you. And I’ll try very hard not to hurt your magic. I just need information.”
“Hurt my magic!” Another pixie stood to full height and flew closer to inspect me. “Listen to this asshole! How do you like this, huh?” He fired off a bolt of magical energy right between my eyes, but it burst harmlessly a foot from my face.
I groaned and sat down, lighting a cigarette as he sputtered and demanded how I did that.
“He’s an Anchor!” the first pixie answered. “They break magic! It’s their whole thing!”
“Well, not my whole thing, but it’s a major aspect of our interactions,” I said. “Now I’ll behave if you will.”
“What d'you want, Riverborn?” the naiad asked.
“I want to know what happened to the witch that made this ritual.”
“And what do we get out of it?”
“I should have expected you to be here, I’d have brought something. What would you like?”
“A favor!” the first pixie shouted, zipping back out and landing on a rock in front of me with her hands on her hips.
“I know the fae too well to agree to an undefined favor.”
“She weren’t here anyway,” a brownie muttered, adjusting his cap to expose his eyes and look me over.
“I’m surprised you were. Your kind don’t tend to hang out in the woods.”
“We do when our house is lost and there isn’t another one that’ll take us.”
“Is that your price? A house to mind?”
“One that won’t drive a spirit out.”
“How do you feel about occasional visits from a faun?”
“Does the faun bring drink?”
“None that he offers me, but I don’t think it would take much to convince him to start.”
“I’ll take it. This your house?”
“The witch lives there, too.”
“Even better. Alright,” he stood, brushing himself off before walking toward me. “It’s a pact?” He extended a hand.
“You are officially invited to take up residence in the house I share with Jackie.” I shook his hand.
“She was looking to find something,” he said, sitting down in front of me. The rest of the crowd resumed their snacks and smokes but listened in. “I didn’t know the language but I can tell a searching spell when I see one. And she made progress, too. Tore this place right open, scared the hell out of most everyone resting here. She didn’t seem to take mind of us, you know, was looking on past. I thought, and this is just based on what I could make of it you know, but I thought she maybe saw as far as the Crossroads.”
“Seeing the Crossroads didn’t put her into a coma.”
“No, that’s true, that’s true. But she was looking past us, mind you. So she didn’t see the man standing here, like he was waiting for her.”
“The other Riverborn,” the naiad said.
“And what’s your price?”
“What do you find entertaining here?”
“You two Riverborn.” She nodded as if indicating a point behind me, and I rose to my feet as I spun around.
There was a man standing there. His hair was long and dark, his features bold but his frame thin. He was light-skinned, which stood out against his dark blue suit.
“Jonathan,” he said, smiling and stepping forward out of the metaphysical realm. “So good to finally meet you.”
“Who are you?” I demanded, clenching my fists.
“Did Henry really never show you any pictures? Describe his father in any way?”
I glanced over my shoulder. “Get back.” I saw the other spirits begin to cluster at the edge of the water as I turned my attention back to the man. “Jeremiah Matteson, I presume?”
“In the flesh.”
“What did you do to Jackie?”
“That witch? Nothing that can’t be reversed. But it does need to be reversed. I’m sure you noticed that, right?”
“If you are what they say you are, you should know why the spell can’t just be broken.”
“I mean why attack her? What’s your issue with her?”
“I have no issue with her. I just needed to get your attention.”
“Well, you have it. Start talking, old man, before I make you regret getting it.”
“There’s that fire Henry was so fond of. I’m not here to fight you, John. I want to offer you a proposition.” He sat down on a large stone and crossed his arms.
“What kind of proposition?”
“I need an heir. Someone to take on the favors and goods I’ve acquired over the decades, to carry on my work.”
“And you skipped over your own son with such a gracious offer?”
“He wouldn’t listen. And he wasn’t worthy.”
“Worthy? Who the fuck do you think you are?”
“I think I’m not some normal, basic human cut off from the world of the spirits.” He stood and waved his hand to indicate the crowd gathered around us. “Look at us! I can call the water and it does my bidding, step between worlds as easily as men walk through an open door! And you, just casually talking to spirits in the woods, making carefully constructed deals, shrugging off the full wrath of a spirit made entirely of magic!” He stepped forward and leaned in close to my face. “We’re not like your little witch whore, or your frail old daddy, or those robed assholes trying to petition gods for a shred of what we can do. Why should we live like them?” He threw his hands up and began walking in a circle around me. “Afraid of things they don’t understand and can’t control! Bowing to whatever earthly power can make their lives marginally better! Waiting around for a savior that’s never coming! This isn’t the life for us, John. Not for people like us.”
“And what are you proposing is the life for us?” I turned to face him.
“Power. Prestige! We take what we want, we live whatever life we desire. What do you want, John? You want money? We have ways to get it. Women? Men? As many as you can handle. Slavish devotion from an entire culture? Why not! You have the power to redefine the rules of their collective unconscious! Do you have any idea what you can make people do for you? And them!” He pointed to the spirits. “They need you! You create or destroy the world they know, at a whim!”
“Now that’s quite the claim,” the naiad said, stepping forward.
“And what are you to me, little river sprite?”
“You just play at making water dance. I am water!”
“Yes. You are.” He extended his hand toward her, and she began to choke and gasp as she lifted off the ground. She screamed, or what she could muster of a scream, as her body began to contort and change shape.
“Knock it off!” I yelled. As I did, she fell back onto the river bank and caught her breath.
He tried his trick two more times, unsuccessfully, before smiling. “You see? They’re just playthings to me, and to you? You can do so much more, to so many more of them. Why do you sit here trying to negotiate when you can just make them as pliable as you want? Why go through the trouble when you can just will their compliance?”
“Do you have any idea how horrible this path you’re describing is? You’re talking about corrupting everything for your own gain.”
“Corruption? This is the system that exists! This is our place in it! Why should we not play the hand we’ve been dealt?”
“The world needs them!”
“The world needs us! We sit around in the shadows, playing by their rules, and what good comes of it? Spirits don’t hold themselves accountable to the humans who define them, deities play stupid little games with mortal pawns, humans destroy each other and the world itself because they don’t see their connection to it, and all the while, you just play along. Let them have their little trinkets and wars and lies! You could send a ripple that makes every human rethink their fears, you could put every single spirit into nice little categories and send them out to make the world a better place.”
“I’m not powerful enough to do that.”
“Not yet! But that spark lives in you! And I could show you how to make it grow. I could lead you to realize the fullness of what you are, to become what you truly are!”
“What you’re talking about is evil. To take control of everything, to force all of mankind and all of spiritkind into some kind of slaves to my own agenda? Or your agenda, that you hope to put into my head? You’re just some second-rate dictator looking for a general, and I won’t have it! I’m not interested.”
“I’m offering you a chance to really do something good, John!”
“You know what the worst part is? I bet you really believe that.”
“I could be your greatest ally, you know. I promise, you don’t want me as an enemy!”
“Why not?” I walked over to him and pointed, pushing my finger into his chest. “What was it you thought you were? A god? And I’m the one that can make gods kneel, right? What threat are you to me?”
“You care,” he hissed. “You care an awful lot about petty little mortals. I can wait as long as I need to for you to break. But how long do you think Jackie can wait in that coma? How long do you think she can stay there, waiting for me to set her free, waiting for you to submit to your true nature? How long can you watch her in that state?”
I threw a punch, but he dodged.
“Water, remember? I’ll be back, John. I eagerly await your answer.” With that, he slipped back into the realm, then quickly vanished into the Deeper Realms beyond my reach.
I screamed and punched a tree, shattering half its trunk. The spirits watched, cautiously, as it creaked and fell to the side. My hand was bleeding, and the brownie stepped forward and pulled a length of cloth from behind his back.
“I sure hope you take care of our house better than you take care of yourself,” he said, wrapping the cloth around my hand as a bandage. “Now, normally this would have a healing balm attached to it, but I’m not wasting that on an Anchor. I hope you understand.”
“Yeah,” I grunted. “I better get you home before I go back to the hospital.” As we walked away toward Alpha, I heard the spirits slowly resume their conversation. Their tone was much darker and more hushed than it had been when I arrived.
The blog of John Matteson.