28 December 1905
The property owned by Aaboukingon and Joanna Matteson housed a beautiful yard bordered by a creek and a number of old, strong trees. A great many animals made their homes in the forest that stretched beyond their land claim, and little attention was paid on most days to the birds who gathered nearby but did not sing. The pathway from the road was largely in shade, a place of quiet serenity opening to the estate where both husband and wife were asleep late into the morning. Abe had only just mustered the energy to move about the house unassisted, and Joanna was busy fretting over him. He probably could have been more active, if Joanna wasn't so insistent on his need for a little more rest to ensure he didn't strain himself. All things considered, it was little surprise they did not pay mind to the ravens watching the shadows from their perch beside the house, even though one raven had a faint blue glow to her. It was less of a surprise they did not see the men who moved through those shadows this morning.
I would have warned her, if I could. I made to move, to go to the window and speak of all that was coming, but the other looked at me with knowledge and pain in her eyes and I knew I could not. We knew what was to come of this day, and the need for it to happen as it had always happened.
When Old Tom, Reverend Halzberg, and Dr. Price arrived in Madison the afternoon prior, they began to ask around after Miss Wozniak. Few in the small town knew her name, but on further questioning did mention rumors of strange recent occurrences centered on one estate. The trio were able to gather enough information to be certain they were on the right track, and spent the night making their plans. The doctor brought his gun, the reverend a glass flask of grain alcohol, and Old Tom an early-model lighter and enough malice for the lot.
The door was unlocked as Joanna had last entered in haste. Quietly and slowly, the three crept in to find any sign of magic. After what they'd found at Manfred's house, they expected the usual sort of things, stacks of demonic books and runes carved into wood and circles painted onto floors. They heard someone moving around upstairs and made their way to the study. Once there, they set about digging through for anything that looked arcane and, turning up nothing, began to bicker about whether this was even the right house. Meanwhile, we flew around the property until we found a branch to see through the right window.
"You already remember this," my companion said. "From every perspective there."
"You're just as connected to this as I am."
"Yes. But I don't need to watch. Why do you?"
"I have to know," I answered. "I have to know it from my own perspective." She began to preen, occasionally glancing up to watch.
"I'm sorry, I don't believe I heard you knock," Joanna interrupted, standing in the doorway with a folded sheet. The men stopped and turned.
"Now, Miss Wozni-" Reverend Halzberg began.
"Mrs. Matteson, actually." Joanna stood just a little more upright as she glared at the reverend. "Shall I fix you gentlemen a pot of tea before you go?"
"I'll recognize no union between you and some red devil!"
"I suppose it best I never asked that of you, then." She cocked her head slightly, peering at his hand. "Is that a flask, Reverend? I do hope you've not soiled your gut on my account."
"S'not fer drinkin, you harlot!" Old Tom shouted.
"I'm afraid you're being very rude. Please, what brings you all here?" Dr. Price held his hand out toward Old Tom as if to stop him and stepped forward.
"You must know, young lady, that your...consort appears to be at the center of some very troubling events in Allegheny," he offered.
"As do you three. The difference being that we left Allegheny."
"The problems, you see, did not."
"Perhaps you should look for a more local cause, then." Old Tom pushed past the doctor and pointed violently at her.
"It's that boy you brung round! He hexed the damn river, s'what he done!"
"I assure you, he's done no such thing."
"Then why's it--"
"Dying," Aaboukingon said as he walked around from the stairs. "The river is nearly dying, elder. But have no fear, it will recover. I'm not the only soul it has."
"You should be resting, dear," Joanna said, rushing over to him. He waved the concern off and turned his attention to Price, who had raised his gun toward him.
"Have you come with such violent intentions, doctor?" Joanna, seeing the gun, gasped and stepped back.
"I mean to save my city. I don't intend to do anything unnecessary," Price answered.
"This entire journey is unnecessary. The river will survive, and so will you, if you respect them."
'What do you mean, calling yourself a soul of the river?"
"Exactly that. I am one of the spirits that call the water home; we push the floods out, we sing a song only the fish know, we have watched tribes come and go." He began to step forward, with a gaze so steady that all but Price stepped back away from him as he advanced. "I saw your fort rise and your city grow, your boats and your trains and your bridges, what are they to me? Trinkets, passing like everything else. The river is stronger than you know, gentlemen, and though we pass through dark times now, we will outlast every building you could ever hope to raise on our shores." Price fired a shot, the bullet passing through Aaboukingon's head unhindered, leaving momentary ripples on his face. Joanna screamed as the round shattered an ornamental vase in the room across the hall.
"Devilry!" Old Tom shouted. Price stumbled backward, cocking his revolver for another shot. Halzberg scowled and began praying, clutching his flask tight.
"You should go," Aaboukingon growled. Joanna noticed a bit of blood dripping from his slightly shaking arm.
"I'll take no orders from demons!" Halzberg shouted, throwing the flask at a nearby bookcase. The glass shattered and the alcohol splashed across the books and onto Halzberg's sling. Price raised his gun again, and Joanna dove forward to shove Aaboukingon aside. She made contact just as Price pulled the trigger, the bullet ripping through her chest. Aaboukingon hurried to her side, frantically checking the wound. She stared at him, eyes wide in shock and trying to catch her breath. He was trying to encourage her, begging her to hold on, promising to find a doctor or someone, anyone, some way to help. She reached up, slowly, and wiped a tear from his cheek.
Price leveled the gun at him, firing again, and hit Aaboukingon's shoulder. There was no ripple this time, just lead tearing into flesh and blood, causing Aaboukingon to fall forward onto Joanna. She let out a soft whimper, and he met her gaze, then scowled. He turned and stood, his whole body trembling, staring at Price with a gaze that pierced to the bone like the cold of the river under ice. Price frantically tried to cock his gun again, but before he could, Aaboukingon's hand shot up and Price choked as he rose off the ground untouched. Aaboukingon yelled as he slowly closed his fist, Price shriveling and gasping for air as water began to seep out of his skin. Blood began dripping from Aaboukingon's eyes as the other two men tried to inch away from Price, crying out for Aaboukingon to stop. Price let out one last breath as his skin began to crack and tighten like leather. Aaboukingon fell to the ground, coughing up blood. Price, now a dried husk, fell with a dull wet thud into a puddle of the water from his own body.
Old Tom ran over with his lighter, striking it until he had flame and setting it to the books hit by the flask. As he turned to run out, he bumped into Halzberg, whose sling quickly caught flame from the lighter. The Reverend began to shout and stumble backward, and Old Tom took that as his queue to run. Aaboukingon pulled himself up to one knee. As Old Tom went to pass Aaboukingon, the younger man grabbed him by his ribs with one hand and threw him back into the room. He slammed into Halzberg and both collapsed into a heap. By now, Joanna was taking sharp, shallow breaths, and watching Aaboukingon as her eyes began to glaze over. He grunted as he forced himself to his feet, then lifted Joanna and carried her out of the house as the fire spread behind them.
We flew around the house again, using the smoke to mask our movements as other animals left the area. Not that they were watching us, anyway. I watched as Aaboukingon tripped and stumbled, shaking his head to maintain focus and looking around as though lost.
"He isn't doing it," the other warned as we passed overhead.
"I know! But he has to, how else-"
"Do you remember what she saw?"
"Nothing! She has no memory of this, and his mind is..." I landed and tried to think. She landed next to me and nudged me.
"Hey. Hey! They don't remember. We know what needs to happen." I took a deep breath and watched as Aaboukingon fell to one knee and began struggling to stand.
"You're right." We flew down and landed in front of him, and he staggered for a moment as he stared at us.
"You...you're the Two!" He said, his eyes growing wide.
"Why are you-"
"No time. Just follow us." With that, we took flight again, and began leading him on. He struggled, but kept pushing forward. Sometimes we had to circle back, make sure he didn't lose us, but we knew the journey wasn't far. Joanna looked like she was already dead, but we could all feel her barely hanging on. We landed on the far bank of the creek, and watched as he dropped to his knees and lowered her in. Running his hand over her, he called the water to follow. The water flowed up and over her chest, washing over the wound and glowing. Finally, her breathing returned to normal, and as she sat up she saw him briefly smile before passing out on the bank next to her. By that point, we were back in the trees, out of her sight.
"What now?" I pointed toward the car that pulled up to the edge of the property.
"The trio arranged an escape," I answered, "But they aren't the ones who'll use it."
27 December 1905
PORTIONS OF THE DAMAGED DIARY OF JOANNA WOZNIAK, AS RECOVERED BY THE POLICE DEPARTMENT OF ERIE, PA, ON THE EVENING OF MAY 28, 1974.
On Christmas, I introduced Abe to the traditions my family brought over from the old country. We had a wonderful day and made merry into the afternoon, whereupon Abe collapsed rather suddenly. I was barely able to rouse him, and found he had developed a terrible rash. I summoned a doctor, but he could find no cause. I knew then that the matter was beyond his ken, thanked him for his attempt, and allowed him to leave in certainty he had done all he could.
I tended to him as best I could over the night, and with the help of a carriage driver brought him to the Monongahela in the morning. He was able to muster some strength on reaching the water, but not as much as I had expected. The river spirits came, and informed us that Abe was growing too attached to mortal life, and it was only a matter of time before he was fully severed from the water, and warned that his river must be dying without him. They refused to help, claiming that he was too far gone now, and only his own river would have him. We returned home and I helped him back into bed, and saw that the rash had grown. He insists that he will survive this, given time, and that he wished to stay with me. I was able to convince him to agree to return to the river if this seemed like it would kill him.
I do not know if God still hears me, but I prayed over him all night. It is now just after dawn, and I must rest. He is comfortable, and there is little more I can do for him in my current state.
As one drives north up Rte 18, from Hermitage to Greenville, there is an easily-overlooked side road nestled in the trees. Up this road, past the houses, is a small dirt path leading off to the left, entering a cemetery. The yard has fallen out of use–no grave is marked later than the 1950s–but is kept clean and free from the influence of the forest behind it. Every aspect of the site points to its history as a churchyard, but no sign of the actual church can be found. Just a dark, ancient, and ominous forest, which local lore claims will drive one mad if explored. On autumn nights, when the desire for such things grows, the most adventurous and foolhardy of the local teen population will sometimes risk a visit. Their stories grow more elaborate with each telling, but I have watched as they stood at the edge of the trees, and stared into the void beyond that threshold, and rare has been the child who could step any further. They all know what lies in those trees.
On this site, in 1837, a church was erected to serve the farmers of the area. For over a century, its small congregation kept it going, a beacon of hope when their sons died at war or the crops were thin or the Depression was at its peak. But apocalyptic fervor was hard to avoid after the end of the second great war, and this small body quaked in anticipation that the world would soon end in righteous fire and the Lord would descend to judge the Nazis and Commies and all the twisted children of this world. In the afterglow of the greatest destruction mankind had ever unleashed, a new pastor arrived at the church. His face was kind, his soul heavy with the memories of war, his mind keen, and his heart set on rejoicing even in the face of certain doom.
He took his post in 1946, and began to usher in a new age of joy and growth for the church. This church, however, took much pleasure in the urge to see the world burn. Left unchecked, dark desires beget dark practices, and the church slowly began to succumb to a desire for power, and glory, and a final separation from the world around them.
Gods can be difficult to understand, and feel no need to make themselves subject to the agendas of man. But demons always keep their appointments, and their word, especially when one would rather they do not.
And so it was that, as this body petitioned higher powers, they really did begin to receive answers. The price at first seemed normal to them, but as the years continued, a higher toll was demanded. The church did not think much of its drift from orthodoxy. The few who noticed simply left the fold, and the rest focused such on the path that they did not even see them go. The church began to acquire a reputation, and after a decade, was known to locals only as The Devil’s Church. A cult, fully submitted to their new lords, had grown in the place of the congregation, and stories circulated about orgies and human sacrifice.
As the whole body gathered for an unspoken rite on August 1, 1958, the ground shook and the neighbors ran in fear. A great dark cloud covered the entire property, and a great voice echoed through the landscape in a language no living ear had ever heard. When the sun shone again, and the people dared to investigate, they found only a forest where the church had been. They said the earth had swallowed the building, and its inhabitants, whole. And from that day on, the land has been cursed.
26 December 1905
EXCERPT FROM THE DAILY RECORDS OF DR. HAROLD PRICE, OF ALLEGHENY CITY, PENNA.
The Reverend brought Old Tom to the clinic after lunch. They agreed to wait as I tended to the youngest Parnitski boy, and we spoke in my office. It seems that he had a regular meeting with some local clergy, and a colleague asked after young Miss Wozniak. It had come to this man's attention that she was married by a judge late last week to a man with a foreign name, and he, having remembered her as someone Rev Halzberg had mentioned as a member of his flock, was wondering why he was not tasked with such a ceremony. The Rev was able to dismiss the other's concerns and gather some information on the whereabouts of the pair. Old Tom made his urgency clear, citing the river running red over Christmas. I agreed to help, if we were certain this would set things right in our city. Both insisted it would. I have cleared my schedule for tomorrow, we shall depart at dawn.