30 June 1989
Mortimer was awakened from a dream to the sound of an explosion.
For a few minutes he sat, convincing himself that it was just part of the dream. An odd part of the dream, for sure, but then dreams were generally odd. He rubbed his face and made his way to the sink to pour a glass of water. As he drank, he glanced out the window, and saw the fire burning the cursed isle. He nearly spit out the water when he saw it, and ran back to his room to grab some pants before making his way outside. When he reached the edge of the water behind his home, he found a young man climbing onto shore. The boy rolled over onto his back, his feet still in the water, and took shallow breaths as Mortimer ran to him.
The boy was badly burned, his clothes in shreds, a strangely colored splotch covering most of the left side of his face. He had leeches on his exposed and unburned bits of skin. The burns were extensive, and occasionally shared real estate with cuts or bordered bruises. Mortimer was no doctor, but he suspected if he didn't find one soon the boy would die.
"Hey, hey, stay with me," he urged, prodding the boy. "Come on now, I can get you seen. Can you talk? Who are you, what happened over there?" The boy's eyes slowly opened, and Mortimer recoiled. They were slit, like a serpent's eyes, and fixed on him immediately. Before Mortimer could get far, the boy's hand snatched him by the jaw. Mortimer took a deep breath and turned pale, his veins beginning to show as his body shuddered. The boy's cuts closed and his burns began to grow new skin. He sat up as Mortimer shriveled, finally letting go when the man turned to dust. As he stood, the leeches dried out and fell off. He stared toward the flames, the pupils of his eyes opening wide and the last of his burns healing over. Only the splotch on his face remained.
"I am the salamander, born of fire this night. I am blessed by Nachash as the beginning of a new order. I am the Barzai, and it is my solemn duty to bring this fire to consume the very heavens."
8 February 1502
The first thing you must know is that demons cannot, as a general rule, actually purchase human souls in any way that ultimately matters. Whatever happens in the Beyond, no one crosses over led by a demon who has any hold over them. It is enough, however, that humans believe they can purchase souls; as long as one is convinced they are irredeemably damned, the demons seem to get what they want in general.
The second thing you must know is that not all demons have any interest in playing this game, and those that do pride themselves on the difficulty of the 'purchase'. And one demon in particular is widely regarded by his ilk for refusing to pursue anyone but clergy and the most devout of laypeople. This demon, like all his peers, goes by many names. The people of this story knew him as Buné, Duke of Hell.
Buné had taken a certain interest in the Iberian peninsula for its interactions between Christians and Muslims, both in terms of growing wisdom and occasional warfare. During the Granada War, one man caught Buné's attention: a young warrior named Tadzio García. Tadzio was strong and beautiful, recently wed to a woman whose love he'd shared since their youth, unshakably devout in his faith, and skilled with a sword. He proved himself in battle in Granada, and returned to Toledo to enjoy the company of his lover and friends. He was exactly the sort of challenge Buné sought to claim, and he began to bide his time waiting for opportunity to arise. He would not have to wait long.
Tadzio's wife, Ysabel, fell deathly ill. He couldn't bear the prospect of his life without her, and sought help from every avenue he could find. The best doctors in the kingdom could do nothing, and no priest could cast out any evil from her body. When there was nowhere left to turn and she was nearing death, Tadzio locked himself in her chambers to wait out her final days by her side. He took no food with him, and those who loved the couple took vigil the night of his departure and prayed for their souls. It was known that neither intended to leave those chambers alive.
It was here that Buné finally approached him.
The offer was simple. Tadzio could live the rest of his earthly life with his love, alive and fully recovered, if his eternity was handed over to the demon. Tadzio refused, for even in his weakened state his faith remained. Buné left him, only to return six hours later to make the same offer. Tadzio again refused. And so it went, every six hours, for six days, Buné would appear and make his offer, and Tadzio would send him away empty-handed. But Tadzio was growing desperate, and Ysabel was gasping her final breaths when Buné again stood by her bedside and rested his hand on Tadzio's shoulder. Tearfully and reluctantly, Tadzio accepted the offer.
It was three more days before the pair emerged from her chambers, and they were greeted with celebration. Those who loved them received them as though risen from the dead, and a great feast was thrown in their honor. Buné attended, and though he was disguised to all others, Tadzio saw his true face and was reminded of the price he had paid.
Selling oneself to a demon comes with certain expectations of service, and Buné had use for a sword. For a year and a day, Tadzio's sword was used for demonic purposes, and it was growing more and more difficult to hide the truth of his new lifestyle from those around him. Burdened by guilt and dangerously close to being revealed as an agent of darkness, Tadzio finally stole away to a completed portion of the Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes. There, he cried out to God, seeking forgiveness for his sin and escape from his service to Hell. He repented of the holy blood his blade had consumed.
He remained there all night, weeping before the crucifix, before he finally felt absolution wash over him with the morning sun. He rose and found his sword dripping blood, rejecting the work for which it had been used. When he turned to leave, he found himself facing Buné. The demon's feet smoked from the consecrated ground, and its arms were wrapped around Ysabel. Enraged, Buné declared that if Tadzio would break his deal, then he must lose what he had purchased with his soul. With that, the demon slit her throat and dropped her at its feet. Tadzio rushed forward to hold her, weeping and trying to offer some comfort.
"I swear to you," Buné whispered into his ear, "as long as I walk this Earth, you will never join her." With that, the demon vanished. Tadzio was found with a bloody sword and his murdered wife, and along with the growing suspicion surrounding his activities, he was forced to flee the kingdom in disgrace. As he watched the coast of Aragon vanish in the distance from a boat he'd hired in disguise, he swore that he would some day find the means to destroy Buné.
3 January 1906
From Joanna's bed, she could look out the window and see the river as it returned to normal over the last few days. She was still on bed rest, recovering from the hypothermia she had when the driver brought her to the doctor's home. The driver had told the doctor that he saw her walking along the shore when she slipped and fell into the river. She had decided it best to let them accept that story.
Across the river, news had reached Allegheny that Dr. Price, Rev. Halzberg, and Old Tom had been lost in Madison and three bodies that seemed to be theirs had been found, badly burned, in what remained of the Matteson estate. The city was in uproar, many blaming the Wozniaks for the deaths and others trying to defend the family. Either way, there was rumor that the Wozniaks were looking to leave Allegheny out of fear, and other whispers that Pittsburgh was filing paperwork to absorb the city while the populace was too fractured to stop it.
It was too early for the doctor to confirm Aaboukingon's words about Joanna, but she rested a hand on her belly and wondered what she would do all the same. As she watched the water, she noticed her ring on the nightstand beneath the window. It looked odd today, almost as if it was growing dull. Hesitantly, she reached out and touched it, only to watch it collapse into a small pile of sand. She choked back a tear, then turned to ring the bell beside her bed.
"Please," she asked, when the doctor's wife opened the door, "could you find me a small container? I should like to collect that." She indicated the sand, and the other woman looked at it puzzled for a moment before slowly nodding and leaving the room. She returned with a small glass vial, which had previously held some medicine or another but had since been cleaned out, and Joanna carefully gathered the sand into it. After making a crude label for it, she marked it "Abe" and strung it onto a necklace. She would need to have it available if she expected Aaboukingon to turn it back into her wedding ring.
12 April 1929
As the evening crickets began their songs, the water of the Ohio River stirred. The water began to rise, and slowly form into a more human shape. As it stepped toward the shore, the look of it changed until a Native American man stood on dry land. He looked around, then knelt and scooped up a handful of sand. He smelled it, then turned back to another mound of water rising from the river.
"How long has it been?" he asked.
"You've been gone twenty three years, Aaboukingon," a voice from the trees answered. He turned and looked, finally spotting two ravens sitting on a branch. One of them had a faint blue glow to it.
"No, no, that-that doesn't make sense! I was only gone a moment!"
"For you. Humans do not operate on our timeframes." Aaboukingon dropped down, sitting on the ground and looking out toward the water for a long moment. Finally, he turned back to the trees, his eyes beginning to water.
"You. You saved her. Is she still alive?"
"Yes," the black raven said.
"Where is she?" The two ravens looked at each other, and then the blue one sighed. They flew down to the ground, changing into human forms just before touching down. One was a man, dressed in a hooded robe that cast a shadow across his entire face except his mouth and chin. The other was a woman, floating above the ground, composed entirely out of flowing blue energy.
"I'm sorry," she said, floating over to Aaboukingon. "You're too late. She's been forced to leave the river." Aaboukingon stood and wiped at his face as he began to pace.
"No, no. I came back. I told her I'd come back!"
"She couldn't stay."
"Does she know? Will she know I came back?" he asked, stopping in front of the woman.
"Not yet," the robed man answered.
"Will you tell her?"
"She will know." Aaboukingon covered his face with his hands. The woman came beside him and wrapped her arms around him, letting him cry. Finally, he stepped back, and turned to the robed man.
"Will she return?"
"After a fashion."
"Can I wait for her?"
"Not here. Your river still needs you. But ask the others, and they will tell you what they see." Aaboukingon wiped his face again and stood for a moment, before nodding.
"Of course. I will do as you say." The robed man nodded, and then Aaboukingon turned and walked back into the water, vanishing beneath the surface. After he was gone, the woman floated back to the robed man.
"When does she return?" she asked.
"Too soon," he said, turning and walking away from the shore.
28 December 1905
Joanna was wrapped in the few blankets the driver had on hand, trying to fight off the cold from kneeling in an ice-locked river. Aaboukingon, on the other hand, actually seemed to be doing somewhat better. Color had returned to his face and his bleeding had slowed, and Joanna refused to put anything on him that would pull away the water from the river. He finally opened his eyes as the car came to a stop near the bank of the Ohio River, then called the Allegheny by some, on the shore opposite the city where the pair had met.
"Joanna," he whispered, slowly reaching a shaking hand to her cheek.
"Abe, oh, are you recovering? Did the river save you after all?" He shook his head slightly, and she brushed the hair away from his face. "Then rest, please. We're here." The driver opened the door and helped Joanna out before lifting Aaboukingon and carrying him to the river's edge. Again, Joanna broke the ice, and slid his legs into the water. The driver went back to his car and waited. The ice in the river began to rise, and a single spirit formed from it.
"Aaboukingon," it said, slowly moving toward him.
"Can you help him?"
"I must ask the others." A column of water formed from the side of the spirit and stretched out, wrapping around the back of Aaboukingon's head and lifting him into a seated position. It wiped across his face, and he took a deep breath as his eyes flew open. "This will buy you time. But only very little." With that, the spirit vanished into the ice again, and Joanna fell to her knees beside Aaboukingon, who leaned on her chest. She wrapped her arms around him and buried her face in his hair.
"Joanna," he said, his voice still soft and weak.
"Yes, my love?" she asked, pulling back to look at him.
"You must know. I can only recover now by returning."
"Returning...to the river?" He gave a weak nod. "I feared as much."
"I must be a spirit again. But if I go, know that I will return. Once I am well, I will come back for you."
"Anywhere on the river will do. I will go where you are." He slowly reached up and wiped a tear from her cheek.
"Must you leave me here alone?"
"You will not be alone. Not for long," he said, lowering his hand and touching her abdomen. "I felt it when I was healing you." She began to buckle, falling forward into his arms.
"Don't make me do this without you." The ice rose again as the spirit returned.
"He may return," it said. "We will see to his recovery." Joanna kissed Aaboukingon before pulling away from him and standing to face the spirit. She wiped her eyes and stared at it.
"You send him back to me when he's well."
"This is not my decision. The gods must allow his return."
"You tell any god that dares take my husband from me that it can come deal with me itself." Aaboukingon chuckled and then groaned, grabbing his gut and leaning forward. Before Joanna could react, the spirit was on him, water covering his form as he began to drift toward the center of the river.
"I will be back for you," he said reaching out his hand toward her before vanishing beneath the ice. Joanna stood, watching the river for a few moments, before she began to shiver. As she tried to take a step back, she stumbled and collapsed. The driver jumped out of his car and ran to her, scooping her limp form in his arms as he turned and made his way back.
28 December 1905
"Help us!" Joanna cried, seeing the car waiting. The driver turned to see her emerging from the woods, dragging a man who was softly muttering to himself. Beyond them, the smoke from the house was just visible through the trees, with the glow of the fire casting long shadows.
"Holy shit lady, what's going on?!"
"We need help!"
"Look, I'm not really--"
"Why are you here?"
"I was hired! Asked to pick up three men, a reverend and--"
"They burned down my home and have nearly killed my husband, and if you don't let us in this car not only will he die but I will make every remaining second of your life a waking hell, do you hear me?" The driver looked from her to the distant fire a few times before putting his hat on and jumping out to open the door and help her get Aaboukingon inside.
"There's a doctor in town," he offered, climbing back into his seat and throwing it into gear.
"I fear it's too late for that. Take us to the river."
"The river? What are you on about, lady?"
"Drive!" He grunted and stomped the gas.
The car wound its way to the Youghiogheny River, a tributary of the Monongahela and the closest river the driver could think of. Joanna spent the route trying to comfort Aaboukingon as he stared off into space and shivered. When they arrived, the driver helped carry him to the water and then stepped back. Joanna broke the ice and made sure Aaboukingon was mostly in the water, then knelt beside him. The driver removed his hat and began wringing it between his hands as he watched. Joanna sat for a moment, waiting for a response that didn't seem interested in coming.
"This is Aaboukingon!" She finally yelled at the river. "He is one of yours! Come to his aid!" There was a moment of silence before the ice in the middle of the river began to crack and bulge. As two mounds of water began to rise through, the driver screamed and ran back to his car. Once in, he laid down and peeked his eyes over the edge of the door, watching. Joanna remained unmoved.
"What is the meaning of this?" the spirits asked in unison.
"This is Aaboukingon, of--"
"We know who this is. He is no longer our concern."
"But he's like you! He's a river spirit!"
"He has abandoned his river and chosen mortality. So mortality he shall have."
"Please, no, there has to be something you can do!"
"Only his own waters could accept him now. If you must beg of the waters, let his own determine his fate." With that, the spirits returned to the river. Joanna stood and yelled at the river for a few moments, before kicking the water and then dropping back to Aaboukingon's side and crying. Slowly, the driver emerged from his car and made his way to the riverbank, holding his hat.
"Pardon me, ma'am, but what--what was that?" Joanna sniffled hard and stood, smoothing out her soaked dress. She continued to look out into the water.
"Drive us to the Allegheny River. Near the town of the same, preferably."
"Oh, but ma'am, I--"
"I'll need your help getting my husband into the car, and then we shall be on our way quickly. There is no time to lose. If we go to Allegheny City I'll see to it you are properly compensated."
"That's rather outside of--"
"I'm sorry, sir," she said sternly, turning to face him. "Did I ask a question?"
"I--no, ma'am, you did not."
"I fear I will lose my husband today, either to death or to his own kind. If I must make that choice, then I cannot advise you to interfere with it."
"Of course, ma'am," the driver said, putting on his hat and kneeling to lift Aaboukingon.