8 July 1936
The stolen car kicked up dirt as it drew to a stop on the edge of a stretch of road across the Ohio River from Midland, PA. It was getting dark, so Jeremiah glanced around for headlights before opening the back seat and pulling out a body wrapped in bed sheets. He made his way to the edge of the water, and carefully set Joanna down just barely beyond the reach of the water.
"Aaboukingon!" he shouted at the river. "Show yourself!" The water in front of him bubbled and churned, and soon the water parted and Aaboukingon emerged, in his human form.
"You're my son," he said, smiling as he extended his arms, "the messenger told me."
"It's a bit late for all that," Jeremiah replied, turning away. "Where have you been?" Aaboukingon stopped and sighed.
"It took me many years to recover from my time away from the river, and once I had, I was in no condition to leave again and look for you both. Even now, I can only manage to go a few feet inland before I grow dangerously weak."
"Good thing you don't have to go so far." With that, Jeremiah, pointed down to the body, and as realization dawned on Aaboukingon he nearly collapsed onto her. He pulled the blankets away, revealing her face, and laid his forehead on hers as he cried.
"Could you not help her? Oh, if I had found you, taught you-"
"I did help her. This world is no place for someone who lives with her heart among the spirits." Aaboukingon's gaze snapped to Jeremiah.
"What did you do?" he demanded, rising to his feet with his fists clenched.
"I don't want to hear it from you. She spent a lifetime suffering because of her devotion to you, and of the two of us I'm the only one who bothered to do anything about it!" Aaboukingon raised his hand and Jeremiah stiffened, gasping for breath.
"You killed her! I could have given her a better life, you could have given her a better life, but instead you killed her!" Jeremiah's eyes began to glow, and then he forced himself free of Aaboukingon's power and, with his own power, threw the river spirit at the water. Aaboukingon slid across the surface before coming to a stop and standing.
"You're still weak. No one calls the river by your name anymore. Soon no one will remember you. Then what will you be? Just another forgotten underling to the mighty Ohio? How does it feel to be an inferior water spirit to someone born of flesh?"
"You're no water spirit. You are hate, and rage, and death. I will ensure you never find any welcome in the River Network as long as you stay on this path!"
"There are better spirits than you to judge me, Aaboukingon." Jeremiah turned and walked back to the car before driving away. Aaboukingon returned to Joanna's body, lifted her into his arms, and together they disappeared beneath the river.
PORTIONs OF THE DAMAGED DIARY OF JOANNA WOZNIAK, AS RECOVERED BY THE POLICE DEPARTMENT OF ERIE, PA, ON THE EVENING OF MAY 28, 1974.
3 January 1906
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
"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," 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
"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.
28 December 1905
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.
"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.
"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."
Back In The Day
Born Of Water
Brood Of Nachash
Dr Francesca Harris
Dr Harold Price
East Of Eden
Father Benedict De Monte
Father Josef Klappenger
Huginn And Muninn
King And Queen
Land Of Goshen
Power In The Blood
Rev Liam Halzberg
Road To Perdition
Shadow Of Death
Skin And Bones
The Devil's Church
Valley Of Dry Bones