15 May 2005
Jackie Veracruz arrived at the Crossroads, led by Hecate's hound, as Hecate sat on an ornate throne made of the still-moving limbs and occasional head of the undead. The Queen of Magic waited silently, sipping from a goblet of wine and looking out over her realm. As the hound made its way to sit beside the throne, Jackie hesitated.
"Welcome back, Jacqueline." Jackie took a deep breath and looked up at the goddess, who was now so large that the mortal had to keep a bit of distance just to see up and over her knees.
"Thank you, mistress. I was growing concerned."
"As you should. You're fortunate I called you back here at all, after you hid from me in the arms of that Anchor."
"Don't bother, child. I gave you power, and knowledge. I invested in you for years, turning your feeble attempts at magic into a force that has changed lives. I watched you grow from a scared child to a formidable young woman. I warned you about the greatest danger to magic that exists in this world when it was right in front of you, and you repaid it all by using him to hide from me. There is nothing you can say that will make that action acceptable to me." She glared down at Jackie, who was now trembling and looking down at the ground in front of the throne. "But, there is something you can do that I will accept as payment." Jackie slowly looked back up to meet her gaze.
"What is it?"
"You will bring him to me."
"You...you mean John? The Anchor?"
"I told you that Anchors and Warlocks are mine. He is a liminal being, and as such under my purview. I have use for him."
"Right, yes. But, how?"
"You must go to him. Nudge him, guide him. Make sure that he finds his way to me."
"What if he doesn't want to?"
"He is mine, child, just like you. I will use him while he is useful and discard him if he is not, do you understand?"
"I...but that-" Hecate snapped her fingers, and Jackie froze. Her eyes glazed over and she stood, upright, staring blankly forward.
"I have waited too long for someone as useful as him to come along, and don't have time for your hesitations." Hecate held out her hand, palm up, and as she curled her fingers in Jackie began to float up and toward her face. When she was finally hovering at eye level, only a few feet from Hecate's face, the goddess smiled. "Now then. You will go to live near John. You will watch him, you will guide him to me, and you will do it all without delay. Do you understand?" Jackie slowly nodded. "Good. And to make sure you behave, you will not remember anything from this visit except that you have been welcomed back. Is that agreeable to you?"
"Good. Now go. You have much to do." Hecate flicked her hand, and Jackie went flying. She landed softly, as if the road were made of cushions, and then slowly stood and continued to stare in her daze. The hound moved forward and led her slowly back down the path from which she came.
"You're very interested in this boy, Hecate." She growled.
"And you're very interested in trespassing on my realm, Muninn." The Two, in human form and as tall as Hecate, stepped out from the shadows behind her throne and made their way around to face her. Muninn, the man, smiled.
"All realms are our realms. All roads are our roads."
"What do you want?"
"She is of interest to us," the woman said, glancing down the road. "And I wonder if you aren't a bit harsh on her."
"I should wish I could be as harsh with you, Huginn. What business do you have with her?"
"That is our business. But I would advise you to not let your distrust of ravens make you forget your place."
"I assure you I have never forgotten my place. But it has changed before, and it may yet change again."
"Yes," Muninn said, turning away. "I'm sure it will." With that, the two visitors became ravens and flew out of the Crossroads. Hecate threw her goblet in their direction, then leaned back in her throne to think.
11 December 2004
The murder-suicide of Rufus and Elaine Matteson drew the attention of the local news, not least because the circumstances seemed highly unusual. The damage to the apartment and the way Rufus was damaged was enough to prove that forces other than the knife in her hand were involved, and no one could quite place what they were. A local paranormal blog had begun offering suggestions, but police were disinterested in those suspicions.
In their attempts to get the best coverage of the event, the local news had turned to interviewing anyone who might have had insight into Rufus, Elaine, or the event itself. One neighbor was of particular interest for having claimed to hear terrible noises coming from the apartment, noises that seemed entirely unnatural. He was an elderly man, a widower of twenty years, who had not drawn the attention of anyone since his daughter went missing in 1961. He explained to the news crew, as well as the police, that it sounded like a tornado had ripped through the Matteson apartment, along with screams no earthly voice could muster. There was, of course, significant doubt about his story. It made for good television, but the police could hardly do anything with ethereal screaming.
One thing that did catch the attention of the people walking past one little electronics store uptown, however, is that when he came on screen and his name was given, they heard a similar scream which shattered the windows of the shop. Without any discussion among them, each witness quietly chose to forget the incident and get home quickly. From a nearby rooftop, two ravens observed the shop and then one's gaze followed down the street, tracking something no mortal eyes present could see. The other looked to a massive black dog, hiding in an alley and watching.
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
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."