The Mediterranean sun lazed across the sky, shimmering off the crests of the water and shining off white cliffs, filling the air with light. The only shade in sight rested under a small collection of broad umbrellas standing guard over small tables on a wooden balcony overlooking the sea. Most of the tables were empty, the tourists having left for now, leaving two women at one table alone with their discussion. One of them was tall and dark, with sharp features and sharper eyes that made the waiter feel like prey when they paused on him for a moment too long. The other was shorter, with a lighter complexion hidden under a wide hat and large sunglasses that hid everything but her perfectly sculpted body and invitingly warm lips. Both of them wore light, airy fabrics, in light shades; though the taller woman was showing less of her legs than the other. The waiter brought them their drinks, trying not to look directly at either of them for different reasons, then slipped back inside.
“He seems nice,” the shorter woman said, slowly running her finger down the side of the goblet and down its stem. “Do you want this one?”
“I have more important work than that this afternoon, Babylon.” Babylon huffed and delicately lifted her goblet to take a sip.
“You’re so much less fun since you stopped being a demon.”
“I didn’t want to be a demon in the first place. I was a goddess.”
“Yes, yes. Weren’t we all, in some way or another. The way my old priests and priestesses used to scream my name, I still get a rush just thinking about it. But you seemed fine with it while you were the Devil at the Crossroads.”
“Speaking of priests. How’s that son of yours doing?” Babylon sighed and set her drink down.
“He still follows his own path. Which is to be expected, I suppose, if he wasn’t such a little prick about it.”
“This is the problem you run into when you mate with mortals.”
“Don’t go acting like you’re little miss innocent yourself over there. I know all about you and your witches.”
“I don’t bear them little spawn to aggravate me decades later.”
“No, of course not. You like your pets to remain pets. I understand, there’s a certain appeal to it. Of course you know I’ve had my share of toys. On that note!” She turned and lowered her sunglasses to peek over them at the other woman. “I hear you’ve been on the trail of a new Anchor.”
“Where do you hear these things?”
“I have my ways, dear,” Babylon said, waving her hand as she leaned back into her chair. “People like talking to me, especially if they think I’m not really listening. Is he fun? Jules was fun.”
“I thought you usually just broke stubborn and left it in a heap.”
“This one is different.”
“Oh, so he is fun?” The taller woman glared sideways at Babylon, who giggled.
“He isn’t of much interest to you, I’m sure. He made that very clear. But he’s powerful. And there’s something off about him. I can’t place it, but there’s some way he feels…connected, in a more visceral way, to our realm than the others have.”
“You think this is going to be the one? After all these centuries?”
“Yes. He has the power I need, and I already have a witch working on him. He’s getting close.”
“And if you can’t get him to subscribe to your plan?”
“Then I’ll have to make him desperate.” The taller woman grabbed her drink, finally, and finished it in one tilt.
“There she is.”
“Who?” Babylon smiled and picked her goblet back up.
“The demon I started having these drinks with.” The other woman chuckled. “Listen, Hecate. All this stress, it isn’t good for you. What if you finally get to be a Spirit of the People again, but lose sight of what you want out of it?”
“You think I’m working too hard. But you weren’t made second act to a bunch of upstart, petty little kings from another land.”
“I think you’ll find I’ve had many kings try to get one over on me.”
“Were you under them at the time?”
“Sometimes. But the point is, you need to make sure this is the goddess you want to be when you get what you want. Because once those people lock you into whatever you’ve been showing them…”
“I remember.” Babylon nodded, then waved toward the door. Soon the waiter slipped back out, picking up the empty glasses.
“Another for you ladies today?” he asked. Babylon looked to Hecate, who thought for a moment before giving a faint nod.
“That would be delightful, young man,” Babylon said, smiling, as she slid her finger across his arm. “As long as it’s you bringing it.” He smiled, then cleared his throat, nodded briskly, and ran back inside.
“Don’t break him before you get what you want from him,” Hecate said.
“Do you need help with your new pet?”
“I don’t think so. But I’ll remember you offered.” Babylon purred and turned to face the water.
“Good. I miss Jules. Another Anchor might be nice.”
28 April 2007
As you drive east, along one of the ways between Youngstown and New Castle, there is on one road a location where you pass out of Ohio about a hundred feet before you pass into Pennsylvania. No map shows a distinction here, and it only exists in this one location; but the signs that welcome you to each state are spaced accordingly, and no one owns or collects taxes on the small shop that sits directly between them. For years at a time, the shop looks abandoned. There are no signs on the front or on the broken post at the edge of the road, the grass grows through the gravel parking lot unhindered, the windows and door are boarded over and there are never any lights that shine on the property. What it used to be, if it can be certain to have ever been anything, is unclear. It has the general look of a convenience store, though admittedly one without gas, but the wood lattice creating a small hallway in front of the store resembles something generally found on a farm store or small grocer. The roof slopes slightly down toward the back, and the building seems longer than could really be accounted for without some additional purpose. It definitely seems designed to sell something, but no one who lives nearby could tell you what.
Not that they would think to. People drive past it all day, never glancing at it or making remark. The trucking company next door, squarely within Ohio state borders, never parks any vehicles on its lot or turns its lights to illuminate that side of their property in a way that would cross over the line to the shop's property. It is one of the only buildings nearby with no graffiti of any sort, certainly the only abandoned building to claim such an honor.
Rick was driving east down that very road, on the way back from a final errand before his weekend away with some friends at Alice's family cabin. He was on the phone with Matteson, confirming plans, when he realized how thirsty he was and how much farther he had to go. With a promise to see the others soon, he hung up the phone and began watching for somewhere to stop for a bottle or two of pop. As he drew near the Pennsylvania line, he noticed, for the first time, a shop on his left. It looked warm and inviting, the gravel parking lot well maintained and the windows covered in signs that advertised some unspecified sale. "Gob's Market," the sign above the latticework read. He pulled into the lot and got out, glancing to the "Welcome to Ohio" sign facing him from one direction and the "Pennsylvania Welcomes You" sign facing him from the other. With a chuckle, he walked toward the door, reminding himself to only buy what he needed for the drive since he and the others had already stocked for the weekend.
The inside of the store was brightly lit, but small. Across from the door was a short and lanky man, standing behind a metal office desk with a till on it that looked like it was newly made, but of a style that hadn't been in use for nearly a century. The desk looked second-hand, like it had been dropped at a donations shop after an office determined the spots of rust were unsafe for their space, but the till had fine gold filigree covering its edges. The man gave Rick a toothy smile and waved him in.
"Come, buy!" he said.
"Yes, thanks," Rick answered, looking at the man with concern. "I just need some-" he turned to where the merchandise would be and found only one cooler, a single glass door between him and the store's entire stock of four kinds of pop; all of which were common picks for Rick at stores that had more variety. "-uh, yeah. That." He turned and opened the door, grabbing out two bottles of Dr. Pepper, and walked over to set them on the desk. The man nodded as if they were sharing a secret, and began typing quickly on the till. The price popped up, and Rick pulled out his card before looking around at the desk. "I don't suppose you take credit here?"
"No credit. You buy," the man said, slapping the desk. Rick raised his eyebrows and took a deep breath as he shook his head slightly, then pulled a few dollars from his wallet. He handed them to the man, who looked over them for a moment, sniffed them, and then counted and huffed. He opened the drawer of the desk, and Rick noticed an assortment of gold coins and foreign-looking currency and a gemstone. The man threw the bills into the drawer and dug around for a bit, pulling out two quarters, giving them a bite as if checking them, and then handing them to Rick with a nod.
"Uh, okay. Thanks!" Rick said, picking up his drinks and leaving. He paused at the door and gave one last glance to the man, as if making sure he wouldn't follow, but the man seemed preoccupied with typing into his till again. Rick shook his head and left. After the sound of tires on gravel moved away from the building and was replaced by the roar of an engine entering traffic, the man absently reached up and pulled at an invisible string above his head. There was a click, and the shop went completely dark. Outside, it looked just as abandoned and unmarked as it ever had, the grass in the gravel lot swaying in the wind.
10 February 2006
Lori tried to go back to life as she remembered it, but it just wasn't there anymore. She couldn't really explain to her co-workers that it wasn't her who burned all those bridges between March and November. She couldn't bear to spend time with Bob now that he was so close to Charles, and Beth was willing to recognize that whatever caused the breakup was enough for her to need space from Matteson's friends but didn't understand how much space she really needed. The apartment felt like someone else's home, even after she got rid of the shrine and threw away anything new and scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed. Mark was gone, and the guilt she felt over that haunted her constantly. Medically, her body was still recovering from the miscarriage and the injuries she suffered from being thrown at Matteson and Jackie by an angry ghost whose memories still flooded her dreams and occasionally ripped her out of her waking life. Everything reminded her of something, everywhere she went in Sharon and Hermitage had some story with Matteson and Alethea involved. And now she had Alethea's reactions to things, little things she wouldn't have expected, like the cutting board and the bathtub and the Beatles. She didn't even always know why these things meant what they meant, just that they hurt in a deep, visceral way that would break down any attempt to continue her day.
Whether out of some desire to force life back to normal, or a refusal to feel like the ghost had won, or some feeling that maybe none of this was real, Lori couldn't really tell; but she was, for a month and a half, committed to trying to put life back together. It was in trying to prepare for Christmas that she realized how alone, and hurt, and miserable she really was, and that was when the temptations to harm began in earnest. She was laying on her living room floor and crying when her cousin in Louisville, Kentucky, called to invite her to Christmas dinner.
"Your mom tells me you've had a rough year," he said, "so I thought maybe you'd want to get away for a bit, and it's been a while since we've seen you. The kids really miss you." Lori was in her car with some essentials and the few clothes she could tolerate looking at, driving southwest, within the hour.
Alex was accommodating and his family was warm and welcoming. She didn't know if she could tell them what had happened, at least not the whole story, but they slowly drew enough out of her to know that she couldn't go back to Sharon until she was ready. They had a spare room that was basically given to her, Alex negotiated with her old landlord to settle the terms of breaking the lease early, and her mom stored everything Lori didn't want anymore to put into a yard sale come spring and shipped whatever remained to her in January. Vanessa, Alex's wife, got Lori hired on when a secretary at her office left to go back to college. There were some benefits with the position, and both Alex and Vanessa urged Lori to see someone about her apparent PTSD and asked more than a couple times if her ex was to blame and needed to have a conversation with the police. She insisted that it wasn't his fault, it just...coincided with having him in her life, but they always seemed more like they were dropping it out of respect for her wishes more than believing her. She promised that as soon as she had some money set aside for the co-pay of a half dozen sessions or so she would try to find a therapist.
It wasn't until Vanessa tried to comfort her in the middle of an episode and she let slip that there was a ghost possession involved in all of this did they take direct action. The next night, when Lori got home from work, Alex and Vanessa sat down and explained they were having someone over for dinner that night. Alex explained that he wasn't sure if he really believed in all this supernatural stuff, but he did have a friend who claimed to have been assaulted by a fae once and had been helped by this one doctor. She was legit, Vanessa confirmed they had looked into her credentials, and she seemed to have a certain involvement with people who claimed supernatural trauma. Lori didn't have to tell her anything she didn't want to, but they wanted her to at least meet the doctor and know that there were people out there who understood more of what she was facing than they did.
A half hour later, Dr. Francesca Harris was welcomed in from the porch and a roast duck was set on the table. Lori and Dr. Harris sat opposite each other, and the kids asked her all kinds of questions about what she did and how she knew their parents and if she'd ever seen aliens. She laughed and entertained their questions, and Lori slowly got comfortable with the idea that, whatever else was true of Harris, she would probably at least believe her.
Once the kids were in bed and the adults were left to their wine in the living room, Lori finally broke down and told the whole story. It was the first time anyone had heard all of it, and she didn't even mean to. Once she started, it just all poured out. Alex and Vanessa listened, concerned, and clearly unsure how to respond; but Dr. Harris just waited, patiently and calmly, absorbing the story. When Lori was done, Vanessa began to rub her back as she cried, and Dr. Harris slowly set her glass down on the side table.
"Why do you think this happened?" she asked. Lori was silent for a moment, then wiped her cheek.
"I didn't stop her. It was my body, I...I should have stopped her." Harris nodded slightly and leaned back into her seat.
"It feels natural to see it that way. Here, let me tell you a bit about the supernatural." She then explained that she was the leader of a group called Mystics Anonymous, which had been formed after she and a priest dealt with a cult trying to summon dangerous beings into the world and left a community of hurting people in its wake. She talked about how they focused on supernatural trauma, using the best available research and practices from mainstream psychology and applying them to what they knew of spirits and ghosts and other legendary dangers. She assured Lori that not only would they believe her, but there would be people there who would know some part of what she went through, would have the same fears and concerns about getting treatment, and would be able to help.
Before she left, Dr. Harris gave Lori information on when and where Mystics Anonymous met in Louisville, her own contact information, and an encouragement to take some time to process everything she had said that night and ask herself why she believed she should have been able to repel a ghost. She also reminded Alex and Vanessa that the most important thing they could do for Lori right now was to listen, and believe, and not push her any more than they already have. Lori thanked her, and with some prompting by Vanessa made a note in her calendar to attend the meeting scheduled for the following week.
5 July 1936
Even within the metaphysical realm itself, the true spiritual nature of water is somewhat elusive. For most spirits going about their days on land or sky, the waters look much the same in that world as they do in ours. It is those few spirits who can dive deeper, slip not into the water but past it, that ever manage to find the true realm of water hidden behind the waves. There are a few distinct realms in Water; rain and clouds do not directly commune with rivers who work with but keep their distance from seas and oceans. They all work in concert, they all understand the importance of the others, and communication travels freely between them, but they are distinct and would remain so forever given the choice.
The River Network is as vast a plane as any in the metaphysical realm, stretching well past the borders of the actual rivers in the physical realm and branching out through underground aquifers and the artificial rivers mankind shapes with canals and pipes. It is a hectic, bustling realm, or collection of realms with oceans filling the enormous spaces between them. Scattered throughout the River Network are smaller waters, each governed by territorial spirits who cannot cross from one territory to another. The nature of these waters is a matter of ongoing dispute; in Africa, there is still a battle raging over whether the Upper and Lower Nile are two distinct waters or should be governed by one of the primary spirits in residence. A few other lands have access to the River Network, usually the homes of spirits associated with water but not part of it. Iravati is one such land, straddling the banks of many rivers near the Indus Valley.
Aaboukingon was once the sovereign over a river that shared his name, when the people he knew spoke of their river with no regard for the names it had further up or down its banks. When the white man came they renamed it the Allegheny, then debated among themselves for years before deciding the Allegheny ended at Pittsburgh where the Ohio was born. Aaboukingon, being out of commission for significant portions of this process, woke to found himself a very powerful resident of someone else's river. It took some convincing for him to reclaim his waters, even if under the authority of Ohio, and still retain the freedom to move among Ohio's other waters. As soon as he could, however, he sent out messengers to scour the River Network for Joanna. By that time, the pressures of society against her occult leanings had paired with the uncertainty of the Great Depression to drive her away from Ohio's banks.
When word returned that she had been located in a small cottage in Arkansas, he immediately went to petition Mississippi for passage. But Mississippi did not know Aaboukingon as Ohio did, and anyway, what is one mortal to a spirit as grand and powerful as Mississippi? After a great deal of pleading and rebuttals, Aaboukingon accepted that he did not have time to continue this route and instead sent one of his messengers to find her and tell her to come home, that he was waiting for her, that he would give her everything he had ever promised and more just to see her again. When the messenger arrived, Joanna was not at the bank of the river, and it called out for bird or land or any other spirit who could hear it and bring Joanna to receive her summons. All day and most of that night it called out, and as dawn began to break, a young man stopped at the edge of the water and knelt down.
"Who are you calling for?" he asked the water, softly to avoid drawing the attention of other mortals.
"Joanna Matteson, bride of Aaboukingon! He has been searching for her, and now would welcome her home; and I have been sent to bring her home, but alas, I cannot leave these waters," the spirit replied. "But you are Riverborn! Do you know her? Can you find her?"
"I know her," the man said, "she is my mother, and Aaboukingon my father. I am on my way to her now, I--" he paused and looked away for a moment, then turned back to the water. "She is not well. I will see what I can do for her, but you go. Tell my father I will bring her home, one way or another." The river spirit poured out thanks, and as Jeremiah stood and turned his back to the river, the spirit rushed north to carry its new message.
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.
It was, at first, a slight surprise to the ravens to realize how rarely anyone seemed to notice them. Sure, they made no overt attempts to be seen, but they somewhat expected humans to look around more, take in their environments more, bother to care about what was happening around them. They should have known better, and they very quickly did, but that first time warranted some excitable discussion between them.
The one made some sense, at least. He looked normal, if a bit large; but his companion had a distinct blue tint to her, flowing strips of faintly glowing color just barely perceptible among the black feathers. If nothing else, the idea that people could glance right past a bird with an otherworldly, shifting glow, and never seem to notice was a testament to something buried deep in the minds of mankind.
They were always together, just out of sight. On the night when a single woman first uttered the name of Hekate and a goddess was born, the ravens were there to greet her. When Father Josef Klappenger went scurrying down the side of Hörselberg hill clutching an infant, they were in a tree that he leaned on to catch his breath and resist the urge to look back. When Jackie Veracruz and John Matteson first stood on the fire escape of an apartment in Chicago, the ravens rested on a roof directly ahead of the humans, among a flock resting on its way south. When Father Benedict de Monte walked silently away from the fire outside of Southport, North Carolina, thinking himself the only living soul to know how the blaze began, the ravens were turning their attention to another form moving through the water.
That is not to say they were never seen. The annals of human history record them, sometimes in a manner that would reflect on the species as a whole, sometimes as a singular or dual part of the supernatural world. They were not the archetypes of ravens; whatever ensured that ravens would exist seemed to take little notice of them. But they were the Ravens, the mold by which much of human thought on ravens would be fashioned. As mankind found less and less reason to know every living thing observing them, the ancient witnesses drifted further into the background. Eventually, they were lost to even the most observant eyes, becoming little more than ambiance. The ravens did not seem to mind. They continued to watch, selecting their entertainment with no apparent system or guide that any human would be able to detect. It would be a long time before anything changed much for them. But change was coming, and they had known it for some time.
It was part of the long night in Norway. The ravens were preening when a cleft opened in the side of a mountain and three figures stumbled out into the snow. Benedict and Daniel were on either side of Matteson, his arms over their shoulders and his left eye bleeding. The black raven turned away. The other leaned over to him.
“It’s nearly time,” she whispered. Voices carry in this place, she knew, and it was not suitable for the humans, or near-humans, to hear her now. “Are you ready for this?” There was a long pause.
“Yes.” Benedict, Daniel, and Matteson passed under the ravens and managed to find the car they had left waiting. Benedict was urgently explaining the dangers Matteson faced with his wound exposed to this weather. Daniel was trying to offer comfort. Matteson didn't seem to hear either of them.
“You don’t seem ready,” she said as the car started and then drove away.
“I…I’ll be fine. It’s just hard.”
“We aren't trapped in this flow yet. We can go somewhere else for a while if you need.”
“No. It’s nearly time. We move forward.”
“You mean I move forward.”
“I'm with you a little while longer, yet.” As the car vanished into the long night, she sighed.
“To the next moment, then.” The birds took to the air, and then vanished.
2 December 2002
Robert Partridge never seemed to get the impressive bucks. Sure, he’d get a deer each year, but it was rarely anything worth mounting. The meat was good, but this year he desperately wanted to get something he could show off to his friends without fear they’d have bagged a better one.
He lived on a state road outside of town and knew about a large wooded tract of land that rarely anyone drove by. He’d spent the summer and fall poking around, and was now very certain there were deer worth his attention hiding behind those trees. He also knew no one else was hunting there; the No Trespassing signs and rumors in town about an overly protective owner, as well as state game lands nearby, kept most hunters occupied enough. But when he looked into the owner to try and get permission to hunt there, he found it apparently unclaimed, the signs having been posted without the proper legal process to make them binding. It seemed he was probably in the clear to go there, but he knew it would be worth his time to check with the guys who seemed to know everything about the lands surrounding the town center.
So he spent part of last evening in the Four Winds Bar, waiting for Thompson. They weren’t close, but he knew Thompson well enough from nights at this bar to know he’d be by, and he’d have answers. It was three beers and two lost games of pool before Thompson arrived, and Robert was getting antsy.
“What is it, Bob?” Thompson asked, having barely taken a seat before the younger man was sidling up to him.
“I was wondering about that stretch off 949,” Robert said, taking a seat and waving for another Yuengling.
“You know, the one no one hunts.”
“For good reason, kid. What’re you thinkin?”
“I looked it up, and it ain’t owned. The signs ain’t legal or nothin.”
“By who? No one ever goes there, there’s no house nearby, everyone talks about some owner but no one seems to know who they are!” The bartender delivered their drinks and gave Thompson a look that asked about Robert. Thompson waved him off and finally looked at Robert.
“Look kid. Not everything is on some book somewhere, not everyone who got a claim likes to come into town. I’m tellin you, leave it be.” The two went back and forth for another twenty minutes, Robert wanting answers and Thompson having nothing more solid than what he’d already offered. Annoyed, Robert left to get some rest and prepare for the season to start the next morning. Thompson, the bartender, and three others watched him go, the streetlights catching in their eyes like a flashlight in the eyes of a cat.
Now Robert was in a tree, looking out over a rocky brook and a small clearing that looked like it hadn’t been touched since the Earth was new. It was surprisingly warm, as the brook lacked any ice and there were still some flowers in bloom. The dawn was just starting to threaten the horizon when he finally spotted a deer approaching the water. He pulled his gun up to line up the shot and confirm it had a suitable rack. With his attention focused on the deer, he had no chance to see the arrow coming that buried itself in his shoulder.
He screamed, dropped his gun, and fell out of the stand. He heard a loud crack and, checking, he was convinced his leg was broken. He took short, sharp breaths, trying to avoid making too much noise or passing out from the pain, as he tried to drag himself toward the water. Hooves came into his field of vision, and his gaze followed them up to see what owned them.
The body was certainly that of an elk, large and muscular, with patches of moss and mushrooms apparently growing in its fur. Where the neck should have been was a lean humanoid torso, dark like the forest. Its head, for Robert couldn’t tell a gender from anything he saw, had pointed ears, long hair woven with flowers and leaves, and massive antlers with spider webs and vines hanging between their points. It was holding a crude bow and glaring down at him.
“You come to kill,” it said, clearly but sounding more like a branch breaking than a voice.
“I-I’m sorry, please, I didn’t mean-”
“You didn’t mean to get caught. You have broken the ancient pact.”
“I didn’t know! What pact?! What-please, let me go, I’ll do anything, I swear, just-” he paused, trying to catch his breath.
“Yes. I believe you will.” The fae raised its hand, and shimmering light began to gather like sand in its palm from the nearby flowers.
“Is-is that...pixie dust?”
“You humans insist on naming everything, as if you have the right to define it.” The fae blew at the substance, which flew over and landed all over Robert’s body. He took a deep breath, waiting for it to heal him, but instead he began to feel pressure building around his legs. When he looked back at them, there were roots emerging from the ground and wrapping around him.
“What-no! What is this?!” The roots lifted him upright, causing him to scream as they applied pressure to his broken leg. The fae seemed to be looking beyond him, and as he regained focus with shallow breaths he managed to turn his head enough to see vines and sticks coming together into a tight bundle that started to move on its own and stand upright. He could feel the tightness moving up his body and, looking down, saw that everything from his waist down was buried in the bottom of a tree. He looked frantically between the fae and the slowly animating bundle of material as it gained moss and grass, giving it a more defined form.
He begged, as the wood covered more of his body and pinned his arms. The fae ignored him, walking over and touching the bundle. It was a changeling, he began to remember from old stories, as it took its first breath and molded into a clearly human shape. He tried to scream but no one was listening. The last thing he saw before the wood closed over his eyes was himself, turning and walking out of the forest, the morning sun flashing in the changeling's eyes like a cat’s.
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.
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.
Late in the summer of 1943, a light was seen briefly in the clefts of the Hörselberg hill in Germany. The few residents who witnessed it muttered prayers and averted their eyes. It was known what one could expect when the hill opened, as it had so many times before. The most stunning ladies could be seen dancing in its light, and from deep under the hill, a magnificent song struck the heart of any poor soul who dared venture too close. Some old tales said it was the voice of Venus herself, others a great queen of the fae or some other mighty spirit. Whoever she was, when a man was smitten with her song and tarried in her court, he was lost. Only one, a minstrel, was ever believed to have returned, and went pleading to Pope Urban IV for redemption. The pope condemned the man, swearing his certainty that his scepter would bloom before God could forgive such an offense. And with that verdict, the minstrel returned to his new queen, and was never heard again.
But on this night, no man entered the court. Instead, a priest named Josef Klappenger, emerged carrying an infant boy, only a few months old. The priest had been missing for nearly two years, and the people were hesitant to accept him back. He and the child were taken to Rome, to be judged in light of his station. There, he reported his tale. Only rumors emerged from these sessions, whispers of a priest who fell into despair and, on a walk through the countryside, heard a soothing voice offering him aid. In his weakened state, he was no match for the temptation, and entered the mountain. What happened there was never spoken again, and those who witnessed his confession simply crossed themselves and hurried along when asked about it. The child was the priest’s duty, that much was known. His origin, and how the priest smuggled him from the mountain, were a closely-guarded secret.
But I saw what happened that day. And I followed the pope into his chambers, and stood by as he gazed thoughtfully at an old scepter, with blossoms hundreds of years old and as fresh as the day they grew. The priest was restored and, with the boy, sent to a parish in Venezuela, far from the temptation of the mountain. The mountain remembers them, though; and on the 18th of May, every year, the shining ladies of Hörselberg hill sing for a child that may one day return.