The small rowboat left the dock near midnight, noiselessly cutting through the black water. It passed through a couple physical vessels as it went, but the two pirates paid no mind to anything but their rowing as they made a straight line away from shore. Benedict and Akshainie said nothing as they went, watching for any sign of betrayal or distress. They saw nothing of the sort.
The ship they approached was a moderately-sized three mast ship, of the type common during the heyday of piracy. It waved no flag, its sails were shreds, and there was very little light on deck. The exception was a bank of windows on the aft edge, which shone with an intense but flickering glow.
Benedict and Akshainie were welcomed on board and immediately shuffled along the deck to the captain’s quarters, a relatively large room which had been the source of light from outside. Inside the room was a desk secured to the floor, and a table between them and the desk. The table had a map pinned to it, which stretched from the eastern edge of the Florida keys to a little past Bermuda, south to just include Puerto Rico and north as far as the southern edge of Virginia. The Bermuda Triangle was marked in bold lines, and there were details of the sea floor but the land was completely empty of markings, save for a handful of ports. A man stood behind the desk, staring at them as they entered, wearing a distinctly large hat and an assortment of patched clothes that seemed to be aimed at looking regal as a set, but rang as a sloppy and mismatched vintage to the new arrivals.
“I’ve been hearing you’re seeking passage,” he said, leaning forward on the desk and flicking his eyes between Benedict and Akshainie. Her hands hovered near her swords, but none of the three moved.
“That we have,” she said, “and I hope you have good news for us.” The man smiled.
“That I do, if you can return the favor.”
“What’s your price?” Benedict asked.
“Work. If we’re leaving my waters, it’s first to make a stop in the Orkneys. There you can repay me for the passage, and then we’ll be along to wherever it is you’re needing to go.”
“The Orkneys are a good way off track.”
“Depends on your track, now don’t it? My track goes there before it goes anywhere else.” He stood upright and ran his finger along the back of his chair. “Why? You got a better offer? Something more direct?”
“Not yet,” Akshainie said, “but—”
“But you didn’t ask around about a relay. But you won’t find that, not with him abouts,” the man said, pointing at Benedict. “He’s a curse.”
“And you’re not afraid of curses?” Benedict asked. The man laughed.
“Boy, I been cursed for long enough. You can’t do no worse to me than the sea has.”
“I’ve heard that one before.”
“Aye, I’m sure you have, globetrotter that you are. You in, or are you getting the hell off my boat?”
“What’s this job?” The man shrugged.
“Nothing to bad for a pair of landlocked spirits like yourselves. Walk onto the island, find me a fur coat, and return it.”
“It isn’t just a fur coat, is it?” Akshainie asked. The man’s demeanor dropped.
“It is not. But it ain’t dangerous, not to you.” The pair looked at each other for a moment, then back to the man.
“We’ll accept,” Benedict said, “but we want to know what we’re walking into.”
“I suppose we got time to tell a tale or two on the way,” the man said, walking past them. He threw the door of the cabin open and yelled out to the crew that it was time to set sail, and the deck was suddenly alive with activity as men scurried to their posts and prepared the ship to move. The man turned back to the pair. “I don’t suppose either of you thought to bring rum?”
The problem wasn’t finding spirit vessels. In a hub of activity like Miami, there’s always some spirit or another ferrying something across the sea, for some price. There are so many that even humans with no sense for the magical occasionally stumble upon one, making some deal they don’t fully understand and suffering the consequences after their journey is over, if they’re lucky. Some ships were run by ghosts, others by spirits of wind or wave, still others by crews of assorted creatures. The taverns that housed spirits here were packed with crews of all sorts, wandering spirits who lost their homes to genocide getting into bar fights with the ghosts of pirates while naiads served mysterious liquors and water elementals watched.
The first hurdle to get over was finding a ship willing to go halfway around the world. Most of the activity in Miami centered on the Caribbean, going maybe as far as Panama or Brazil but never venturing out into the greater Atlantic. This shaved a good 70% of the available ships off their list, though Akshainie was willing to keep them in mind if needed. If they couldn’t find a ship to take them all the way, after all, it would have to be acceptable to take one as far as it would go and search for another when they got there. Best not to anger the locals, not least because they had not yet exhausted their usefulness.
The second hurdle was Benedict himself. Akshainie had an affinity for water, but she wasn’t a water spirit, not really. But even the human ghosts on these vessels had been so deeply connected to water for so long that they certainly seemed to be water spirits; and water spirits, it turns out, know a fire spirit at a glance. They had a variety of ways to say no. Some did so with insults in any number of languages, others expressed concern about his rage burning the ship, some noted that it was an ill omen to take a demon on the water (or, in one short-lived instance, that it was bad luck to take a woman. Akshainie left that captain with a permanent reminder that it was bad luck to anger a woman on land, as well), still others simply wouldn’t even talk to or about him. Akshainie tried to book passage without him, hoping to smuggle him along, but by the time that idea occurred to her it was too late. Everyone knew the naga was traveling with a demon, and no one was going to pretend ignorance even to steal her currency.
Benedict was considering resigning himself to taking the River Network when two pirates approached Akshainie. They were visibly uncomfortable with Benedict, but they had come with an offer from their captain. He was aware they were looking for passage, and who they were, but he was willing to talk. The catch was, he couldn’t come on land. If they wanted to talk, they had to do it on his boat. Akshainie accepted their offer and arranged a time to meet the pair at the dock to row out to the ship, but as soon as the pirates were gone Benedict expressed concerns. They had yet to meet anyone here they could actually trust, he noted, and now they were just walking right into something that could very easily be a trap. She smiled at that.
“Did you think we were practicing how to fight just to play nice all the time?” she asked. He sighed.
“That doesn’t mean we have to go looking for unnecessary fights.”
“Who said this is unnecessary, or a fight? We’re just seeing what his offer is. And, I would remind you, we have no other options on the table.” He didn’t really want to, but he accepted that answer, and they prepared to go meet this Captain Tidh Connelly. Of course, part of that preparation included getting what information they could on the man, and what they got was sporadic at best. The spirits of Miami were less interested in talking about Connelly than they had been about Benedict. From what little they could gather, Connelly was cursed in some way, and encountering him on the water usually spelled the end of that ship.
Benedict and Akshainie made sure they were in fighting shape before they met the pirates at the dock.
23 July 2006
On leaving the church service and discussing the role of the Roman Catholic Church on Benedict’s life, Akshainie insisted that he see a bit more of what she was fighting to protect. It only seemed natural, she argued, that he understand her as well as she was beginning to understand him. When he pointed out that he had already been to Iravati, and met some naga close to her, she reminded him that his view of the place was as something of a prisoner, and it was about time he get the chance to really know it. He agreed, on those terms, and they began to make their way south.
The idea was simple, really. Instead of traveling straight there, they would make a trip through some of the areas he had encountered the Brood of Nachash before, and they would take a look for any evidence of another hidden chamber or dread god like the one in Ohio. Once they reached the shore, they could seek passage to Iravati in a manner that wouldn’t force Benedict to get thrown through the River Network. Now that she understood his distaste for it, of course. It had seemed odd before that he would have a problem with water; now that she knew he was a being of fire, it all made sense. And, on the way, they had the opportunity to talk more. Benedict told her more of his story, she told him more of hers, and they took the occasional opportunity to spar and learn how to fight better together. The need to use these skills rarely came up. The Brood had either been properly eradicated in the areas they checked, or had become much better at hiding. The most hassle they ran into on the way, in fact, was when Benedict checked in with his superiors who were annoyed at the length of time it had been since his last message.
But now they were in Miami. They ran out of places with a known former Brood presence a couple states earlier, but by the time they hit the Georgia line they just kept going. Miami was the end of the line. They could go no further without a vessel of some sort, and it was the sort of place to have plenty of options. Benedict assumed they would take a plane, or some kind of mundane ship to get to Asia, but Akshainie reminded him that her identification was not entirely legal. They debated options for a couple hours, but in the end, she won out. They began looking for a spirit ship who would go as close to Iravati as possible. Finding one, however, proved harder than they expected.
5 November 2006
The box was delivered with no introduction to a file clerk in an underground office building outside of Grove City. It was never signed in. The clerk opened the tape, verified the list, made a note about the missing items, then resealed the box and added a label with a case number. The box spent the next day sitting on a table in a locked room filled with files before it was picked up by another agent, who did not sign it out. This agent loaded it into the back of his van, beside the crumpled remains of a console pulled from the wreckage of a small town just across the state line in Ohio and a body bag labeled “Caretaker.” The van picked up the turnpike and headed across Pennsylvania, pulling off at Breezewood to grab some food at a drive-thru before turning south.
Outside of Washington, D.C., the van passed into a slowly gentrifying neighborhood, cruising past a third-generation barbershop that sat next to a cafe with drinks named in poorly-translated Indonesian before turning down a largely-forgotten alley. Here, tucked away from curious eyes behind a brick wall, was a loading dock. The van pulled up to it, the driver hopping out to ring a buzzer next to the doors. A gruff man opened the door, checked the driver’s ID, then went to the van to confirm its contents. Satisfied, he grabbed the box and walked it inside, barking orders to a few people in overalls watching a television. These quickly ran outside to grab everything else; he continued on his way, into an elevator and up to the third floor. With a practiced feel of the place, he navigated through the stacks and the shelving units until he came to a small section labeled “Jeremiah Bazyli Matteson.” He slipped the box onto an open shelf, rearranged a few folders that had fallen over, and left the room.
3 November 2006
The hall surrounding Henry’s office was empty of staff and students, the doors closed and office lights off, as everyone who worked there was either in class or at his funeral. The two agents passed by quietly, their eyes fixed on their target. When they reached Henry’s office door, one turned his back to the wall and watched for anyone passing by, while the other produced a key from a small envelope and used it to turn the lock. As soon as the door was open they both slipped inside and softly closed the door behind them. The second man put the key back into his envelope, and that into his breast pocket, before reaching inside his suit jacket and pulling out a list. The other man began opening drawers and pulling out plain-looking notebooks, scraps of paper, and trinkets. Each of them was briefly compared to the list, and placed either on one corner of the desk or returned to its place. They made fast work of the room, small as it was, and finished with one last pass to ensure they had checked everywhere. Two items on the list were still missing, and the man holding the list frowned at that, but the other set his focus to gathering everything into a box. The list was placed on top of the materials in the box, which was then taped shut. The hallway was checked and, being empty still, the agents exited the office. They locked the door again before walking away with the box, vanishing into a nearby stairwell.
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.”
3 November 2006
As the small crowd made its way around the room to speak to John Matteson at McGonigle Funeral Home, Jeremiah slipped passed them quietly to take a seat out of the way. He watched his grandson, and paid attention to the people who seemed to spend the most time checking in on him or helping him manage the flow of people. A young Latin woman stood out, and Jeremiah made note of her. When he got up, he hovered around groups of people until he picked up her name (Jackie) and then made his way to the casket. He made note of a couple other people that were clearly friends on his way, attempting to gauge their relationship to John by the way they handled themselves and their friend. He skipped the line entirely, avoiding the damned small talk expected of people at these things, and rested his hand on his son’s cheek.
“Thank you for showing me points of weakness,” he whispered. “Enjoy your rest.” With that, he quietly disappeared out the door and then out of the physical realm entirely.
2 August 2006
Kastor emerged on a rooftop across the street from Matteson’s rented house and sat down next to the ravens.
“You really must explain to me some time why you care so much about the Mattesons,” he said, watching through the window as the Anchor climbed back out of the bed, threw some clothes on, and stormed out of the room.
“We owe you no such thing,” the blue raven said.
“Oh, come on! I mean, I get it, you guys take an interest in basically everything that humans do, but you can’t deny there’s something special about the way you handle John and his dad.”
“We wouldn’t dream of denying it,” the other raven answered.
“But you aren’t going to explain it.”
“It will be obvious in due time.” With that, the ravens took flight, and Kastor sighed and returned to the grove.
2 August 2006
Matteson was awakened by a swift kick to his ribs. It wasn’t hard enough to do any damage, but enough to send him sitting straight up in his bed with his fists ready to strike. On the floor next to his bed was the faun, having just landed, glaring at Matteson with his arms crossed. The Anchor grumbled and laid back down.
“What is it, Kastor?” he muttered.
“What did I say, huh? Back at that Apple Trees place?”
“‘That girl is trouble,’ I said! ‘Something seems off about her,’ I said! But what did you do?” Matteson rolled over so his back was to Kastor.
“Can this wait until some other time? Like in Hell?”
“You decided to ignore me and get all involved with her!” Kastor climbed onto the bed and over Matteson as he carried on, plopping down on the mattress and leaning back against the wall. “What do you call it, dating? And then! And then you, the great John Matteson, who knows fucking everything, don’t notice while she’s using you and killing people who get too close to figuring it out!”
“What are you on about? Who’d she kill?”
“I don’t know everyone’s names! But I asked around, see. After she threatened me—which you never even checked in on, by the way—I asked around, and I found out that the ghost lady killed her friend, with the, what is it. The loud chariot.” Matteson sat up.
“Yeah, that’s the one!” Matteson’s eyes darted back and forth for a moment as he considered that.
“You have that on good authority?” Kastor nodded, and Matteson got up and began pacing around the room. “Shit.”
“You should be happy I brought this to you at all! After you blew me off and didn’t even bother finding out why I was avoiding you.”
“Why were you avoiding me?”
“That woman! She was going to send the Hound after me! I had to give her a year a day, that’s what we agreed, a year and a day I couldn’t come talk to you. So I tried talking to that mage girl, you know, and you could be a real pal and put in a good word for me there by the way—”
“She’s with Rick.”
“I’m not asking her to commit to anything, Johnny!” Matteson leveled a narrow-eyed glare at the faun, who ignored it and jumped down off the bed. “But I tried to talk to her, to warn you, but I couldn’t track her all the time, and when I could was usually around the house, but I couldn’t come into the house, and she wasn’t bothering to look at spirits out on the sidewalk or anything!”
“She said you got through to her eventually.
“Yeah, took her long enough to notice. Dryads notice me, Johnny! If I’m good enough for a dryad—”
“Focus,” Matteson grumbled, pinching the bridge of his nose. “What did you find out about her?”
“About?” Kastor whistled and jammed his thumb in the direction of Jackie’s room.
“Oh! The other one. Nothing you don’t already know, now. You know, I could’ve helped if you’d asked.”
“Well, I don’t know! Guess we won’t find out now, huh?” Matteson sighed and rubbed his face with his hands, then moved back to sit on the bed.
“Okay, fine. Sorry, Kastor. I’ll be sure to consider your words before deciding they’re wrong next time.” Kastor gave a single stern nod.
“Damn right. And don’t you forget it.”
“Yeah. Seriously, about the mage, just something positive, you know, you don’t have to try too hard, this body can do most of the heavy lifting with the ladies,” he said, striking a pose that he thought showed his good side.
“Kastor, look, I don’t think she’s interested, especially not while she’s in a relationship.” Kastor waved him off.
“Just, you know, just ask. And don’t worry, I know all about her and Rich.”
“That’s what I said. I probably know more about it than you do.”
“I was trying to get her attention! It’s not my fault she was otherwise…occupied!”
“Get the fuck out!”
“Yeah, yeah. See you soon!” Kastor slipped away deeper into the Realm, and Matteson laid back down on his bed.
“Shit,” he said again, softly.
1 August 2006
The light from Helios shimmered on the surface of the water, reflecting bright flickering shapes on the figures dancing under the shade of nearby trees. Kastor was playing an aulos as he pranced around, accompanied by four other satyrs with instruments, keeping time to the clapping of nymphs and dryads. Other satyrs laid among the nature spirits, the whole assembly sharing fruit and laughing along to a tale being spun to the music by a centaur. Mid-dance, Kastor stopped playing and caught a hitch in his breath. He stepped aside from the group, who continued on without interruption, and glanced over to a tree from which two ravens were watching.
“It’s time, isn’t it? Is that what that feeling meant?” he asked. Muninn nodded.
“Your year has passed. You are relieved of your promise to Alethea-as-Lori,” Huginn answered. Kastor grumbled, looking back to the party with a longing stare, then turned back to the Two.
“The witch said he was okay though, right? It isn’t a pressing issue anymore, is it?”
“We will not decide what is important for you,” Muninn said. “I will only tell you that Alethea poses no further threat to John Matteson.” Kastor looked to the dancing figures again, then cursed under his breath and set his aulos down.
“I better check in on him, anyway. Fool human,” he muttered, walking away into the forest.