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Two espers, one avatar, one spirit, one Ring, too many cultists, and a Man of God, but what's puzzling you is the nature of my game?
"It's a place where a wish will be granted
Come, you'll see I'm right
It's a force that will live on within you
Dark as day is light"
—Epica, "Terra Sancta"
Early Summer 2007
Southbound, U.S. Hwy 89, to Flagstaff, Arizona
Aramathea Nilsson didn't often have to lay down the law, but with Mase Goodwin, it sure didn't hurt. "... I had better not find you and Hector out drinking instead of tending to business. But if you two do, I'm going to make shofars from his horns, and someone else's stash is going to go tragically missing."
"Don't start drinking without you, Aunt 'Thea? Got it."
"Mason dear, we can pick up supplies most anywhere. We're headed for Flagstaff so you can practice being around people without needing a stiff drink afterward. Don't think no one's noticed you've been going stir crazy of late."
"I do go out."
"Hiking alone in the desert is the opposite of the kind of going out you're in need of. You have the gift of empathy – don't go rolling your eyes like that – it's down to you to to practice and hone it. I also expect you can make yourself useful in loading and unloading the truck. Lord knows that scamp won't show up early if there's work to be done."
"I was going to say that hiking clears my head."
Aramathea harumphed, "Any clearer, and I'd be looking out your other ear. Speaking of which, "
< What is the Third Formula and why? >
< The Demand of Revelation is as follows: Into the Light I command thee! >
"By the way, you might want to slow down, Aunt 'Thea. Looks like a blue light special up ahead."
Five minutes later
Aramathea slowed her truck down to pass an Arizona Highway Patrol car and the family van that had been pulled over. "Mason, be sure to wave at the nice man who brake-checked us a few miles back!"
"I... Oh! That's gotta hurt."
"What's the magic word for why you don't piss off the Sister who knows where her good friend Luther set up his speed trap?"
"Aunt 'Thea, are you planning to repay some of that goodwill this trip?"
"That depends on whether you can behave and when he gets off."
Next morning, north of town
Mason may have first noticed the scent of garden flowers in the dark hair tickling his face. Hadn't it been braided when they met? Maybe what woke him up was the discovery that, as pillows go, the one he held was firmer and larger than most. He shifted to give his free hand more room to explore. His fingers traced lines from good to better, avoiding not sure where he could. Someone's bra wasn't where it started the night. Good thing she was wearing his shirt.
He regretfully kissed the back of the young woman's head. He needed to piss, but his penis wasn't in the mood to cooperate with his bladder. Before he left, he folded the blanket over his companion to ward off the predawn chill. Firewood might be a good idea, now that he could see what he was grabbing. Snakes didn't like fire too much.
Tiva already had a small fire going and coffee by the time he got back.
"I'd half expected to be knocked up and stranded when I woke up."
That was disappointing. "Oh."
Tiva had a beautiful smile, though. "I'm happy with how the night turned out," she said, but why then did he feel like he'd been kicked in the gut? "Pavati was exaggerating, I guess."
"About Hector?" Mason asked. "I doubt that." He set down the deadwood he'd collected instead of dropping it to go run and hide as if he'd been found unworthy or too fat...
"Then what's wrong with me?"
Were those tears inside or outside? It was too hard for him to tell.
Mason set aside the feeling he was being watched. Out here, whoever it was, they could be yards or miles away. Being watched or being judged? This judging bit needed to be dealt with. Mason took a chance on sitting next to the upset girl and placing his arm around her shoulders. It was cheating, a little bit, but if you aren't cheating...
"Nothing." Tiva tensed her back muscles. Big nope to that! "Okay, fine. You don't believe me, so that's kind of a problem."
"I should trust a professed godless heathen?"
Hector, you ass!
"No, but you can try trusting yourself. It just so happens that, for all the disagreement with certain churches, I do have a god who'd rather not see me today or anytime soon."
"If it wouldn't be a sin, and you don't think I'm ugly, then what's left?"
"Aside from us both being underage? How about 'It is by Will that our indulgences become Sacred'? Y'see, what I've always been taught is that you have to want to go through with your choices. Hell yeah I did, and I'll do it again! Not Father, I have sins to confess." Mason sighed. Folks didn't get it, did they? Stupid book. "I could and can tell that you wanted to watch the sunrise from here this morning and you were willing to take a chance on a stranger. Past that much? You don't. Not today, or not with me, but I'm cool with that."
"I could feel you against my back."
"Maybe I'll jack off to the sweet idea of what could have been, later."
"It beats screwing a beautiful morning!" Mason raised his voice for the benefit of the peanut gallery, "It also means that whoever's sneaking up on us ain't getting a free show."
"Damn. You're getting better, coz." Hector. The female... females? Oh, shit. Aunt Thea's here too!
"Pavati! What are you two doing here?" Tiva would have preferred being stranded than caught empty-handed by her sister.
"Us three. Good morning, Mason Goodwin. There's this thing called 'leaving messages'. You should try it."
"Good morning, Sis. We got worried when no one tried sneaking back into Hector's apartment or Ms. Nilsson's motel room. Then I remembered what you'd said you might like to try someday. That matched up to Mason's little disappearing problem, so here we are."
"That simple, really?"
"No. Mom asked one of the spirits to watch over you two." The way Pavati said, "Something about empaths being easy to track," it was like butter wouldn't melt in her mouth, "I did mention that, didn't I?"
Mason paled, being at ground zero for Tiva's suppressed rage. If this was how regular siblings worked, he needed no part of it!
"Could we all, just, maybe watch the sunrise without needing to hide evidence before we leave?"
Fr. Geoffrey Bouchard's office, Omaha, Nebraska
Brother Geoffrey's sprained ankle was bad enough. His week only got worse as he tried to confirm campsite reservations for the scout troop:
"What do you mean, our site reservation was bumped?"
"Yes. We could stay offsite at a local campground, but I don't know of any... Dancing Sidewinder Campground, you said? Never heard of it."
"A five-mile technical hike? I guess that explains the rates, but we're a Boy Scout troop, not the 82nd Airborne."
"They do? Huh. Okay, who do I need to contact for campsite reservations and a guide?"
"Thank you. A, um, blessed day to you too."
"Sounds like it's been the day for changing plans, innit?"
Brother Geoffrey looked up. The man's London pub-crawling accent wasn't usually heard in the American Midwest. Slouching against the doorjamb, he was a shave and a haircut past disreputable. Geoffrey believed the man hadn't mugged a colleague for the roman-collared shirt. Mostly believed, that is. Times do change.
"Name's Jonathan. You?"
Geoffrey stood up to shake the proffered hand, "Brother Geoffrey Bouchard. To what do we owe the pleasure? I don't think I've heard of any new postings. Please, sit."
"Thank you. This is more of a 'see what help they need' assignment. Someone's worried about your local Boy Scouts."
"Why? Membership isn't what it was back when I was that age, but... No! You can't tell me that something like that is going on!"
Jonathan leaned forward, capturing Geoffrey's eyes in his.
"You tell me, mate. My question had been how you planned to keep up with the sprogs with a gimpy ankle? However, if you do have suspicions of that nature, I'm all ears."
"What? Now you're just screwing with me, Jonathan. Or is that shirt from a joke shop?"
"Could be." Jonathan handed an identification card from his wallet to the priest. "Care to look for the Cracker Jack logo?" The gesture revealed a distinctive rose and thorns tattoo on the man's left wrist.
Jonathan C. Byzantine. Geoffrey numbly returned the card.
What in Heaven's name would call for the attention of a Knight of the Church?
Jonathan slouched in his chair like someone who would usually have a cigarette or gin in hand by now. He said, "Could be worse, you know. Rome could have sent the noobie, but I hear she's busy regrowing her skeleton."
Dalton Williams 'Dalt' Meier (like John Mayer, the singer, but not so lame) didn't mind taking the city bus home after troop meetings. He was vaguely aware that folks didn't approve of the BSA keeping out gays while allowing mutants, but being none of those things, he didn't see how that applied to him, and that being so, he could afford to ignore the stares. Turning out either way had to suck, right? Anyway, school was out for summer! Even better, the summer camping trip was back on! He'd have to get with Joey to work out a good meal plan before Steve or Billy got them all stuck eating hotdogs that had gotten dodgy from floating in the melted cooler water, maybe peanut butter, and stale buns or something. Ketchup wasn't a real vegetable! Heathens. What was the deal with the new British priest, anyway? Dalt would have bet the man had at least two flasks on him, and not just for holy water! As Mom would say, he seemed the type.
The bus rolled up to his stop soon enough. Dalt swung his backpack back over his shoulder and walked out into the warm summer night, filing camping plans away for after dinner. It wasn't like everything wasn't going to turn out as it was supposed to. There was good and evil, sure – everybody knew that – but rain on a camping trip was about the most excitement folks like him ever got to see, this far from the coasts and all that.
Walking up to his home doorstep, Dalt smelled Mom's homemade pizza. He smiled at the savory proof of everything right with the world.
Monday, June 18, 2007,
On the westbound trail Just U.S. Interstate 80 out of Omaha, NE
Wierd how, except for the extra traffic around Lincoln, it didn't look like they'd hardly gone anywhere at all. Dalt figured one field of corn, soybeans, or sorghum, greenly baking in the sun, looked pretty much like any other. Crossing the Platte River, south of Grand Island, his stomach started reminding him that breakfast had been hours ago. By the time the van pulled off into Kearney, even Brother Jonathan looked hungry. That, or maybe nauseous, given the choice of places to hit for lunch. Fast, cheap, or good: you only get two. Dalt reckoned his Dad was on the money with that.
West of Kearney, the trees got more and more scarce, and the Great Plains stayed ever so flatly flat. Joey wasn't the only boy who was out like a light, just the only one dead to the world on Dalt's shoulder. He must have fallen asleep too, because the next thing Dalt knew, Brother Jonathan was pulling off at the mile marker 159 rest stop. The land was browner and more wide open. They'd mentioned the Sand Hills in school, and there were hills and sand here — but not much else. Just more Nebraska. Between the hot summer sun, nothing on the radio anyone could agree to, and greasy meat in teenaged stomachs, that was the last anyone remembered for a solid couple of hours. Soon, the van was pulling off the highway again, waking Dalt (and Joey, who was still using Dalt's shoulder for a pillow) with a start. He stretched as best he could and yawned. Where were they?
Brother Geoffrey called back, "For those of you rejoining us, we've been crossing the High Plains of Colorado for the past hour and a half. Get out, stretch your legs, make sure you drink water so you don't dehydrate on us. Tonight we'll be finding out who remembered to pack some warm clothing."
"No drifters, mate?"
"Don't start, Jonathan."
"What about bed warmers? I know a bird, goes by Little Bessie, charges by the hour."
"Impressionable youth, Jonathan."
Not much further westbound from there, and you could see shadows that looked more like mountains. Past Denver and Golden, they stopped for a while at Lookout Mountain. Buffalo Bill's grave was okay, but from up where they were, Dalt could practically see the whole way they'd come or close to it! Then it was back in the van for a few more miles (that should have had far more guardrails between the road and empty space) before they reached their campsite. The campground was far enough outside of Black Hawk to discourage "going off in search of firewood". Yes, the signs did say "casino", and no, there was no chance of going inside one. Brother Jonathan even took the van out for a "supply run" to "prevent temptation"!
Somehow, Colorado hadn't gotten the notice that it was summer already! It was fifty frickin' degrees outside when Steve got everyone was up. Dalt later heard that Steve had wanted to blow reveille each morning, but he'd caved to threats of disembowelment. As it was, Dalt was sure no one got a lot of sleep, just from the work of breathing while they adjusted to the altitude. Joey was on his third hit off his inhaler (Dalt had counted!) For breakfast, everyone wolfed down coffee, milk, bacon, eggs, and/or pancakes. Out and about in the clear mountain air, Dalt finally felt the troop was away from home and (mostly) on their own for real. Maybe now, adventure just had to be just around the corner!
Monday afternon, June 18, 2007,
San Canaan, UT
"Wakey, wakey, cowpoker!"
Mason Goodwin had not signed up for this! The voice and mind were familiar enough he could plan his revenge once he got his bearings.
"Aw, don't take it like that," Shane Garrett complained. Why did he get to be the one complaining when Mason was the one hauled out of his bunkbed?
"I think he should," said Oscar, the grouchier half of the fraternal twins. "By the way, while you were taking a nooner, Jase got tagged with refereeing Demi's tea party."
Mason grabbed his boots to put on before standing up. "They're his brother and sisters too, but it's his sanity," Mason weighed one hand down, "versus another meltdown..." Down went the other hand. "Sucks to be him, but I'll just have to owe him for it."
"Love you too, Mase," Jason drawled from the doorway of the room he shared with Mason, Peter, and Hector. "Ellie got tired. Petey grabbed a book. Mom's got Demi. I'm good to go after I scrub my face and grab some Tylenol."
Shane had to ask: "Dude! Not you too?"
"Nope. Mase can keep his damn migraines. How many campsites we got volunteered into clearing?"
"Two at least," Oscar said. "If we can get one or two others policed, the guys coming in from Nebraska can't say they're getting railroaded."
"It'll be fine," Shane half-agreed, "Maybe not as flat as they're used to. Except, no, that won't work. Too wet."
"C'mon," said Oscar, "Let's go before Shane tries pitching a tent on a gravel bar."
"It was just that one time!"
"Would've been a last time too if it had rained. Mase, Jase? No rain dances, y'hear?"
"Such lack of faith! I'm wounded!"
"Thanks, guys. Mase hadn't thought of doing that yet."
Sidewinder Creek Campground
Jason asked Oscar, "How much room do you think we need cleared for each campsite?"
"Mr. Adkinson, Jimmie and Roger," Oscar said. "Then me'n Shane, and we can put the Corn Man in with Mase, so four for us, but spread out a bit. How's Mase's shielding coming along?"
"Decent enough for trips into town and small gatherings of strangers."
"Cool. I'd hate for him to miss out on this year's ritual."
"What do y'all plan on telling the other guys?"
"Same as we'd tell anyone else: that our grandparents were hippies, and it's a Back to Nature thing. "
At least they got to see some of Black Hawk (not Blackhawk) on the way back out. The buildings weren't all dusty and dingy clapboard like small towns ended up out on the Plains. Instead, they had brick and stone and peaked roofs mixed together in frontier and European styles. Brother Geoffrey said something about kitsch, but it was still new to Dalt. Mountains were everywhere you looked!
Dalt had only thought they were in the mountains before. The real deal was getting higher and snowier the further west they went on I-70. The van had a rough time getting up the road, until they went through the first tunnel they'd seen on the trip. All you could tell from the road before was that the engine strained more and more as they went up and up. After the tunnel, Brother Geoffrey decided he needed a break, so they pulled off at the next stop. Dalt overheard someone say that they'd crossed the Continental Divide. That must have been the problem for the van. After another hour of mountains, the scenery opened up to dry hills. The first time they crossed the Colorado River, it wasn't much bigger than the Platte had been! At the next rest stop, which was on the Colorado's bank, some of the guys took pictures to show off back home.
Where before, the highway had stayed close to one famous river or another, soon they were looking at miles of flat dry scrub stretching from the road to more and more distant flattened mountains. Some of the closer ones were bacon-color striped, like in the Westerns. Going by the road signs, some were real mesas.
Colorado had had nothing on Utah for desert mesas and being very, very dry. It was like they were driving through their own movie set! At each stop, Brother Jonathan kept an eye out for something. He said anyone could gawk at the scenery like a 'bloody tourist'. He was on the lookout for vultures with a taste for Englishmen. Wierd. When they got back into hill country, the land was covered in scrub instead of trees. Dalt was pretty sure that that didn't make Utah 'Inbred as Scotland, but with better weather.' So much for high adventure, right?
They stopped for a quick supply run in Cedar City because Joey managed to forget sunblock. Three guesses how he'd figured that out! Dalt decided to get more of that and some aloe because his best friend could be a ditz. Ray Sullivan was quiet the entire time until they got back to the van. Dalt heard him humming in the seat behind him.
"One of these things is not like the other. One of these things just doesn't belong."
"What's Sesame Street got to do with us?" Dix asked.
"Ever notice how it's always the token minority who bites it in the movies? Well, how many other Black folk do you see around us?"
Holy hockey sticks, he was right!
"Guys, you're all wrong," claimed Steve Capra from the front seat. "As senior patrol leader, I nominate Brother Jonathan. I just know he's going to be the first one to find trouble instead of us because I pay attention to things."
The reasons he was SPL had more to do with him being seventeen and active lately because he was between girlfriends, but no one wanted to say so.
--- * --- * ---
The sun was already sinking low when the troop's van pulled off onto a two-lane road. A dirt road running through a canyon followed that. That road ended in front of some houses and a couple of other buildings. San Canaan. The name was bigger than the town. He- Heck, they didn't even have a McDonald's!
Jonathan searched the shadows dripping the from brick red buttes that loomed dark against the turquoise blue sky. No threat here and now. Several large, flat-topped rocks lay half-buried near the parking area.
He said, "I doubt these big slabs of rock were hauled in for the landscaping."
"I'd tell you we shipped them in for the virgin sacrifices, but folks up the road are touchy about that."
That was kind of creepy coming from a guy wearing – in Dalt's opinion – way too much black.
"Mason Abimelech Goodwin! What have I told you about scaring folks off like that?"
The woman might be five-foot-nothing and dressed in faded calico but Dalt would have bet that Ms. Might would think twice before crossing her.
"Not to do it, Aunt Thea."
"I'm sorry I let my sense of humor run away from me, gentlemen."
"No, y'ain't, but close enough." Aunt Thea's eyes fixed on Brother Geoffrey. "You must be Father Butcherd."
"'boo-SHARR'," Geoffrey gently corrected Mrs. Goodwin. "My father's family was originally French-Canadian. And it's just 'Brother', I haven't taken Holy Orders yet."
He side-eyed Jonathan.
"Brother Jonathan Byzantine. Sad to say, the Order I belong to keeps me too busy for a pulpit."
"You and Mason both need to work on your sincerity." Thea took her measure of the pitiful group of young men before nodding to herself. Something was settled!
"Might as well haul out whatever gear you need for overnight. There's probably enough beds going spare, what with kids off at school, but we can put you up in the Meeting Hall if that doesn't work. After supper, which is what Mason was supposed to be inviting you to."
"Yeah. Since it gets dark early, we figured it would be better if we borrowed a couple more donkeys to pack your gear in, in the morning."
"Real donkeys?" Something finally got Brock Abernathy's attention! It would have been nice to know about that a year or so ago.
"Well, yeah. There's only so much you can do with and around machinery. Plays hell with, um, this and that. "
--- * --- * ---
Back home, Omaha had its share of "authentic Tex-Mex" places. Dalton couldn't recall ever stuffing himself on so much beans, chilis, tomatoes, spices, tortillas, chicken, and more spices, before. He passed on the goat's milk and cheese but said thanks just the same and stuffed himself on the rest.
Supposedly, half of the larger families in San Canaan showed up to help with the cooking, eating, and cleanup. Some of the Nebraska kids were surprised to see that that included both boys and girls. Not that it was a bad thing, just that everyone had said that Utah was "very conservative." Brother Geoffrey got a lot of confused and amused looks when he said grace. Maybe they were all Protestants or something?
The unfamiliar family introductions made heads spin. They'd met Ms. "You can call me Aunt Thea while you're here too" Nilsson and Mason Goodwin, but Mason's brother Jason didn't look like he was Ms. Garnett's son, nor related to her twins and little Ellie.
Asking about the matter got Dalton and Joey assigned to bunk with Mase and Jase for the night. Joey got Hector's bunk — once the others cleared all their junk off it.
That was the moment Dalt just knew where his younger brother Drew's lacrosse gear was: dumped on his bed, still wet. Man, once the habit got set, there'd be no fixing it.
As to the others and the mismatched names?
"You have to know that there aren't many jobs around here," Mason explained. "And my parents, they weren't cut out for farming. Once they got back on their feet, they gave Aunt Thea and Aunt Katryn custody of me. They keep in touch. Now, Jase here..."
"Mom adopted me about the same time, so we've been brothers practically all my life."
Joey asked, "Don't you miss your, I guess, birth parents?"
"Parents are the folks that raise you. I got two mothers, three brothers (even if one or two of them are asses), and two sisters. Lots of folks get a whole lot less."
Tracey Adkinson, the local troop's Scoutmaster, waited to drop the hippie commune / Back to Nature bombshell on Geoffrey and Jonathan after breakfast was over, and the boys, burros, and backpacks were out on the canyon trail to the campground.
"... You're what?" This was the first Geoffrey had heard of it.
"'Neopagan' is close enough. The National Executive Board is still telling the Covenant of the Goddess and the Unitarians to pack sand, so you won't see any religious program knots for the boys or me. Most of the other troops around here are sponsored by the LDS."
"The Archdiocese sponsors our troop, but I can assure you that that doesn't mean we can't get along with others."
"My point is that I want to avoid misunderstandings when we can't invite your guys over to tomorrow night's circle."
A look shared between the two Brothers confirmed Adkinson's suspicion that there could have been hurt feelings without an explanation. Hurt feelings like that tended to grow into uncomfortable investigations.
Jonathan said, "I fancy myself knowledgeable about a thing or two along those lines. Mind if I sit in as long as I don't get in the way?"
"I'm sure we can work something out without setting the place on fire."
"That happen often, guv?"
"How many Boy Scouts have you known that weren't pyros?"
"See? You could do with a bloke like me watching out for stray sparks."
Geoffrey asked, "Should we let them get the snipe hunt out of the way tonight or put it off to Friday?"
Adkinson thought about that one. Earlier was better for ghost stories to push a bunk check back for "stragglers" to sneak back into camp. "Tonight. Boys that age recharge too fast to not let them wear themselves out."
Thursday afternoon, June 21, 2007,
Sidewinder Creek Campground, UT
A comfortable distance from the troop's campsite, Brother Jonathan sat at a shaded picnic table, thumbing through the Scoutmaster Handbook for pointers on what next to expect. Some of the Omaha boys had recently learned that shorts and cholla cactus do not mix painlessly. A stranger's voice called out to him, "Hey, uh, Brother Jonathan! Are you open for business?"
Jonathan took in the teen's campaign hat, black neckerchief, long-sleeve khaki shirt, and jeans worn over high western boots. One of the locals, and dressed for the weather. More concerning were the young man's dilated eyes and flushed face.
"Yeah, mate. I didn't bring my confessional booth, but what seems to be bothering you?" Jonathan gestured at the teen to fill in.
"Not Mate. Mase Goodwin, remember? Let's see, whatever might be wrong with an AWOL campground super and everyone back at camp, from the Scoutmaster on down, nodded out on Satan-alone-knows-what?"
Jonathan scowled as Mase pulled a long swig of water from his canteen. Fast way to join your mates, kid.
Mase held the canteen out to him.
Water doesn't smell like that.
Hell, the bleedin' Thames doesn't even smell like that.
Gah! Water doesn't taste like that either. Jonathan quickly returned the canteen, doubly sure that someone had tampered with that camp's water supply. Which meant... Now that he listened for them, his and Geoffrey's charges were awfully quiet, too. There should be meal prep noises from their camp or something.
"It's an acquired taste. I wasn't planning to hit the pulque until tonight, but now I don't trust my other canteen, and I need to fetch clean running water for brewing osha to kill this headache."
"Do you think the – pulque, was it – is helping?" Jonathan motioned again, that Mase would follow him to the other camp.
"Look. I packed a nice batch of mushrooms for tonight's bonfire, but I can't go using them with the wrong mindset. And," Mace growled at Jonathan. "And being under a truth compulsion is very much not the right mindset."
Jonathan looked back at the boy following him, "Young men your age tend to leave out the important details from their stories. The spell includes a recall element. For example, who else knows about your party plans?"
"Ritual plans, padre," Mase ground out. "There's a local corn spirit that San Canaan's been on good terms with. It's midsummer. And I'm finally old enough to have a place in the serious parts. So that would be..." Another long draw. It's either what passes for the good stuff, or he's too thirsty. What was that mnemonic he needed to remember?
Mase screwed up his face and spit out a suspicious bluish lump of something.
"Sweet damnation. That's going to come back to bite me."
"From what I remember of my misspent youth, you won't be worrying about that headache much longer."
"Not funny. Who'd poison a Scout troop?"
Jonathan said, "Many have been tempted."
They were intercepted by Dalton Meier.
"Brother Jonathan!" Seeing the priest wasn't alone, Dalton amended, "and, um, Mase, right? Hello. Er... Would you mind if Brother Jonathan and I talk privately about something that's come up?"
Mase smiled a tight, thin-lipped smile, "I'm going to go out on a limb and guess not a creature is stirring back at camp?"
"Pretty much everyone's overheated from the hike earlier. How'd you know?"
"It seems to be something in the water. By the way, someone looks like they got too much sun. Didn't nobody ever tell you guys about sunscreen and hats? When was the last time you took a piss?"
Jonathan said, "Mason does have a point. Your face is way too bloody red."
"I wasn't feeling good, so I volunteered to go gather some deadwood instead of going on the hike," Dalton admitted.
"Would that be from the brush pile left over from cleaning things up the other day?"
"How was I supposed to know that?"
"Goodwin, since you need to wash out your canteen, and Dalton needs to cool off, why don't you two buddy up and get that taken care of while I look into the prank."
"It could still turn out to be that simple."
Once they were out of sight from the camp, Dalton said, "Hold up, man, I need to take a breather."
Mason stopped and stared. They hadn't gone far enough for him to be winded.
"Fine. But if we find a shallow enough spot in the river, you are going in. Even if I have to hold you up."
"It's, it's not sunstroke!"
"If you'd earned your first aid badge fair and square, you'd know you're the last person I'd be listening to on the subject."
That sealed it. Next damned early stop they made, Satan help them all, Mase was going to practice his fireman's carry.
Whatever event Jonathan had been sent here to stop was still running on rails. Satellite telephone connections within the canyon were intermittent – at best – but good enough to get some information. For example, the planned ritual might be "neopagan", but the celebrants weren't. "Hot as a hare, blind as a bat, dry as a bone, red as a beet, mad as a hatter, and full as a flask" finally clicked, with innocents at stake.
The sun set behind the brick-red, tan, gray, and gray-green canyon walls before the boys returned to camp. Mason was supporting Dalton. Dalton was navigating for the two. Jonathan refused to ask the obvious question, strictly on principle.
"Heyyyyyy," Mason slurred. "We have what you all may call a little problem."
Dalton snarled, "Fuck you."
"I am way too stoned to honor that offer. And it's illegal in this state. For the record."
"That wasn't an offer!"
"Gentlemen, language." And praise The Big Guy that none of the others heard me say that.
"Cooling it, check. So, like, did anyone know that m'man Dalt's a mutant too? There's alsho nasty sh-stuff all around us."
Tired and feverish as he was, Dalton couldn't help saying, "Those are just you hallucinating."
"I can prove it."
"No. You can't."
Jonathan knew he'd never get the Young Satanist gagged in time, because of course not.
"Fine. Check it out: < Into the light... >"
Something about Dalton Meier had been bugging Mason since they met two days ago. The guy must have already been sick from manifesting. As things sat now, he'd hardly had time to drag the two of them out of the river ford before Dalton's clothing baked itself dry. That could not be good. Back at camp, Brother Jonathan didn't look too happy to see them. Mister New Mutie On The Block just had to go and dare him:
"< ...I command thee! >"
Mason knew well enough to have added the Solstice and dodgy circumstances to sacred grounds and herbs, converted to base supernatural, and carried the stupid. Even if he weren't tripping, that might not have stopped the impulse to stir some chaos into the situation.
Someone was dressed for the party! Tightly-curled dark hair trimmed short, black long-sleeved tee pinned with a pair of masks, black denim trousers, black boots, even a roll of tape in a holder clipped to his belt. Aunt Aramathea had mentioned some interesting things that could be done with that.
"Good to see you, Jon, boys. Why don't we get the Apostle jokes out of the way, so we can get this show on the road, huh?"
"Y'mean there really was an Apostle Rufus?" asked Mase. If false advertising were a sin...
"You can bet your ass it's a sin, but nope, there wasn't. It's just that Chris Rock looks a lot like me. Handsome guy, if I say so myself. By the way? Don't ever do that crap you just pulled unless you know for a fact you can deal with whoever or whatever shows up. I'm already dead, and this place still has too many snake spirits crawling around for my comfort."
Jonathan spoke up, "You wouldn't happen to have any helpful advice for us from the upstairs wankers, would you?"
"Don't count your money while you're sitting at the table."
"This is not a good time for that."
"It wasn't us who warned you. That's all I can say. Oh, and maybe let Hellboy Junior here brew up that tea he was talking about earlier. You might need all the healing you can get. Look at the time! See you soon, maybe."
Fuck it, Mason and Dalton could manage an herbal infusion without his help. Jonathan gave in and lit a cigarette. It gave his hands something to do while his mind ran in circles. It wasn't so much a matter of not having a plan. It was more a matter of how badly the plan he did have was going to turn out.
"We're being watched, y'know."
Without his hat, Mason's hair reflected a dull silver in the moonlight. Otherwise, the boy was a shadow in its own dark element.
"I'd've figured that would be obvious, Goodwin."
"Some are curious, something's worried, some are... excited? I'd ask for help loading up the pack animals and coming back in the morning, but if that were in the cards, we'd already be finished doing that, wouldn't we? What's the plan?"
"You could try getting your own crew out. Maybe play your wicker man game next year, without witnesses."
"We're supposed to be making an offering of first fruits from the harvest. Yeah, it doesn't quite line up with the growing season, but life's like that. It's also separate from our duty to Our Lord. Aren't your people supposed to be big on giving thanks?"
Jonathan ignored the implied insult, "Stow the theology kid." First fruit? that could be taken a few ways if you wanted to hijack a harvest ritual! "Here's a better question: are any of your friends the first-born sons of their fathers?"
"Not a chance in hell for Mr. Smith, nor Jimmie Hardin. Both are former Lost Boys. Hm..."
Jonathan waited for Mason's attention to return. Getting upset or anxious with the boy, on what was probably his first trip, wouldn't do any good. Sometimes – but only sometimes – growing up in the 70s had its perks.
"...I'd have to ask our mothers to find out if anyone knows that about me or the others." Mason kicked at the dirt with the toe of his boot, "My literal parents left the community some years ago, but there might be records. Not that they don't keep in touch, but we don't get many folks who want to talk about their life before."
"Like a bunch of goddamned commie hippy freaks and heathens?"
More like someone who wouldn't be missed.
Mason laughed without an ounce of mirth, "Me and the others have been called worse. Trust me when I say there are good reasons there's a big desert bench between us and the Warren Jeffs crowd. What difference does it make who was born to whom?"
"To ceremonial magic? Life and death, son. On a good day, that is."
That makes you the dead man walking instead of the other one if I screw the pooch this time.
Jonathan chased old spectres from his head before they got repetitive, "How about you give me the run-down on what was supposed to happen tonight?"
--- * --- * ---
Judging by the noises coming from the tent, Jonathan wasn't rummaging for his old copies of Playgirl. He returned with a white cloth, a red sash, a silver cup, and a bottle of water. Seeing Mason's look, he said:
"It's not gin, if that's what you're thinking. In my line of work, it's a good idea to keep some holy water on hand. I'm going to need your athamé."
"What makes you think I have one?"
"You didn't ask what an athamé was."
Reluctantly, Mason unsheathed the Bowie knife hanging from his belt. He handed it, pommel first, to Jonathan.
Jonathan asked new questions, ranging from normal to outrageously personal, while setting up one of the campground's tables as a makeshift altar. He explained what he was using, and what he was skipping or substituting, as if Mason were studying for his confirmation.
"Your aunt wasn't kidding about Abimelech being your middle name? I'm surprised no one's burned you at the stake yet."
"Like I said, we don't go into town very often by ourselves. I can't say I look forward to high school."
"I didn't fancy advanced levels myself. This next part is ritual, and it might not take, but it'll fool anyone tracking your mystical 'scent'. That starts with you kneeling." If looks could kill... The kid did as he was told. For now. Jonathan hurried up with putting on his stole.
Three splashes of holy water later, "I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." The kid flinched at that but held his tongue. Jonathan kept going, "I christen thee to be Mason Abimelech Alban Goodwin. Do you promise to serve your Lord and protect others, stepping off your path only as needs must to teach Evil the proper error of its way?"
Mason snarled back, "I promise to serve my Lord and protect others, stepping off my path only as needs must to teach The Enemy the proper error of its way."
Clever reversal, kid. Maybe you'll live that long.
Jonathan picked up the long knife from the altar.
Tap, tap, tap. "By the Power and Authority of the Blessed Church I dub thee Mason Abimelech Alban Goodwin, creating thee a Knight of the Church." Jonathan shook his head. What's done is done. He tossed a ring to Mason. "I wear mine on the bird."
Mason slipped it on and collapsed. One down, one to go, somewhere. Jonathan returned the boy's knife to its belt sheath for him.
"That could have gone worse."
Mason woke up in a strange place. The scent of roses drifted to him from what could have once been an opulent courtyard garden. Ancient gnarled trees had long overgrown their masonry urns and planters. Vines wove in and out of the upright vegetation, dropping rotted fruit into shrubs, reaching out to choke the life from trees, even as their own roots were eaten away. Too rotten to recover the garden, it was all too wet to set a purging fire.
In a place like this, a person could get so lost that vultures would have trouble finding their meal.
On cue, a drowning voice floated across the humid air, "Get a rose, he says. It's important, he says. If some dead flower's all that and a bag of chips, where's your backup?"
"Up my ass. Wanna taste?"
Mason pulled his knife and blazed the start of a path that should take him through the center of the tangled mass of green and black. That's if he made it there in one piece! Hidden brambles grabbed at him, digging in, thorn by thorn. Sturdy vines caught his feet. An opiate perfume of pollen and rot fogged his struggling mind.
"Clueless and hopeless, " the voice taunted Mason. "If you give up now, maybe you can beg the cultists to kill you first? You're going to Hell anyway!"
Mase swatted at something buzzing his head. "I'll pass on that craptacular offer, but do let me know when you want to get serious." Negotiation 101: Hell helps those who help themselves first.
There wouldn't be much point in psyching him out now unless he was going in the right direction. Was the voice appealing to his vanity? Or was it playing him to keep him on the wrong path? Temptation and crazymaking were supposed to be his tricks! Granted, he needed to work on them, but...
That moment of confusion bought Mason a world of pain: he slipped on a slimy chunk of rotted fruit. A thorn pierced a pocket that didn't have a wallet. Like he needed something to sit on and spin.
It's so fucking on!
Minutes later, he limped into what passed for a clearing.
The rose scent came from the same direction as a cauldron — the kind used by witches in some bad horror film. The grass around it was brown and sparkly. Cold as Hell? Ha, um, ha. Maybe there was a rose inside the damned thing: under a dozen dim lights flickering their way through a pile of transparent thorns. Mason had to pull himself back before the burning cold gave him frostbite.
The voice returned, "What's the problem, cowboy, afraid to chill?"
"What are the lights supposed to be?"
"Look again. Maybe pay attention to what anyone else with eyes can see?"
Right. Because no one ever minds seeing the truth come out. No one ever gets abandoned because...
"I SAID LOOK."
Mason looked again. He didn't know why or how, but not one light was whole. Some were more broken than others: like the one that reminded him of the Nebraska Troop's Assistant Scoutmaster. Seeing the coal-black fissures carved into the man's light, Mason would bet rent money that Jonathan had never, ever, been a Boy Scout. In fact, except for one that shone green and a dim one that flickered out as he watched, each reminded him of one of the trapped Scouts and troop leaders.
"That was the park ranger. He'll be leaving a widow in need of comforting and two impressionable children. Too bad that year-on-year budget cuts didn't provide more rangers to feed to the barrier spells, hm? No matter. There are more sacrifices left on the plate!"
Mason's mind cowered in its little corner, away from estimating the pain he'd be in for if he tried retrieving the drifting, dying lights one or two at a time before fetching up the rose resting at the bottom of the pot. Was the rose dying too? It looked weaker. Lights swirled deeper, lower, and more damaged. The fight to survive with no hope of escape must be killing them. Two lights had separated from the rest – one of them the unique green one – flitting closer and closer to the very bottom of the frozen cauldron. Instinct told him that these would fight hardest against his attempt to capture them. Logic told him that the more he moved the glass around, the more he risked shredding them, himself, everything he was after, and himself some more. Doing nothing would surely condemn them all. The world worked that way.
If Mason wanted to call himself a Soldier in the War, he would have to pick his fights, choose his sacrifices. He'd learned that lesson from the times he'd gone into town and escaped without getting beat up.
"To be fair, you don't owe any of them. We all know that that Knight is using you for a meat shield. If you leave now, maybe the winning side will take mercy on you."
Vegetation moved to the sides of a path leading out of the broken garden.
He'd known those thorn bushes were out to get him!
The idiot Voice didn't understand that it was never about winning. There's no 'Well Done, Son' to be won, never was. Time to play a different game, one called 'Joke you all if you can't take a fuck'.
Mason lunged for the critical two. The glass thorns were bitter cold. Wherever they dug, cut, and twisted into his flesh, nerves were numbed, blood froze. The hot garden air would fix that when he was done: he'd bleed out through the slashes in his arms before he could muster a second try.
Blood meal was a good fertilizer for roses, wasn't it?
Mason pushed ever deeper until his sight blurred and failed. Pain lanced through his eyes. It was all too much, but the only way out of his Hell was through. Two struggling lights transformed into fires biting into his flesh, but he was beyond caring. Only his will was left. He forced one light into the other to free a damaged hand. He swept the empty hand through the remaining glass on the spiteful chance he'd manage to retrieve anything more. Thorns dug into bone. Some broke off in the flesh. Instead of letting him pull his head and arms free, the trap used the leverage to pull him in. Mason held on to his quarry.
Lacking wings, the broken boy fell through burning cold and frozen fires.
Lacking eyes to close, he saw the stars for what they were. Some had wings. Some had claws and fangs.
Mason fell until he hit an ashen pavement he couldn't miss. He looked up to an unknown he couldn't see and learned what the light of a thousand stars must feel like to burned and bloody eye sockets.
"They followed me home. Can I keep them?"
"You remind me of another cocky little shitstain I know. That isn't good for you."
"If I can't be good, I'll just have to be damned good at it." Mason was stunned silent by the touch of warm lips on his forehead.
"Yes. You'd better be."
Mason Goodwin slumped down in his personal darkness. The scent of roses surrounded him. Piece by piece, flesh, sensation, and pain returned to his mind. Thirteen spikes drove into the skin of his left wrist. Once settled, like dogs padding down their bedding, the patch of skin they'd encircled began burning. The ring Jonathan had given him sank molten metal fangs into its finger. Then came itching in the palms of his hands and feet. He was pretty certain he hadn't signed up for that!
Pulling out the rusted spikes felt... dirty? Good? He took his time tending to that ecstasy (tensed muscles didn't help at all) until the crazy feeling swept through and out of him. He heard a warning cough and a familiar voice say:
"Damn! I was sure you and Johnnie were going to punk out on us."
"Shows how well you know me, Rufus."
"The name's Genesius — Saint Genesius of Rome if you want to be all high and mighty about it. Let's go get you cleaned up while Jonathan runs his side of the con. You look like you need some cooling down or whatever you kids call it these days. After that? I'm not going to lie: it gets rough."
A nearby campsite
The last holdout put up a good fight, but he fell to the drugs and the ritual's magic just like the rest of them. Each dreamed about gathering in a drum circle or chanting campfire songs. Their innocent intent masked the astral scent of the major celebrants exactly as planned.
The bound and gagged sacrifice inside the corn man effigy writhed uselessly, almost erotically, against the post it was tied to. Green leaves glistened from the rare oils and accelerants the whole had been anointed with.
At the peak of the drumming and the summoning chants, under the midsummer's half-moon, an assistant brought a burning branch to the Officiant. He held it aloft and chanted the Seventh Aklo Formula. Some thing moved in the shadows of moon-pierced darkness, drawn to the sacrificial rite like butterflies to a flame.
<... Grant us our share in Your Feast! >
The Officiant plunged the burning brand into the fuel-soaked pyre.
The sacrifice hissed like frying meat, struggling in vain to avoid the flames lapping at it. Superheated vapor seared lungs and blackened skin. In minutes, muscles stopped twitching as their proteins cooked in place, the greasy smell of charred meat – the sweetest incense of all – filled the air. The spirit drawn to the sacrifice would be caught, consumed, and those responsible rewarded.
That was their plan. That which descended upon them had different plans in mind.
A nearby tent
Dalton Meier was too busy having second, third, and fourth thoughts about this trip, life choices made over his long fourteen years, and – even if it were a sin – trusting Brother Jonathan. Wasn't 'Find the Lady' a con? The cheap aftershave lingering on the sleeping bag and the inside-out clothes he was sweating in could only be Mase's. But if that didn't throw whatever off his scent, whatever was in that brew Jonathan made him drink probably would. Vomit does that. In short, Dalt was one unhappy camper, but he fell into a deep sleep before the distant screaming started.
The younger and more powerful of the approaching plant spirits recognized the clergyman's burnt tobacco, day-old sweat, and chrism smell. It recognized other things too: fibrous roots twisted into the warp of an ancient loom cut from a far more ancient tree than any remaining on this planet. Far from here and now, disturbed leaves rustled warnings to an empty crypt.
"What brings you out here, Jon? Don't tell me you're here for your health."
"Ever shag a bird, goes by the name Aramathea? You remind me of her."
The entity expanded its awareness until it sensed a familiarity.
"Considering who she serves, I'd advise you to do the same. "
"Some days, mate, I don't know who serves whom anymore."
The spirit nodded, an affectation held over from a passed life.
"I need help."
This had better be another of the man's half-truths and schemes.
"What do you need? I cannot intercede with Yig. I... I dare not in this matter. Those taken failed, but this sacred place remains severed from its guardians."
"That lot? Let them burn, I say."
That they would. "Then what?"
"It just happens that tonight, for one night only..."
Here it comes, the unamused spirit thought, Every damned time.
"...I have a line on an anchor that just might suit your uprooted friend until a new one can be made or grown."
"What did you do to the one who belongs to this place, Jon?"
"Hid him in the last place his enemies would look."
"There's no way the Rose would accept a Cainite!"
"Right! So, we're back to Plan B unless you've got something better! I did ask for help, didn't I? By the way, someone might be in for a rough landing..."
Dalt came to at the bottom of a proper canyon. Sheer walls of banded red and tan sediment loomed over skirts of similar stone sprinkled with dark green piñon and juniper. Out in the middle of empty space, two spires of banded rock reached for the starry midnight sky. How he could see all this at night made little sense, but he could, so he did.
"What am I supposed to do now?"
A green-haired Native boy pointed to the taller of the rock spires. "You climb to the top and ask to be rewoven before you fall apart."
Dalt looked down. The yarn he was made of was unraveling like a worn-out Raggedy Andy doll. He probably shouldn't wait too long to do it.
Arriving at the base of the rock spire, he found a rope hanging down, white in the moonlight. The other kid was nowhere to be seen, but he could have had something else to tend to. Nothing else to do but to do it, so he started climbing the longest, highest climbing wall he'd ever come across.
He'd been climbing long enough to see the rock's shadow rotate around its base when he noticed something new. One of the loose yarns had gotten snagged down at the bottom. If he went back down, there might not be time enough to try again. He didn't want Brother Geoffrey to have to mail a pile of loose yarn to his parents! He shook some of the stiffness out of each shoulder and went back to climbing and thinking. There wasn't much else to do. Besides: what are 'parents'?
The next time he stopped for a breather, the shadows had moved around more. All he could remember was that he needed to follow the rope he was climbing. It looked more like yarn than the stretched-out yarn that blew about in the breeze under the stars. Except, his was dyed already by things he'd done and things he was yet to do. A person might knit a person-suit from all that. Maybe that's what the figure below him was doing?
His third stop was at a white rock ledge dancing with shadows cast by stars a fingertip away in the low moonlight. All his yarn was used up, but he took the time to wind up the skein he'd been hanging from. It was so light it hardly weighed more than a feather. At the end of it was his own rope. How clever!
"Come, come, child. I was asked to expect you," said a four-armed woman dressed in a black dress with silver and turquoise on her belt and all around her neck. Her hair was black as the night around them, twisted and pinned up like royalty. Her four feet touched earth. "This would have been easier with one of Kolowisi's children, maybe even your coyote brother — now there's a lean and hungry one! Never mind. By the time I'm finished, the Hungry Ones won't even recognize you if you stood on their feet.
In no time, the weaver woman was busy at her loom.
"First, you should have sturdy blue trousers. Your people do like stripes, so I'll make the shirt red and black. You'll look good in that with a white undershirt on underneath. Shoes... we'll keep your boots. Don't want to lose your sense of duty! The valley's heart will be hidden in the conchas on your belt. Only a medicine person can see it for what it is, and only I can take it off. Mind you, if one of them comes around complaining, tell them your grandmother made it for you. As for the rest, I can't very well overdye the threads and weave it back right without making the wrong folks suspicious. Well? Get dressed! The sun will be up soon."
Dalton woke up feeling sticky and dirty in ways he didn't even want to think about. Brother Geoffrey must have heard him because he opened up the tent at arm's length.
"Not a word, son. Our first task is going to be pulling you and that contaminated sleeping bag out of there before bagging up anything else that got vomit, sweat, blood, or other fluids on it."
"What about me?" Ground zero reeked.
"We have a bucket and a scrub brush for that before you even look at a shower. Joey offered to help. " The boy's eyes widened in shock. Geoffrey shook his head. "Your modesty is safe. Mr. Adkinson took point on dragging both troops through the Park for another round of sunburn and sweating out a mass food poisoning. "
"Is that what really happened?"
"No, but it answers questions. You should be concerned about nearly burning out."
Geoffrey waited for Dalton to ask, "Wait. Wasn't there someone else?"
"Mason's sedated. Jonathan and I need to explain to you what you can and can't say."
"But I didn't do anything wrong! Did I?"
"Wrong? No, but last night didn't go as planned. We'll need you to keep some details confidential — for your own sake and that of the Mother Church." How many times has Jonathan gone through this part, for hime to become so cavalier about it?
Distracted as Brother Geoffrey was by the past evening's events, he didn't notice Dalton snatch a crunchy cicada from a bush along the way for a good scrubbing.
Jonathan had had to give it to Goodwin: modern Cainites weren't known for their altruism, but he'd gone along with the plan to deny the intruders their fun. That did nothing to explain what possessed The Rose to push the hellbound brat through initiation, and why was it still holding on? Maybe he shouldn't have asked the bog god to lend a hand with the other kid.
When Mason got up and went around to the various poisoned and/or injured innocents, Jonathan hoped that the Ring was using the boy for mobility's sake. In the dark, he couldn't see the blood running down Mason's face from his eyes. That was reserved for the boy's return to the picnic table where Jonathan had set up. The horror show wasn't yet over. Mason pulled a long glass thorn from between tight-clenched eyelids. Then he licked a drop of red from a rose tattoo that matched Jonathan's own and collapsed.
Twelve bones broken on the right, twelve fractured on the left. A smashed sternum made thirteen. Assured the rebellious captive could not escape, would never in fact fly again, the bailiff recited a litany of sins for Judgement. Here, no blood could be allowed to stain the halls, so the captive was led/dragged to the very edge of wilderness for his wings to be removed like those of a slaughtered fowl.
Mason tumbled through endless bitter darkness, barely out of reach of hands that had no place in the same creation as he. He thought he'd known purpose, he thought he'd been touched by malice, but he'd been so, so terribly wrong.
The exile's remaining bones shattered and ground against each other, pulping muscle and sinew, as he punched through the jagged crust of black basalt, into its burning heart only to be bouyed back up, helpless, against the crust downstream of his entry. Broken into dust, burned to ash, renewed to begin again. If this was where he was meant to be, then he would remake it into his own kingdom, forever and ever.
--- * --- * ---
This would never do. For setting such a poor example, the mortal blight was scraped up and delivered to the front office.
"You should know that even if you were allowed to stay, you could expect no special treatment."
The chair Mason found himself in had several more arms than most designs. Those that retained hands were more aggressively exploratory than on those found Topside. The restraints that locked his arms, legs, and neck in place had been carved from the ribs of unborn children ripped from murdered prostitutes. The Ring whispered Lore revealing that either the bones were too strong or he was too damned to prevail — such bonds had once held a better man for forty days and nights.
"Does that mean that there are VIP passes to angle for?"
"I do amuse myself with guests from time to time, but your name isn't on the guest list. Such a pity."
"I don't want to go back. What's in it for me, anyway?"
"What all My tools get: a bigger dirtier job. You do get signing bonuses of a sort, but it's up to you to use them. For now, get out of My sight and tell your friend Jonathan that We'll be waiting." The Boss paused for the sake of drama, before asking, "How'd you like your first blood sacrifice? Tasty, effervescent on the tongue, hm?"
Hours until dawn
Seven seconds came and left without improvement.
"Felching Hell." There was something better, funnier, to say?
Seven more seconds slowly shuddered under uncaring stars before Mason lifted his wild-eyed face from the weathered table, turned to the side, and retched gritty black bile. He moaned like a gutshot derelict before the next spasm pitched him face-first into the acrid mess.
Jonathan watched for signs of breathing from where he sat. If their positions were reversed, he'd punch the first blighter who dared touch him. Laz would know all about that! He listened for several minutes before deciding whether the child was crying or laughing. The answer to an unspoken question, delivered behind eyes flickering with hellfire, ran Jonathan's veins full of ice-water and acid.
"Your friend with the horns says he'll be waiting. Hurry back!"
Monday evening, June 25, 2007,
Jonathan watched the last of the family units pull out into traffic. The Meiers had been forewarned that their oldest son had been through some changes, but there would still some getting used to the revisions.
He said to Brother Geoffrey, "Well now, this has been a right proper party, except for there being no booze, no fags, and no birds."
"Believe it or not, you were tougher on the boys than I would have expected. It's traditional to let them get away with enough mischief to blow off steam."
"Some of them blew off steam alright. Dixon might play for both teams, but MacAlister's headed for some disappointment."
Geoffrey shook his head slowly, "Not quite what I meant, but I can run with it. Dalton's completely oblivious to Joseph's interest, but that's also traditional for that age. What's next for you? I don't suppose you'd stick around this old cow town to help raise the next generation up right."
"Nah. I'm all for getting out while the getting is good. Like as not, I'll probably be asked to poke a hornet's nest or two around New England before crossing the pond."
"What about the others?"
"Old Scratch's unchosen kids are still in the business of putting the deadly into sin, so I forwarded whatever Petra could dig up on who might've been involved."
Wednesday morning, June 27, 2007,
"Damn these muscle twitches," Richard Lemoore groused to himself as he walked/dragged a numb leg to the front door. He'd been enduring envenomation symptoms for the past six days since his 'apprentices' botched the ritual meant to empower him. They were lucky to have died already! He fired off a stimulant cantrip to hide his weakened state. The riff-raff would just come back with crowbars and a moving van if they got the idea that they could break in easily! After all these mortal years, he found himself shocked by what stood before him.
"Hi, there! My name is Elder Adkinson and this is my companion, Elder Hardin. We're conducting a survey of your neighborhood regarding belief in the free exercise of religion. If you could lend us a few moments to answer a couple of questions, we'll be out of your hair and on our way."
Without missing a beat, Elder Hardin asked, "For example: Do you pray?"
"Yes. I can certainly say I do." Such fools could never comprehend how he prayed.
"See? Easy as pie. What about the other members of your household: do they pray as well?"
"Sorry, son. It's just me these days." If there were others... Maybe he could still recoup the Essence he'd wasted to impress these smiling vermin. Breathe in.
Elder Adkinson's face grew sober, "I'm sorry to hear that."
That makes one of us. Breathe out.
Richard inhaled, paused to say nothing, then sighed, "Not at all, it's a small sacrifice compared to so many others. I'm sure you two must feel so hot, standing in the stuffy outside all the time." He watched for one or both to fall in step with his controlled breathing. "Don't you think you'd feel more comfortable if you came inside?"
Adkinson's eyes were already glassy, "We certainly don't want to inconvenience you!"
"It's no bother. Do come inside, Mister Adkins..."
"That's Adkinson, sir."
"So it is! You must forgive an old man's memory. Never quite where you left it. A cool glass of tea would do you two a world of good, and then we can discuss any other questions you have. You aren't due back until much later, aren't you?"
Hardin replied, "No, I mean, yes, sir. We often don't get back until quite late."
Maybe they could all pray? Glycon might even relent on his Dick's aching bones.
"Pray tell. Well, come along, boys!" Breathe in, breathe out. Follow my lead. A few minutes off your feet might change your entire day."
--- * --- * ---
Adkinson stared at the handcuffed body thrashing at the end of a barely-snug noose.
"How about it — do you think that our friend's prayers are being heard?"
"All the way to his destination. How long do we wait to call in the welfare check?"
"Have to give it long enough for the spider clan venom to take hold. The cause of death almost always goes down as accidental suicide. Once investigators get a good look at this guy's playroom and telephone records, it ought to get interesting."
Hardin asked, "Take hold? Oh. So that's why he's cuffed with his hands in front of him. How'd we get a line on a lethal aphrodisiac, anyway?"
"Hector's girlfriend and her sister are spider clan. Mase likes to push his luck. Somehow it all works out."
"You will not find me
I am safe in here
I am where I want to be
So leave me now in peace"
—Epica, "Terra Sancta"