When Seneca Chamberlin had first been taken down the little-known road of Adder’s Lane, it had been in a horse-drawn carriage. Now he rode down its byzantine twists and turns in an electric, semi-autonomous luxury sedan, but Adder’s Lane itself had not changed one bit.
The road was long and winding, undulating and meandering like a serpent, as its name implied. It was made from dreary grey stones that had been laid down millennia ago by some forgotten Druids, for reasons now remembered only by a few. It revealed itself only to those who sought it, and while no one ever saw it move, all knew that it did.
Those who lacked the power and will to command it would be led around in an infinite, ever-shifting loop until either thirst or madness claimed them, unless they first dared to venture off the path altogether.
That was practically suicide though, since Adder’s Lane was flanked by ancient, gnarled, moss-draped trees on all sides with a nearly opaque canopy overhead. It was an ancient, primeval forest, that had once been fully of the Earth but now no longer quite belonged in a world where even the abyssal depths of the ocean bore some taint of Human civilization. The Adderwood, however, remained untouched by both Man and Time, in some sense literally, so much so that it was not to be found on any mundane map.
Seneca barely suppressed a shudder at the sound of a lone wolf howling somewhere in the distance. At least it wasn't on the lane this time. Even without horses to worry about, an encounter with the Adderwood Wolves was never a pleasant experience.
Due to the protean nature of Adder’s Lane, one never knew exactly how long their trip would take. Speed was limited by the frequent turns and rough terrain, but that didn’t really matter so much as how well the road submitted to the traveller’s will.
Seneca, however, studied occultist that he was, managed to complete the drive in under half an hour. Adder’s Lane graciously led him out of the woods and into the hallowed glade those old Druids had sought so long ago.
They had built a Megalith there, or so Seneca had been told, but now in its place was a great stone manor house, practically a castle. There was no parking lot, per se, but Seneca brought his car up as close to the front doors as he could get it.
The doors opened slowly, revealing a pair of occultists in hooded, crimson cloaks, bound at their necks by a Triple Ouroboros broach. Sighing, Seneca stepped out of his car and went to fetch his passenger from the trunk.
It wasn’t as malevolent as it sounded. The passenger in question was no more than an undead brain in a vat, needing little in the way of space and air. That didn’t stop him from wrinkling his grey matter at Seneca the instant the trunk was popped.
“Don’t give me that. We can’t exactly have you riding shotgun, now can we?” Seneca asked rhetorically. Picking up the brain with both hands and closing the trunk with a tap of his foot, he headed up the steps to Adderman Manor.
“He’s waiting,” one of the occultists spoke softly, before shutting the door behind him.
The foyer was a candlelit rotunda, with the marble floor tiles forming a mosaic of the Triple Ouroboros icon. Frescoes and statues decorated the room, depicting various mythic and mystical beings and events, and the domed ceiling was painted with a scene of the Chaoskampf, the battle between the Sky Father and the World Serpent.
Seneca passed through the foyer with barely a glance and into the Great Hall. It had vaulted ceilings, two long refractory tables and four hundred ornate, high backed chairs of wood and velvet. A long red carpet was laid between them, leading to an elevated throne with a gold veneer.
Upon that throne sat another crimson cloaked figure, his hood completely obscuring his face. He was at least seven-feet-tall, yet no more than two hundred pounds in weight. His ashen hands were thin and elongated, his fingers blackened at their pointed tips. Everything about him seemed elongated and serpentine, actually, from his spindly limbs to his lanky torso to his gangling neck, as though he had once been a man of average stature who had been stretched out to his current proportions.
Upon his head, he bore a golden crown made of thirteen interlocked Triple Ouroboros icons, the front-facing one holding a blood-red Philosopher's Stone in its center.
To each side of the throne were six, slightly less ornate chairs, filled with other cloaked figures of more conventional stature who bore only a single Triple Ouroboros upon their crowns. Scribes sat at a pair of desks to record the proceedings, numerous lesser occultists stood at the ready should their superiors require anything, and a balcony to either side of the hall held multiple spectators.
Seneca approached the throned figure until the exact instant he held up his hand for him to stop.
“Set Crowley next to the Victrola,” he ordered, his voice raspy but commanding.
“Yes, Grand Adderman,” Seneca bowed reverently, doing as he was told.
“Seneca, you know why you’ve been called here,” the Grand Adderman began. “On Samhain, you dared to summon the entity our order has named Emrys. Your containment wards proved inadequate, and Emrys now roams free in our world! What do you have to say for yourself?”
“Summoning Emrys was risky. I don’t deny that,” he answered, swallowing nervously. “Opportunities to do so typically occur only once every eighteen or nineteen years, so I prefer not to waste them. I was, admittedly, trying to impress a prospective member with a demonstration of our order's capabilities, which may have factored into my risk assessment more than it should have. I would, however, like to point out that I have successfully summoned Emrys before without incident."
“Then what went wrong this time?” the Grand Adderman growled.
“Ah, Crowley can answer that better than I can,” Seneca replied, deferring to the disembodied brain. Crowley’s aura began to glow as he began telekinetically manipulating the Victrola.
“I refined the miasma that was used in the ritual, and double-checked the wards and incantations,” he explained, his voice booming forth from the antique record player. “They were, if anything, more potent and secure than those used during prior attempts. Despite that, I was actually less certain they would hold this time around due to various uncertainties regarding Emrys himself. I had no way of knowing if he had grown stronger or if his chains may have weakened, but I did deem these distinct possibilities and advised against the summoning. Seneca chose to proceed anyway.”
“I would like to point out, however, that I did have the Darling Twins on hand in case physically subduing Emrys became necessary,” Seneca interjected.
“And their battle sent such shockwaves through the Aether that there’s not one clairvoyant on the planet who does not know that Emrys is free!” the Grand Adderman shouted, pounding his right fist. “And they still failed to restrain him! What went wrong?”
“Well, I had retreated to a secure location at that point, but from what I’ve been able to gather, James became injured, and Mary then insisted upon a strategic withdrawal. You know how attached she is to her brother,” Seneca chuckled awkwardly.
“And what, if anything, do you intend to do about this?” the Grand Adderman demanded.
“I… intend to defer to your superior judgement and expertise on the matter,” Seneca admitted.
Everyone else in the room began murmuring amongst each other, while the Grand Adderman just buried his unseen face in his palm.
“Very well,” he muttered. “Dealing with Emrys will require drafting a committee to determine and recruit the necessary resources. This meeting, however, is to determine how to discipline Head Adderman Chamberlin. Do you wish to appeal for leniency, Seneca?”
“No, Grand Adderman,” Seneca said, taking off his hat and lowering his head contritely. “I knew the risks, and summoned Emrys regardless. Both my containment wards and the Darlings proved inadequate control measures, and I am solely responsible for that. I throw myself at your mercy.”
“So be it,” the Grand Adderman declared. “First and foremost, you are demoted to the Rank of Master Adderman, effective immediately! Crowley shall be the acting head of the Harrowick Chapter until a long-term replacement can be found.
“You’ve been with our order for centuries now, Seneca, and in all that time you have seldom been anything but an asset. But your failure with Emrys is a complete and utter catastrophe! We cannot risk having you in a position where you’ll be able to repeat such a costly error.
“Furthermore, while your usefulness to us may spare you your life and your membership, a mere demotion would be insufficient justice considering the threat we now face and the Herculean effort we will no doubt endure to contain it! I also fear that letting you off too easy may embolden other Head Addermen to take similar unjustified risks in the future.
“Therefore, I am open to suggestions as to how best to discipline Master Adderman Chamberlin.”
There was chuckling from the audience and nods of agreement from the council members.
“Why not pump him full of Crowley’s concoctions, and force him to endure the rest of eternity as a brain in a vat as well?” one council member suggested.
"Hey, I take offence to that!" Crowley objected.
“Perfectly understandable,” the Grand Adderman nodded condescendingly. “Besides, I would prefer for Seneca to remain more or less intact after we’re done with him.”
“In that case, perhaps old Red Ruck might be the best suited to the task, eh?” another council member suggested. Nods and murmurs of assent came from the rest of the council and audience alike. Even the Grand Adderman seemed taken with the idea.
“I shall see if he’s available,” he nodded. He grabbed a tall golden staff made from three intertwined snakes, the head of each pointed outwards in a different direction, and a luminescent bloodstone held between them.
As he bowed his head and began chanting in a forgotten tongue, the entire manor house and everything in it seemed to dissipate like fog, leaving Seneca standing there in the glade.
All around him now was the Megalith of old, of yore, of that ancient before-time when even the wise cannot distinguish between myth and history. It was a ring of large stones, each moss-covered and weather-worn, jutting up from the earth like the fingers of some buried Titan, a hexagonal orifice carved into the top of each one.
Seneca stood upon a hexagon platform in the center, with six stone altars all around him. On the altar before him stood a great shadowy demon, around the same height as the Grand Adderman but far more muscular and proportionally built, his wings wrapped around him like a cloak. Its only truly distinct feature was a pair of burning red eyes, eagerly glaring down at Seneca in anticipation as its mouth twisted into a wicked grin.
“Hello Red Ruck,” Seneca sighed, having feared the Dream Demon would be his punishment from the start. “You responded to your summons rather promptly, I must say.”
"Oh, I was following the proceedings rather keenly," Red Ruck admitted with a playful shrug. "It's not every day that someone of your standing falls so hard, so fast. What an absolutely hilarious blunder you've committed, Seneca, not that I care about Emrys one way or the other. Your demotion though raises some interesting possibilities, though, doesn’t it? Tell me, who do you think will replace you? Not Crowley, surely. A brain for a Head would never do, since Chapter Heads need to be able to pass for mundane. The Ophion Occult Order has always been a bit ableist in that regard. The Darlings, either alone or together, are out too, I suppose. As powerful as they are, they aren’t exactly stable. Who does that leave then? Thorne, maybe? But no, he'd never give up micromanaging that laboratory of his. Ah, no matter. It's out of both of our hands anyway, isn't it?"
Seneca stood there dejectedly, his head hung low.
“They’re watching, I take it?” he muttered.
“You’re still exactly where you were, yes, and they can all see me,” Red Ruck nodded. “Your fear of these woods was fresh in your mind, so it seemed a good place to start. Fear of the wolves in particular. You’ve always been afraid of wolves, haven’t you Seneca? Ever since you were a boy in your family’s country house, and you could hear them howling at the moon.”
The clouds overhead began to part, revealing a bright red Blood Moon. It throbbed like a living heart, with branching veins and arteries snaking off into the darkness, pulsating in time with its beat. Seneca heard the same wolf howl as before, only now that lone howl was answered by the rest of its pack.
“You never saw a wolf though until you were thirteen. It had been a harsh winter, the pack was starving, and they had grown desperate enough to raid your stables. You awoke in the middle of the night to a cacophony of terrified neighing and ferocious growling. Young and brash, you grabbed your faithful blunderbuss without a second thought and raced for the stables.
“When you got there it was so noisy, yet so dark, but there was just enough light for you to see what you wish you could have unseen. Chestnut, your favourite steed, splayed upon the ground as the pack tore out her entrails, her terror and agony undeniable as they ate her alive.
“There were so many wolves there, more than you dared to count, and your blunderbuss was only good for one shot. You thought of perhaps firing it upwards in the hopes it would scare them off, but then you saw the ravenous hunger in their eyes. You were of course far too privileged to have experienced such desperate hunger yourself, but somehow you were still able to recognize it on some instinctual level. You knew that if those wolves didn't eat, they would die, and an empty threat from you would be nowhere near enough to frighten them off.
“They were so skinny, but at the same time they seemed so big, their fangs all bared and their muzzles covered in blood, tearing at your prized mare with such unrestrained savagery. Then one of them, perhaps the alpha, noticed you standing there. You saw its starving, shining eyes staring straight at you, a monstrous growl rising in its throat, an unmistakable threat in case you dared to get between the pack and their kill.
"You fled back into the house then, leaving Chestnut and the other horses to their fate. You briefly tried to rouse and rally the servants to go out and shoo them off, but your father wouldn't have it. He was a slightly better man than you've ever been, and he wouldn't let the servants risk their lives for a few easily replaceable horses. And so, you had no choice but to listen to the ravenous pack tear their way through your stable, murdering your horses until they'd finally had their fill and leaving behind only nightmares and one hell of a mess."
A pack of wolves began emerging from the trees. All of them black, all of them enormous, all with Red Ruck’s fiery red eyes.
“How many times have you dreamed that you were the one being eaten alive by those wolves, Seneca?”
Seneca buried his face in his palms and quietly wept, shuddering with dread at the thought of his imminent torture. He didn’t bother to run though. It would only draw the whole ordeal out, and that was what everyone else wanted.
When he looked up at Red Ruck, he saw that he was presenting him with an ornate blunderbuss pistol, like the one he had failed to use against those wolves all those centuries ago.
“I have to make it sporting, even if it’s only good for one shot,” he smirked. “Use it wisely.”
Red Ruck vanished then, and the wolves erupted into a symphony of horrendous howls.
A bitterly cold wind blew in, bringing with it a flurry of snow, covering the ground impossibly quickly. In what seemed like only seconds, it was already too deep to run in. Storm clouds swept across the moon, utterly blocking it out, and the only light left came from the glowing red eyes of the circling wolves.
Seneca debated with himself about whether or not to offer even a token display of resistance. He knew he had no power in the Dream Demon’s realm, and that the blunderbuss’s single bullet would be useless, even to end his own life. Red Ruck just wanted him to squirm, and dangling the possibility of escape, however fleeting or illusory, was only meant to make him fight until he could fight no more.
Seneca’s attention shifted away from the phantom wolves around him now to the real wolves he had encountered so many years ago. His failure to fire his weapon then had been an admittance of impotence, an acknowledgement that those starving, mangey mutts trespassing upon his manor had more authority there than he did. They had cowed him into submission, and he had not even dared to try the same tactic on them.
But then he had his estate to consider. His family, his servants, his horses, all of whose lives may have hinged on his choices at that moment. Now though, his choices counted for nothing, so he may as well make the choice that spared him as much of his dignity as possible.
Pointing his weapon not at the wolves but up towards the southern monolith, he fired. He fired, knowing full well the noise would not scare them off, but daring to try nonetheless, refusing to give in to fear as he had done when he was a boy.
The first of the wolves came lunging at him, pinning him to the ground and tearing out his throat. His screams quickly turned to incoherent gurgles, his lungs began to burn from the lack of air, but yet he knew Red Ruck would not be so merciful as to let him die.
The other wolves crowded around, clawing open his torso and pulling out his intestines and organs, their jaws crushing and shredding them like meat grinders. Seneca felt them being torn out, being chewed up, even somehow being swallowed and bathed in stomach acid. It was excruciating, and quite literally his worst nightmare, and he could not fight back or even scream in agony.
The Grand Adderman stared down at Seneca writhing on the floor, his body fully intact and yet his mind subjected to tortures that no one in the waking world would even be capable of experiencing, let alone surviving. He gave a smug nod of satisfaction at the surreal castigation, and turned to his councillors to see if they too were satisfied.
But instead of gleefully watching Seneca thrash beneath them, they were all looking upon the Grand Adderman in silent horror.
“Grand Adderman… your crown,” the one nearest him spoke in the softest of whispers. The Grand Adderman promptly removed his crown, and barely stifled a gasp when he saw that the Philosopher’s Stone upon it was cracked; a rounded, silver bullet embedded in its body.
Practically crushing what was left of the crown in rage, he cast an accusatory gaze at the Dream Demon, now lazily perched upon the west balcony.
Red Ruck, beyond even the Grand Adderman’s power to control or discipline, simply gave a casual shrug.
“As I said; I had to make it sporting,” he explained, flashing a mischievous grin.
The Grand Adderman looked back down towards Seneca who, despite being trapped in a waking nightmare where he was being eaten alive by wolves, managed to smile up at him defiantly.
Written by The Vesper's Bell