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Jacob Rodriguez, a speck of dust.
Coward. Misanthrope. Pretentious artist.
Your failures are greater than your prospects. Maybe you should quit pretending already and give up the charade.
“ - maybe it's time you learned how to defend yourself like a grown man,” Will said with his usual off-kilter enthusiasm. I was jolted from my thoughts.
We were hanging around an overpass downtown, watching the trains below us chug along to the rhythm of the city. The sky was overcast but also so smooth and white that the city felt bright. I felt most alive here, where I could walk around of my own accord and watch people go about their business. I felt at peace as I sketched the scene in a pocket book.
“I do know how bro,” I muttered between pencil strokes. I was far from finished, but I suddenly didn’t feel like it was worth it anyway. The drawing looked like shit. “I stay at home all day and don’t interact with anyone. That’s my bastion.”
“Well...I was going to suggest I properly teach you how to handle a weapon, so we could go hunting later,” Will said, casually inspecting his fingertips. “I mean, I was feeling regretful I hadn’t trained you sooner but seeing as you handled yourself fairly well while unarmed on your first trip, then maybe it isn’t important - ”
“Wh-wha - Sign me the hell up.” I sputtered at attention.
From the overpass, we entered an alleyway nobody was paying attention to and applied William’s spatial logic. The dark vista opened before us as we made our way home: my excitement over the prospect of being able to handle an actual weapon was obfuscating the general anxiety that came with walking through those black tunnels. I don’t want to sound like a deranged fool, but my love of weapons came from a long career of playing video games, drawing and watching a lot of mid-2000’s action cartoons. Before you consider calling an anonymous tip about a potential maniac in the Downtown area, I admit it's not exactly easy to speak about my interests while retaining some semblance of approachability. If the work me and Will were doing was any indication, I was going to need to learn how to cover my ass at all times.
We left the tunnel which opened up into an alley in some other part of the city. As far as I’m aware the alley smelled like Chicago, but it didn’t look like an alley I’d recognize. Aesthetically, I mean. It looked very old-timey. In the distance church bells rang out: 12 on the dot. Will, apparently knowing his way around, strutted to the back of the alley and heel turned left where there appeared to be a dead end. As I came closer to inspect, a tunnel revealed itself which led into the back of some store. “This is where I get my shiny toys sometimes,” he said with the most vague sense of humor.
“Don’t say that,” I said flatly.
I followed closely as we descended the steps and knocked on a door that looked like it hadn’t been used in a century. There was silence for a few minutes during which time I briefly considered Will might be working with an arms dealer. As silly as it sounds, I didn’t feel as intimidated as I probably should have. I mean, I’ve been involved in worse by now right? I get the idea that most anyone reading this would be shocked to find out I wasn’t dead by then, doing such unsavory activities.
Silently and suddenly the door swung open and a quick little thing glided out to greet us. I was taken aback at how wrong my initial impression of the owner was. The woman was petite, maybe 5 foot 5, with a copious amount of black, messy hair resting on her thin shoulders. Her eyes were hidden behind purple-tinted aviators as they rapidly scanned the both of us, her face a mixture of suspicion and curiosity. At first I thought she might've just woken up since she was dressed in a raggety old tee shirt and gym shorts that had 'OKAY!' printed in big faded letters.
“Fraea, my dear, how are y- “ Will had time to say before the tiny thing was brandishing an obsidian knife at Will’s throat.
“ - you doing,” he finished, seemingly unfazed by her animosity. I held my breath as the two locked gazes.
Finally, she chuckled and withdrew the blade slowly, pocketing it. “...Ahh this thing is dull anyway. William, what a nice surprise, visiting during the daytime. I see you brought a fresh customer!” Fraea eyed me pointedly. “We have the freshest sweetbread around the neighborhood, and we cater for every occasion. Except for church gatherings!” she exclaimed.
Before I could stutter, Will corrected her. “He knows what I am, Fraea. We’re here to shop in the other aisle, yes?”
Fraea tipped her shades down and revealed her porcelain brow, voids where her eyes should’ve been. A wraith. I’m not gonna lie, I did feel a slight attraction to her small, rather cute human façade, but then I remembered how wraiths aren’t romantic or sexual in the slightest. Plus, they are eerily chilly and...technically unalive? So thankfully that impossible prospect knocked some sense into me. “I know, you clod. I was covering, just in case anyone nearby heard you come in. Inside.” She gestured and we followed.
The inside smelt like a few things - mainly smoke and incense - but also a peculiarly damp and metallic smell. Almost like blood, but not quite. Light was filtering in from a lamp up above somewhere, hidden between wooden beams and highlighting containers of what I presumed to be bread sitting around haphazardly. The front windows were blinded; it didn’t look like anyone had opened them in centuries. “Mind the crates,” Fraea said offhandedly. “I’ve been meaning to clean them out ever since the humans stopped coming in here. Figure I’ve got time to relocate the foundry before they come brick up this alley.” She looks at Will and smirks. “Not that it’d matter.”
He nodded and asked bluntly, “How many fresh projects do you have finished?”
Fraea looked up in mock surprise. “Ohh, you enjoy my weapons do you? I thought you traded for a pen spear last month.”
I looked at Will with an eyebrow raised. He didn’t even bother looking back. “No, I think that was a little further back. I want to know if you have anything for Jake here.” He pats me on the shoulder. Fraea eyes me casually as she shoves a crate of what used to be bread to the back wall. “Have you ever used a weapon before?”
“Uhh, a few times. I shot a rifle a few times in Puerto Rico and went paintball shooting at a party two years ago…”
“Ahuh. Do you know how to plant the spiky end of a stick into another living or non-living thing?
Fraea smiled. “Perfect! You passed the test.”
“No, but I don’t care much, as long as Will doesn’t come crying back to me tomorrow that you took off your own fingers,” she said as she shot her daggers at him. Hidden history, a one-off instance? I sure as hell wasn’t about to ask.
Will shrugged and replied “I wanted to get Jake a proper self-defense weapon for our next quest. I figured he’d be more than capable of using one, being the eh, experienced gentleman he is.” Before you ask, I don’t know why he phrased it that way either.
“And what quest would that be?” she asked, pushing back the curtains as we made our way into the back room. It was dark and I couldn’t see a lightswitch anywhere, but there in the center of the dark she stood.
“We’re going to hunt a wight,” Will said. That name, as far as I’m aware, meant something akin to a ghost or spirit, but it was just ambiguous enough that it could imply any nature of creature.
“Ahhh, one of yours or a stray?” Fraea asked again, pulling something dangling from the ceiling. Below us, a low rumbling was heard.
“Definitely not ‘mine’. Pretty sure it died before I even set up in Chicago. I know the location had been popping up on local haunted history shows for a few years. Checked it myself, it has all the hallmarks of being infested by wraiths.” Not his? At the time, I had no idea what he was talking about.
The rumbling got deeper and my legs began to tremble. As I grasped at the door frame to hold myself up, something began changing. The floor seeped purple light, bricks scrambling to get out of the way as the center of the room opened up. Something large and table-like rose from the gap as the top of it shone and illuminated the wide room we were in. It looked to be a smelting furnace in the form of a large well. A larger black shadow, an anvil I imagined, also rose out of the floor and settled cozily next to its companion. The metallic, damp smell from earlier was strongest here.
“So. How long have you two known each other?” I had the courage to ask out loud. Both wraiths looked at me. I tried to ignore the fact that they both had their paper-skinned faces on, apparently comfortable enough to drop the act in my presence.
“I met Fraea perhaps 2 years before you,” Will began. “I was still settling into the estate after I got done making sure no other wraiths took claim to it, and lo and behold I found the urchin testing a blade on a mannequin, in some hidden corner bedroom. She was stark naked, rambling like a child. I had to talk her down from continuing. From there, it didn’t take long to educate her on the proper way of conducting oneself in a public space.” At this, he glanced at Fraea who let out a single guffaw. It seemed these kin were just inherently strange to each other and myself.
I squinted. “This isn’t going to lead to a really awkward conversation later, is it?”
“No,” Will answered quickly. I kept narrowing my eyes between him and Fraea who seemed amused at his sudden insistence to move on with the conversation. So I dropped it and walked closer to the forge.
In the center of the dark cauldron was a subtly writhing mass of miasmic purple. I expected a rush of heat as I bent my head closer, but instead I felt a slow, creeping cold drench my face and clog my pores. Light-headedness. Static thoughts. A sort of sluggish melancholy. The closest approximation to literal depression I could even describe.
“Careful boy,” Fraea said in a slightly distorted tone. “Move any closer and you’ll dissociate at the atomic level. That’s raw, morphing Abyssal fluid right there.” She moved forward and dipped her hand, then entire arm into the vat, seemingly unphased by the noxious stew. I can only imagine it was because of her alien biology, same as how Will was immune to the portals he frequently used. “I can poke my grabbers in there without a hitch. Will can’t, since he’s too scared to get his hands dirty.” At this she winked.
She lifted and pulled out something shining from within that plasmatic froth. “I think … I’d be willing to part with this little beauty. I call 'er ‘Longedge,’” Fraea grunted. As she dropped it onto the anvil, she took a similarly colored hammer and whacked the barrel lightly a few times. The sheen dulled until the object was visible. The object appeared to be a .357 revolver, but the metal was darker. It looked to be made of the same metal in the pens Will showed me back at the estate, hepatizon. “You can touch it now honey, it ain’t gonna kill you” she said as I bent closer to hold it. Smooth, heavy, with small golden trails tracing their way around the grip and body. Energy shot through my palm and up into my tendons as I pointed the cannon, filling me with a strange sense of power. Yeah, it really is true what they say about wielding a gun; it makes you feel as if you have more agency than you really do. The power to turn destinies AND heads. Extremely terrifying.
“That weapon has the stopping power of your average Colt, but with the capability to punch its way through anything Abyss-like in nature,” Fraea remarked, watching my hand with morbid fascination. “I think I’ve made ‘er specifically for you.”
I turned towards her, the well in the room illuminating my features once more. “How do you tell. You didn’t even ask what would suit me.”
I felt a subtle, hypnotic pull as I met her gaze, her void eyes sucking the words out of me. “Hun, I can just tell it was made for you. You’ve got the hand of an artist, and it’d be a damn shame if you didn’t get something that reflected that capability.”
On the side of the barrel was an inscription. To Create and to Destroy, in golden cursive.
Will and I spent the rest of the day practicing with targets at the mansion. As it turned out, I really was a bit of an eagle eye with a gun, ignoring that it was of an otherworldly craft. I ended up having a solid shooting average of six to seven bottle hits out of 10. The bullets, black as the frame they came from and twice as dense, hit their targets with thunderous impact, leaving my arm reeling nominally with each smooth trigger pull. I shattered one of the small asteroids that casually swam through the black ocean surrounding the Estate, pieces of it flying off in random directions infinitely with a muffled POOM. We would be making our Hunt tonight, under the cloak of night. That’s how these things usually go, right?
I tried not to remind myself about the other things I sometimes think about at night. The ones usually involving me and a loaded gun.
“We’re here,” Will said as we stepped out of the light of the nearby highway. It was around 7:30 PM, just dark enough to avoid suspicion as we moved underneath the turnpike, cars rushing above us. According to him, Chicago used to have a series of tunnels underneath the Loop until the company running it filed for bankruptcy, leaving a series of cross-sectioned but inaccessible tunnels submerged beneath the shrieking highways. Even though it was still fairly warm out, I was dressed in my usual bomber and jeans attire. Will always wore a stupid trench coat and tie that looked cartoonishly large on him.
Will was concentrating. I saw his eye-discs doing their ominous spinny crap and he turned and pointed a torch at the entrance tunnel leading deep into the ground. We kicked away a patch of moss, revealing the handle, wrenching open the hatch with our combined strength. As we descended down the hole, I was aware of a new smell: raw, moist sewage and perhaps the stench of death. I choked down saliva and descended first, praying my gloved hands gripped the ladder long enough to reach the bottom. The Longedge dangled heavily against my hip.
At the bottom was a tight tunnel, barely taller than me so that I had to crouch slightly (I’m six foot, for reference). It extended into a deadend and at the other end, into a larger tunnel. Will patted the large spear shape on his back: it looked to be a bigger, weaponized version of the pens at home, perhaps four feet in length. I’d never seen him use it before, but knowing he had one made me feel a little braver as we crouch-walked towards the open-ended tunnel.
“So, remind me what exactly we’re up against here,” I whispered to Will. My voice ignored the volume I intended and still echoed off the slimy walls of the tunnel. We were 40 meters away from an access tunnel, according to our map.
He replied, “Wight. The corpse of a wraith. Sometimes they get stuck in these places, and they just...die from madness. I’d estimate a large portion of you human’s spirit folk-culture can be attributed to their existence.”
“Are you serious? I thought all you guys could move through walls. That’s so fucked up if true.” We were approaching the side access in 20 meters.
“Some of us can. Wraiths aren’t good with tight spaces, and for whatever reason we might be born wedged into the odd crawlspace, the abandoned artifact, a pocket of air in the dirt. Sometimes … we’re even stillborn into human beings.”
“That’s also really sad. And disturbing, Jesus.” I gulped and shone my light forward. 10 meters away.
“The thing to remember is that wights aren’t so much ‘corpses’ as much as … well, a fragmented shell of consciousness. We are born into this world as reflections of human beings, a mere imitation of living, warm things. We carry no faces, but we still live, albeit paradoxically. In essence, a wight is more of - “
We were at the tunnel. Leading down the stairs was a black pool of water, ending our movement. Greenish dirt and trash floated on the surface.
“ - a hole in the shape of a person. A paper fluttering in and out of a breathing crack. Grab my arm.”
“Fun. I’m so glad I signed up for this.” I grabbed his arm as instructed and we began to descend through the tunnel. For one heart-stopping moment, my chest auto-inhaled as if that was the last breath of air I’d ever get, but upon reaching the water we casually sank in, through it, floating through the flooded passage as ephemeral wisps. I swear I saw something dark swim past me during that point. We eventually came out the other end after about 15 seconds, what felt more like a full minute.
According to our ancient map we were in a series of pumping tunnels with various odd rooms, maybe 45 feet below the streets. Our target was roughly a mile ahead, hidden somewhere between old worker bunks and an auxiliary power room. William had marked this area with a peculiar looking skull-icon, what I could only imagine represented the wight.
“And you're sure these weapons can kill the poor bastard? You said these things can teleport, do you honestly think I can handle that?”
“You managed to spot me moving through the rotwood of the mansion, even though I’m far more perceptive and stealthy than you. I think you’ll do fine.” He turned and smiled widely, his black smile swallowing up the ambient light. “I want to see what you’re capable of.”
Cool water above us was dripping incessantly. I could feel it occasionally tapping my hat and jacket. Despite being inside of a nominally taller tunnel, I still couldn’t shake the feeling I was being crushed from above, years of bricks and cement highlighting the air above me. Much like the poor soul we were seeking to put out of its misery … if it could even still feel or comprehend.
We finally rounded the corner ahead and found the auxiliary generator room. Fumbling around with the rusted machine, Will found the level and pulled. The machine roared to life, a warm buzz surging through the walls and sending explosions of light down the tunnels.
I saw something in the corner as the lights puttered on, assuming - for some reason - that it was a large water stain. It was an actual corpse, propped up behind the generator. I wish I could say I was definitely spooked, but living in my shoes meant that I had a sad and oftentimes morbid fascination with dead things, animal or not. It felt no different than seeing my grandfather at his funeral years back, his waxen lips stitched shut and looking as though he would wake up at any moment. It’s like a dream.
Will grunted. “Poor lad. Looks like a worker who perhaps didn’t punch out for their final day and got trapped down here.” He wrenched the man’s skeletal wrist off his jacket, revealing a protocol brochure clutched gently against the bug-devoured cloth. “I think the wight may have gotten to him. Look,” Will gestured, rolling the skeleton over.
The spine and a portion of its ribs appeared to be blown outward, as if something had burst from inside. Several dozen grey shards lay scattered behind the generator, where a stain of conspicuous origin also lay. The most peculiar aspect of this grisly scene was that the bones looked to have been cleaved cleanly through as if sliced at with a sharp blade, or otherwise instantly snapped off without resistance.
Will began to read the note that was written in the brochure’s stained margins. He read it aloud:
To my Josie,
I’m sorry I couldn’t make it home for Christmas. I guess I fell asleep and the guys just didn’t bother looking for me before we set off the dynamite. Access tunnel’s long since flooded by now, I’d been surviving off what little rations were available but now I guess I’m gone. Just gone. I wish I could be above ground with you, my loving family, not down here with the stink and the weird noises every time I fall asleep. I can’t tell if it's morning or night, it's a train in the distance or something else making noise down the hall.
If anyone comes to find me, try not to let the rats get to me. I heard those things can swim.
Love you Jojo. Name the baby after me.
In the back of my head I heard Will reading, but in the former darkness of the tunnels I was far away. Many months ago, in the warmth of someone’s hold.
“I sometimes think about dying,” I told her then. She looked up at me with those large eyes of her and stared.
“Um. Should I be worried?” she asked.
“No. Just saying I think about it.” I lied.
“Mm. Well, I do too. Doesn’t mean I actually, y’know … consider it an option.”
“Yeah.” It’s been an option for several years now.
“Jake?” she says half-nervously and half-sympathetically, hugging me a little tighter. Heartbeats like a metronome. “I love you.”
I’m thinking about the first time I saw something die right in front of me. A bird. Frozen from winter’s touch and looking up at me with a heaving chest. I sometimes wonder if I looked like Death from it’s perspective, this shadowy mountain with a pale face looming down over it. I wondered when was the exact moment it’s perception vanished.
“Yeah. Love you too, Jess” I say. “I’m not going anywhere.”
I was disturbed from my thoughts by a sudden shrieking wail. Echoing across the labyrinth of rusty steel pipes, it sounded like a mixture between moaning and wind rapidly being sucked out of a chamber. Instinctively I grabbed my newly acquired cannon and pointed it - for whatever reason - at the corpse. It didn’t stir of course, however according to Will, the sad creatures could hide inside inanimate objects just like how some of his kind could.
William turned and narrowed his vision to the east. “It’s in the next room.” He motioned toward the door, brandishing his stave in an elegant sweep. I jogged ahead and slammed shoulder-first into the doorframe. Painful, but all my nerves were already on edge. I pointed the firearm and flashlight down the tunnel, some light being lost in a large pile of concrete rubber. The wail was closer now, but strangely it came from everywhere.
“Calm your breathing. Steady your aim. Use both ha - “ he started lecturing.
“Sh! Shut up!”
The wailing continued for what may have been a few minutes or half an hour until they abruptly stopped. Neither of us moved until I saw Will motion towards the door and shine his light carefully around the corner. Empty hallway. We scooched forward very carefully, edging closer to the next room where the target was estimated to be. He stood to my left and I positioned myself before the heavy steel door, ready to kick it in with my boot.
I took a deep breath and shoved my leg forward.
For a brief moment, I tensed my body in preparation for the loud banging and shrieking that would surely emanate from our surprised target. When my foot ended up colliding with nothing, I lurched forward, confused and off-poise. The door had opened on its own with a rusty grate.
It was my turn to be surprised as a white, unfocused hand reached under the top of the door frame. I let out a single gasp and then - chaos erupted.
It moved faster than my eye could track. Much different than shooting meteors in the Abyss. Something like a crumpled up sheet of paper in the vague shape of a human flitted out of the door frame at blinding speed, its pale arms flapping comically behind it. I might’ve laughed at the image had I not been shitting bricks in the moment. I tried raising my cannon towards it, my tracking leading towards the ceiling of the tunnel where it now floated. Somewhere behind me Will bellowed “NOW, SHOOT IT!”
I fired a round, the POOM echoing and blasting my eardrums. The wight moaned above me, an invisible string jerking it violently downward towards the floor as the shot ricocheted down the tunnel. It stood close, breathing raggedly as if it was freezing, shivering so that it was hard to make out the edges. In slow motion I lowered the cannon at it's head as Will jumped to my side. I remember in my peripherals his pen stave was aimed towards the thing as well, pulsating with the same dark energy that I felt in my cannon.
Faster than I could react the wight propelled itself towards me soundlessly. I reacted by tossing myself against the wall of pipes to my immediate right as it rushed past me. I heard a pained grunt and saw Will getting tossed like a toy to the floor: it appeared that despite it's fragile appearance, the husk had stopping power behind its attacks. Steadying myself again, I spun around and saw it propelling itself back and forth down the hall, shrieking as it did. Will was already stumbling to his feet as he prepped the stave in a phalanx position towards the other end of the tunnel.
This time I saw the white blur in its predicted path. I aimed right over Will’s shoulder, keeping in the mind my weapon’s kickback and range. Closed one eye, breathed in. Pulled the trigger.
For a second I thought the shot didn’t land as the thing didn’t seem to react at first. It was only when I noticed the wight slow to a crawl that I saw the gaping hole in its center. The same black blood I saw in my comrade, I saw trickling out of the wound in a thin stream. Behind the struggling figure, I saw my round had left this wispy trail of ink that appeared to be tethering the specter in place in the air.
The wight shuddered, letting out a heaving gasp. As Will approached it it feebly took a swing at him, with a motion more akin to a robot than that of a once-sapient being. William quickly jabbed his stave into its wound and twisted. Inside the husk I heard a moist, metallic SLINK as a certain volume of ink, glistening and sharp, jettisoned out of the top of the wight’s head. It's paper flesh split down the middle as it disintegrated into a fine mist and finally disappeared entirely.
Breathing heavily I collapsed to my knees. I felt disgusting, covered in fear-sweat and partial sewage. “Yuh … you okay over there, bucko?” I panted at William.
He stood up, arching his back a bit and sweeping the stave to the side. “Huf. Never better. Nice shot.”
As he turned around, I realized that I got off lucky. Real lucky.
A gaping hole the size of my mid-forearm was torn through Will’s longcoat and torso, revealing a black wound in his pale flesh. Some ink was gurgling out of it uncomfortably: some of it fell to the floor, sizzled into fine, stringy particles, then vanishing into thin air. I saw him wince as he placed a hand over the hole, curiously studying his hand.
“Jesus H. Christ of Nazareth, are you okay dude??” I gasped.
“...Yeah, this is fine, I think. I don’t think it took away enough of my flesh to permanently screw us here. I’ve enough ink in me to heal up and get us back to the surface for sure, this time.” Will jabbed the tip of his stave into his outstretched thigh. Some more of that esoteric ichor flowed back up through the golden channels, back into his body. I saw him sigh in relief and the wound in his chest began to slowly but surely fade away. A backup blood reserve, perhaps.
“Yeah, there it is.” he sighed. “Even if he had taken more, I think the little bastard had enough in him left over for me to - “ he glanced at me. “-Siphon it up. That’s probably how he was able to hit me so hard in the first place. Pesky.”
He grinned widely. “Congrats, you’re now an official wight hunter.”
For once in my life, I felt like I actually earned my accomplishment, even if I wasn’t the one who struck the killing blow. I smiled sheepishly and scratched my hair. I may have smelled like shit, but I didn't feel like it. I noticed that then that, in the yellow filter lights, a fine snowy mist was conglomerating.
“Hey uh, I think we disturbed some mold. I don’t wanna get sick, let’s head home,” I stated. Will squinted at the growing cloud.
We simultaneously tracked the white mist as it passed between us, back to the spot where the wight was destroyed. A hazy shape began to form, and I realized with growing fear that it was in the vague shape of a head.
The thing was regenerating but not entirely. No...it was a different head. It was still a mangled mess, but it wasn't the same as the head we obliterated before. As we observed, it began to solidify from scraps of papery flesh. “On your guard!” Will cried out.
“Goddamnit, not again!” I raised my cannon at the ghostly balloon.
As the head reassembled it began to vibrate violently, letting out something like a gibbering howl. It then spoke in garbled, wet tones:
WE SEEEE YOUUUUUUU
On this last syllable it let out a laugh, ink flecks flying through the air. Somewhere in there, I heard something like a woman’s laugh mixing with its own breathless laugh. I felt sudden irrational anger at the thing, imagining it was taunting my accomplishments, and I mindlessly pointed the gun at it.
“Jake, don’t sh - “ I heard Will begin. But by the time he finished that sentence, it was too late.
I took the shot. In the brief moments before the explosion, I saw the gibbering wight vibrate insanely fast, faster than anything I’ve ever seen up closed. Tendrils of crystalline ink shot out, piercing the walls, slicing into pipes, shattering against the concrete floor and digging deep. It was raining death. In the mayhem, I felt something sharp fly past my face: cold, stinging pain, and then blistering warmth as I fell on my ass. Ears ringing and vision blurry. Wondering if I was dead and didn't know it.
William propped himself back up from the wall, where a larger spear had pierced just above his left shoulder into the door leading back into the generator room. Cement from above rained down on us, lifting up more smaller clouds of dust.
“... Are you okay, Jake?”
I touched my cheek, wiping the excess blood on my pants. “What the actual fuck was that. Were you about to tell me not to shoot??”
Will was quiet for a second. In the silence of the aftermath, he was contemplating something.
Panting, I ducked under the now disintegrating shards of ink, being careful not to touch them. “Alright, spill. I’ve seen you doing magic shit before, but never something this destructive. You said this was going to be a regular hunt. Bastard, talk!” I smacked him on the shoulder and the sound echoed down the musty halls.
Will turned slowly to me, black eyes not quite meeting mine. I could tell he wasn’t focused on me because I didn’t feel the vacuous pull I usually do when he stares at something. No, he was in serious thinking mode. I pulled back a little to give him space to talk.
“Not here, back at the estate. We’re probably being watched,” he said while gripping the pen stave.
I didn’t argue the entire way back.
Back home, we sat down in the study in the safety of the fire’s glow. William was agitated, pacing back and forth between the windows and his book collection, pausing occasionally to study the spines before peeking rapidly behind the window curtains. I pawed the bandage on my cheek. My face didn’t take too much damage: apparently the attack back in the abandoned tunnels would have had to puncture a closed portion of skin and stay embedded to leave ‘serious’ damage. Not that I would’ve survived probably since we’re talking about my fucking skull. I didn’t bother asking him what that might’ve entailed, though from our prior talk with Fraea, the implications of abstract and physical disintegration was certainly an unsettling possibility.
Will explained: “Some abyssomancers learned how to control the corpses of our fallen brethren, a form of necromancy. Of course, it was ultimately frowned upon as inkless wraith corpses being puppeted was viewed as a profane practice, a sort of insult to the Abyss’ life-sustaining properties. I only know about the technique because I’ve read leftover hints of practices in books long since drifted away into the void. That thing you witnessed in the tunnels … I didn’t expect to see an example of that old magic down there. That was abyssomancy created with the intent to kill. It was supposed to be a normal hunt.”
“Who would do such a thing?” I said behind steepled fingers.
“Someone, some individuals who I wouldn’t have expected before,” he responded grimly. He steadied himself against the bookshelf. “I uh … suspected it might not have been the Aniloss lineage at first. Afterall, I did tell you they died or disappeared many many decades ago, did I not? Yes, I was a fool to ignore the warnings, to pretend as if our trip into that initial story wasn’t a trap laid out for us.”
“So you’re telling me these ink-worshipping freaks from the asscrack of history had something to do with those wights down there? How the hell would they have known we were going to be there, we haven’t even interacted with them at all.”
“You’d think so, but the truth is I think those lower dimensions inside my books have something to do with them. Kind of like a spider’s web, our little excursions triggered some disturbance in the Abyss, and they picked up on it. And now they’re targeting me specifically to get me to stop looking into it.” He stopped and looked at me with something like a mix of anger and anxiety.
“What do you want to do about it. I mean, I only just got here, but it sounds like you’ve got a bit of a vendetta now.”
“Damn straight, I do. If the Aniloss bastards are indeed behind the corruption of my literature, then its up to us to put a stop to whatever it is they’re doing. This is war.”
I inhaled slightly and thought about it for a few minutes. An esoteric cult, hollow ghosts, magical weapons. And I was at the center of it all! By God, I was rapidly beginning to feel like the protagonist of a very grimdark story. However by this point, I was also growing numb to the prospect of disquieting death. If there was any way to go out, it was like this: saving the goddamn world in the most cliche way possible. If I died … at least all the pain of these past few years wouldn’t be my problem anymore.
“Then I’m game,” I said at last. Will looked at me with an iota of slight surprise.
“You can back out of this if you want. I’m giving you one last chance to return to a normal life. Forget everything you saw here, chalk it up to a bad dream. Hell, I can even help you forget,” he finished, his eyes beginning their hypnotic swirl.
“No way dude. This is my fight too now. I ain’t about to let some creepazoid one-percenters from the grave ruin my world, or the worlds below mine. Let’s fuckin’ do this.” We shook on it.
At the time, I would have willingly taken ten Abyssal spikes to the chest to forget about the pain of losing everything I loved. I already had virtually lost everything: my relationships, my motivation, my success and self-confidence. I was pissed and death-seeking, the worst combination of emotions a fragile human like me can have.
But I had a shared goal now. And what’s scarier, what’s more unstoppable than a young man with fire behind his eyes?
As recorded within The Estate