It was a long drive back to Ray’s place, and we were tired. Fighting a demonic manifestation in a Bed and Breakfast can really take it out of you. We stopped several times to rest along the way. Eryn and I could switch off driving, but Kolya and Father Ignacio didn’t have that luxury. At least Father Ignacio could go a lot farther on a single tank of gas, riding that Harley of his.
Paul wasn’t helping much; according to Kolya, he was spending most of the drive sleeping, when he wasn’t staring blankly out the window. None of us necessarily blamed him; the first brush with the powers of the Abyss can be pretty traumatic. He’d need time.
It was well after dark by the time we pulled in. Ray’s house, a long, one-story, hewn-log building that he’d built himself, was dark, at least at first. As the gravel crunched under our wheels, a light flickered to life in the window. Either Magnus had heard us coming and woken Ray up, or he’d somehow known we’d be pulling in right at that moment.
I’d seen enough odd stuff around Ray’s place that either one could have been possible.
We parked our vehicles next to the pole barn that Kolya and I had helped Ray erect. He’d had it in mind for a long time, but with this many of us hanging around for a while, he’d had the hands to make it happen. Ray’s place had long been something of a halfway house for Witch Hunters, a place to stay for men who largely lived on the road. But having more than one or two visitors at a time was rare. There just weren’t that many of us.
I could smell woodsmoke by the time we got unloaded. Ray had the fire going. It was getting close to midnight, but Ray wouldn’t stand for us just sneaking in and going to bed. It might be different if the cabin Ray and I were building for Eryn and me were done, but it wasn’t. Ray was going to want to feed us, and he’d want the rundown of what had happened.
Ray was crouched over the fire when we walked in the front door. I could smell something cooking; Ray preferred to cook on the hearth when possible. He waved vaguely over his shoulder as we came in. He was busy.
Ray was a big man, and looked even bigger thanks to his shaggy head and long, thick beard. If he’d been asleep, he’d dressed quick; he was wearing his ever-present overalls and a long-sleeved, collared shirt. He had a bottle of his dark, home-brewed beer on the mantle above him, and four more bottles were sitting on the big timber table in the center of the common room, next to a pair of hurricane lanterns. Ray preferred fire or candlelight to electric lights.
The mountain of fur lying on the stone floor next to Ray stirred, and Magnus stood up and shook himself. The gigantic dog stretched, and then his golden eyes fastened themselves to Paul, as the young man came in the door behind Kolya, and he growled.
Now, most people might imagine what Magnus’ growl sounds like, and they might think of other big dogs they’ve been around. Sometimes he did sound like that. But at various other times, usually when something is very wrong, he sounds different. He makes a sound that no other dog I’ve ever heard makes.
That was what this growl was like; a deep, subterranean snarl that seemed like it shook the whole house. And given how solid that house was, that was saying something.
Everyone just kind of froze for a moment. “Magnus…” Ray said quietly, as he turned away from the fire. I turned to our guest with a frown. With most dogs, I might tell them to calm down. But of all the oddities around Ray’s place, Magnus was not the least strange, and I trusted the big dog. I particularly trusted his warnings.
Paul was standing frozen the doorway, a “deer-in-the-headlights” look of stark fear on his face. Of course, I don’t know too many people who wouldn’t be more than a little scared at hearing that growl come from a dog that big, that was staring at them.
“Who’s our guest?” Ray asked as he stood up. Magnus was still bristling and rumbling next to him.
When Paul didn’t say anything, I spoke up. “Paul made it out of the house in Spokane just before things went pear-shaped,” I said. “He asked to come with us; said he figured that he’d be safer with us than on his own. Can’t say I disagree.”
Ray nodded. He knew how I’d come to the Order in the first place; Dan Weatherby had tracked me down after I’d gotten tangled up in some pretty dangerous stuff. That’s what comes from poking around in dark places you don’t understand, without a map or a guide.
But Magnus hadn’t growled at me like that. And now I was eyeing our stray with a new set of suspicions.
Whatever Magnus really was—and I didn’t think any of us believed he was just a mastiff-mountain dog mix anymore—he had an uncanny ability to sense the Otherworldly, usually long before any of the rest of us even got our hackles up. If Magnus didn’t like Paul, then there was probably a good reason why.
Perhaps unconsciously, everyone had moved away from Paul, hands perhaps getting a little bit closer to sidearms. Paul was now looking from Magnus to each of us, and back to Magnus. The big dog was still bristling, though his growling had quieted.
“What?” the young man asked. “What did I do?”
“Well, I don’t know, son,” Ray replied. “But for some reason my dog doesn’t like you. And I tend to pay very close attention to who my dog likes and dislikes. So that lends the question. Why doesn’t my dog like you?”
Paul was shaking and pale now. “I don’t know,” he quavered. “I’ve always gotten along with dogs. Please, I don’t have anywhere else to go! You…you don’t know what it was like!” He started to cry. “The screaming, the noises…and that girl that tried to stab me…and then whatever tried to drag me back inside…it’s still out there!” He was almost screaming in terror. “I can’t go back out in the dark alone! Please, you have to let me stay!”
Magnus growled again, and I could almost swear the windows rattled. Something was definitely very, very wrong.
But unless he suddenly started weeping blood or sprouting horns, we couldn’t just toss Paul out on his ear. We’d told him we’d protect him.
“Whatever Magnus is picking up on might not be Paul’s fault,” Father Ignacio said suddenly. He was studying the young man carefully. The squint-eyed scrutiny of the craggy, mustached priest probably wasn’t making Paul feel much more comfortable than Magnus’ growling. “We’ve seen it before. He may have been marked by something, being in that house when the summoning started.”
Ray was nodding. “Rather like young Jed here, when he got started?”
Part of why Dan Weatherby had found me was because I’d picked up a tail in my forays into the paranormal. It had killed a lot of people in my wake, as I’d wandered across the country in search of answers. But Magnus hadn’t reacted this way to me.
“Maybe a little,” Father said, his head slightly cocked as he studied Paul, who was shrinking away from him, against the doorjamb. “But Jed wasn’t right in the middle of a ritual like that one back at the B&B. Even if he had no involvement, things like that leave scars, like invisible bloodstains. And there are things that are attracted to those marks.”
“So, presuming that’s what’s got Magnus worked up, what do we do about it?” I asked.
Father stepped toward Paul, pulling his flask of holy water out of his jacket. Paul flinched at the movement, but Father Ignacio raised a hand to calm him. “For tonight, a blessing should suffice,” he said. “It’s more of a patch than a real fix, though; I think we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Remembering what it had taken to get rid of the homunculus that had been following me, controlled by an entity that claimed it was Mephistopheles himself, I could bet on that.
Paul flinched some more, but when the holy water splashed on him as Father made the Sign of the Cross and prayed over him, he didn’t burst into flames or start screaming in pain. So, that was a good sign. Magnus was still watching him intensely, but wasn’t growling anymore. His ruff was still raised, though. Something was still bothering the big dog, though he appeared to be placated for the moment.
Eryn, being the generally nicest, not to mention prettiest by a long stretch, person in the house, took Paul by the arm and showed him to one of Ray’s guest rooms, once Father Ignacio had finished his blessing and prayer for protection from evil spirits and their influences. I heard her quietly ask him if he wanted anything to eat, but he shook his head. He was rattled. The fact that four of us scary-looking individuals and one very scary dog were still watching him as Eryn led him to the hallway leading to the guest rooms probably didn’t help, either.
The rest of us stashed our gear, petted Magnus as expected, and gathered our beers while Ray turned back to the food.
“Well, that was somewhat exciting,” Ray commented, as he forked venison chops onto plates for us. Sometimes the man was a bit like a Jewish grandmother; he knew how far we’d driven, and wouldn’t hear of us going to bed without eating.
Of course, it also provided him time to grill us about what had happened, which I was increasingly convinced was the main reason he did it.
“What happened?” he asked, as he straddled a stool and sipped his beer with one hand, the other resting on Magnus’ gigantic head. “It must have been bad, judging by what just happened here.”
Between bites of venison and sips of beer, Kolya, Eryn, and I filled him in, while he listened intently, occasionally interjecting to ask a clarifying question, his eyes focused somewhere else while he built the picture in his mind.
There was something more to Ray’s interest that pure professional curiosity. I’d noticed it a long time before. Ray hadn’t stirred from that house and the fifty acres it sat on in years, but he was hungry for news of other Witch Hunters’ work, hungry with an intensity that told me that he deeply, sincerely wished that he was out there on the road with the rest of us.
I’d asked him to come with us to hunt the Walker. He’d refused, saying he was too old, but it was an excuse that I didn’t buy. I hadn’t bought it then, and I still didn’t buy it as I watched Ray take in all the details of the Spokane incident. No, there was something else that was keeping him tied to this place, something he didn’t want to talk about. Or had been forbidden to talk about. I wondered what it was.
But my musings about Ray’s curious immobility aside, as we told the story, something else started nagging at me. As I pushed my empty plate away and sipped my beer, sitting back in the hand-hewn chair that Ray himself had built, while Kolya finished telling Ray about the aftermath of the manifestation, I rolled it around in my mind, and kept coming to the same conclusion.
“Does it seem to anyone else,” I asked, once Kolya had fallen silent, “like that was an ambush?”
At first, all eyes turned to me, including Magnus’s, as if he could understand just what I’d said. I imagined he probably could. Then Kolya started to nod.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt,” Father Ignacio said.
“What makes you think that?” Ray asked. From his tone, he seemed to have a pretty good idea, himself, but he wanted to get it out in the open. Ray was a good teacher, and sometimes his methods came out in everyday sorts of conversations. Or not-so-everyday ones, like the hot-wash of a particularly violent exorcism.
“It was too high profile,” I said. “Demons and Otherworlders have both tended to prefer to work in the shadows, out of sight, out of mind. For the demons, the less people believe in them, the easier they are to corrupt, because you can’t be on guard against something that doesn’t exist. As for the Otherworlders, there’s never been a predator known to man that didn’t prefer its prey fat, happy, and oblivious.” I took another pull on the beer. “And it’s not like these things don’t know we’re out here.”
“High profile incident like that,” Kolya said, “we had to respond to. And whoever or whatever was behind it must have known that.”
“That’s why the possessed were killed,” Eryn said. “Had to have been.”
Father Ignacio was nodding. “Notice that they started to charge us, but didn’t want to get too close to the crucifix? And then when you didn’t shoot them…”
“They killed each other,” I finished. “That was part of the plan. We were supposed to kill the possessed, and trigger the summoning.” I couldn’t help but shudder a little. “That’s…”
“Diabolical,” Father finished grimly. “Whoever or whatever planned this, they are extremely dangerous. And I’m fairly sure it was aimed directly at us.”
“You think it was our bald friend?” Kolya asked.
Blake had told us about the man who had arranged the release of the Walker, an unknown sorcerer with a shaved head, who had manipulated another dabbler in the occult into opening the Walker’s prison. It hadn’t worked out well for him; the Walker hadn’t been happy about his attempt to bind it, and had gone after him, resulting in the swathe of destruction that the FBI was still investigating. It probably would have finally squashed him, another dozen annihilated towns down the line, if we hadn’t faced it in Storr’s Hole and imprisoned it again.
We still didn’t know who the bald man was, or where to find him, but he had demonstrated considerable occult power and knowledge already. And it was highly unlikely that he didn’t know who had actually gotten the Walker off his back. He was on our radar, and I was pretty sure we were on his.
“He’s certainly the most likely suspect, given recent events,” Father Ignacio replied. “Until we know more, though, it wouldn’t be a good idea to get too zeroed in on him. It’s not like the Order doesn’t have a lot of enemies, particularly on the other side of the veil. And the more powerful of those enemies are more adept at deception and misdirection than any human being ever could be.”
“It means y’all need to stay on your toes more than ever,” Ray said seriously. “This job’s dangerous enough without having somebody actively gunning for you.”
“The Abyss is always actively gunning for us all, Ray,” Father said grimly. “And that’s a fight that ain’t ever gonna be over in this life.”
And on that happy note, we called it a night and went to bed.
I was either standing on a flat plain, wreathed in smoke, or in the middle of a tunnel. It was hard to tell for sure, as everything seemed to keep shifting. Wherever I was, it seemed to twist and change, assailing me with claustrophobia one moment, agoraphobia the next. I couldn’t see very far, only a sullen red glow in the distance, as if at the end of a tunnel. Yet no matter which way I turned, I was always facing that glow.
I couldn’t see much in the murk, but I could hear. And it wasn’t pleasant. Screams, howls, moans, and insane gibbering filled the choking atmosphere of that place. There were other sounds, too, nearly drowned out by the vocalizations of pain, torment, and insanity. Sounds that, if I’d listened closer, would have sounded very much like the ripping of flesh and crunching of bones.
There was something else, too. Something was there, hidden in the darkness, watching me. It was behind me, and without looking, I knew that it was far too big and too fast for me to fight. So I ran.
But as far and as fast as I ran, nothing changed. The sullen red glow stayed ahead of me, and that vast, inimical presence was right behind me, amused and hungry. I knew if I stopped and turned around, it was going to be there, even as I knew that running wouldn’t get me anywhere.
Somewhere in the back of my near-panicked mind, I knew that this wasn’t real. It took some concentration, but I finally snapped my eyes open.
I was lying in bed, in Ray’s back room, a faint sliver of moonlight coming in the window above my head, filtered through the waving branches of the firs out back.
For a long moment, I just lay there, breathing, my heart still pounding. Nightmares were nothing new to anyone who had walked the Witch Hunter trail for any length of time; we tended to see and experience things that leave deep scars on the mind and soul. But this had been the most vivid in a long time.
It had felt like the nightmare the Walker had sent, its warning that it knew we were after it. That didn’t bode well, especially to my already disturbed mind in the pitch dark at…I glanced at the clock and shivered. Three in the morning. That didn’t bode well, either.
“Jed?” Eryn whispered next to me. “Are you awake?”
“I am now,” I replied, sitting up in bed. I turned back to her. She wasn’t much more than a pale outline against the log wall in that light. “Let me guess. Nightmare?”
She nodded. “A bad one. You, too?”
“Yeah,” I replied. “And it felt like more than a normal bad dream.”
“Same here,” she said, sitting up and swinging her legs out of bed. As she did, she suddenly froze. “Do you hear that?”
I held still and listened. Eryn’s hearing is a lot better than mine; between my time in the Marine Corps and having corked off my .45-70 in some mighty confined spaces without hearing protection, my ears don’t work as well as they used to. Even so, it didn’t take long for me to pick up on what she was hearing.
I could just make out the murmur of voices. It sounded almost like there was someone having a conversation, a rather strident one, in the main room. But I couldn’t make out words or recognize the voices.
There was something vaguely sinister about the sound, but I couldn’t be sure. It might have just been my jangled nerves after that dream. I still grabbed my .45 before padding out of the room.
The voices grew louder as I opened the bedroom door and started down the short hall toward the kitchen and living room, but they remained indistinct, the words impossible to make out. But the sense of some sinister tone or subtext to them only got stronger.
Whoever was out there, I really didn’t think it was any of us.
They were also having their conversation in the dark. There were no lights showing in the house that I could see.
Lifting my .45 to index it on the doorway, I stepped through and into the living room.
The room was empty. The rough-hewn chairs around the fire were unoccupied. But the voices hadn’t abated. They were more strident, the sinister note more pronounced, and they seemed to be coming from near the fireplace. But there was no one there to make them.
The hairs on my arms and the back of my neck were standing straight up. I crossed myself hastily, even as I heard Magnus start growling from the direction of Ray’s room, the same deep, earthshaking growl that he had made when faced with Paul.
Father Ignacio appeared in the hallway behind us. “What is it?” he asked.
I stepped aside to let him see the dark and empty room. The voices changed pitch slightly as he entered, taking on an almost sneering tone.
Light flared as Ray struck a match in the doorway from his room. In that moment, I could have sworn I saw a dark shape flit away from the flame near the fireplace. And it wasn’t moving in concert with the wavering flare of the match, either.
Father didn’t ask any more questions, but simply turned on his heel and headed back toward his room. I already knew what he was going for, even as I crossed myself again.
Eryn was beside me, reaching for one of the lanterns on the counter in the kitchen, already praying under her breath. I was saying the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary over and over again already, and had been since I’d first stepped into the empty room.
I figured we’d found the source of the nightmares.
Father came back into the room, his kit in his hand. One of the voices suddenly was raised in an ear-splitting, wordless shout, and then everything went quiet.
Father said his prayers anyway, sprinkling holy water around the room as all of us stood and joined in with the responses. All of us but Paul, anyway, who had not come out of his room.
There was no further activity within the house while we prayed, but I could have sworn I saw movement outside the windows. Shadows moving, and not with the wind in the trees.
After the litany was over, we stayed in the light of the lanterns and the candles for a while. No one had much to say. I thought we were all kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop. But whatever had been there was apparently gone. There were no more voices, no more noises, and no more moving shadows.
It was nearly four in the morning. Uneasily, we all went back to bed.