Monday afternoon, June 18, 2007,
San Canaan, Utah.
Midsummer afternoons in San Canaan, Utah, were best appreciated in a cool, dark place, far away from people and the scorching midday heat. Mason Goodwin was doing just that today, having forgotten the day wasn't over.
*BAM* *BAM* *BAM* *BAM* *BAM*
Mason jackknifed up, narrowly missing the bunk above his. So much for putting the world on 'ignore' or avoiding headaches.
"Wakey, wakey, cowpoker!"
We don't even have cows.
Mason knew the voice and minds well enough to plan his revenge. First, though, he'd have to open his eyes. Then he'd have to wake up. Bless me sideways.
"Aw, Mase, don't take it like that," Shane Garrett complained.
How does Shane get to be the one complaining? Mason was the one being hauled out of his bunkbed!
"I think he should," said Oscar, the grouchier half of the fraternal twins. "By the way, while you were sawing logs, Jase got tagged with refereeing Demi's tea party. There'll be just the three of us for camp cleanup."
Mason swung his feet out and grabbed his boots to put on before standing up. "They're his brother and sisters too. 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 his brethren: Mason, Peter, and Hector. "Ellie got tired. Petey's grabbed a book. Demi's pestering Mom. So, I'll be good to go once I scrub my face and choke down some Tylenol."
Shane asked, "Dude! Not you too? Thought you'd have at least another year..."
"Nope. Mase can keep his damn migraines and everything else that came with them. How many campsites we got volunteered into clearing?"
"Two at least," Oscar said. "If we can get one or two others policed, the troop coming in from Nebraska can't say they're getting railroaded into taking a bad spot."
"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 in the middle of the river again."
"It was just that one time!"
"Would've been the last time, too, if it had rained. Where'd I be then? Mase, Jase? No naked rain dances, y'hear?"
"Such lack of faith! I'm wounded!"
"Thanks, assholes, " Jason groused. "I bet Mase hadn't even thought of doing that yet."
Sidewinder Creek Campground.
The day was hot and dry enough for June weather. But taking pack animals to haul their gear out to the campground wasn't much easier than hiking out from town and upriver with packs on their own backs. Either way, they'd likely be staying overnight. One thing about the campground's off-off-the-beaten-path location was that much of their gear could be safely left on-site until the campout. The boys cordially decided that the Scouts coming in had to have a lunatic for Scoutmaster to be coming here instead of staying in Zion. Maybe the midwesterners were just that corn-fed dumb?
Sure, the natural parts of southwest Utah were blindingly beautiful, but for "reasons", the out-of-the-way campsite scraped by on local business and outdoorsmen with more crazy than cash. It was totally unfair the adults kept some of those reasons secret from their own kin, but what can you do? Helping out on maintenance was a way of keeping costs down. It also took away an excuse for neighboring communities to get worked up. The guys split up into pairs once they set to work.
Looking around, Jason asked Oscar, "How much room you reckon we need cleared for each campsite?"
"There's Mr. Adkinson, Jimmie and Bridger," Oscar said. "Then me'n Shane, and we can put the Corn Man in with Mase, so room for four tents for us, but spread it out a bit. How's Mase's shielding coming along?"
"Decent enough for trips into town and small gatherings of strangers," Jason said as he waved his hand so-so. He wasn't half as fooled as his brother wished he was, "or so he says. Being outdoors helps. But, you know how it is, wanting to be around people more, but not wanting more people around."
"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: Gosh, golly gee. Our grandparents were hippies, and it's, like, totally a Back to Nature celebration thing."
"Think Shane remembered to bring a muzzle for Mase?"
"If Shane had one, trust me Jase, you'd be the first to know about it."
"Oh, really? Does Scarlett know that?"
"Who else do you think would be buying something like that?"
"Thanks for that disturbing visual, Jase. There's a hell of a warm place waiting to welcome you when you go."
"Promises, promises. I'm just saying that I know my brothers, and Heck's a let's use the whole chicken kind of guy."
Troop 613, from Omaha, Nebraska.
One thing had led to another at their last pit stop, so it was already afternoon when the troop's van pulled off onto a two-lane road. A dirt road running into a canyon followed after that. That road ended in front of dusty adobe houses and a couple of other buildings. San Canaan. The name was bigger than the town and longer than what was left of the day. Terracotta banded cliffs rose hundreds of feet to the south, east, and west taking the horizon up to a turquoise (the good stuff, not dyed) sky with them to whittle away at the sunlit hours.
A Londoner himself, Brother Jonathan had already ranked this little desert town among the top ten places he did not belong. Point in fact, it had pride of place above Hell. He was only here just in case he might be needed. Right. Pull the other one, mates. Habit and a keen sense of self-preservation had him scanning the shadows dripping from brick-red buttes. No threat here and now. Several large, flat-topped rocks lay half-buried near the parking area. Where there were rocks to climb on and boys who'd been cooped up too long in a van in desperate need of airing out...
"Oy, gents. I doubt they hauled these big slabs of rock here for landscaping. Leave off already."
"I'd tell you we shipped them in for the virgin sacrifices, but folks up the road are a mite touchy about things like that."
That was some kind of inappropriate coming from a local wearing way too much black.
"Mason Abimelech Goodwin! What have I told you about scaring folks like that?"
The woman was all of five-foot-nothing in faded calico. And yet, Jonathan reckoned some of the spandex tights and capes crowd would think twice before crossing her. Looked like Brother Geoffrey had come to the same conclusion.
"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 it's the best I'll get." Aunt Thea's eyes fixed on Brother Geoffrey. "You must be Father Butcherd."
"'boo-SHARR'," Geoffrey corrected. "My father's family was originally French-Canadian. And it's just 'Brother Geoffrey', I haven't taken Holy Orders yet." He side-eyed Jonathan.
"Brother Jonathan Stanbull. Sad to say, my Order labours to keep me too busy for a pulpit."
"Brother Jonathan, you and Mason both need to work on selling your lies." Thea took her measure of the pitiful group of young midwesterners before nodding to herself.
"Might as well haul out whatever you need for staying overnight. There's probably enough beds going spare, what with kids off at school out of state. We can put some of you up in the Meeting Hall if that doesn't pan out. By the way, that would be after supper, which is what someone was supposed to be inviting you to."
Mason seemed to recognize a cue when he heard one, "Yeah. It gets dark early around here. So, we figured it would be better if we waited until morning, then borrowed a couple more donkeys to pack your gear to the campground."
One of the scouts perked up, "Real donkeys?"
"Well, yeah. There's only so much you can do with and around machinery. Plays Hell with this and that."
Dalton Meier figured that they must not get many visitors here. Half of the larger families in town showed up to help with the cooking, eating, and cleanup. It was surprising to see that that included both girls and boys. Not that it was a bad thing, just that everyone had said that Utah was "very conservative" about nearly everything. Brother Geoffrey got a lot of confused and amused looks when he said grace. Technically, the Latter-Day Saints were Protestants. So, some differences in worship had to be expected.
As to the food, Omaha had its share of "authentic Tex-Mex" places. Still, not many of the guests could recall ever stuffing themselves on so many beans, chilis, tomatoes, spices, tortillas, chicken pieces, and more spices. One or two passed on the goat's milk and cheese. But, they did say thanks just the same, after a kick or two under the table.
The unfamiliar family introductions made road trip-fried 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 volunteered to bunk with Mase and Jase for the night.
As to the others and the mismatched family names?
"You have to know that there aren't so 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 still 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?"
Jason shrugged at that, "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 have got a whole lot less in life."
Tracey Adkinson waited until after the boys, burros, and backpacks were out on the campground trail to try the hippie commune story on Geoffrey and Jonathan.
"... 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 and me. Not that some don't try their luck at it. Most of the other troops around here are sponsored by the LDS."
"The Omaha Archdiocese sponsors our troop." Geoffrey added, "That doesn't mean we can't try to get along with others of differing faiths," before Jonathan could tell him to speak for himself.
"I just wanted to avoid misunderstandings when we can't invite your guys over to tomorrow night's fire circle. Otherwise, I wouldn't have mentioned it."
The look shared between the two Brothers confirmed Trace's suspicion that he needed to say something ahead of time. Hurt feelings tended to grow into nosy investigations.
Jonathan said, "I fancy myself in the know about a thing or two. 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 and mischief."
Geoffrey asked, "Should we let them get the snipe hunt the older boys 'wouldn't dream of instigating' out of the way tonight or put it off until Friday?"
Good question. Adkinson thought about that. Earlier was better for ghost stories to delay a bunk check. Stragglers could use the time to sneak back into camp. "Tonight would be better. Boys that age recharge too fast to not let them wear themselves out."
Sidewinder Creek Campground.
Today and the previous day had gone as well as expected. So far, there'd been only a handful of sunburns plus dehydration, all to the tune of dodgy camping food. Brother Jonathan sat at a shaded picnic table away from the troop's campsite, thumbing through the Scoutmaster Handbook for pointers on what next to expect. Some of the Omaha boys learned quickly that shorts and cholla cactus do not mix painlessly. He'd never even heard of a bleeding cholla before. Now that he had, he suspected the evil things had been imported straight from Hell.
"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. At least he was dressed for the weather, unlike certain other weedy youths. He'd be tempted to shoo him off, except the young man's dilated eyes and sweat pouring down his flushed face spelled Trouble. The least a person could do was to head off another attempt to convert one of the Catholic boys. To what, exactly, Jonathan wasn't in the mood to find out.
"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. Remember? Let's see, what could possibly be wrong with an AWOL campground supervisor? Nah. How about everyone back at camp, from the Scoutmaster on down, is nodded out on Lightbringer-alone-knows-what?"
The boy could stand to lose the sarcasm. Jonathan scowled as Mase pulled a long swig of water from his canteen. Spiking the water was something he'd have done back in the day. Come to think of it, he had played a prank or two with a punch bowl that could have contributed to him being nominated for this mission.
That's a fast way to join your mates in la-la land, kid.
Mase held the canteen out to him like the kid had heard his thoughts.
Water doesn't smell like that. Hell, the bleeding Thames estuary doesn't even smell like that at low tide. Should he?
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 too awfully quiet. There should be meal prep noises coming from their camp or dysentery or something.
Mason shrugged and took another swig, "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 tea to kill this headache."
"Do you think this – pulque, was it – is helping?" Jonathan motioned again that Mase should 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," Mase growled at Jonathan. "And being under a truth compulsion is very much not the right mindset."
Jonathan looked back at the boy following him, "Punks your age tend to leave out the important details from their stories. So, I rigged the spell to include a recall element. Let's try it out. For example, who else knows about your party plans?"
"Ritual plans, padre," Mase ground out through clenched teeth. "If that's what you are. There's a local corn spirit that San Canaan's been on good terms with for years. It's midsummer. And I'm finally old enough to have a place in the serious parts. So that would be..." Another long draw.
Either that passes for the good stuff, for fermented god-knows-what, or he's too thirsty to care because he's just as fucked up as the others. What was that damned mnemonic he needed to remember?
Mase screwed up his face and spat out a suspicious bluish lump of something.
"Sweet damnation. That's going to come back to bite me."
"From what I remember of my own 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."
If you'd been trapped in a van with a pack of teenaged wankers, who thought camping made hygiene more optional than usual, for a whole bloody week, you'd be tempted too.
"Brother Jonathan, have you ever considered therapy for those negative thoughts?"
They were intercepted by Dalton Meier, one of the Nebraska scouts who'd been testing Jonathan's limits.
"Brother Jonathan!" Seeing the priest wasn't alone, Dalton amended, "and, um, Mase? Hello. Er, not to alarm anyone, but... Would you mind if Brother Jonathan and I talk privately about something that's come up?"
Mase smiled a tight, thin-lipped, half-smile, "I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that not a creature is stirring back at your camp?"
"Yeah. Pretty much everyone's overheated and crashed from the hike earlier. How'd you know?"
"It seems to be something in the water. By the way, you look like you got way 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 too bloody red by a mile." The kid's aura was blasting out more arcane heat than was good for anyone. No sense in panicking the child. Yet.
"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? Long walk. Not."
"How was I supposed to know that?"
"How the blazes were you blind enough to miss it?
"Goodwin, since you need to wash out your canteen, and Dalton needs to cool off pronto, why don't you two buddy up and get that taken care of while I look into the prank."
Both boys echoed, "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 Dalton to be winded yet and that wasn't good.
"Fine. But if I come across 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, Lord help them all, Mase was going to practice his fireman's carry.
Whatever event Jonathan had been sent here to stop was running on rails. Satellite telephone connections were intermittent at best but good enough to call in a favor or two. For example, the planned ritual might be "neopagan" in style, but the celebrants weren't, not according to Sister Petra. That complicated things. Jonathan could picture some wannabe devil-worshippers planning a sacrifice miles away from any good beer. That lot of wankers were dim like that. But, the Luciferians here were supposed to be dead to the world. But, the Luciferians here were supposed to be dead to the world. God knows the Church had been fighting them since the 13th century, when it wasn't fighting itself using them as the bogeyman. So, why here? Why now?
The sun set behind dark canyon walls before the two boys returned to camp. It was still too bloody hot. 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! Nightshades, datura like as not out here, were old reliable deliriants so long as the dosage was correct. If not, some of these kids wouldn't live to see sunrise. When the last two standing finally made it back, 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!"
And praise The Big Guy that none of m'mates heard me say that.
"Cooling it, check. So, like, did anyone know that m'man Dalt's a mutant too? Or that there's alsho nasty sh-stuff all around us? Careful where you shtep; there's Snakies too."
Tired and feverish as he was, Dalton couldn't help saying, "That's all 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.
"Don't b'lieve me? Fine. Check it out: < Into the light... >"
Something about Dalton Meier had been bugging Mason since they met two days ago. Not that Mase wanted a long-distance thing going, or he'd've looked up Tiva Cook again by now. Maybe the guy had already been sick from manifesting. As things sat now, he'd hardly had time to drag the two of them from 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. The guy just wasn't kid-friendly. Probably double-wrapped himself up when it came time for conjugal relations. But then, Mister New Mutie On The Block just had to go and dare him to prove reality was still mostly real.
"< ...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 terminal stupidity of this stunt. That still might not have stopped the impulse to stir some chaos into the situation. Aunt Thea always said his mouth would get the better of him.
Someone was dressed for a 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 black gaffer's tape in a holder clipped to his belt. Hadn't Aunt Thea mentioned some interesting things that could be done with that kind of tape?
"Good to see you, Jon, boys. How about we get the Apostle jokes out of the way so that we can get this show on the road?"
"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, kiddo. But nope, there wasn't. It's just that Chris Rock takes after me some. Handsome guy, if I do say so myself. And, the dude can take a hit. By the way? Don't you ever do that crap you just pulled unless you know for a fact you can deal with whoever or whatever shows up. I may be dead, but this place still has too many snake spirits crawling around even for my comfort. And let me tell you, Africa has got some snakes."
Jonathan spoke up, "You wouldn't happen to have any helpful advice for us from the upstairs wankery, would you?"
The apparition said, "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, Jon. That's all I can say. Oh, and maybe let Hellboy Junior here brew up that tea he was talking about earlier. You're going to need all the healing you can get. Look at the time! See you again soon, maybe."
Fuck it. The boys could manage an herbal infusion without his help. Jonathan huffed his annoyance at the damned situation. He lit a fag to give his hands something to do while his mind ran in circles. The biggest problem before him wasn't so much a matter of not having a plan. It was more a matter of how badly the plans he did have would turn out.
"We're being watched, y'know."
Without his hat, Mason's dark hair sucked in all but a ruddy ghost of the moonlight. Silvery motes swam in the dark spaces of his ashen face. Altered iris colors were commonly a telltale sign of mutation, but the kid had said as much already. Great. Mutants were less than useless when things went bump in the night.
"I'd've figured that would be obvious, Goodwin."
"Some are curious, something's mighty worried, some are... excited? That can't be good. 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? So 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 insult, "Stow the cartoon theology, kid. The sides aren't as black and white as you think." First fruit? That could be taken a few ways if you knew your Old Testament and 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. Y'know, FLDS? Hm..."
Jonathan waited for Mason's attention to return. Getting upset or anxious with the boy on what had to be his first entheogen-fueled communion 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, "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 freaks and heathens?"
More like one or two here who wouldn't be missed until too late.
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 the Warren Jeffs crowd and us. What difference does it make who was born to whom?"
"In ceremonial magic, it's life and death, son. On a good day, that is." That makes you a dead man walking instead of the other one if I screw the pooch on this one. "On a bad day? Trust me: you don't want to find out the hard way."
Jonathan chased old spectres from his head before they got repetitive, "What say 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. Instead, he returned with a white cloth, a red sash, a silver cup, and a bottle of water. By way of explanation, 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. Right. Speaking of work, I'm going to need your athamé."
"What makes you think I have one?"
"You didn't ask what an athamé was, mate."
Reluctantly, Mason unsheathed the Bowie knife hanging from his belt. He handed it, pommel first, to Jonathan.
Jonathan asked more questions, ranging from the normal to the outrageously personal. Meanwhile, he set up a campground table 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. That would be the day.
"Your Auntie back there 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'. We start with you kneeling."
If looks could kill, Jonathan would be pushing up daisies.
"Hate to disappoint you, but we hunt predators."
"So do we."
Mason 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." Mason flinched at that but held his tongue for the sake of ritual. Jonathan continued, "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. Oops. One down, one to go, somewhere.
"That could have gone worse."
Jonathan whistled "Belle of Belfast City" out of tune while he returned the boy's knife to its belt sheath and tidied up for the next act.
Mason woke up in what had 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 much rot lay here to recover the garden, too wet to set a purging fire. Yet, the scent of roses drifted to him from deep inside the vegetal murk.
A body could get so lost in a place like this that vultures might not even find them.
On cue, a mocking voice drowned in the fetid air, "Get a rose, he says. It's important, he says. Well, if some dead flower is so important, where's your backup, boy?"
"Up yours. Want to reach in and bump fists?"
Mason pulled his knife. Seeing no visible enemy, and no better solution, he 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 and back in one piece! Ancient instincts warned him that he would die if he fell here. Hidden brambles grabbed at him, digging in, thorn by thorn. Sturdy vines caught his feet in an effort to twist or break an ankle or knee. An opiate perfume of pollen and rot fogged his struggling mind. Reeling from the herbs he'd been drugged with, Mason couldn't use his empathic ability tell reality from hallucination.
"Clueless and hopeless, " the voice taunted Mason. "If you give up now, maybe you could still beg the cultists to kill you first? You're going to Hell either way. Why not beat the shopping crowd?"
Mase swatted at something buzzing his head. "I'll pass on that craptacular offer, but do let me know when you've got a serious offer." 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 damn fool tricks! Granted, he needed to work on them, but being played didn't feel so good.
That moment of confusion bought Mason a world of pain: he slipped to the ground on a slimy chunk of rotting apple. A thorn pierced a back pocket that didn't have a wallet to pad it. 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 bad horror films. The grass around it was brown and sparkly. Cold as Hell? Ha, um, ha. He imagined he could see a rose buried under a dozen dim lights flickering their way through a pile of transparent thorns filling the cauldron. Mason pulled himself back, just short of the burning cold freezing his hands to the iron lip.
"What's the problem, cowboy, afraid to chill?"
"If you're so smart, mind telling me what the lights are supposed to be?"
"Look again, little boy. 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... Why the Hell was he dwelling on old bullshit?
"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 comfort 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. If that doesn't do the trick, there are more sacrifices left on the plate!"
Mason's mind ran to a corner, away from the pain he'd be in for if he dug for the drifting, dying lights. He could manage what, exactly? How many times could he afford to pull up one or two at a time before fetching up the rose resting at the bottom of the iron pot? Was the rose dying too? It sure looked weaker. Lights swirled deeper, lower, and more damaged. The losing struggle 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.
Yet... 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 too bad.
"You don't owe any of them. We all know that the Knight is using you for a meat shield. If you leave now, maybe someone will take mercy on you for being on the losing side."
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 for his people. Time to play a different game, 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 a Hell was through. Two struggling lights transformed into fires biting into his flesh, but he was beyond caring about the ungrateful. Only 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. Maybe his blood would glue them all into a ball or something? More likely, he was losing it by the bucket-full. Thorns dug into bone. Some broke off in his flesh. Instead of letting him pull his head and arms free, the trap set for him used his unbalanced weight 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. Some were indescribably, wrongly, worse.
Mason fell until he hit ashen dirt. He stared up into an unknown he couldn't see and felt the light of a thousand stars in his burned-out eye sockets.
"They followed me home. Can I keep them?"
"You remind me of another cocky little shitstain I know. That does not work in your favor."
"If I can't be good, I'll just have to be damned good at it." Mason was stunned to silence by the touch of warm lips on his forehead.
"Yes. You'd better be."
Mason Goodwin slumped down in his personal rose-scented darkness. Piece by piece, flesh, pain, sensation, and more pain returned. Thirteen spikes dove into the skin of his left wrist. Once settled, like dogs padding down their bedding, the patch of skin they'd encircled began burning. Next, the Ring Jonathan had given him sank molten metal fangs into its finger. Then came itching in the palms of his hands and feet. When did he lose his boots? He was pretty certain he hadn't signed up for this! When did he start making sense again?
Pulling out the rusted spikes felt... dirty? Good? He took his time tending to the excruciating ecstasy of the job (tensed muscles didn't help at all) until the crazy feelings swept through and out of him. He heard a warning cough and a familiar voice say:
"Damn, kid! I was sure you and Johnnie the Rotten 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 get all high and mighty about it. Tell you what: I can tell you what a Church Knight is and what you've been roped into while Jonathan runs the other cons of the evening. 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 hidden campsite, upstream of Sidewinder Creek Campground, on the Virgin River.
Theirs had been an unpleasant trip across the Mojave desert so far, but that was a small price for power! So far, the coven's priest had planned for everything, even the last holdout from the scout troops set up in the campground. He'd put up a good fight but 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 celebrants' foul intent exactly as planned.
The bound and gagged sacrifice inside the corn man effigy writhed uselessly, almost erotically, against the post it was bound to. If only they could have sampled the offering. But, no, the ritual called for a carnal innocent. Green leaves glistened in the firelight where the whole bundle had been anointed with rare oils and accelerants. At the peak of the drumming, the summoning chants, and the midsummer's half-moon, an assistant brought a burning branch to the Officiant. He held it aloft and chanted the Seventh Aklo Formula. Unknown things crawled among the shadows around them, 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, writhing in vain to avoid the flames lapping at it. One could imagine how superheated vapor seared lungs and blackened skin. Soon, muscles stopped twitching as 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 ensnared, consumed, and those responsible richly rewarded, all according to plan.
That which descended upon the cultists had different plans in mind, starting with their share in its feast.
Between the Scout troop campsites.
The younger and most powerful of the approaching plant spirits recognized the English clergyman's reek of burnt tobacco, day-old sweat, and chrism. This must be what paradox smells like. 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, Jonathan? 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 refrain. "
"Some days, mate, I don't know who serves up whom anymore."
The spirit shook its head, a human affectation held over from a past life.
Jonathan said, "I need help."
This had better not be another of the man's half-truths and schemes.
The spirit asked, "What do you need? I cannot intercede with Yig. I... I dare not in this matter. Those it has taken have failed, but this sacred place remains severed from its guardian."
"That lot? Sod 'em, I say."
"Then why am I called here?"
"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, Jonathan?"
"Hid him in the last place his enemies would look."
"There's no way the Rose would accept a Cainite! We could switch the boys tomorrow night and nobody'd be the wiser."
"Otherwise, 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. You wouldn't happen to know how to grow a post-astral face-plant pick-me-up? It's for the guy who came up with the idea of replacing a human sacrifice with one of Yig's sacred rattlesnakes."
"Who have I offended that there are two of you now?"
Jonathan had had to give it to Goodwin: Cainites weren't known for their altruism, but he'd gone along with the plan to deny the interlopers their fun. Yet, nothing explained what possessed The Rose to push the hellbound brat into the initiation ordeal. For that matter, why was it still holding on? Maybe he should ask the bog god to lend a hand before the temporary swaps became permanent?
When Mason got up and went around to the various poisoned and/or injured innocents, Jonathan dared hope that the Ring was only 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 lovely sight was reserved for the boy's return to the picnic table where Jonathan had set up. The horror show wasn't over yet, either. Mason pulled a long glass thorn from between tight-clenched eyelids. He licked a ruby drop, bled from a rose tattoo that matched Jonathan's own, and collapsed.
Twelve bones were broken on the right, twelve fractured on the left. One smashed sternum made thirteen all. Assured the rebellious captive could not escape, would never fly again, the bailiff recited a litany of sins for Judgement. No blood could be allowed to stain Holy halls, so the captive was led/dragged to the very edge of wilderness for his wings to be cut away 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 one such as he. He thought he'd known purpose, he thought he'd touched the face of malice before, 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. He floated down the molten river, buoyed up against the broken-glass lava crust downstream of his entry. Torn to undying shreds, burned to ash, renewed to begin again. He swore an Oath: that 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 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 — similar 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. I can't! Not to the Other Place. 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 figure out how to use them. For now, get out of My sight and tell your friend Jonathan that We'll be waiting." The Boss paused dramatically before asking, "How'd you like your first blood sacrifice? Tasty, piquant, effervescent on the tongue, hm?"
Seven warped seconds shuddered under seven times seven uncaring stars. Still, Jonathan waited. 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 coldcock the first blighter who dared touch him. Laz would remember all about that one time! He listened for several minutes before asking himself whether the child was crying or laughing. The answer to an unspoken question, delivered behind eyes now flickering with hellfire in place of starlight, ran Jonathan's veins full of ice-water and acid.
"Your friend with the horns says he'll be waiting and that now I get to see why too."
Monday, June 25, 2007,
Nilsson-Garnett home, San Canaan, UT
"Mason, Jason, Peter, and Demeter! Hurry up or you're going to be late." Katryn waited for the vague mumbles of compliance. Then she said, "Mase, Jase! Don't you get too far ahead of your younger brother and sister. Pete, Demi! You two are not old enough to go by yourselves."
The four were presentable. That was a good start.
"Mase, pirates don't wear Stetsons. Take off the eye patch and let me see what we have here."
Mason complied, setting the patch down on his hat, on the back of a hair. He wouldn't look his Aunt Katryn in the eye. She caught Jason unclenching a fist, but drew a centering breath so she could focus on the older boy. She stepped up to him, held his face between her hands. His eyes were fine, hellfire flickering behind them. On second look?
Mase's right eye was a bloody mess, just like yesterday. Katryn knew that all too well.
< Look from my eyes that I may see from yours. >
For a moment, she saw a stringy-haired strung-out junkie, half-starved from a junk habit that ate up more of her grocery budget than she did, despite the money she kept from whatever business she could scare up on the street. Her hiked-up skirt was more a warning than an offer. The next moment, her second-oldest screwed his eyes up tight to keep out the vision. Not tight enough to hold in his tears. Never tight enough to hold onto her tears.
If Katryn had put Seattle behind her, Seattle hadn't returned the favor.
Katryn held tight to Mason, guiding him to sit on an overstuffed sofa, letting him bawl into her shoulder. Jason mimed his intention to take the twins outside for a while. He'd known? She nodded, second-hand echoes of his grief and relief washing over her.
That was misplaced, wasn't it?
"Sorry for what?"
"For. For seeing your."
Katryn waited for the boy to find his words, like all the times he'd wished his parents hadn't left, or the times he double-dog dared Jason into doing something stupid and painful that he couldn't take back.
"Or for not seeing and not doing anything. I don't know."
"Believe me, Mason Goodwin, when I tell you that there was nothing you could go back and do. Nothing a sweet boy like you could say to me–then that I would have listened to." That wasn't the whole truth, was it? The part she couldn't face: "If I'd kept my baby, if it survived the heroin to be born, I would have destroyed its short life."
Katryn's breath hitched. She brushed a tear away and said, "If you were wondering how far gone I was, there you go. I never even asked."
"Wear your sunglasses. That will keep dust and sun out of your eyes. We'll go into town Saturday and get everyone's checked."
Not that an optometrist can measure this sort of thing.
"But, Aunt Katryn!"
"This isn't something you can run from or hide from, Mason Goodwin— no more than I could hide from my past. What we can change is our future."
"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"