Edit 2 is finished, and the preorder for the Kindle version of Older and Fouler Things is up! It will release on September 22. In the meantime, here’s a look at Chapter 4.
Oh, and there’s a cover, too.
Paul didn’t show up to breakfast, even though it was pretty late in the morning, and the sounds and smells of frying bacon and eggs were permeating the entire house. After the events of the previous night, that was a matter of some concern. I was about to go check on him, but Eryn put a hand on my arm.
“Let me get him,” she said quietly. “If he’s as traumatized as I think he might be, a gentle voice will probably help him a little more. No offense, hon, but you’re better at the ‘shooting monsters’ part, and I’m better at the ‘comforting victims afterward’ part.”
I just nodded, and stepped back. I was still hovering in the hallway, though, and I still had my .45 on my hip. The combination of Magnus’ reaction to him, the eerie activity at the witching hour that morning, and his silence and absence at breakfast were not serving to make me particularly comfortable.
Eryn knocked softly on the door to Paul’s room. “Paul?” she called. “We’ve got breakfast, if you want some.” She waited, glancing at me. “Paul?” she tried again, knocking a little more insistently this time. “Are you all right?”
We waited, and I was gearing up to kick the door in. Sure, he’d come to us as a terrified, traumatized victim, having narrowly escaped becoming a human sacrifice in a demonic summoning ritual. But there was obviously something weird going on with him, and while Eryn had been right when she’d pointed out that some great Witch Hunters had started out that way, there were also some pretty gruesome stories floating around in which similar victims had ended up going bad. Very, very bad.
But when the door creaked open, we weren’t faced with screaming horror or the smell of death. A pale, shaking, bleary-eyed Paul stood there in his t-shirt and boxers. His hair was disheveled, he was unshaven, and he looked like he hadn’t slept since leaving Spokane.
“Are you okay?” Eryn asked him again. She’d taken half a step back, her green eyes widening slightly at his appearance. I actually relaxed a little bit; however rough he looked, he was alive and not, apparently, possessed.
He shambled out into the hallway, nodding, squinting at the light now streaming in the windows at the ends of the hall. “I’m alive, I think,” he said. “But I don’t know if I can stay. I thought things would be better, here with you guys.”
I frowned a little. “You heard that commotion last night?”
He looked at me, somewhat uncomprehendingly. “Yeah. You heard it, too? I thought it was right in my room?”
My frown deepened, and Eryn looked at me, concern written across her face. “We didn’t hear anything from your room, Paul,” I said slowly. “We had some weird stuff happen out by the fireplace in the living room, and whatever it was, we drove it away. What did you hear?”
“So, you didn’t hear the voices?” he asked, looking back and forth between us. Then he flinched, and looked back into the room. “You didn’t hear that?”
Ray and Father Ignacio were now standing behind me. I started toward the room, and they came with me. Paul started to look even more scared, and started to back away from us, but I held up a hand to try to calm him. We were going to take a look in the room, first.
Because with a quick exchange of glances, shaking of heads, and faint shrugs, we had established that none of the rest of us had heard anything.
I left my pistol on my hip. Something that was talking to Paul and Paul alone wasn’t likely to be something I could shoot. Sometimes, these sorts of things could be put down to certain Otherworldly tricksters; I’d seen a “haunting” that had actually been the work of a Nimerigar, a gnome-like creature that got its jollies by making humans jump. But context matters a lot, too. And the context of these voices didn’t tend to make me think they were just supernatural pranksters at work.
Just as I had feared, the room was empty. And quiet. Whatever voices Paul was hearing, they were meant only for him. “Magnus?” I called.
The big dog padded down the hallway, his lambent golden eyes fixed on Paul. The young man shrank back from the dog, fear written all over his features, but ran up against the wall at the end of the hall.
Magnus sniffed around the room, looked at me as if to shrug, and then turned his baleful stare back on Paul. He wasn’t growling, but there was still nothing friendly in his regard.
“Ray, can you take Paul with you and get him some chow?” I asked. I wanted to discuss this with Father Ignacio, preferably out of earshot of our guest. It didn’t mean that we’d be out of earshot of whatever was screaming in his ear, but at least we’d lessen the tension a little bit. And I really didn’t want Paul, who was already tired, scared, and flighty, to hear what I was going to say.
Ray just nodded, and held out a plate-sized hand to Paul, to usher him out to the kitchen. Magnus padded out past Ray, as if to give Paul a clear path without having to ease past him, but stopped at the doorway and watched him. I got the distinct impression that Magnus didn’t want to let Paul out of his sight, which only exacerbated my own concerns.
Once they were gone, and we had some modicum of privacy, I turned to Father. He was watching the doorway they had disappeared through, a deep frown furrowing his already craggy features.
“What does it mean that he’s hearing voices that we can’t?” I asked. “And does it have anything to do with what happened last night?”
“Nothing good, and almost certainly, in that order,” he answered.
“I thought the defenses here were better than usual,” Eryn said, stepping close by my side.
“They are,” Father Ignacio said. “The house and grounds are blessed on a yearly basis. But the fiends of the Abyss are slippery, and sometimes all it takes is the right conduit walking in the door.”
“You think that Paul brought something with him,” I said. It wasn’t a question.
“Wittingly or not, yes,” he replied bluntly.
“So, what do we do?” Eryn asked. “Do we need to perform another exorcism?”
But Father Ignacio shook his head. “I doubt he’s actually possessed,” he said, “or if he is, it’s by something far subtler than usual.”
“Which means big, bad medicine,” I noted. I had to agree with him. Paul didn’t fit the mold of the possessed that I’d seen. Anything inside him that was successfully hiding had to be extremely subtle, patient, and dangerous.
We’re talking “Lord of the Abyss” dangerous.
“Indeed,” Father rumbled. “But, like I said, I don’t think that he’s actually possessed. If he was, I suspect that the commotion last night would have been centered on his room. He’s marked, though, almost certainly. Sometimes that’s all it takes.” He rubbed his chin, his callouses rasping against his stubble. “I’ll perform a stronger blessing,” he said, after a moment. “Rather like last night’s, but longer and more explicit. It should, hopefully, drive off whatever followed him here.”
“We’ll see if we can’t get him a little more calmed down, and maybe see if we can find out more about what it might be while you get ready,” I said.
“Just be careful,” he cautioned. “I know I don’t really need to say this, but if whatever we’re dealing with is as subtle as it seems to be, trying to find out too much about it might just be a very, very bad idea. Remember, these things are slippery, and they’re consummate liars.”
I just nodded. He was right. That was a risk we all faced when dealing with the demonic. The Otherworld presented its own hazards, but demons were vastly more cunning than any human ever has been or ever will be.
Imagine a creature as old as time, unbound by the flesh; a creature of pure intellect. It knows more, by nature, than you ever will. Now imagine that this creature has gone bad. That it has drowned its nature in hate and deceit. For all intents and purposes, there is nothing left of it except hatred and lies.
Yet remember, it still possesses all its knowledge. Which means that it knows you. And it hates you. It hates you more than you can comprehend, because you simply cannot comprehend this thing, which, like I said, isn’t bound by the physical. It doesn’t get hungry, or tired, nor does it ever weary of hating you. It hates everyone and everything. Even itself.
Many have scoffed at warnings not to delve too deeply into certain areas of knowledge. Knowledge is good, they insist, and to forbid knowledge is just a sign that whoever is issuing the warning only wants people to stay ignorant, placid, and controllable. But some knowledge is a trap.
The demons are liars, supernaturally good ones. To delve too deeply into lore surrounding them is to risk getting sucked in by their lies. And the end result of believing the demons is self-destruction and damnation. Always.
I knew this, and Father Ignacio knew that I knew it. But some warnings can never be repeated too many times, so I simply nodded my understanding, trying to assure him that we’d step very carefully.
He disappeared back into his room. Eryn and I headed out into the common room.
Paul was sitting at the table, a plate of bacon and eggs in front of him, picking at it, while Ray sat across the table from him. Kolya was sitting by the window, watching down the road, and Magnus was sitting up next to Ray. Magnus was so big that his head easily topped the table, and he was watching Paul intently.
No wonder the guy was just picking at his food.
I sat down next to Ray, and Eryn grabbed a chair across from me, next to Paul. He looked sideways at her, and then hunched over his plate again. He didn’t even glance at me.
“Paul,” I began, “I know you had a rough night. Frankly, all of us did, though it sounds like you had it worse than the rest of us. But we need to know everything you can recall from your experience in that house. Because I think you’d agree that whatever happened there isn’t over.”
At first, he didn’t seem to have heard me; he kept his head bowed, shoving his eggs around his plate with his fork. When he did respond, it was a low murmur that I couldn’t make out.
“I couldn’t quite catch that, Paul,” I said. Ray was watching him carefully, and with a glance over his shoulder I saw Kolya was still sitting by the front window, but with his eyes were now fixed on Paul’s back.
“I already told you everything I remember,” Paul said, his voice still muted, just loud enough to make out his words. “That’s all.”
Which was probably the truth. Traumatic memories can get jumbled, if only because of the adrenaline dump into the brain while the events were going on. I still had to take time to piece together the events after a particularly hairy encounter, usually with the help of anyone else who had been there at the time.
But it wasn’t going to be enough. “Have you ever encountered something like this before?” I asked him.
He looked even more uncomfortable. He didn’t look up, but kept staring at his plate. He shrugged half-heartedly. “I’ve seen some strange stuff a few times,” he said.
“Like what?” Ray asked. He was trying to ask gently, but Ray can be intimidating, between his size and his untrimmed hair and beard, at least until you got to know him.
Paul hemmed and hawed for a few more minutes, still poking at his eggs with his fork. They had to be getting cold by then, but he still didn’t seem all that interested in eating.
“Well, I’ve been on a few ghost hunts,” he finally mumbled. “I’ve always been kind of fascinated by that sort of thing. And there was a séance, about a year ago.”
Four—no, make that five, including Magnus—pairs of eyes focused on him a little bit more intently. You don’t hear much about séances anymore. But they still happen, and for those of us in this line of work, they’re an immediate red flag. Remember what I said about the dangers of studying the demonic? This is no different. Whenever someone starts communicating with something that can’t be seen, they’re running a hell of a risk. Because you’ve got no way of knowing just what it is you’re talking to.
“Did anything happen at this séance?” Ray asked.
Again, Paul hesitated. It was hard to read him; he was still in the slumped, weary posture he’d been in when we’d sat down, and he wouldn’t lift his head from his plate. “Yes,” he replied, after a moment.
When he didn’t appear to be forthcoming with any more details, Eryn prodded, “What happened, Paul?”
He squirmed a little in his seat. “It wasn’t anything any of us could really agree on,” he said after a moment. “Some swore they hadn’t actually seen or heard anything.”
“But you saw or heard something,” I said flatly. “Or both.”
He hesitated again, then nodded fractionally. “Both,” he said. “I think.”
I was about to lose my cool. This was like pulling teeth. And it was really starting to bother me; not because of my own impatience, which I will admit is one of my vices, but because the longer he dawdled and hemmed and hawed and didn’t tell us what had happened, the more I began to suspect that it had been something bad, something that probably made him that much more susceptible to the influence of the Abyss. And I suspected that he knew it, and knew that we weren’t going to react well to it.
“Nothing happened, at first,” he finally began. “It was like most of those ghost hunts. Just a bunch of people in a dark room in an old house, along with the guy who was running the whole show, sitting around a table with a couple of candles, while the guy in the middle tried to call up a spirit.
“It was corny, you know? A couple of people were giggling. He was chanting something, some kind of spell, he said. The candles were black, like you’d find in a Halloween store. It was like a cheap Halloween haunted house.” He stopped. He wasn’t even picking at his food anymore, but just staring at his plate.
“Did you see something?” Ray asked. “Hear something? Smell or feel anything?”
“After a while, even the people who thought it was all a joke stopped talking and laughing,” Paul said. “Nothing really had changed; the host was still chanting, the same lines over and over. But something felt different. Like laughing wasn’t a good idea.” He stopped again. “That was when I thought I saw something.”
“What did you see?” Eryn asked.
“I don’t know,” he answered. “I’m still not even sure I actually saw it. But for a second, I thought I saw a face, above the host’s head. And it was looking at me. And then…well, I thought maybe I heard someone call my name.”
“Did anyone else see it?” Kolya asked. Paul started a bit, half looking over his shoulder at where Kolya was sitting. I didn’t think he’d quite realized that Kolya was there behind him.
“I don’t know,” he answered, and he sounded sincere. “Nobody could agree, afterward, if we’d actually seen anything or not. It was like you’d see it, but if you looked straight at it, it disappeared. And my memory was hazy, afterward; I never could decide if I’d actually seen something, or just thought that I had.”
Kolya and I traded a look over Paul’s shoulder. This was ringing all sorts of alarm bells. He’d already been exposed to some kind of bad medicine even before the Bed and Breakfast. Which had, presumably, already made him vulnerable. He might have been marked during the séance, if not before.
“How long have you been poking around the supernatural, Paul?” I asked quietly.
He shrugged again. “Since I was a kid,” he replied. “It’s interesting.”
“It’s dangerous,” Ray growled. “As I’m sure you should have figured out from the incident in Spokane. Hopefully it’s not too late.”
It was right about then that Father Ignacio came into the living room. He had his stole on again, and was carrying his kit. That went on the table, with the candles, crucifix, and prayer book coming out, followed by the flask of holy water that, like most of us, he kept in his back pocket most of the time.
Paul looked up nervously. “What’s going on?” he asked. “Are you going to do an exorcism on me?”
But Father Ignacio shook his head. “I don’t think that’s necessary, yet,” he replied. “I hope it isn’t. But there’s something not right here, so I’m going to bring some spiritual heavy artillery to bear, and see if we can’t set it right.”
With Ray and I helping him set up, Father launched into the blessing. The litany took a full thirty minutes, with pauses for the sprinkling of holy water around the house, inside and out. Afterward, Father offered to bless Paul, but Paul was watching the entire thing nervously, and shook his head. He said he wasn’t hearing the voices anymore, and he was fine.
We probably should have sent him on his way right then and there. But Magnus had settled down, and some of the odd feelings that had been clinging to the shadowy parts of the house had vanished after the blessing. We still needed to keep a close eye on Paul, and do what we could to bring him around to understanding just how serious his situation was, but it seemed like whatever had followed him had been driven off. At least for the moment.
After the blessing was over, Magnus seemed to be somewhat less wound up, at least inside. But he promptly spent a good deal of the early afternoon pacing around the outside of the house, sniffing the air and the ground, and occasionally simply stopping and staring, usually at the darker areas of the woods behind the house. Once I went out there when he was standing there, stock still and intent, and tried to see what he was looking at. Something was clearly still bothering the big dog, and that was concerning.
At first, all I could see was the shadows under the trees. The pine woods back there were thick; the yard around the house had been cleared out of deep woods. The trees didn’t start to thin out until about thirty miles down the road toward the valley below.
But as I stood there, I started to feel the gooseflesh rising on my arms. I couldn’t be sure, but it felt like there was something, some presence, back there in the trees. I just couldn’t see it.
I looked down at Magnus. He was still rapt, staring, not moving a muscle. I wondered just what he was seeing.
When I glanced back at the woods, there was no visible change, but the feeling of being watched by something malicious and amused redoubled. Then, as quickly as it had come, it was gone.
Magnus growled a little, then. I patted him on the head, while I kept my gun hand close to my .45. It seemed that our visitor wasn’t gone; it had just moved out of the house.
Magnus and I headed inside. This fight wasn’t over yet.