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A "Luminations" Story
Start at the beginning of the Luminations series
"There are black zones of shadow close to our daily paths, and now and then some evil soul breaks a passage through. When that happens, the man who knows must strike before reckoning the consequences."
- H.P. Lovecraft, "The Thing On The Doorstep"
"No, Nancy, you may have a duty to fight this war. I don't."
I was sitting in the office of Chester Hall's Lumination Agency in Bedford, New Hampshire. The office sat in a strip mall on a suburban road, one floor up from a greasy pizza place, a thirty-minute gym, and a comic book shop. Katy McCormick sat behind Chess Hall's desk arguing with me. She looked small.
"At least let me explain what we're trying to do." I'd come north to recruit Katy for the ritual that Darren and Antonio were planning. They were part of an ancient society, or so the story went. They were making a stand against a band of creatures who fed on human imagination, and the ritual was their big chance. I didn't know too many more details. I'd only just met Heather and Antonio, and I wasn't officially part of their society. But they'd made it clear that they needed all the help they could get, so I'd volunteered to try to bring Katy on board.
Katy was a senior at Bedford High School. She was also a former employee of Chester Hall's who had commandeered his office when he skipped town. Katy had saved my ass once. She'd proven herself to be tough and smart, and she had the same set of enemies that we did. I figured that the enemy of my enemy should be my friend.
But Katy was a solo act.
"Look, Nancy. I know you're biased here 'cause you're dating Darren. And he seems like a decent guy. But I've heard of this Antonio. When all the shit went down last December, where the hell was he when Chess needed some backup? His society threw Chess to the wolves, and now Chess has gone underground with a warrant out on him and Melissa is on her third round of reconstructive surgery."
"Wait… Who?" We were getting into new territory for me.
"Chess Hall's ex-girlfriend. She helped him stop whatever was going on with old man Harrington. Somewhere in all of that, Christina Kenney slammed her face into a wall repeatedly."
"Oh my God." I'd been warned about Christina a few times, and I still had bad memories, and some even more disturbing lack of memories about the one time I'd encountered her, but this something tangible, visceral. The bitch wasn't afraid to get her hands dirty. Scary thought.
"Melissa's tough. She's getting better. But you see my point, right? These people don't care about me, and Darren might be the exception, but I'll bet they don't care about you either."
It sounded like her mind was made up. But I hadn't come all the way up here by busses and cabs to give up that easily.
"They've got something that will set them all free at once." I said it quickly while Katy was still smoldering over the lack of help that Chess had received that night in Boston. I was trying to come up with other arguments, because I wasn't sure what would matter to Katy, and I started on some sentimental tangent about power and responsibility.
"Wait. Go back." I realized I'd somehow gotten Katy's full attention, maybe for the first time in the conversation.
Very slowly, I bowed my head down and removed the three rune pendants. Darren hadn't wanted me to bring them on this trip. He told me that Antonio would be furious about the risk. I reminded Darren that it had been my risk when I was stabbed for one of the runes. And it had been our risk when we took that plunge into the Merrimack River. Darren had nodded, kissed me, and handed over the rune he'd been keeping.
"These are the foci for the ritual. They are exceptional." I explained as best I could. There was still so much I didn't understand. I wanted weeks, months, in a good library to discover the meaning of what we were trying to do, but of course there wasn't that kind of time. There wasn't much time left at all.
Katy examined the runes, hopeful, but still unconvinced.
"Antonio is readying a ritual that will free every soul they have bonded to. All at once. All those who were collected over the years will rest. We don't know if it will work, and I'm not going to be able to judge that, but if it does…"
"Then maybe someone finally finds the peace they deserve. Okay, Nancy. I'll try to help. I'll find a way to get to this meeting you mentioned. And if there is anything here that you need, it's yours."
I hesitated on that last point, but finally asked, "Did Chess have a gun?"
The meeting took place at a Wiccan shop in Salem, one of a dozen or more that competed for the tourist dollars along the waterfront of the "Witch City", just off of Pickering Wharf. I'd always avoided Salem, particularly during the Halloween craziness, but it was mid-December and things had calmed down.
The room was used for psychic readings. It was hot and crowded. I stood in the back corner between Darren and Katy. Em was next to Katy, and across the room I recognized Annalee Stephenson from Jaffrey. She and Darren were signing back and forth across the room. I could only pick up a word here and there. Darren had been teaching me since we started dating, but it would be a long time before I'd be able to follow a conversation. I knew I should be surprised to see Annalee at the meeting, but I wasn't.
Not much surprised me anymore. In the weeks since I'd found the third rune, the weeks that Darren and I had been dating, I felt like I'd experienced every possible emotional extreme. The unexpected new romance kept me going while things fell apart around me. Belle had vanished. I wasn't surprised. But then came news that Nate was gone as well. Em checked with the manager of the toy store, and finally got the guy to admit that Nate was on a medical leave. His apartment was dark and silent, but when I told Em that I feared for his life, she just shook her head.
"He's with them," she told me. It was a time of choosing sides.
Antonio was quick and to the point. The ritual would take place the night of the solstice and the site would be Mystery Hill, a tourist attraction in southern New Hampshire that was dubbed "America's Stonehenge". Money would change hands and we would have the place to ourselves. It was isolated and defensible, and in spite of the cheesy roadside attraction brochures, Antonio assured us that the place had genuine mystical qualities, plus a rumored connection to the Norsemen who had come to North America before Columbus. The ritual had never been tried, Antonio explained, so every bit of possible power, every thread of significance, from the sacred site to the holy time on the calendar to the power of the three foci would play into its success.
I was to be the rune-bearer, not too different from a ring-bearer (in the wedding sense rather than the Tolkien sense, or so I'd hoped!). My job was going to be to stand there and hand the runes over at the right time. Darren was half of my honor-guard. The other half had been something of an issue. Em had been hurt when I'd chosen Katy as the other guard. She felt she'd stuck by me through all of this and she deserved better. I felt she'd stuck by me through all of this and she deserved a better chance of living.
We'd finally smoothed things out in one of those late-night sessions of alternating tears, hugs, and screaming, and then she'd gone and volunteered to lead one of the security details.
I tried to reassure myself that Em was tough. But Melissa, of the three rounds of reconstructive surgery, she'd been tough too.
Heather would conduct the ritual. Antonio would coordinate the security. People were assigned to teams and schedules were coordinated. Once the plans were in place, Antonio turned things over to a skinny young man named Michael.
Michael didn't look good. He didn't look good in the very specific way that I used to see when I hung out at the Pit in Harvard Square and we'd get visited by guys heading to the T after an AA meeting. Recovering. Michael would spend the rest of his life with that label. One step at a time.
But he wasn't here to discuss addictions of a chemical nature. His name was Michael and he was a former disciple of Christina Kenney.
"I didn't know what I was going to say to you all, until I saw this thing on the Discovery Channel the other night." He started, pausing while his opening line elicited a few smiles and brief bits of hesitant laughter.
"This bug show, they were showing footage of preying mantises mating." Some giggles among the group.
"So they're doing the deed, right? And the female has bitten off like half of the male's head. One eye is gone. Their faces are all eye, and one of them is totally gone. Half the jaws ripped away. The skull… Yeah, I know they don't have a skull… But anyway half the head just gone, and she's eating the stuff that's inside in little nibbles, right, chewing on it and pulling off more bits. And he's fucking her the whole time, like there's nothing else in the world to do right then. It's not even like he can't stop. There's just her. Just him fucking her and half his head is gone and he hasn't even noticed."
No one was laughing anymore.
"I was with her." Michael finished up. "That's what it was like. That's what you're dealing with."
I met with Antonio once briefly in the days leading up to the Solstice to discuss my concerns about the figure of the huntsman whose presence I had felt over the last year as I had gathered the runes. Antonio went to a fair amount of effort to explain that the wards that were being put into place around the ritual site should prevent any sort of interference from any kind of spiritual entities. I was pretty sure that Antonio had no idea what I was talking about, and I wondered if he even believed me.
That was the last I heard from Antonio or the other members of his order until the morning of the Solstice. Of course, Em was working for me at the store, and Darren was over most nights. I was also chatting with Katy online, but we were avoiding the subject of the ritual more than we were discussing it. Everyone knew the risks. If what Heather said was true, there were only a limited number of places and a very few possible times when this magik would work. And our enemies knew that just as well as we did.
Katy drove down to Worcester and I rode with her following Darren's pickup. Em was riding with Darren. I had two of the runes. Darren had the other, the safe-travel rune.
We arrived at the main gate as the wind began to pick up and a few snow flurries were swirling in our headlights. The park's attendants were nowhere to be seen. The gates had been left barred but unlocked as per our arrangements with the caretakers. The place was ours.
Darren and Heather headed for the ritual site, waving for me to follow. I hugged Em, who was being called over to where the perimeter patrols were getting set up.
"Take care of yourself, Em."
"You too. Keep out of trouble." She replied.
I tried to reassure her. "Everyone's watching out for me. I'll be fine."
She pulled me into another embrace, but when she did, Em whispered into my ear, "They're looking out for the runes, Nancy. You look out for yourself."
I hurried to catch up with Darren and Katy. As it turned out, the ritual was going to involve quite a bit of waiting. The stars needed to be right. A guy I hadn't met before named Jonathan was acting as the group's astrologer. Also present in the ritual circle were Darren and Katy, Heather, Antonio, and Michael, the one who'd given the cautionary address to the group in Salem about his dealings with Christina. Antonio had a walkie-talkie and he was coordinating the patrols.
The stars would be right, according to Jonathan's calculations, at five minutes after midnight. All hell broke loose at 11:45.
A sentry team failed to check in. Antonio spent a minute trying to raise them, then started running through the other groups to figure out who was closest. Halfway down the list, we started hearing gunfire.
Then Em's scream came through the walkie talkie and I instinctively turned toward the woods and the occasional popping of gunshots. Darren grabbed my shoulder. I turned to face him. He couldn't hear Em's screams coming through the static. I tried to explain to him.
"I have to help her!" Suddenly nothing mattered. Not the ritual, or Antonio's coven, or any of it. My friend needed me.
"You can't! You have the runes. You can't." Darren tightened his grip on my shoulders and I started to try to pull away. He just held on tighter. Heather and Antonio were yelling at me, but I couldn't focus on their words.
Katy forced herself in between me and Darren. "I'll go. You don't need me. Let me go."
She didn't wait. She disappeared into the darkness. I saw her grabbing something out of her purse, one of the pepper spray cans she'd showed me in Chester Hall's office, or one of his guns. She was gone, and the signal cut off.
The night went silent and we waited. It was over in minutes, although it seemed a lot longer. We just stood there, scanning the darkness, waiting for word.
A voice crackled through on the radio.
It was Em. I thanked the Goddess, the universe, whatever had been listening.
"They're gone… We've got people hurt… But we'll be okay… There's something else out there… It attacked Christina's people… But it's gone now too… You're good… Do the thing."
"All right," Heather said. "We're in the clear. Let's start."
She turned to the stone where we'd set up the altar.
A shot rang out and Heather stumbled forward, her body sliding onto the stone and her head striking it with a dull thump.
Behind her Michael stood holding a pistol.
"I tried to explain. I told you what it's like, but you never listened…"
Darren rushed him. So did I. It happened before I had a chance to think and we all ended up in the dirt and the gun went off right next to my head. The shots rang in my ears. There must been more screams, then but I couldn't hear them anymore.
An elbow struck me in the chest and I was knocked loose from the struggle. I looked up at the snow swirling. Everything was so quiet. There was just a dull ringing.
I sat up slowly. Darren and Michael were lying together in the shadow between two of the shadows of the standing stones. The flickering light of the ritual candles shone off of the slick puddles of blood that was expanding around them.
Antonio was gone. So was Jonathan. Heather was slumped over our altar, and I could see Em leaning on Katy as they limped out of the woods toward me.
And then I saw something else behind them. In the darkness of the woods, the shadows flowed and shifted into a figure I knew from the edge of my dreams.
"They're gone. I'm sorry." I read the words off of Em's lips, just like Darren had been teaching me. I could read the sign his hands had been making as well, and when I turned away from that, Em and Katy probably decided that I needed a moment to myself.
It was quiet except for that one dull ringing echo. Quiet as Darren's world had been.
The ritual had never belonged to us any more than the runes had. And now, while the man I'd come to love lay dead and my friends needed me, it was time for an accounting. Consequences never came at convenient times. But they needed to be faced.
I gripped the runes, took one last look back to where Em and Katy were kneeling over the bodies, and slipped away into the quiet darkness.
Story and image by Rick Silva, Copyright 2007