I’m Bad Like Jesse James

John Lee Hooker, 1966

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Sentinel

It was another long night of keeping watch without a fire. The roads were dangerous. He could smell olives on the trees, mingling with the scent of damp earth. The air was hushed and expectant, as though before a squall. Distant noises reached his ears: the rustling of the branches and leaves, or the steady footsteps of someone’s approach? The moon above was gone, with only the stars to accompany him till morning.

A Nefarious Rite

When I slipped out of my room it was deep in the night, well past second sleep, when not an honorable soul could be expected to be about in the world. I was at one with the shadows as I moved through Don Francisco’s hallways, going from room to room, verifying again that all were empty of inhabitants. As I inspected what were ostensibly the servants’ quarters more closely than I had the previous night, I was convinced that no soul ever lay their head upon those rough pillows. When I had satisfied myself that the house was empty, I turned to the grounds, scouring the stable where Don Francisco kept his horses, along with a few pigs and some cattle, finding no sign of anyone there either.

I returned to the house, convinced that I must have overlooked something there. A dozen Indians and a Castilian could not simply vanish into the air, even if the man was an alchemist, as he claimed. I retraced my earlier steps within, this time going slowly so that I could feel at the seams of the place, here at the floor, there at a fireplace, trying to find some secret passageway. None appeared, until I came to what appeared to be a newer addition to the house attached to the kitchens, which I had only glanced at on my earlier journey. At its far end, near where the entrance to the cellar was, there was an empty space, absent of purpose.

I went to it immediately, crouching down to run my hands along the floor, and was rewarded with the discovery of a trapdoor. I pulled it up and saw some wooden stairs descending into the inky blackness below. After checking to ensure that the door would not lock behind me, I went below. The darkness was near absolute, but I have always been at ease in the dark. When I came to the bottom of the stairs I could discern a pathway, carved from the earth and supported by timbers, as though it were the shaft of a mine. I half expected to be assaulted by the sound of pickaxes upon rocks and the searing stench of quicksilver, but the silence and the darkness held firm.

I started forward, the smell of damp earth heavy in my nostrils, unease tickling at the hairs on my neck. The farther I went the farther I was from my only avenue of escape, and the damper my palms and the drier my throat became. I walked for what seemed like hours, though in all likelihood it was only a few interminable minutes, the silence playing on my thoughts until my imagination had filled my head with any number of fearsome and terrible sights that I was certain were about to be revealed to me. The passage narrowed as I went until it came to a turn—somewhere near the edge of the professor’s land, I reasoned—and after I had made the turn a dim light flickered into view at the end of this new tunnel. I slowed my approach, being careful to make absolutely no sound as I went, though I could hear nothing from the room where the light was.

I crouched low as I came to the entrance and peered around the corner, my body pressed against the cold earth. Within I saw a cavern, ancient and wide, formed long ago by the vagaries of the earth. I paid little mind to this wonder, though, for a far stranger sight drew my attention: all the professor’s servants were arrayed in a circle upon the cavern floor, each of them with a vial attached to their arms. Studying them closely, I could see that these vials were being filled with blood dripping slowly from small punctures on the Indians’ wrists. At the center of this nefarious circle was a goblet that, I knew without looking, was filled with blood.

I hissed at the sight of it, recalling the terrible rites the Stranger had been carrying out in the tombs of Cuzco. What foul necromancy was taking place here? I turned my attention to the poor Indians whose blood was being stolen, shaking the nearest to me to see if they were asleep. He did not rouse, and no breath seemed to pass from his lips. Had they somehow passed from the realm of the living and now inhabited some purgatory in this place? I was so engrossed in my study of the Indians, my own horror rising like bile in my throat, that I did not notice the shadows begin to move until it was too late. A firm blow struck my head and I fell to the ground and was lost to oblivion.

When I awoke, the light in the cavern had gone out and the Indians had risen, only the goblet remaining at the center of the circle. I was at the far end of the cave, my wrists and ankles chained to some ancient stone lodged in the earth. I had no idea how long I had been unconscious, but I suspected it had been some time and that morning would be near. Would Diego be joining me soon, I wondered? As if in answer to my thought, he appeared, led by Don Francisco. I called to him but he gave no sign that he heard me, his face blank of thought and expression.

A chill went down my spine at this sight, and my horror only grew as Don Francisco led the boy to where his Indians had so recently lain having their life force drained from them. He drew a thin knife from his belt that I could see was ornamented with oddly shaped runes, along with one of those fiendish vials of his. That he tied to Diego’s wrist, muttering some phrases in Latin, the knife poised in his hand. He pierced the boy on each wrist, one draining into the vial, the other left to open to feed the earth.

Diego, you are not his, I called to him. You must resist him.

Don Francisco laughed at my words. He is yours no longer, he said to me, leaving the boy and walking over to me, a malicious look in his eyes. Soon enough he will be mine, as docile as all the sheep in my flock.

I spat on the ground at his feet, cursing his name. What of me, I said. Do you expect me to be transmuted into one of your automata?

No, he said. Your kind does not respond well to my treatments. I have other plans for you.

What are your plans for the boy and these others, I asked, my fury growing by the instant. Are they to be drained until they are husks. I thought you were educating them and turning them into Christians.

Indeed I am, the professor insisted. Christians and good subjects. They are obedient and observant, not the slothful and ignorant sort like your boy here. He will learn his place in time.

Christians? I laughed at him. What claim do you have to our true faith? What foul rite are you practicing here?

Don Francisco looked at me scornfully. I am a philosopher and learned man and I will not have someone of your kind saying that I am not a Christian or a man. What you see here is no black rite, no foul magick, but a philosophic investigation into the most important alchemical secrets of our age. What I am collecting here is the divine quintessence of this land. This is the secret Magnus told Aquinas upon his deathbed, the secret to eternity itself.

As for you, he continued, stroking his chin with his fingers, a dear friend has requested that I keep you here. He is most eager to reacquaint himself with you.

My heart went still at his words and I felt myself begin to tremble. Though I tried to master my emotions they must have shown upon my face, for Don Francisco chuckled at my reaction.

Yes, I thought you would remember my friend. You are in his debt, as I understand it. You should know that he only accepts payment in blood.

I should not be surprised you would be in league with that devil, I cried, anger surging to overwhelm my fear. Do you do this work for him? He has worked his black magick on you as well.

Don Francisco scoffed at my rage. Don’t be a fool, he said. He is one of the great minds of this new world. A philosopher of existence to rival Magnus. It was he who taught me the secrets of the philosopher’s stone. But enough chatter, young Diego’s vial is full and I have much to teach him.

He turned his attention to the boy, untying the vial and emptying it in the cup, which was now full almost to the brim. He fingered it tenderly, as though it were the holiest of grails, and then pulled Diego to his feet and began to lead him away. He paused before he left the cavern, as though a thought had just occurred to him, and turned to say to me:

Tell me, then, I am given to understand from my friend that you can survive for quite some time without food or drink. We shall see, at any rate.

His laughter, grim and cold, echoed down the halls of the passage long after he had disappeared from sight. I was unable to stop myself from snarling and cursing like a rabid dog at him, but as soon as the sound of his mocking had vanished from the air I started to weep, for the Stranger was now on his way from Cuzco, and with him came my doom.

from The Maleficio Chronicles

Protocols

The wind did not begin to subside until late the next evening and it was not until the following morning that they awoke to a day glorious and calm. He had work to do around the yard in the morning, chores and repairs on one of the tractors, so it was only after lunch that he left, telling Emma that he was going up to check on the water at the lease. The dugout there had been low the day the object had been taken and there had been no rain since.

Though Emma had given him a look as though she suspected he were up to something, he had no intention of confronting the Concern about the object. He had thought about it the night after their argument and throughout the next day and had decided against it. He knew Emma well enough to understand which of her threats she would make good on. Stubborn as he was, even he could recognize that the object was not something that was worth risking his marriage.

The aftereffects of the storm were evident everywhere as he drove north. Ditches were filled with drifts of a fine powdery earth, almost like sand and several of his neighbors’ yards had trees that had been uprooted. There was a grain bin lying crumpled and warped atop Werner’s hill, an amazing site, for the nearest bins that could have been carried here were at Barthels, over two miles away. None of the power lines were damaged, as far as he could see, which told him that it had been blown high enough to clear them. The fences along the road were all filled with detritus, anything that hadn’t been weighted down had been scattered across the country.

The dugout in the lease was as low as he could remember it being. Two cows were standing right at its center with water up to their waists when he drove up. Unless it rained in the next few days he would be trucking water up here by next week. He swore to himself thinking of how much time that would take. Three quarters of an hour each way, with half an hour to fill up the water tank. Two trips every other day. That would be three mornings gone a week at least, to say nothing of Tommy’s pasture, which he would be hauling water to soon enough as well.

He was about to head home, his head filled with worry for what the rest of the summer would bring, when the ground where the object had been caught his eye. The grass had not recovered at all, had in fact turned a brittle shade of brown. It cracked underneath his feet as he walked across it, and each step was marked with the outlines of footprints. He could feel the color go from his face and he crouched down, as much to steady himself as to inspect the grass. He prodded the individual strands delicately with his fingers and they crumbled to dust at his touch. Cursing under his breath, he pulled the knife from the front pocket of his jeans and dug into the ground to expose the roots below. They too were utterly desiccated.

He said nothing when he returned home for supper, though he could feel Emma’s watchful eye upon him. They went to bed wordless and he again found himself staring at the ceiling waiting for sleep to steal him from his thoughts. That night it would not though. Try as he might he could not forget the ruined, brown patch. Would anything grow there again? And was the object having the same unseen effect upon him even as he lay there? It was a terrifying thought to say the least.

The next morning he awoke tired and with an aching head. His jaw had been clenched tight through his fitful sleep, his anger not dissipating, even through his tumultuous dreams. He drank his coffee and had his porridge in silence, Emma watching him as she ate her toast. When he was done he pushed aside his plate and his cup and stared at her. Their eyes held for a moment and then she closed her eyes, warding herself for a blow.

“I’m going to the Concern today. That fucking thing killed a bunch of grass up in the lease. They’re going to have pay for it.”

Emma offered no reply, her face impassive, as he left the house, letting the door slam in his wake.

He went into town after he was finished with the chores, getting some parts at the Agro Centre. On his way back he turned off the highway and headed down the road to the Baas. The three long barns loomed up before him, still the same white they had been when the Dutch company had been running pigs there. A chain link fence surrounded the yard now, which also had a dozen or so trailers near its entrance that acted as offices for the Concern employees. The trailers formed a sort of informal blockade between the gate and the barns where the research was done. There was also a small hut at the entrance where everyone had to check in before being allowed into the compound and Frank stopped there, asking to speak with Hildeck. He was sent to the largest trailer where he found the manager and a young woman he did not recognize.

“Frank, this is Katy Miles. She’s actually working on the project that, uh, you encountered,” Hildeck said as he motioned for him to sit.

Frank stared at her fiercely, derision and rage written plainly on his face, so that Hildeck cleared his throat and motioned for her to leave, which she did, her face flooding with relief. “What can I do for you Frank?”

“That fucking project of yours is killing my grass.”

David frowned and leaned forward. “How do you mean?”

“Where it was, all the grass is dead. The roots are dead. It’s not coming back.”

“Well,” Hildeck said, leaning back in his chair, “That is strange.”

“That’s one goddamn word for it alright,” Frank said. “I touched the thing. What the hell is it going to do to me?”

David started up, as though he had been awoken from his thoughts, and waved his hand. “Oh, it’s been fully tested. We have people working with it all the time. No long term effects have been observed.”

“I bet.”

“I wonder if we could get a look at that grass though. It might help the team get a handle on what happened there.”

Frank smirked and took off his ballcap, running a hand through his hair. “You don’t have a clue what happened do you?”

“Well, I certainly don’t. It’s a little outside my expertise.”

“Not a clue at all,” Frank continued, ignoring Hildeck. “You know what the thing is supposed to do?”

“I’m afraid I can’t really discuss that, you understand. We have certain security protocols,” Hildeck said, shifting uncomfortably in his chair. “Now, to get back to your pasture, we’d certainly like to get a look at that. Can we discuss getting access? We’ll gladly pay of course.”

“I know you will.”

David cleared his throat. “Well then. I’m sure we can come to some sort of agreement.”

“I’d like to see the thing again.”

“The prototype?”

“Yes,” Frank said leaning forward in his chair for emphasis.

“I’m afraid that’s impossible. We have protocols and I don’t think I can get permission. We’ll gladly pay our standard access fees. And of course for the damage the prototype did.”

Frank did not reply, standing up and walking out the door, leaving Hildeck to stare after him in disbelief. He got in his truck, spinning out as he turned around to head back out to the road, slinging gravel across the yard. He flew home, pushing the needle to 160 kilometers, oblivious of the other traffic on the highway. The radio was on but he talked over it, cursing Hildeck and the Concern for stealing the object, and Jennings for letting them. It was clear to him now that they had no more idea of what the thing did than he.

When he pulled into the yard he saw that Emma’s car was gone. He sat in the truck for a moment unable to quite process what he was seeing and then ran inside, calling her name. There was no answer and as he looked through the living room he saw that all of Colton’s toys were gone. There was a note on the kitchen table that read: I’ve gone to Mom and Dad’s for a few days .I’ll call on Saturday and we can talk. He slumped into a chair holding the note up and looking at the words, not reading any of them.

from It Came From Above

The Contaminated and the Fallen

She suspected, though she had no proof one way or the other, that this fallen realm in which her dream had her trapped was underground.. Perhaps it was the ever-present shadows and darkness, the days as the nights, whole and unchanging that led to this belief. Her existence here was immutable unmarked by any sense of the passage of time. She imagined a world of caverns, hollowed out and reconstructed into this strange habitat that seemed to her without purpose. A dream within a dream, she realized, and perhaps it was just the dream state thwarting her senses and not allowing her to comprehend all that she saw.

The last words of the voice came to her mind, dimly and half-remembered, as though that were the dream and not this. She was following one of her usual trails toward a dispenser that she was knew was still working. After that, if her dream went as it normally did, she would go above to one of the higher rings where there was a large room filled with desks with screens. Some of the screens still worked, after a fashion, and she would sit and watch them flashing their information and images, until she grew restless and started moving again.

This time, compelled by the words, she continued on along the ring, chewing on the block of foul tasting food the dispenser had given her. She often felt ill after she had eaten the food, though this dispenser seemed to agree with her more than the others. It was clearly degrading, as everything here was, and part of her knew that it was only a matter of time until all the dispensers failed entirely. Would her dreams allow that to happen, would her mind compel the machines to continue to work or would the logic of situation play out as it should? And what then?

Not wanting to dwell on that, disliking the sensation of dreaming and yet aware that she was in a dream, she pressed on, ducking through corridors. Rather than taking one of her usual paths, the ones she knew were safe and abandoned, she went to those areas that the Fallen inhabited. Not all of them were unhazardous, she knew, so she went with care, always checking each door she passed through to make sure it had not sealed behind her allowing her no escape.

One of the machines confronted her as she went, looming up out of the darkness, demanding her authorization. Its voice was disturbingly similar to the one that questioned her when she was awake, though they all sounded more or less the same. The flat monotone, parched of emotion.

“The area is contaminated. Please exit immediately. You are not authorized.”

She ignored it, ducking around its bulky frame and moving down the black corridor, the machine sounding an alarm that no longer functioned. The corridor ended at a door that was jammed, which she pushed and pried apart just enough so that she could slip through. She waited a moment to ensure it did not close on her and then turned to go further down the corridor, her path illuminated by a blinking red light along the ceiling. Was this the alarm the machine had started after her breach into his realm, she wondered, or was it from some earlier calamity?

There were a few doors off the corridor, but she knew by the shape and the markings on them that there would be nothing of interest in them. They were small rooms that had perhaps been used for storage or for those who had left to sit in and pass their days. Now they would be empty, or filled with the uninteresting refuse of the decay. At last she found what she had been looking for, a larger door than the others with symbols above its frames. It was open, its automation having failed, and she stepped through into a large chamber.

It was cavernous, the ceiling stretching up past the far reaches of her sight. There were giant tubes, fragile seeming cylinders, and pipes that curved and wound around on themselves, sheltered behind protective glass. Some glowed with dim activity while others were dark. The flashing red light was brighter here, more insistent, if that were possible. She ignored all of that, ducking around the artifacts of this previous age, looking for one of the Fallen. They would be here, she knew, the smell of them was undeniable.

After some searching she managed to find one. He leaned against one of the glowing cylinders, seeming to rest his head against it as he stared off into the distance. In spite of his faraway gaze she felt his eyes upon her, no matter where she stood as she considered her approach. At last, realizing that he would already have seen her anyway, she walked up to him directly. The heat coming from the cylinder on which he rested was tremendous. Instinctively, she crouched down as she moved forward, as though that would protect her from whatever force lay within the tube should it somehow be loosed.

Nothing happened as she came face to face with the Fallen man. The cylinder did not explode, as she had feared, nor did the man rise up and seize her. He continued to stare off into the distance, a leering grin marking his face. She eyed him warily, still unconvinced that this was not some manner of trap that he had lain for her. When he made no motion at all, after she had watched him for several minutes, she moved within range of his grasp, poised to flee at the first instant of motion.

None came and then she wondered if he were waiting for her to speak, to make plain her intentions. How did one address the Fallen? She had no idea, the machines mostly did not respond to her, perhaps it would be the same here. In this realm it seemed she had forgotten the tools of speech, though words still seemed to form as thoughts in her mind. She wet her lips and reached out to touch the man, thinking that if there were no words to speak, then this gesture might be enough.

Her hand had just brushed the cloth of his uniform when one of the machines seized her.

“You are not authorized. The area is contaminated.”

from Dream Logic

The Traveling Cabinet of Doctor Eid

Months passed in miserable solitude for the Minotaur, where he survived on berries and whatever he could manage to scavenge. He was avoided as a pariah wherever he went in Thedeo’s kingdom, for word had passed quickly from Alari of his downfall. No longer a god, but a mere beast, towns barred their gates to him and villagers rang bells to warn others of his approach. Children, tempted by the stories they had heard of his former deity, would follow him at a distance, throwing stones at him for fun.

Though he longed for death, and had expected it after what Velthar had done to him, the gods did not grant him release. His crimes were too great, he surmised. His wounds healed well, though he was left greatly weakened, with little of the strength he had once possessed, and his sides were still marked with scars where the whip had torn at his flesh. His visions had ceased upon leaving Alari, returning him to that darkness again, which he took as a small mercy. He often woke weeping and trembling, his mind empty, whatever dreams that had troubled him vanished into the aether.

In a sense he had died when Velthar and his followers had cast him from the temple, his false godhood passing from him, for in the long and empty days that came after not once did he think of what was to come. Such things no longer mattered to him. He lived on because he could not summon the courage to stop himself, scrounging and foraging, a pathetic figure on the fringes of the world. He hated himself for this weakness. No flame burned within him to keep on, nothing beckoned him forward, yet on he went, unable to stop himself.

Some days, when he had walked too long and exhaustion had overcome him, he would collapse, wherever he happened to be, and lie there insensible thinking about Galrice. He would imagine their escape from Alari and their child, a son he was certain, that they raised to be a proud man. All impossibilities he knew. Galrice would never have left the temple, perhaps not even at his command. She had believed, they had all believed, and when that belief had proved to be upon a foundation of sand, it could only crumble and ruin them all.

It was while lost in such despairing thoughts as these that he fell into the hands of Dr. Eid and His Traveling Cabinet. The Minotaur had passed beyond Thedeo’s kingdom and into another barbarian fiefdom where the learned doctor happened to be displaying his bestiary. Upon hearing from the locals of a strange half-bull, half-man who had once been a god, he sent two of his minions to capture the beast. It was an easy task, for by this time the Minotaur had fallen into a pitiable state. His ribs showed through his chest, his gums were bleeding and he had a tremor in one leg that made his gait unsteady.

The good Doctor’s minions found him lying and daydreaming in the middle of some country trail, muttering to himself in some strange language. They set upon him before he even realized they were present, knocking him senseless with a few sharp blows from a cudgel. They fashioned a length of rope into a halter and put it about his neck, running it through a ring they put through his nose, and with that they led him as they might any draft animal.

The Minotaur offered no struggle in the face of these new humiliations, submitting meekly to the two men as they led him back to the village where Dr. Eid had established himself. He could hear the gathered crowd murmur in consternation as he passed by. For a fleeting moment he thought they might act, turn against his captors and restore his freedom to him, but he quickly realized their anger was directed at him. In the months since his exile from the temple, Velthar had been careful to spread word to all and sundry that, not only had the god left the Minotaur, he was now an empty vessel who could be inhabited by any false devil or wizard.

Seeing him in the possession of this foreign doctor who sold various strange life elixirs and talked of the secret knowledge of science and philosophy that he possessed, they suspected the two of them of being in league. By the time the Minotaur had been thrown into a cage and thrown some hay, which he lay down on as a bed, the villagers had begun to gather, even calling the farmers and herders from the fields to stand against this invasion. The good Doctor, seemingly oblivious to the growing ire of the villagers, stepped out before them and in his best barker’s voice began to call for them to come and look upon their fallen god.

“My good friends. Come and see the god that has fallen to earth,” he said in his strange accent. “Once a god now a mere beast. But a singular beast. Part man and part bull. What terrible congress led to such a creation. Only the gods know and they have sent him from their care so that you may look upon him and the offspring of such a terrible act.”

The crowd had begun shouting at him before he had even finished his speech and several of them took up stones and aimed them at the Minotaur’s head.

“My good friends, my good friends. This is not necessary. The beast has been subdued. I have him in my grasp. He shall not escape.”

“Yes, he is under your control,” one man shouted. “We all know what that means. You’ll not be ruling over us.”

“My good friends, I have no designs upon your land or your hearts. I would never dare to usurp your gods or your rulers. I am a humble servant and I ask only for some of your time and your hard earned coin so that you may witness my wondrous menagerie. Creatures, each more marvelous than the next, from all corners of the earth, carefully gathered and tamed and brought before you.”

His words did little good, for the crowd had already decided against him, and he was forced to have his men hitch up the caravan and flee before the villagers turned violent. When they were safely underway he had the driver of his wagon pull alongside the one carrying the Minotaur’s cage so that he could study the creature more closely. He clucked his tongue in disapproval at the shriveled and ragged state of the beast, but soon he found himself nodding and smiling.

“Not some simulacrum here. The unvarnished truth lies before us,” he said to the driver, who spat in reply.

“You had better be worth the trouble you’ve caused me,” the doctor called to the beast. “I’ll have to leave these miserable lands now or they’ll have my head. And think of the coin I am losing because of it. If they believed you a god, they would have believed anything.”

The Minotaur had been dozing but he awoke at the Doctor’s words and raised his head, trying to discern the man’s tongue. “What words are these? Where are you from?” this said in the barbarian tongue he knew the doctor spoke.

“It speaks,” the Doctor said. “A truly wondrous beast. We hail from the magnificent and eternal empire Huiam, all praise its greatness. You have not seen its like in these miserable barbarian realms.”

“I see little as it is,” the Minotaur said. “And I am no barbarian. I am a patrician of Rheadd.”

“His tales grows even more fantastic. Well beast, I think we shall find use for you.” the Doctor laughed and slapped the driver’s shoulder so that he pulled the caravan ahead of the Minotaur’s cage, leaving him to shiver and wonder what the man meant.

from The Trials of the Minotaur