Chapter 1 - AT THE INTERSECTION
The black Southern night was filled with fog, thick and greedy, consuming the air. It was so thick that the two strangers abandoned their truck on the side of the dusty dirt road, and continued their journey on foot.
Even though the sun surrendered to the moon many hours ago, the heat lingered. The crickets chirped and the peepers sang from their secret hide-aways in the swamp, and the foul smell of mud hung in the air. Every now and then, the darkness was painted with flecks of gold, as the fireflies lit up, like little earthbound stars, guiding the two travelers onward.
The younger of the two spoke, his voice light in the heavy summer night.
“Where are we going, Father Eligor?”
Father Eligor kept his eyes on the path. “South.”
“But how far?” the boy said, as he struggled to keep Eligor's pace.
“Until the fireflies are gone.”
The boy, whose name was Farron, did not inquire any further. He could sense the distance between himself and the Father; they walked together, yet were divided by an invisible chasm.
The dirt path gave away to the muddy earth. Farron tread carefully, for his tennis shoes were old and worn and full of holes, through which the vile swamp water leaked in and soaked his socks. Father Eligor did not seem to mind the discomfort: his boots squelched on the mud, and his cloak trailed through the filth, but he did not flinch, nor did he grimace. His face was stoic and ageless, like a graveyard angel.
“Stop.” Eligor held his hand out, pushing his young assistant back.
The muddy ground dropped off into a river of murky water, that was black as oil, partially hidden under a blanket of churning mist.
It was then that Farron noticed that all of the fireflies had abandoned them. A chill passed through his body, defying the hot air.
The priest cupped his hands around his mouth, and shouted across the still, black waters: “Ogoun!”
“What is an Ogoun?” Farron felt stupid for asking.
“Shut up for a moment,” Eligor said, and then he called again, “Ogoun! Ogoun!”
His voice echoed in the dark, returning the refrain a thousand times.
It seemed for a moment as if his cry was to be eaten by the swamp, another secret word for the animals to keep for themselves.
A light flashed through the dark, greater and brighter than any firefly Farron had ever seen. It drew closer to the bank, gliding across the dark waters. When it was only a few feet from where the priest and his assistant stood, it revealed itself to be a fire in a lantern, which was held aloft by a man on a small raft.
The man – whom Farron correctly assumed was Ogoun - was black, his hair wild, and his eyes equally so. The only clean-looking article on his person was a long cutlas, which hung from a sheath attached to a makeshift rope belt around his waist.
“Priest,” The man called Ogoun bowed, his hair hanging like seaweed over his face.
Eligor bowed in return, his a less humble gesture, but still more graceful than Ogoun's.
Ogoun straightened up, and his eyes fell upon Farron. “Who is the boy?”
“My new assistant.”
Ogoun grinned: his teeth were sharp. “Does he know what happened to your last one?”
Farron looked at Father Eligor, certain that he did not want to know the answer.
Eligor still did not return Farron's gaze. He spoke to him, but his eyes were fixed on Ogoun, and, more specifically, the man's cutlas. “My last assistant was set on fire and torn asunder by devils.”
Farron wanted to believe the priest was joking.
Ogoun leaned on his oar, still grinning widely. “Father Eligor has visited me many times, boy. Every year or so, he ends up with a new assistant.” He looked back at Eligor. “Shame, really. I liked the last one better. Pretty girl. Tasty...”
“Very tasty, apparently,” Eligor said. “I watched as they fought over her two halves.”
Farron stared at his mud-caked shoes, as he tried to fix his mind on other matters. His imagination ran wild with thoughts of what it felt like to be torn in half, to watch as his legs went one way and he another...
“Enough talking,” Eligor said. “Take us over.”
Ogoun raised a tar-black hand, and Farron noticed that he was missing two fingers. “Wait, priest. Payment. As always.”
“As always, payment after,” Eligor said.
“Ah-ah. Not this time, friend. Erzulie will tear my skin off and feed it to her goddamned owl when she sees that I'm bringing you back again. I want compensation for my troubles. And for my troubles, we can do doubles.”
He held out his hand, and wiggled his fingers, like a child expecting Halloween candy.
“I don't have double. I have the usual,” Eligor said, and his voice trembled slightly, like the warning overtures of an earthquake.
“I've got a couple dollars on me,” Farron said, and he set about digging through his pockets. Eligor ignored him.
“No deal!” Ogoun said. “I'm the one with the raft. You play my way, or you can just doggy paddle across the river! I'm sure the alligators will like that much better.” He forced his oar down into the mud, and prepared to take off down the river.
Eligor stepped onto the raft before Ogoun could go anywhere. He reached for his cutlas, but Eligor got to him first.
“I have a better idea,” Eligor said, pulling the ferryman closer.
Moments later, Farron and Father Eligor were crossing the river, without Ogoun, who remained on the bank, his hands bound together by his own rope-belt.
“Hey! Don't leave me here!” shouted Ogoun. “Come on, priest! Please...” Farron turned back to look at Ogoun, but he was eaten by the fog.
“You shouldn't have done that,” Farron said.
“We don't have time to waste. He'll be fine. And he'll get his damned money when we come back. Everybody wins.” Eligor replied, as he dragged the oar through the muddy water.
“You attacked a man, tied him up, and stole his raft. Not very priestly.”
“Old Ogoun is now in the good company saints and martyrs who have been unjustly bound and beaten.” Farron caught a shadow of a smile in Eligor's face, before the priest finished, “Besides, I haven't taken anything I don't intend to give back.”
Farron didn't argue the point.
Soon, Ogoun's cries were muffled by the swamp, and the lantern hanging from the raft wasn't the only light in the darkness. They had reached the other side of the river, where a small hut made of sticks sat on an outcrop of land, surrounded by flickering torches that burned strange incense.
“What do you know of devils, boy?” Eligor said.
Farron shuddered. “Enough. When I was a little kid...”
Eligor raised his hand. “It was a simple question for a simple answer. I do not need to know your life's story. How you got here, how you never forgot your favorite bunny rabbit, excreta, excreta.”
The raft brushed against the shore. Father Eligor licked his finger and doused the lantern flame. He used an overhanging vine from one of the trees, and tied it to the lantern pole, to keep the raft from drifting away.
He continued: “All that matters now is that we are here. We are about to enter,” he looked around at the swamp, as he tied the vine a second time, “Well, I suppose it's something of a crossroads. Where three points intersect,” he held up three fingers, and ticked them off as he spoke, “Heaven, Hell, and Earth. Which means...”
The scream from the little hut almost made Farron fall off of the raft.
A woman appeared in the doorway, framed against the light from the inside of the shack. She was shriveled and old, with skin like burnt tree bark and a stooped body. In spite of her frail appearance, her voice was strong, grating, and sour.
“You come here again? No, no, no. Get back on raft and go. Last time you come here, the whole damned place crawl with terrible things! Took Erzulie weeks before she could banish all of them!”
Eligor gestured to the old woman, and said, “Farron, I want you to meet Erzulie. A good friend of mine...”
“No friend! No friend of Erzulie! And you, boy,” she shouted at Farron. “You no be his friend either! Friends of his die in fires. They die in snake attacks. They die in ways too horrible to describe! Trust Erzulie: run from this man. Run far away.”
“And where are all of your friends, Erzulie?” Eligor said, as he stepped off of the raft. “The ones you didn't sacrifice to your strange swamp gods, of course.”
Erzulie waved a dismissive hand. “All of Erzulie's sacrifices have been for good causes. That of keeping bad works and bad things at bay. You invite bad things, priest! You make bad things come to Erzulie's!”
She stood in her front door, her bony arms crossed, her eyes glaring through the darkness at Father Eligor and Farron.
“I just need to check in and see where the next one is hiding,” said Eligor.
Farron wondered what the priest meant by “next one.” Eligor kept him in the dark about most things.
“Your house happens to be the closest of the Three-Point Intersections that I am aware of. So, for the time being, you're stuck with me.”
He tried to force his way past Erzulie, but Erzulie wouldn't budge. He could have easily bowled her over, but Father Eligor was more courteous than that.
“Come now, Erzulie.” The danger returned to his voice.
Erzulie didn't move. Instead, she pulled her head back, her eyes to the treetops, and let out a hoot: a convincing impression of an owl.
Farron stared at the old woman, on the brink of laughter. His chuckles died in his throat, to make way for a terrified howl.
A great, black owl flew down from the trees, its thorn-nailed talons outstretched, ready to tear at supple flesh. Its wingspan was as vast as Eligor was tall, and as its wings beat against the owl's sleek, black body, they sent waves of stinking swamp air down upon the two newcomers.
Farron dove for cover, falling face down in the mud. Eligor remained where he was, standing resolutely as the massive owl came at him, a blur of feathers and talons. But the owl did not strike: instead, it sailed around Eligor, and landed on a stump behind him, seemingly cowed by the stranger's lack of fear. It occurred to Farron that the owl's size probably scared most travelers away, and the creature never had to resort to bloodletting.
“You coward!” boomed Erzulie, “You are supposed to attack for Erzulie! Kill for Erzulie!”
The owl sat preening its feathers, ignoring the old woman's shrieks.
“You should invest in a dog. They are far more reliable,” Eligor said, and the corners of his mouth twitched. “Now enough of this, Erzulie. Let's get this over with, and then you can go back to talking with human skulls, or whatever it is you do out here in this uncivilized place of yours.”
Erzulie looked up at Father Eligor, her wrinkled old turtle face screwed up in disdain. In the end, she relented. She was small, weak, and aged: he still had strength to fight.
Farron stood, and brushed the fresh mud from his pants. The owl looked as harmless as a chicken, sitting there fussing over its feathers. But when he approached it, the bird turned its bright, yellow eyes onto him, and clacked its beak together, as though it was muttering death threats. Farron followed Eligor and Erzulie into the hut, leaving the monstrous bird to its solitude.
Erzulie's hut was tiny, and had a strange smell, a combination of herbs, incense, and swamp rot. The floor was dirt, and a fire was lit in the center of the hut, the flames dangerously close to licking the ceiling and burning the whole place down. The walls were covered with shelves, upon which sat jars filled with strange and unsightly things; bones and skulls of animal and human alike; odd plants and taxidermy critters.
Eligor sat cross-legged in front of the fire. No sweat poured from his brow, in spite of the terrific force of heat coming from the roaring flames. Farron noticed a slight tremor pass through Eligor's tall and elegant frame.
Was he cold, or was he afraid? Farron wondered.
Erzulie picked a rusty knife from a shelf, and selected a dusty jar.
“You know how it is done, priest.” She placed the knife down on the dirt floor. She brandished the knife in her hands, bringing it to Eligor's neck. “You'd better hope nothing nasty escapes this time! Erzulie will not tolerate it.”
Eligor rolled his sleeve up, and held it over the glass jar. Farron saw that Eligor's arm was like a collage of old scars overlapping one another: there was no inch of flesh left untouched. “If anything escapes, you can throw me to the beasts,” he said to Erzulie.
It was only seconds before the knife flashed through the air, and slid across Eligor's arm, that Farron realized what was going to happen. He turned away, staring out the open door of the hut, his stomach turning, as he heard the dripping of Eligor's blood into the jar.
“You no like blood, boy?” Erzulie cackled. “You will see a lot of it. Mark Erzulie's words.”
Drip. Drip. Plop.
The blood ran thick and quick, cleansing the dusty jar with red.
“We need blood to open the Intersection,” Eligor said, through clenched teeth.
“That sounds like devil's work,” Farron said, still not looking at the gory display.
“Sometimes you do the devil's work to beat the devil,” Erzulie said.
“I think you drove it in a little harder than you needed to,” Eligor muttered.
Erzulie snorted, but did not deny Eligor's assertion.
Farron's stomach struggled to keep its contents down as he turned back towards the fire, to see Erzulie wrapping Eligor's arm with a dirty cloth. The jar was a quarter full of blood.
Erzulie grabbed the jar, and thrust it into Farron's face. “Touch it! It's still hot!” she cried, shaking the jar inches from his face, as the blood sloshed around inside.
Farron nearly vomited.
Eligor's face was powder white, his eyes closed, so that he looked like a freshly painted corpse.
“Now, we go to the Wall,” Erzulie said.
Neither Eligor nor Erzulie explained.
Eligor got to his feet, walking with steady footing despite having lost a great deal of blood.
“Are you alright, Father Eligor?” Farron asked.
Eligor merely inclined his head in response.
Away from the light of the torches, in the shadow of Erzulie's hut, there was a wall – the Wall. It stood among brush, bush and thorn, its old bricks covered with wandering vines. The Wall was covered with old stains, which Farron identified as crusted blood. There were faded words carved into each aged brick, which were made even more difficult to read due to the darkness.
There was a paintbrush in a jar by the foot of the Wall. The handle was a crusted white color: it looked as though it was made of human bones, and the brush, made of human hair.
“Time to make a painting,” Erzulie said. She retrieved the paintbrush, and dipped it into the jar of Father Eligor's blood.
“It must be a Spiral,” said Eligor.
“No. No Spiral. Spiral means power; it is a symbol for the upper classes of devils. We do not want Dukes and Princes of Hell coming to Erzulie's! Too strong. Too, too strong.”
“Dukes and princes have more reliable information to give.”
“Yes. And they are also strong. And harder to control. Erzulie do not want demons in her house again. Do,” she made a strange symbol in the air. “This. You not give enough blood to satisfy bigger demon anyway.”
“If we need more blood, we'll take some of his,” Father Eligor jerked his head Farron's direction.
“Erzulie do it her way,” she muttered. Erzulie dipped the human brush into Father Eligor's blood, and began drawing symbols on the Wall.
Before their eyes, the blood turned bright, luminous red, as if the blood burned the stone: the things she wrote sank into the Wall, emanating black smoke that joined the night.
As she went about her painting, she muttered things under her breath: a strange tongue, words Farron could not understand. Beside him, Father Eligor was also muttering, rocking back and forth where he stood, his eyes closed, his face contorted, as though the words hurt to speak.
Farron's skin crawled: fear was in his bones, animal fear that told him to run far away. But he stayed, like an obedient dog.
The deadly silence of the swamp broke. First came the wind. It wasn't Earth-wind: it was hot, like the air from a furnace, and it was fierce, like monster's breath. It oozed out of the Wall, just as the blood had oozed from Father Eligor's arm.
Then, came the noise. What a noise it was: Human suffering, screaming, crying, gnashing teeth and grinding bones, splattering blood and ripped flesh. It was a ghastly chorus of damnation, and it surrounded them. And under the screams, there was laughter: mad house laughter, of people who were beyond comprehension of pain or pleasure, of sadness or joy.
The sound was so thick that Farron could see it. He could smell it. He could taste it. His eyes watered, his tongue shriveled. He felt revulsion, pity, and the darkest misery he had ever felt in all of his days.
And it all came from the Wall.
“It will pass,” Father Eligor said.
Erzulie kept painting. Her voice rose to fight the wind and the Noise. She sang the words, screamed them, as she ran the paintbrush over every inch of the Wall she could reach. The cracks in the Wall were glowing with fire. The Fire.
The noise was driving Farron mad. His skin itched, as if worms were crawling through his organs, just beneath the surface of his flesh. He felt the blood coursing through his veins, and each pump of his heart and each breath in his lungs. In his mind's eye, he could feel, more than see, terrible things, indescribable, writhing shadow-thoughts that dove into his soul and began eating it from the inside-out.
If Erzulie's knife had been in reach, he would have grabbed it and shoved it through his heart.
A crack ran along the Wall.
Eligor turned to Farron.
“Do not intercede unless I tell you to do so.”
Father Eligor stepped forward, his hair and his clothing whipping in the demon-wind. Erzulie bowed out of the way, pulling Farron back with her, into the shade of a nearby tree.
The voice made Farron's warm blood turn to ice. He could see an eye peering through the crack: it wasn't a human eye, nor did it belong to an animal. The pupil looked like a bottomless well, just blackness, going on forever.
I am Father Samuel Eligor. I will not harm you if you do no harm to me.”
“I have heard of you.”
“With whom am I speaking?”
“I am called Gamygyn. I serve Kunopegos, Prince of the Third Leigion.” The eye slid over Father Eligor's features. “You are unusual.” The demon sniffed the air, his pupils dilated. “You are very unusual.”
With every passing moment, the crack in the Wall was widening, to reveal more and more of the hideous creature hiding behind it.
“I wish to speak to Raum. Have you heard of him?” the priest said.
Gamygyn hissed. “Raum. Raum is not wanted among us. He was a Duke.”
“Was? Last I spoke to him, a Duke he was,” Father Eligor said.
“No longer. He now tends the Furnace. And he will do so until Time ends.”
“Hopefully for a while, then. Here's what I will have you do. Go down to the Furnace, and ask him where the next one is.”
The demon spat smoke from its nostrils. “His carelessness with secret information is exactly what put him down in the Furnace in the first place. I will not help you.”
Father Eligor leaned forward, and whispered something that Farron could not hear over the crackling hellfire. The demon's eyes widened – perhaps with fear. Then it turned, and galloped away on its hooves, deep into Hell.
“Come back quickly,” shouted Father Astaroth, over the mourning damned. “The Wall will not remain open much longer.” The crack stretched to its widest point, and was now slowly closing itself again.
Farron peered over the priest's shoulder, into the Wall: he couldn't see much of what was on the other side, for the smoke was heavy. All he knew was that there were more shadows than there was light, more black then there was color, and for all the heat of the fire, it was also cold, like loneliness, the deepest loneliness he had ever known.
“What did you tell him?” Farron asked.
“Something that he could not ignore,” the priest said.
Erzulie looked at Farron. “You haven't been with the priest long, have you, boy?”
He shook his head, 'no.'
“Well then you don't know much at all. The priest isn't like you or Erzulie is.”
He was about to enquire further, but was interrupted by a flurry of unearthly voices. Most of what was said was lost in the din of the Noise, but Farron could make out one voice among them:
Father Eligor reacted. He whipped a long, roughly-hewn dagger from the secret pouch in his coat, just as the Beast reached through the Wall.
Great, long tentacles, red and pulsating and thick as sewer pipes, came at Father Eligor with terrifying speed. Two of them wrapped around both of his legs, as a third and forth went for his arms. The priest drove his dagger into the one on his left, and whomever – or whatever - the tentacles belonged to roared as the steel met its skin, drawing out purple blood.
The creature yanked him by the legs, and he fell on his backside into the mud. He was dazed only for a moment before he realized that the Thing was dragging him into the Wall.
He stabbed at the tentacle on his right leg, but the strike was intercepted by a fifth tentacle, which grabbed his hand before he could complete his bloody task. He writhed like a serpent caught in a net as he was dragged towards the Wall.
“Pull the traitor in...” a voice said from beyond the Wall.
For the first time, Farron heard the fear in Father Eligor's voice. It woke him from his own fear-induced paralysis and brought him to action.
He grabbed a crucifix from his coat pocket, and held it up in front of the wriggling tentacles. “The power of Christ compels-”
A stray tentacle snatched the crucifix out of Farron's hands, and receded into the Wall; something was laughing at him.
“Do something useful!” shouted Father Eligor.
Farron was mystified. Everything his previous mentor had told him about demon-fighting was wrong, apparently. Maybe that's why he had been killed.
Farron looked to Erzulie, who stood motionless by the tree, observing.
“Well? What do I do?”
Erzulie held her human paint brush in the air and waved it about, shouting words in that strange tongue. Her eyes were rolling about in her head, as she danced a feverish jig and sang in her shrill voice.
“Damn you both!” bellowed the priest. His legs were spread, his feet pressed against the solid edges of the Wall to keep himself from being pulled in.
“Stop fighting, priest,” said one of the voices in the Wall. “Come. Come and be reunited with us.”
Farron searched the muddy ground for something, anything, to fend off the tentacles with. His hand fell upon a rock with jagged edges. It was small, but it was the only thing available, and besides, there was no time to be picky.
Farron ran at the Wall, letting out a battle cry that sounded quite unlike his own voice. He jumped onto the tentacle on the priest's left leg and began beating away at it with the stone.
“Damn it!” Father Eligor groaned, for Farron had missed the tentacle, and hit the priest's leg.
Six more tentacles came from within the Wall. Three of them held to the sides of the crack, so that the portal would stay open. The other three went for Farron.
Farron was lifted in the air. The tentacles squeezed tightly around his midriff, and he could feel his organs being squished together. He screamed as he got closer and closer to Hell. He could see the tentacle beast's face. Its face was like an ancient, sagging elephant, with black tusks, sharp as pikes, and a wriggling serpentine body dotted with hundreds of wild, rolling eyes.
He looked away from the hideous creature, not wanting to know it too well before he ended up in its mouth, with its eighteen rows of teeth, going all the way down its throat.
Farron muttered a prayer that was lost down the beast's throat.