Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Reflections on Narrow Escapes

Anne stood in the parking lot and begged her fellow coven members not to go out to the field where the High Priestess was waiting for them. The night was hot - even at eleven o'clock, it was ninety-five degrees - and most of the coven was already there. Now that we knew what to look for, the difference was at least visible: the ones who had arrived early were all standing with a sort of unified patience. They looked like people, moved like people... but, with one possible exception, they were all puppets moving on the same set of strings.

And when a pair of the new (human) arrivals actually stopped to listen to Anne, three of the Corpsewalker's bodies came out - leaving the rest of the group without consultation or conversation - and encouraged everyone to come inside. Anne refused, of course, and they started to grab her.

That was the point where Father Peter shot them both. He'd been sitting in a van in a darkened corner of the parking lot, with the window rolled down and a loaded rifle at the ready. Unfortunately, the old woman in Russia had been right: he didn't know, or hadn't been able to find out, enough about what was going on. The bodies he shot weren't animated by anything even remotely resembling a normal human physiology, and the bullets had almost no effect at all. Well, I say that - they did do one thing. They sent the two newcomers running for cover... right into the field where the High Priestess and the rest of the Corpsewalker were waiting.

Anne had made some preparations of her own, though: she'd picked up a baton, one of the ones that looks about eight inches long until it snaps out. Fully extended, it was about two feet long: long enough for her to get in some solid strikes and, I think, break some bones. In any case, she was able to wrench herself free from the two who held her, while the third was trying to locate Father Peter.

Right about then, one of the bodies dumped its guts on the pavement and started wrenching back and forth as great furrows opened in its flesh. I'd love to be able to take credit for that, but I don't know that trick. It came from one of my fellow Watchers, though. Maybe she thought it was time for us to start, or maybe she just couldn't stand the idea of watching the Corpsewalker take another life. I'll never know; she died a few minutes later.

Whether she intended it or not, that was the signal that sent the rest of us into motion. The idea, as the Senior Watcher had outlined it to the rest of us, was to incapacitate the bodies while another group of Watchers (and possibly some of the Elders) invoked certain forces to brush the Corpsewalker out of our world. We had all spent several days preparing ways to do our part, and not all of them were esoteric: I saw two of our people beating down one of the Corpsewalker with axe handles.

Anne darted away towards the van as the rest of us converged. We all wore masks, because we knew the Church was involved, and Father Peter seemed content to let us handle it: he started the engine, and - once Anne was safely in her seat - roared out of the parking lot at about three times the posted speed limit. I was impressed; I didn't think the old guy had it in him.

Claire and I went into the field together. I hadn't initially intended to bring her along, but she'd insisted. In the event, that turned out to be a very good thing.

We'd dressed for this, with jeans tucked into boots, so the high grass didn't bother us. The moon was just a faint sliver overhead, so we were making our way by starlight. Fortunately there weren't any obstacles, and the Corpsewalker didn't think about seeking cover. It just spread its bodies out, looking for threats... or, at least, it started to.

Because just about the time that we reached it, a massive sinkhole opened in the center of the field. I have no idea how much of it was engineered conventionally, and how much relied on more extraordinary methods, but the High Priestess - the only one who'd had the sense to drop down into the grass - and the entire coven were swallowed by it. So were Claire and I, along with a half-dozen of the other Watchers.

It was completely unexpected. Even Claire didn't see it coming. We were two strides away from one of the bodies, and then the ground dropped away and we were falling.

When I sat up, it was completely dark. I can't begin to describe how disorienting that was, but a moment later I heard a muffled curse - followed by a vague, orange light. Then there was a sudden grunt, and the light was gone again. I dug a flashlight out of my pocket and twisted it on.

Claire was sprawled a few feet away from me. I started to stand, and immediately filled my hair with soil: the ceiling overhead was low, and loose. Claire stirred as I approached her, but I was suddenly distracted:

There was something behind me.

I heard it first, I think: a vague, obscene scrabbling sound. I turned, but I couldn't see much of anything except spilling dirt. I crawled over to Claire, still shining the light behind me. Calire shifted and groaned, then sat up. Her eyes widened, and she drew a breath; then she hissed something, low and threatening.

From somewhere, some space in the loose dirt tunnel behind me, something answered. I don't have any idea what it said, but that voice raised every hair on my body.

"They called the Worms," Claire said quietly. "We have to go. We can't be here. They called on the Worms."

I nodded as if I understood, and started crawling. The tunnel curved ahead, and I found one of the Watchers half-buried in the dirt. Claire grabbed my leg. "We have to go," she said, more urgently. Then a hint of silver mist covered her body, and she was gone.

Oh, I thought. Oh. I grabbed the Watcher, and yanked us both into that strange realm of hexagonal landscape and drifting, misty life. We emerged a moment later in... well, in the place where I went with Kate, for my training as a Watcher. The man I had pulled out was unconscious, but didn't seem to be injured; I made sure he was one of ours, and not a member of the coven. Then I made another check, to be sure that he was human, and hadn't been taken by the Corpsewalker.

Claire was nowhere to be seen, but I assumed she was safe. And, much later, when I returned to our apartment, I found that I was right: she'd been there the whole time, worrying about me.

I sat in the shower for a long, long time - drought be damned, I needed it - and finally I crawled into bed. I should have written this first, but I had nothing left. So I slept, and now I'm writing, and now that I'm done I'm going to get good and drunk. Possibly for a couple of days.

All is well. The world endures. We should celebrate, right? Right?

Reflections of a Deranged Cultist is a work of fiction. No actual covens came within minutes and inches of destroying all life in the galaxy. That sort of thing absolutely cannot happen.

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