Part Twenty Four: Haruspex Analytics, Below
The robed figures stand silently, one to each side of a rusted metal door set flush against a concrete wall. Their robes might have been mistaken for oversized hoodies if the context were different, just as they might have been mistaken for bouncers if they were standing outside a nightclub. But the sound that filters through the heavy door isn’t the low bass of electronic music. The sound might charitably be described as chanting, but it’s not precisely musical. Most people would find the sounds physically painful, literally so: it contains sounds and cadences that living things instinctively don’t want to hear. The chanting has been growing louder over the past hour, growing more urgent, more eager, and while it hasn’t yet reached its peak there is a taut energy in each new sound that suggests it’s getting close.
The robed figures, guardians of the door, ever silent and watchful, appear unmoved by those sounds.
pat pat pat pat pat
Running feet splash through shallow pools of water condensed on the concrete floor: someone not yet in view is closing, quickly. The guardians exchange glances, then the one on the left moves forward, placing itself between the footsteps and its partner, who slips a large hand beneath its stone-gray robes to draw out a simple, oversized key. The first guardian drops into a crouch, fists clenched at its side, waiting. The second guardian cups the key in its right hand and whispers something in a language that echoes the chanting beyond the door. The key begins to glow faintly in the dim light.
thwack, thwack, bkak SNAP
Too far off to properly see, something bounces off one wall, then the other, then blurs over their heads to rebound against the heavy metal door with a loud clang before a baseball smacks into the second guardian’s outstretched hand, bounces off, ricochets once last time off the floor, then buries itself into the back of the first guardian’s knee. The second guardian cries out in pain—a high-pitched, thready sound—as the key flies out of its grasp and skitters across the floor, disappearing into the shadows. The first guardian, stung but not hurt, spins around, fists raised to strike.
The second guardian, still preoccupied by the sudden mixture of numbness and pain shooting through its right hand, looks past the first just in time to see the air ripple and a scruffy-looking man wearing a brown trenchcoat appear out of thin air, cigarette dangling from snarling lips, right hand clutching a long steel chain.
The second guardian opens its mouth, perhaps to cry out a warning, perhaps to snarl defiance. It never gets the chance.
The man in the trenchcoat’s face twists in rage, snarling audibly. The first guardian halts his spin, half-turning back to the sound just as the steel chain wraps around its neck. The man in the trenchcoat rushes past and lets his weight and momentum pull the first guardian into the second. The second staggers back, struggling to get out of the way. The man in the trenchcoat, rapidly reaching the end of the hall, doesn’t slow his pace: he jumps, twists in midair, and launches himself off the metal door toward the second guardian. It hesitates, unsure how to react. Seconds later the first guardian crashes into him from one side as the man in the trenchcoat spins and kicks it sharply in the temple from the other. It hisses in pain as it collapses. Two more swift kicks to the temple, and the lights finally go out.
* * *
CB unwraps the chain from around the hooded thing’s neck, trying to avoid actually touching the strange, semi-scaled skin as he does. The others finally appear from behind David’s spell, fanning out in a semicircle around the two inert figures and the metal door.
“Key to the door slid off that way.” CB points briefly, then returns to his work.
“Pretty fast, CB.” Blink goes over to the wall, then squats down, peering at the floor. “Sure you ain’t a speedster?”
“It wasn’t that fast,” Agent Grant says. “Pretty impressive for an old man, though. You’re pushing 50 now, right?”
“Passed that one a while back,” CB says. The last of the chain works free of the robed creature’s neck, and he begins to rewind it around his knuckles. “Blink, you find that key?”
Blink reaches down to grab something off the floor, then quickly draws back his hand. “It’s hot.”
“I think they were trying to destroy it,” CB says.
“I got it.” Brother Judgment extends his hand, and a small object rises off the floor and floats over to the door.
Blink picks up a second item from the floor. “Found your baseball, CB.” He stares at it for a second, eyes widening. “It’s signed by Mike Cuellar?”
CB laughs. “Yeah.”
“How the hell did you get that? He was a little before your time.”
“Pretty sure I stole it.” CB looks up to see everyone staring at him blankly. “What? I used to be a villain. I think I made the Liberty Ten Most Wanted in ’85.”
“Yeah, but weren’t you some kind of political terrorist?” Grant chimes in. “Stealing a baseball seems kind of random.”
“It’s really not that complicated.” CB stretches out his hand, and Blink tosses the ball back to him. “I called myself Curveball. It was signed by Mike Cuellar.” The ball goes back into his trenchcoat pocket, leaving not so much as a bulge.
“We need to hurry.” David’s voice is strained. “They’re almost ready.”
The key, hovering in front of the metal door, slides smoothly into a keyhole just above the door handle. It turns clockwise. The door clicks softly.
“I don’t suppose you know what’s on the other side?” CB asks.
“Just an informed guess. The ritual will have a focus, Someone leading the chant. And it’ll require a release at the end, so expect the ritual leader to try to, uh…”
“Kill himself?” CB asks. “Like that kid upstairs?”
David grimaces. “Just identify the leader and take him down. After that the whole spell falls apart.”
“Right,” CB says. “Well, let’s go get their leader.”
Brother Judgment flicks a finger, and the door swings open wide. CB takes a long pull on his cigarette then dashes through.
* * *
CB’s first thought is that he’s stepped onto a football field in Hell.
He’s standing at one end of a vast, rectangular space, illuminated by a thick, dull red light that radiates from strange, twisting rock formations snaking through the walls. The walls are high, rising at least thirty feet, and looking down its length he thinks it really is the size of a football field. The metal door behind him is the only entrance or exit that he can see.
The chanting draws his gaze to the… fifty-yard line, if he’s going to continue the comparison. There, bathed in that eerie red light, thirteen black stone columns rise twenty feet into the air, encircling a marble-white stone dias with more of that strange red rock growing out of it. Robed figures, all chanting, encircle the dias. Standing in its center is another robed figure, face obscured but turned up, arms raised. In its right hand, it grips a long, curved knife. There is power in that knife. CB doesn’t know what kind of power it is, but it’s so strong it makes his teeth hurt.
He takes another pull on his cigarette and begins to run as hard as he can toward what he can only assume is a circle of evil wizards. Evil, chanting wizards.
Something blurs into view about fifteen yards from the stone pillars. It’s Blink, looking around in confusion as he appears in a location he obviously didn’t choose. A moment later Grant appears beside him, causing both to jump in alarm at the other’s proximity.
The evil wizards, it seems, have a way to counter teleportation.
They two men recover quickly, running straight toward the pillars and the wizards and the cultist in the center with the knife. As if on cue, four robed figures step back from the circle, turn, and raise their arms high.
The chanting continues.
Blink goes right, Grant goes left. A surge of darkness streaks from a robed figure’s hand, lancing across the space toward Grant who immediately fades out and reappears fifteen yards from the stone pillars. He swears in frustration, running toward the pillars again just as Blink, evading a similar assault, appears fifteen yards out from the stone pillars.
OK, fine, nobody thought the teleportation angle was going to work in the first place. Just keep running.
He hears running footsteps to his right. Looking over his shoulder he sees David Bernard managing to keep pace with him, at least for the moment. Even though he looks it, David isn’t really recovered from his time on the Island—that kind of thing takes a long time to fully bounce back from, so he’s performing on sheer stubbornness and willpower. Not the smartest play, CB thinks, though he can’t think of a better one at the moment. He turns his attention back to the evil wizards, which is when he realizes that only two of the four figures who stepped out of the circle actually did anything.
The chanting continues.
The third figure clenches both fists and pulls them down to its side, as if breaking an invisible stick. A fissure appears in the concrete, starting at one of the pillars and streaking toward CB as chunks of the floor tumble away into an apparently endless chasm of darkness. Without missing a beat CB leaps just as the ever-widening crack reaches him. He just barely manages to reach one side, then drops into a roll to force a little more space between himself and a very long way down.
The fourth figure clenches both fists and brings them together over its head. Smoky darkness gathers around it, then expands to fill the room, black strands of smoke hanging in blood red air. As soon as the darkness falls CB finds he can barely move—the smoke presses against him, resisting every effort to move forward. He stumbles in slow motion, immediately adjusting his balance to keep from falling, but finds to his consternation that “immediately” takes seconds to accomplish.
The chanting continues.
Something shifts behind him. He hears Bernard’s voice, muffled in the strange mist but not slurred or slowed, and then a blazing purple-white light cuts through the darkness and burns the smoke away. CB can move again, and he resumes his charge. The fourth robed figure staggers back as if the light struck him a physical blow. Eight more robed figures step out of the circle and turn to face them.
Blink and Grant reach the pillars again, and again they break in opposite directions. A surge of darkness begins to gather in the first robed figure’s hand, but a loud crack booms through the room and the robed figure crumples to the ground. Grant dives behind one of the columns for cover as he fires again, hitting a second figure in the leg.
Eight more robed figures step out of the circle, turning to face them. Minus the first one Grant shot, CB estimates they’re facing at least twenty robed figures, with only four or five left performing the ritual.
They must be pretty close to finishing if they think they can spare all that firepower, CB thinks. He grits his teeth and tries to push his legs harder.
The robed figures all raise their hands in unison, and smoky darkness floods the room once more, immobilizing them. David’s voice rises sharply in return, and the air above them ripples as purple-gold disks burst into reality roughly ten feet above each figure. The creatures cry out in alarm, then the black mist in the room recedes, gathering into globes around each disk. The disks try to expand, the globes try to shrink. The struggle appears to reach a stalemate, neither able to make any progress against the other, and CB can move again.
He stumbles as all the effort he’d expended trying to fight the mist suddenly comes up against nothing, then recovers into a flat run, closing the gap between him and the figure still standing in the center, gripping its knife.
Closing, but not fast enough. He sees the robed figure’s fist tighten around the dagger’s hilt.
Another robed figure just to the right of center—one of the few continuing the chant—squawks in surprise as it shoots into the air, slamming into the 30 foot ceiling where it stays, pinned by an invisible force. Something falls from its hands, clattering to the stone floor below: a slender blade, not as ornate as the one held by the center figure, but obviously sharp. As the pinned figure screeches in rage and protest, the chanting around them falters… and CB feels the power around them dissolve.
They broke the spell.
The robed figure in the center shifts his grip on the knife, assuming a fighting stance. CB lashes out with his chain, wrapping it around the figure’s wrist and pulling sharply. The knife clatters to the ground and CB kicks hard at the robed figure’s knee. He hears bones break as his opponent falls, screaming.
He twists, avoiding a jab from a third cultist, and punches it in the neck. It falls to its knees, gagging, as Blink appears behind another, placing his hands on the cultist’s shoulders. They both disappear. Blink reappears an instant later—alone—and CB hears a shriek of terror followed by a loud thump as a robed figure falls from the ceiling to the concrete floor.
Agent Grant fires his pistol again. Another cultist falls.
The smoky-black barrier between the outer ring of cultists and the disks of gold-black light disappears, and the disks all thumm in unison as they race downward, transforming into pillars of light that engulf the cultists beneath them. The room fills with a different kind of power, and then everything is still. The light fades. The outer ring of cultists have turned to stone.
David sinks to his knees, shaking from effort.
CB looks around him. The cultist he’d just hit is on the floor, gagging for breath. The one with the busted kneecap is also on the floor, twitching and trying hard not to scream. His knife lays by his side, and CB kicks it away. It scoots across the floor, bounces off the leg of one of the room’s new stone statues, and comes to a stop just outside the ring of pillars.
“I think we did it,” Blink says, both pleased and surprised.
“Yeah.” CB looks up at the cultist pinned to the ceiling. “Even though they tried to pull a fast one.”
Brother Judgment floats down to stand next to CB. He’d been airborne the entire fight—not exactly a hiding place, but the others had put on enough of a show to keep the cultists from looking up. “Almost didn’t find him in time. They’ve had a little training. But I did…”
Brother Judgment looks up at the cultist on the ceiling, actively pinned there by the force of his mind. “Guess that’s why they don’t like telepaths.”