It's late. Very late. Or early, depending on your perspective. In an hour or
so, the sun will be peeking over the horizon, heralding the dawn and the
beginning of a new day.
Your phone(?) vibrates.
Raul looks around his bedroom, letting out a long breath, and then pulls his phone out of his pocket, touching the screen with a forefinger. The phone lights up, letting his check if he has new texts or phone calls.
A missive from a subordinate, a plea for assistance. The sender, a nurse at Haven medical, has been treating the case of a young girl, Lisa Vanahue plagued with occasional bouts of epilepsy. She was admitted several weeks ago with a severe case - there was bit of an incident then with a man posing as a nurse - and things have only gotten worse.
Raul thinks; "Worsening epilepsy...? Some sort of predator that's in my area of expertise, most likely. Why else would she bother calling it in?"
She's recently fallen into a coma, begun speaking in tongues in her sleep. Her brainwave activity is unusually active.
Assistance is asked for. Advice.
Raul checks the phone number or the email address, and then sends his own message in response: "Is she asleep now?" He stands up once it's sent, walking to the window, and looks outside at the rain.
She hasn't been conscious for hours, you're told.
"I'll handle it." Raul sends off that cryptic response, and then walks back to his bed, picking up the pillow and pulling his kukri out from underneath it. One hand rises to his pendant, touching the jaguar on the front, and then he lets out a long breath. "I hate working with dreams..." He mutters under his breath as he lines the kukri up with his wrist.
A medical file is helpfully sent over without prompting, your phone urgently blinking as its received. A name, a picture, a date of birth - enough information to mystically target a ritual if you so choose. She's five, with a round face and bright features. Straight brown hair, down past her shoulders.
Raul thinks; "A sacrifice, a sacrifice...Blood and ashes ought to be enough. Do I have any arnica left?"
Raul sets down his kukri for a moment, reaching for his phone and checking the information. He scrolls through for a moment, and then nods his head, tossing the phone onto his bed, careless. He pinches the finger of one of his gloves, pulling it off, and then repeats the process with the other one, setting those aside as well. He'd need to get his hands dirty for this. He sets a Zippo down next to his Kukri, and then pulls a box of supplies out from underneath his bed. He finds a small pinch of arnica - enough for his purposes. With all of his materials in hand, he sets to work.
Raul lifts the Kukri, the gentle curve in the blade molding to his wrist, and then presses down and to the side. The weapon pierces through skin, drawing thin trickles of blood that trickle down to the floor. He lets it collect there, looking down at the stain. Drip. Drip. Drip. After a minute, lost in the concentration of his ritual, he raises his voice in an incantation, calling to the spirits of the land and the skies to aid him. He wipes the blood from his kukri on a small cloth, tossing that aside, and sets it down, finished with it.
Raul lifts the small arnica flower, holding up his zippo, and burns it, cradled in his hand. His skin reddens and starts to blister. He doesn't seem to notice, cradling it there and dipping his fingers in, sprinkling the ashes out across the spreading bloodstain on the floor. The offering complete, his incantation rises.
Raul thinks; "That should be enough. Now if they'll come when I call..."
Rain falls outside, its pitter patter a stark and gross magnification of the dripping blood. It remains dark, the ground carpeted by a thin layer of mist, like cotton. You feel yourself growing light-headed, the world darkening, the sound of the rain gradually fading away. Consciousness threatens to leave you.
You awaken in an impossible place. The world - a world - looms overhead, stretching across the sky. The shape of a screaming face resolves itself in a pink-hued cloud, letting out a ghostly wail before dissolving away. The stones bleed. The trees weep.
Behind you, is a door. Before you, is a golden path, of scripture and metaphor. A fortress of ice and black spires looms in the distance. At your feet, something mewls.
Raul looks around with a tired, flat expression, and lets out a long breath through his nose. He checks at his feet, to see what lies there, his eyes thoughtful.
Raul thinks; "Too early to start changing everything - at least until I know what it means. Information gathering, first."
Your breath grows arms and legs as soon as it leaves your lungs and tries to strangle you, its substance dissolving away before it can touch your skin. The ground at your feet bubbles, boils. A plant experiences its life and death within a matter of seconds at your feet - but in reverse. A tiger kitten, all green with purple stripes, mewls plaintively up at you from where it hides behind the frame of the door.
Raul wills his appearance to change: The casual clothes are replaced with his formal cassock, buttoned down the front. The bags underneath his eyes disappear, as do his fresh scars. Knives hang on the inside of the cassock, and his pendant fades from his chest, replaced with an old, familiar ring on his burned left hand. He reaches down to lift the kitten, cradling it against his side, and then looks towards the fortress in the distance. "That seems like a promising start," he comments to himself, walking towards it.
The kitten paws at your sides, at your cassock. It tries to scale you, though its a mostly futile endeavor with your continued hold on it - it might make more progress should you let go, though, it also might be quite a bit more annoying than it's already behaving.
Distance proves flexible as you traverse the golden path, as is everything else here. You take a step, and the fortress shrinks to the size of a pin, nearly invisible. You take another, and it looms overhead, lightning cracking and dancing 'round the jagged spire tips. A third step, and you're no closer than when you'd first set out.
Raul chuckles at the kitten good naturedly, and comments, "It's not going to be that easy." Despite that, there's nothing but bone deep weariness in his eyes. He lifts his left hand, a sweeping gesture, and attempts to pull the fortress to him, since walking to it seems to be...ineffectual.
You reach out, exerting your force of will in familiar expression -- and suddenly and acutely become aware of something else in the dream. Something alien and powerful, something that entities in this dream call 'Master'. 'King'. The world does not bend to your whim.
Neither does the kitten, apparently, whose efforts have redoubled. Tiny claws extend and sink into the fabric of your cassock, the feisty little thing trying to find some purchase.
This is not Vanahue's dream, though she may be in it.
"Well, isn't that interesting..." Raul comments, his other hand tightening around the back of the kitten's neck, attempting to pull at the skin there. In a normal cat, that would cause an instinctual submission response, but in this creature, who knows. He continues walking towards the fortress, and calls out, "I know you're out there. The games bore me; let me in."
Your voice ripples through the air, sublimating into colorful ribbons of silk that flutter off into the distance. The cub flails, behaving very much unlike a normal cat - its tail lashes in agitation, and it lets out a plaintive yowl. In the distance, the fortress shudders.
Raul looks down at the cat, his eyes narrowed. "I hate dreams. I can never tell if things are intelligent..." He shakes his head for a moment. "I'll let you go, and in return you guide me inside." It's a Hail Mary, but he sets the cub down on the golden path, gesturing forwards with one hand.
Raul thinks; "...If this doesn't work, it's the door, perhaps."
The tiger cub meows once, then takes off immediately. It dashes a short way down the path, no more than one or two human-sized steps, then steps off the path and into the churning, roiling wilderness beyond.
Raul hesitates for a split second, and then steps into the wilderness, after the cub. With one hand, he unbuttons one of the middle buttons of his cassock, a gap large enough to slip a hand through, if he needs to. Access to his knives, perhaps?
Raul thinks; "How appropriate. I need to step off the path of scripture to get the job done. And I, of course, am ready to do so. God forgive me."
The tiger cub is never far from your sight, despite the darkness that now weighs down upon and drags at your limbs, making every motion, every step, a challenge. And yet, as slow as you are, the cub is there, bounding ahead of you at its own unhindered pace, leaping over low shrubberies that claw at you when you pass and fording creeks and streams that you can simply step over. It leads you to a small cave, and pauses. It meows once, then darts in.
Raul doesn't even hesitate at this additional step. It's no fortress, but he walks inside after the tiger cub, ducking his head if he needs to. "Who is in here?" He calls out, tentative.
Your voice echoes back to you - "Who is in here? Who is in here? WhO iS In hERE? WHO IS IN HERE!?"
There is nothing in there. Nothing but the tiger cub, whose purple-tipped tail is the only thing you can see of it as it bounds away down a passage in the back of the cave. This cave it seems, is less cave and more tunnel.
"Raul Verdin, Pastor of St. Julius' Basilica," Raul answers the echoes, the corners of his lips tugging up into a faint smirk. He follows the tiger cub at a steady pace, his eyes darting this way and that, searching.
Your answer returns to you - "Raul Verdin, Pastor, Raul, Pastor of St. Julius, Raul St. Julius, St. Raul, Raul Raul Raul Raul RAUL RAUL RAUL RAUL--" The voices abruptly fade, as does the light from behind you. You walk in darkness so thick and black that you can't even make out your own arms and legs, much less where you're going. There's only the tail ahead of you, a faintly luminous, lashing green and purple thing that proves your only guide.
Raul thinks; "St. Raul. There's one I've never heard, or even considered."
Raul lets his voice echo around him, choosing to accept it as a symbol, but as the darkness thickens around him his bearing changes. His hands extend to his sides, as forewarning if he finds a nearby wall, and his steps are careful, eyes fixed on the light ahead.
Raul thinks; "Perhaps this was a mistake..."
You touch nothing, feel nothing, even as the darkness comes down on you like a heavy cloak. It becomes difficult to breath even, each breath your draw filtered through the greedily clutching fabric of shadow that sucks the oxygen from the air. And ominously, the tail gradually draws farther and farther away.
turn back maybe i should turn back ill live if i turn back
there are no living saints
Your doubts claw at your legs and your arms, literal daemons and imps whose steel-nailed fingers pull at your cassock.
Raul thinks; "Then it's good that I'm not a saint. I'm a monster that's chosen to dedicate his talents to God. Dealing with my own kind is my specialty..."
Raul continues along the path, lashing out with his hands towards the daemons and imps. The claws tear into his cassock, tearing it to ribbons. Buttons are lost, the cassock hanging loose in the front. He rubs the ring on his left hand with the fingers of his right, as if seeking comfort.
Suddenly, the cub is at your feet, and you nearly trip over him (how did he get there?). It sits on its haunches, staring upwards and offering you another plaintive mewl - there's a trapdoor overhead, in plain sight. The tiger cub, lacking opposable thumbs, is stymied.
Raul reaches up, straining towards the trapdoor with the fingers of one hand. He reaches out with an effort of will - likely futile - to open the door or pull it closer to him.
Well, fortunately for you, it's not very far overhead. In fact, it's easily within reach of a good push.
Raul pushes the trapdoor with a hand, trying to force it inwards or find a latch that will let him pull it down.
The trap door snaps open with a dull thud. The air that seeps in from above smells of screams and tastes of fear. The faint sound of blood echoes about, the noise occasionally creeping down into your tunnel. The tiger cub growls at them.
"Lisa Vanahue?" Raul calls out, looking into the trapdoor, no move to go inside of it - yet. "Are you in there? The door has been opened, it's safe to come out."
Raul thinks; "Not that I know for sure that it's any such thing..."
You receive no response - 'sides from your own echoes, of course, each louder and more distorted than the last. From what you can see, the space through the trap door is vastly larger than the skimpy tunnel you traversed to arrive here.
The tiger cub also promptly begins trying to scale you again. It's intended path would take it up your leg, over your back, and then onto your head.
Raul lets the cub scale his back. He could handle that. He occupies himself reaching up with both hands, trying to find something to grab onto, hoping he might be able to pull himself up and into the trap door.
It proves almost pitifully easy to do exactly that, with the tiger cub leading the way. It gets up onto the top of your head and leaps off into the chamber above the trap door, disappearing from sight before you manage to pull yourself up.
Raul stands up, looking around for the direction that the tiger cub had gone, and then follows it as best he can. He doesn't bother with the sedate walk this time, breaking into a run.
You are in a dungeon, an enormous, vaulted chamber. The walls and floor are slick, blue and red ice. Intestine hang from indeterminable points in the ceiling. A man lies imprisoned by his own ribcage, grossly distorted and enlarged to entrap his entire body. He pleads for freedom from a mouth with no lips, with a face with no eyes.
"The fortress..." Raul notes, looking at the ice around him, stepping across it with a careful air. But when he sees the flash of green and purple, he steps towards it, almost forgetting the man for a moment. He pauses, eyes flicking between the two sights.
Raul thinks; "Help this...creature? Human? I don't know. Or follow my guide deeper."
There's no metal, anywhere, no dead thing 'sides the ice of the fortress itself. Instead, every single instrument, every single contraption of confinement is formed from the living flesh and bone of another creature. The man before you is not the only one - there are dozens, hundreds you note as your vision gradually adjusts.
Raul thinks; "That settles it. I don't have time for all of them."
Raul strides past the man, imprisoned in his own ribcage, seeking that flash of green and purple, looking to follow it deeper into this fortress.
The tiger cub is never far from sight - it leads you between prisoners, down hallways, through oubliettes - no matter how much the dark weighs you down it's always there, always visible. It turns a corner, and you follow - and finally, suddenly, there she is. The girl from the picture, huddled, terrified, in a cage of ribs of some glassy-eyed woman. The familial resemblance is uncanny.
The cub rushes up to the prison and paws at the bone. The girl startles, and she stares, wide-eyed at the kitten. Then she stares wide-eyed at you.
"I'm here to help," Raul tells the girl with a faint smile, reaching into his cassock and pulling out a long, obsidian knife. It looks like something from another age, rough and handcrafted, but the blade is sharp and keen. Without further preamble, he attempts to cut through one of the ribs in the cage.
The girl stares at you for a good long couple of seconds before abruptly snapping out of whatever fugue had claimed her. "Hurry!" she urges, shock replaced by growing panick. "You have to hurry mister, before she comes back!"
The tiger cub does its part to free her too -- or, well, it tries, anyways. It gnaws on a rib.
Raul doesn't waste time, once the warning has been given. He hacks with the obsidian knife, something that would in the real world shatter it into a thousand tiny shards. Hopefully it would be enough to make a dent in the bone prison.
Raul thinks; "I can't control this world, but I can control my own appearance and identity. Well, this is what I am: The priest with a ritual knife. It had better be sharp enough."
The girl waits urgently for you to finish hacking through the bone, growing the more skittish and tense by the second. The tiger does its best to help, though it's at best a token gesture. One rib gives, then another. And another. And an-- "Oh no," you hear Lisa whisper.
"hurry hurry hurry hurry...!"
Raul kicks out at the bones as he starts hacking through, hoping to break weakened bones, hurrying the process with the application of brute force. He tries to create a gap wide enough that he can reach in and grab Lisa, pulling her out of the prison.
Raul thinks; "I'm hurrying. If I could, I'd already be awake..."
You didn't need Lisa's warning. You can feel it too. The darkness. The weight. The psychic static - like the buzzing ten thousand bees, the fluttering wings of a hundred thousand moths.
Bone splinters under your foot, Lisa and the tiger both twisting away to avoid the jagged shards of bone that the act produces. The results are good though, and the whole's just big enough for you to grab Lisa - and presumably run. The tiger leads the way.
Raul throws the girl over his shoulder in a fireman's carry, turning and sprinting after the tiger, not looking back even for a moment. Any energy that could be spared on that can be dedicated to going faster, after all.
Raul thinks; "I shouldn't leave all these people here, but I don't think I want to be here when the owner of this fortress arrives..."
The girl shrieks, but not out of fear - not out of much fear, anyways. The tiger - cub no longer - barrels along, its long, loping strides guiding you through the dungeon and back down the trapdoor.
You hear words said as you race down the tunnel after the tiger, a sibilant female voice that hisses in a tongue long dead.
INTERLOPER. YOU HAVE TAKEN WHAT IS MINE.
The meaning burns into your mind.
Raul smiles at the voice. He's pale, his face is covered in sweat, and the veneer of strength he projected when he arrived is starting to crumble, but that brings genuine amusement. "Yes. I have been known to do that," the words come out in gasps, his voice not loud, but it doesn't need to be. "If you have a problem with it, next time you can seek me out on my ground."
FOOL. I AM OF THE FINGERKINGS, AND OUR AWAKENING IS NIGH. KNOW MY NAME. KNOW THE RECKONING COMES.
Raul thinks; "Is it really wise to taunt whatever dark power is responsible for this?"
A sigil burns itself into your mind. Runes. Cuneiform. Meaning. Flesh-darkness-shaper-sculptor-earth.
The pain is staggering. You feel coppery warmth dribble from your eyes, your ears, your nose.
As a counterpoint to this however, Lisa's practically shouting the entire time you run. "Go go go go go! Hurry hurry hurry! We have to get outta here before she comes back! Let's go! Follow Mister Tigger he knows the way out!"
Raul focuses on that voice, struggling to set aside the words, at least for now. He runs towards the exit, following the tiger, but it's clear that the pain has slowed him down some. The blood slicks his face and his neck, but is almost unnoticeable once it reaches his cassock. Red on black.
You burst free from the tunnel and into that bizarre, impossible world beyond. Shapes in the dark rise to challenge you - your guide roars, and meets them with flashing claws and gleaming teeth, rending the guardians apart. It does not even slow Mister Tigger, the tiger charing onwards through the wilderness without pause. Before long, the golden path comes into view, just a short sprint away. A door stands at its beginning.
Raul rushes for the door, one last burst of steep that starts to fail even before he reaches it. He staggers towards the door, pushing it open, trusting his guide to clear the path for him.
The door opens and you fall, Lisa over your shoulder, through it. Consciousness gradually bleeds away from you as you do, the world darkening. The last thing you hear is Lisa's whoops, and Mister Tigger's triumphant roar. The last thing you see is a word, cuneiform, burnt bright and red in the dark.
And then, suddenly, you awaken, in your own bed. Your face and the back of your head are wet and sticky. The odor of blood faintly tinges of the air of the room.
Raul sits up, looking at the tools gathered around him, and mutters, "Fucking hell." He glances at his phone to check the time, and then mutters under his breath, "I should wash up. Get going for the day."
Your phone vibrates.
It's another missive from your contact. Lisa's woken up.
Her mother has not.
Raul thinks; "To all things, a sacrifice. Still, isn't that what mothers are supposed to do?"
Raul thinks; "...I'll investigate more tomorrow. When I don't feel like shit."
Raul stands up, wavering on his feet for a moment, and walks to the window. He can see his reflection in the glass, faint, looking at the blood. "The brute force approach, as usual. Hire someone who's better at subtle." That note made, he turns to head towards his door.
The cuneiform sigil smolders in the back of your mind, lingering even over your vision at times as you rise to go clean up. Red and wet.
It's late. Very late. Or early, depending on your perspective. In an hour or
so, the sun will be peeking over the horizon, heralding the dawn and the
beginning of a new day.